Sharon E. Sutton has been a professional musician, an artist and an architect, and is now a professor of architecture.* She has five academic degrees.
Really, though, shes a community builder. For many years, she has brought people together to improve their neighborhoods.
Sutton recently received the Whitney M. Young Jr. award from the American Institute of Architects. It recognizes her efforts to increase minority participation in the design professions and her use of architecture to advance social justice.
Sutton, 69, is also co-editor of a new book, The Paradox of Urban Space: Inequity and Transformation in Marginalized Communities (Palgrave Macmillan).
The book and the award mark a journey of a determined woman. “Ive learned,” she said in a recent interview, “that you have to own your own show.”
Sutton grew up in Cincinnati, where her mother, Egretta Johnson, was a housewife and former teacher in a segregated rural school. Her father, Booker Johnson, was a laborer who had only a third-grade education but scraped together whatever it took to help his daughter become a musician.
At age 5, Sutton played the piano in her neighborhood church, but the French horn became her instrument in sixth grade after she passed a citywide exam that admitted her to Walnut Hills, a public school with a college prep curriculum. Sutton chose the French horn because she could borrow one from the school instead of having to buy a smaller instrument such as a flute or violin.
In her senior year, encouraged by teachers, Sutton applied to the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia. “It was the only school to which I applied,” she said. “It was free, and it simply had not occurred to me that I would not get in. After all, no one could have wanted to go to the Curtis Institute more than I.”
The audition was a disaster, and she failed to get in. Sutton was asked to begin with an excerpt from Beethovens Seventh Symphony that starts on the next-to-highest note on the instrument — very difficult, even for a seasoned professional.
Leaving the audition, Sutton walked the streets surrounding the school wondering how shed explain failure to her family. At one point, though, she heard beautiful music coming from an apartment. Needing distraction and wanting to feel better, Sutton knocked on the door. A young man, Homer Lee, answered. Turned out he was a clarinet player — and the only “colored” student at Curtis Institute.
Lee and his two roommates shared their recording of Puccinis La Boheme with Sutton. They encouraged her to go to the Manhattan School of Music, and Lee helped her get an audition. He also argued with a ticket master at Penn Station, such that Sutton was able to swap her return ticket to Cincinnati for one to New York with enough money left over for a plane trip back to Cincinnati.
Several weeks later, Sutton won a full scholarship to the Manhattan School of Music. She also learned in a letter from one of the roommates that Lee had committed suicide — that he couldnt continue “the only one” at Curtis.
“Homer Lee could not make it to the future, but he hoisted me there on his shoulders,” Sutton said. “From that time onward, I have been deeply aware of how one person can help another achieve impossible dreams.”
As a freelance musician in New York, Sutton even performed with the production and original cast album of Man of La Mancha.
She also discovered what great architecture can do for acoustics: “Whatever I could play as I warmed up at home, I could play 10 times better at the Old Met, even in the backstage areas.” Shed already been inspired by the architecture of Walnut Hills, which was modeled after Thomas Jeffersons library at the University of Virginia.
Urban renewal eventually took the old Metropolitan Opera House and all three of Suttons childhood homes, including a four-bedroom one with walnut paneling.
The 41,000 miles of interstate highways begun during the Eisenhower administration “turned many poor but viable neighborhoods into noisy, dirty, and increasingly unoccupied construction sites,” Sutton said. In her mind, her lost homes and beloved opera house are “architectural fatalities.”
In Manhattan, while working as a musician, Sutton became a developer of sorts. Wives of musicians were renovating brownstones into affordable, soundproof apartments. The women showed Sutton how to get a mortgage and tax abatements for what was then a rooming house. She consulted an engineer and an attorney to develop plans and financing, then worked alongside contractors, removing layers of wallpaper, repairing wainscoting, sanding old doors. Eventually, Suttons building became rent-controlled apartments.
Her first tenant, a Columbia architecture alumna, suggested Sutton study architecture. Intrigued, she enrolled at Parsons School of Design while continuing as a musician on Broadway.
Then, in 1968, student uprisings became front-page news. The military draft and the Vietnam War were key issues, but at Columbia, its community relations and architecture were issues as well. The university had displaced at least 2,000 minority families from the neighborhood and begun constructing a gym in a nearby Harlem park. Columbia architecture students took aim at those issues as well as a profession perceived as elitist and out of touch.
The upshot was that the School of Architecture recruited students of color, including Sutton. She subsequently received a masters in architecture from Columbia. Then after opening a private practice, Sutton earned a masters in philosophy and a masters and doctorate in psychology from the City University of New York. Along the way, she began teaching architecture, first at Pratt and later at Columbia.
Also too, with music no longer her main focus, the artist in Sutton took up printmaking. When she opened an architecture practice in a loft at 95 Fifth Avenue, she included a printmaking studio. Shes since had shows around the country, and her intaglio etchings are in the Robert Hamilton Blackburn Printmaking Workshop core collection and archives at the Library of Congress.
These days, along with teaching in the UW Depar
tment of Architecture, Sutton directs the Center for Environment Education and Design Studies. It brings together faculty and students who work with community partners. A 2008 project involved children, ages 8 to 10, and adults in eco-friendly designs for Common Threads Farm on Lummi Island. A 2003 project gathered design ideas for the neighborhood surrounding King Street Station in downtown Seattle.
Sutton and Shosanah, her Pekinese, live in a First Hill condominium she renovated in 1999. Sutton has served on several city boards and commissions charged with improving urban design.
Her civic projects often make their way into her classroom. For example, this quarter, her undergraduates are developing proposals for the property surrounding Sound Transits Capitol Hill Light Rail station. Last quarter, her graduate students developed concepts for Seattles waterfront.
A nomination letter for the Young award described Suttons contributions: “Having faced the proverbial ‘closed doors and ‘glass ceilings for more than three decades, she has championed the cause of many low-income females and persons of color who have followed in her footsteps, benefitting from her example and mentorship.”
Sutton compared her work to Native American basket weaving that requires the weaver to complete a basket in one sitting. “Whether in my creative enterprises, my research, or my teaching,” Sutton said, “I am always looking for challenges that will impose a boundary and heighten my investment in returning to others what someone gave to me.”
- * This sentence previously stated that Sutton was also a psychologist. She holds a masters and doctorate in psychology but is not credentialed as a psychologist.