Robert P. Madison: A Cleveland architect’s legacy

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Prestigious Cleveland architecture firm Robert P. Madison keeps their mission of improving lives in focus with each project.

(From left to right: Sandra Madison, Robert P. Madison, Kevin Madison)

Pioneering Cleveland architect Robert P. Madison once said, “Architects never retire.” However, in 2016, after 62 years of practicing, Madison was finally ready to pass the torch of his legacy architecture firm to his niece-in-law, Sandra Madison.

Robert P. Madison International, Inc. was founded in 1954 and, three generations of Madison architects later, has become the largest Black female-owned architecture firm in the State of Ohio.

With its new ownership and a renewed focus on their mission of improving lives in the community, Robert P. Madison has become instrumental in designing projects with a significant social impact.

Building a foundation for success

Robert P. Madison began his career in 1954, at a time when it wasn’t easy being a Black architect.

“In 1923, my father was studying engineering at Howard University, but no one would hire him,” says Robert Madison. “After graduating, I applied all over Cleveland, but people said, no, we don’t hire Black people. So, we started our own business.”

When the firm opened, it was the first Black-owned architecture firm in the State of Ohio. Madison hired his wife, mother, and, a year later, his civil engineer brother Julian. Business was slow at first. He worked on designing back porches and front yards, and remodeling basements. Then the African American Episcopalian Church elected him to be the official architect of AME churches.

“That was a tremendous break,” explains Robert Madison. “If they wanted to build a new building, they had to ask me first. I became very good at doing churches.”

When Black doctors couldn’t practice in hospitals and no one would rent them office space, Madison designed an office for them. As his recognition grew, he moved on to larger, more complex projects around Cleveland as an associate architect. Because he had studied in Paris, spoke fluent French, and understood the metric system, Madison was selected to design the U.S. embassy in Dakar, Senegal.

Moving forward

The firm’s succession to Sandra Madison, who now co-owns the firm with her husband and Madison’s nephew Kevin Madison, and Robert Klann was natural, says Robert Madison. The three were the most senior firm members and had learned every facet of the business.

“They were ready to take over,” says Robert Madison. “Besides, people were doing all the work on computers by then. I was still using T-squares, triangles, and pencils. It was time.”

Kevin Madison says the current leaders are committed to carrying on Madison’s legacy.

“We know there is a rich history developed in this company long before we arrived,” he says. “We want to keep making things happen.”

The partners say the firm is known for its caliber of work and emphasis on diversity and integrity, a standard it maintains to this day.

“Diversity is natural for us,” Kevin Madison says. “It’s not even a question. It’s part of who we are and will continue to be.”

A renewed focus on mission

When Sandra took over Robert P. Madison in 2016, she directed the firm with a renewed focus on its mission of improving lives through award-winning design, mentorship, and service to the community.

“We were the associate architect on the Rocket Mortgage Fieldhouse, the Cleveland Cavaliers’ NBA arena, and are the architect of record for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame expansion,” explains Klann. “These were great accomplishments, but what we’re passionate about is contributing to projects where you can really see the impact on the community.”

(Robert Klann, partner and CFO of Robert P. Madison International, Inc)

These mission-focused projects have helped Robert P. Madison position themselves as community advocates.

“Recent projects supporting our mission include the renovation of Karamu House, the first African American Theatre in the country, and The Tamir Rice Afrocentric Cultural Center, which offers arts programs after school and during the summer for children in the area – a vision of Tamir’s mother, Ms. Samaria Rice,” explains Sandra Madison.

The firm has also designed the New Greater Cleveland Food Bank Facility, the largest hunger relief organization in Northeast Ohio, as well as the Cuyahoga County Men’s Shelter expansion in Cleveland.

Poised for growth

As of 2022, Robert P. Madison has expanded their staff to include 17 people. That number continues to grow, partly thanks to a new office space in downtown Cleveland. The firm was able to move into the larger building to hold its expanding team with the help of an SBA loan from Huntington.

Huntington has been a financial ally to the firm for more than two decades. In addition to the SBA loan, Robert P. Madison relies on Huntington for their 401(k) management program.

"People I knew were banking with Huntington, so I decided to stay on. I’m pleased with how responsive they are."
Robert P. Madison
Robert P. Madison International, Inc.

Sharing lessons learned

After retiring from architecture, Robert P. Madison co-wrote a memoir with Carlo Wolfe titled “Designing Victory,” which details his life, career, and community contributions.

“I wanted my children to know my experience,” he says. “When I was 13, I visited a great-grandmother who was born in slavery in Alabama. It was very moving,” he says. “I wanted my children to know my experience.”

In 2019, Madison went on a small book tour to promote the “Designing Victory” and share lessons learned with the next generation.

“Learn to survive when someone says no,” Robert Madison says. “Keep your cool and recognize that sometimes people don’t understand what’s going on. Be persistent, and you will succeed.”

About the Organization

Name: Robert P. Madison International, Inc.
Location: Cleveland, OH
Mission: Improving lives through award-winning design, mentorship, and service to community.

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