An Afternoon with Judith Edelman

By Claire Webb

Judith Edelman in the early 1970s, at work in her studio and at her home.

Gloria and Esther Goldreich, What Can She Be? An Architect, (New York: Lothrop, Lee, and Shepard,1974), 11, 48. Photographs by Robert Ipcar.

Judith Edelman FAIA, along with her husband Harold, founded The Edelman Partnership in 1960, and was the first woman on the Board for the AIA NY. She graduated from Columbia’s School of Architecture when few women could pursue the profession. She has been called Dragon Lady, an “un-reconstructed Modernist,” and the Elizabeth Taylor the Architecture world. I sat down with Judy to talk about her design principles, education and career.

Claire Webb: Were you interested in architecture from a young age?

Judy Edelman: I was, but I didn’t recognize it as architecture; I didn’t even know the word “architecture.” I was just fascinated by going into buildings and construction, and I think I had a very strong spatial sense. I think what really nudged me was a visit to an architect’s office when I was a junior in high school. I was completely blown away by what I saw. They were doing enormous things, these planning schemes in South America. I was very taken by the models and by the instruments, but I didn’t connect that with being something I would do later. But it really was a huge nudge.

Claire: You said you were a spatial person – please elaborate.

Judy: I think that interest [in architecture] had a lot to do with the fact that I always had dance in my life. Right through elementary school we had dance three days a week. And I continued to do this until I had an injury, and that’s when I went to architecture school. [It] had been roiling around in the back of my head, and that’s what did it.

Claire: Could you describe your experience as a woman training to be an architect in the 1940s?

Judy: I went to Columbia [for architecture school]. They were still doing very beaux-art work –it was unbelievable. Well, this deteriorated quickly because the students rebelled against it. We said, “We didn’t come here to learn how to make Indian ink washes of Greek details; we came here to learn how to be architects.” [It] was a big rebellion, which I guess I was the leader of; we came with this history of attending feisty progressive schools, so I wasn’t going to take that. I started school in ‘42, and by about ‘43 that [transition] was over. My class consisted of mostly women and Latin Americans because it was wartime, and there were very few American guys left to go to school. I guess that’s why I got in.

Claire: And maybe on your own merits, too?

Judy: Well no, not in those days. There had been years where there really weren’t any women in that school. The faculty members were constantly saying, “We’re wasting our time on you girls. You’re just going to get married and have babies.”

Claire: They would say that to you directly?

Judy: Oh, yes.

Claire: Did this cause you to form bonds with the other women classmates?

Judy: A group of four or five of us became very close friends.

Claire: Could you also describe your experience as an architect after you graduated?

Judy: Well, I went looking for jobs, and they’d say, “We don’t hire girls.” One of the first jobs I had was with a quite well-known hospital architect, whose son I knew, which I guess is the only reason I got a job there. And it was a very stupefying job. They were doing huge state hospitals – psychiatric hospitals – and a lot of the drawings were just bland, huge brick buildings. All the drawings were on linen with black ink. Week after week after week with a ruling pen I was drawing brick courses.

Claire:  That sounds monotonous, brick after brick.

Judy: You know, maybe elaborating around the windows a little bit, but mostly just drawing brick courses at a very small scale.  When you messed up you had to start over on that section. But I didn’t stay there terribly long. Finally I got a job with Huson Jackson, who was my main mentor. He had a little office in the Village, which was too good to be true, because I lived just a few blocks away. He’d had a woman working there before. Also he taught at Harvard [where] there was a whole cluster of architects who built a community, and so [hiring a woman] seemed normal to him.

Claire: In what way was Mr. Jackson a good teacher?  Did he push you, show you new techniques, and did you teach him?

Judy: Well he was a great thinker, but he couldn’t draw, interestingly enough. He’d draw a squiggle and say, “Turn this into a building.” Verbally, he would help develop the building; it was really an amazing talent manqué.

Claire:  Please tell me about your hiatus from Jackson’s office when you got a fellowship to travel and study architecture.

Judy: I won a fellowship and went to Europe for a year. It was a fellowship from Columbia, and they had suspended it for years during the war, [but then] they decided to reinstitute it. We [Judy and Harold, her husband] went to Paris, and used that as a base and traveled all over, got a little car. And my husband had the GI bill, so we could manage. We were poor, but everybody was.

[Harold] had quit his job in the states.  He had been working at a firm that did a lot of retail stuff, dept. stores, and he really didn’t like it much. So he was happy to quit. And when I spoke to the Dean at Columbia about the trip, and I told him my husband was going he said, “That’s irresponsible for him to quit a job.” I mean, things were weird and confused. And later we could have stayed on in Paris but we couldn’t work there, and after a while not working doesn’t work.

 Claire: Where else around Europe did you two go?

