John Black Lee

Born in Chicago in 1924, John Black Lee enrolled at Brown University in 1942, where he studied mathematics, civil engineering, and naval science. After serving in the Navy on the Pacific front during World War II, he resumed his studies at Brown University and received his Bachelor of Arts degree in 1947.

In 1948, Walter Gropius (1883-1954) advised Lee to serve as an apprentice rather than enroll in graduate school, so he moved to Chicago to work as a carpenter. His carpentry work caught the eye of Paul Schweikher (1903-1997), the dean of the Yale School of Architecture, who invited Lee to learn architecture and drafting at his firm, Schweikher & Elting, located in Roselle, Illinois. Lee believed this would give him an architectural education equivalent to attending Yale, but would also provide him with an income.

After leaving Chicago, Lee worked with architects Oskar Stonorov (1905-1970) and Eliot Noyes (1910-1977). Lee's role as a job captain at Noyes's firm exposed him to the problems involved with early experimental Modern houses; for example, he worked on installing coal tar pitch roofs on flat-roofed structures after earlier roof systems failed. In 1954, Lee established his own practice in New Canaan, Connecticut. He worked on designing more affordable houses by utilizing his background in engineering to execute costly steel construction techniques in wood. Lee designed at least eight houses in New Canaan along with all of the buildings at the New Canaan Field Club. Lee has received numerous awards for his work, including an Award of Merit from the American Institute of Architects for his own house in New Canaan (Lee House 2, 1956). At least three of his houses in New Canaan were featured in national publications, including his first house (Lee House 1, 1952), his second house (Lee House 2, 1956), and the System House (with Harrison DeSilver, 1961).


National Trust for Historic Preservation, 2009.