Judy: We went to Italy a lot. We went to Holland, Denmark, Sweden, through Switzerland as fast as we could since we couldn’t afford a cup of coffee there. We did not go to Spain because of Franco.  And my husband fought in Germany during the war and he sort of wanted to see it, but he sort of didn’t, so the compromise was when we went to Denmark we drove through Germany to get to the ferry, but that was it.

After returning to the U.S., my husband started teaching at Pratt, and one of the guys he met was Stanley Salzman who we then formed a partnership with. So we decided to keep the office space [after Jackson moved to Cambridge], which was in a little house on Washington Street. First Salzman asked if he could share the space. Then he had some leads on some much bigger projects that we had ever done, so we went after them together. Some of it we got and some we didn’t.

Claire: So that is how Edelman Salzman was formed.  Can you describe the chemistry of the office? Or, the roles that you, Harold, and Stanley each had?

Judy: Well, I was very much kept in the background and somehow or other I wasn’t aware enough to fight. For one thing I wasn’t licensed; it took me a while to get around to doing that. When we came back from Europe I was pregnant. After my first kid was born I figured I had to stay home; that was the wisdom of the time. It didn’t work. I was really going nuts, I thought I was disappearing. But I did that for close to a year and then went back to Huson’s office.

Judy and Harold discuss a drawing in their office on Washington Street, New York. Gloria and Esther Goldreich, What Can She Be? An Architect, (New York: Lothrop, Lee, and Shepard,1974), 18. Photograph by Robert Ipcar.

Claire: Salzman left after a while and it was you and Harold in the partnership. What was the working chemistry like?

Judy: I think we each did everything. And when we had enough work, we tried not to work on the same project, which was important. When we weren’t doing that we would have these tremendous fights in front of the whole staff.

At some point I quit to go work for a friend whose wife had been at Columbia with me [who] was much older. He was doing the Hadassah Hospital in Jerusalem. He was Viennese but lived in Israel a lot. And the work very, very interesting, but he was extremely dictatorial and I absolutely couldn’t stand being pushed around like that. The legend is that I pulled a knife on him. Which is absolutely not true – I was sharpening a pencil (which in those days was done with a small knife). We got into a verbal argument, but I wasn’t going to do anything with that knife. Since I couldn’t stand working there I went back to Huson’s office. I guess all in all it was 10 years until he [Huson] went to Cambridge. A project that Stanley [Salzman] brought in to Edelman Salzman Architects was a synagogue in Bayshore, Long Island. And it’s really very beautiful, I think the Star of David plan is a little kitschy, but it worked.

Left: Sinai Temple, Bayshore, New York. Top right: Detail looking up. Bottom right: Star of David plan, section.

Claire:  What are some of your design principles that helped shape the firm’s work?

Judy: Commodity, firmness, and delight. Vitruvius said that. And, I sort of believe it. I think structure is fascinating, and as I said, space is the best medium to work with that I can think of.  There was never any question about modern or not modern.

 Claire: And you define that as…

Judy: Great attention to structural integrity. When the way the building is put together is apparent;  when it doesn’t look like something else.

Judy continues: I was on a jury once with Robert Stern and we wound up at a terrible impasse. [We] sat there for hours, and nobody was going to leave until we resolved this [issue]. It was for the Bard Awards given by the City Club of New York and I think it had something to do with [Stern] wanting to give Macy’s basement an award. We just sat there saying “no” to each other. Finally he said, “You’re nothing but a god-damned un-reconstructed Modernist.”

Claire: Which you took as a compliment.

Judy: I don’t remember how we resolved it; I think we didn’t give the award [to Macy’s].

Claire: How did you become interested socially responsible housing work?

Judy: Well, to put it right out there, I was raised in a very lefty environment. I guess that’s what did it.

Claire: The Edelman Partnership’s 9G Co-ops were praised by the Preservation Movement; the decision to keep the historic brownstones facades and re-imagine the rest of the structure was mimicked in other buildings and projects. How did this idea evolve, and how were you involved with this movement?

Judy: Yes, it’s quite a story. We had done a number of individual house renovations in the West side Urban Renewal Area, quite a lot. And we did a house for a very successful black doctor, and his wife and been a cabaret singer. She was very glamorous, and he was a terrific guy, except, he stiffed us at the end.  He said, “I’m going to make it up to you.” (Meanwhile his wife bought a new fur coat and grand piano.) He came through, though, and got us the 9G project because he was Jackie Robinson’s doctor. (He was also Duke Ellington’s doctor.) I remembered I went to a big picnic at Jackie Robinson’s back yard.

[The 9G] buildings were slated for demolition by the city. Jackie Robinson’s wife and a friend of hers decided to butt in and save them, and it worked. Their concept had been that they would be nine individual houses. People could buy a whole house, or part of a house, or share a house, or friends could buy. I came up with the idea of connecting them, and they had never thought of that. They said, “That will never work; there’s an exit stair at each end, and an elevator in the middle,” etc.

How we worked it out was like this. Spaces were sold on the module of a brownstone floor; you could buy half a floor, a floor and a half, two floors, etc. This woman who was Robinson’s friend wanted the whole top floor. Well, before that happened, I interviewed everybody because the space was mostly pre-bought. I then proposed a layout based on the tenant’s programs and requirements. And that’s what went on. Mrs. Robinson’s friend said, “You can’t play God, only I can.” Or words to that effect, and she tore it up. She wanted to whole top floor which had a balcony facing the garden. And she didn’t get away with that, but she got a big chunk of it. We worked it out but it was difficult. It was loads and loads of fun, and most of the people were great to work with.

The 9-G Co-ops, New York, New York. Left: Rear elevation in drawing. Right: Photograph of the rear of 9G

Claire:  How were you involved with the Preservation movement?

Judy: Oh, informally – I haven’t done a lot of restorations. Harold was more involved; he enjoyed old buildings more. Then there was St. Mark’s Church In-the-Bowery; we started with the graveyards. The east yard was eroding into Second Avenue and there were important graves, [and we did] what could be done about it. But there were no huge moves. The west yard was much more intriguing. Work was done by the “local bad kids” [Judy is referring to the Preservation Youth Project] for the most part under the direction of a contractor.

And then the church burned down. We had refurbished it, but you know, nothing drastic, just repairs.  The kids had fixed up the church too before the fire, and we thought, alright, the kids will never come back, never. But they did. Even though there was nothing left but the stone walls and some of the roof.

 

Left: St. Mark’s Church In-the-Bowery, New York, New York, today.

Top Right: Stained glass designed by Harold Edelman. Bottom Right: Aerial shot of the fire at St. Mark’s.

Claire: What is the project you are most proud of?

Judy: The house we did for Harold’s sister; I really, really loved. It’s in Bethesda. It had great, great spaces and consistency of materials. It’s in the woods, even though I generally don’t like the woods that much. The house was on a sloping site in an enclave.

Judy’s sister-in-law’s house, Bethesda, Maryland.

I like Goddard Riverside a lot, aka Phelps House. [I also like] this one [Judy points to a picture]. It’s around the corner from the office, Chung Pak. It was leftover site after they built the prison [next door]. [Ed] Koch was mayor at the time and said the community could use that site for whatever they wanted. So, they decided to do housing, and Chinatown groups sponsored it.

 

Left: Chung Pak, New York, New York. Right: Phelps House, New York, New York.

Claire: Please tell me more about your experience working in NYC, and about your involvement with AIA.

When I started practicing there were 6 [women architects in NY]. Well, I’m sure there were more but I only knew six. They were all married to architects. And it came to pass that some nice architect invited me to lunch and asked me if I’d like to be on the board of directors at the AIA chapter. I said, “What? Why would I want to do that?” And he said, “Well I think you have to, there’s never been a woman on the board.”

Claire: And so what was your response?

Judy: [My response was,]Well, I think I have to do it.” And it was kind of a chilling experience, but not entirely. Some people were aghast. But mostly it was ok, it really was.

Claire: What did you do on the board?

Judy: Ha, went to board meetings. Then I became a Vice President, of which there are several. And that puts you in charge of certain committees and that was a little more interesting. In advance of a convention of in San Francisco, we passed a resolution to be presented to the full convention about women. It called for National AIA to set up some kind of mechanism, a task force, for studying this and resolving the problem [of the lack of women in the profession] and the discrepancy in salary. And it passed.

Claire: Was it effective?

Judy:  I didn’t think so, for many years. I just don’t know. But I think it got women across the country to know each other and to be involved with each other’s various situations. And it was quite interesting in that respect.

Claire: And what year was this?

Judy:  The 1970s. When I had occasion to go to headquarters in Washington, D.C. they called me Dragon Lady. And maybe [the work we did for women in architecture] was some contribution, but who knows. One thing that sticks in my mind from the years when my kids were little is that I felt I had to do everything that my circle of friends did, like give sit-down dinner for ten people. So I would get home from work at 6:30 and do that. And none of my friends were working, but I just felt like such a misfit that I had to make up for it and try and keep up. It was nuts! Because also I felt that there was a great deal of disapproval about my working. Nobody ever said to me directly, but I could feel it.

Claire: This firm has changed from when you founded The Edelman Partnership in 1960, although your legacies of modernism and women’s promotion have endured. Could you comment on this?

Well, I think the firm has grown beautifully, and I’m very proud of Andrew and Randy [the active Partners]. I think we have a great staff, and I think it’s astonishing that there are so many women when I don’t do the hiring. And you know, I did a lot of very hard work in the cause of women in the profession.

Thank you Judy!

Judy at our office’s Holiday Party.

We invite you to visit both the Legacy Page and the Profile Page of our website to learn more about our office’s rich history.


3 thoughts on “An Afternoon with Judith Edelman

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