Lee, Joseph T.A.(1918-2009)

Joseph T.A. Lee, Professor Emeritus of the Univer-sity of Michigan Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning, and co-founder, chief architect and planner of the Ann Arbor Kerrytown market, died August 15 at his home in Ann Arbor. He was 91.

He was born in Nanaimo, British Columbia, Canada in 1918 of immigrant Chinese parents. His interest in architecture began as a boy when he built pens for pigeons and rabbits, progressing to remodeling his family's house when he was in high school.

Instead of remaining in Nanaimo with his family's grocery business, he chose to continue his education by attending the University of British Columbia, studying civil engineering. From there he transferred to the University of Michigan (B.S. Civil and M.S. Structural). After completing studies at Columbia University (B.S. Electrical) and working in the private sector he eventually returned to his original interest in architecture, attending evening classes in the School of Architecture at Columbia University.

In New York he worked in the architectural firms of Eggers and Higgins, William Muschenheim, Sanders -Malsin-Reiman, and also served as Clerk of the Works at Frank Lloyd Wright's Usonia planned community in Pleasantville, New York.

In 1952 he was invited to teach at the University of Michigan. For the next three decades he taught at the University of Michigan. He also practiced architecture in Ann Arbor, with George Brigham, Don McMullen, and in private practice. He designed residential, commercial, industrial and institutional projects. In 1969, he formed a private initiative with attorney Arthur Carpenter and ten other Ann Arborites, to renew a part of downtown Ann Arbor. The corporation, Arbor-A, was committed to rejuvenating the area around the Farmers' Market, by renovating run-down buildings and renting them to small businesses. He was the Vice-President of Arbor-A and the chief architect and planner for these projects.

The first building remodeled was the triangular building (Roach Printing) on the corner of Detroit Street and Fifth Avenue which would house the Pyramid gallery, the law offices of Douvan, Harrington, and Carpenter, and the newly-founded cookware company, Kitchen-port. Against the prevailing trend to relocate businesses to large shopping centers outside of cities, Arbor-A bought the vacant warehouse buildings of the Washtenaw Farm Bureau next to the Farmers' Market to develop an in-town market. This collection of warehouses was transformed into what is now a well-known Ann Arbor landmark, the "Kerrytown Markets and Shops."

Throughout his life, he was active in student and civic affairs. He was president of his high school student council and during his college years, the president of the Chinese Students Clubs at the University of Michigan and Columbia University, as well as the Chinese Engineering fraternity Alpha Lambda. He was a director of the Midwest Chinese Students' Alumni Services based in Chicago, Illinois; a founder of the Association of Chinese-Americans, and director of Chinese-Americans for Freedom and Human Rights, San Francisco.

He was a trustee of the Ann Arbor School Board (1967-70). His tenure during that tumultuous period when issues of integration and busing were at the forefront, was marked by what then superintendent Scott Westerman wrote of him later - He showed "intelligence, wisdom, compassion and general thoughtfulness to every discussion. When others (citizens and board members) were losing their "cool," you were calm, choosing your words carefully, and in some occasions, even injecting some welcome humor."

He was Chair of the Ann Arbor Goals Conference in the mid-60's, which looked critically at the impact of the rapidly changing social, economic and natural environment of Ann Arbor. He chaired the Huron River Beautification Committee (1966-68) and the Mayor's Committee on the Design of the Huron Parkway Bridge. He was also active in citizen action groups who fought to maintain and nurture the Huron River valley as a natural environment, against forces who advocated widening the Geddes-Fuller corridor to increased automobile traffic.

He was a member of the first delegation of Chinese-American scholars and scientists invited by the Chinese government to speak at universities in the People's Republic of China in 1972, immediately after renewal of diplomatic relations between the United States and China. One of the lectures he presented was unrelated to architecture and demonstrates his prescience. In that lecture, he showed slides of fires that had spontaneously ignited on the Cuyahoga River near Cleveland as a result of industrial pollutants. He cautioned his educated Chinese audiences against the dangers of embracing unchecked and unregulated industrial growth. This lecture was given at a time when China was just recovering from the Cultural Revolution and had not yet begun its push towards modernization; and when environmental legislation in the United States was in its early stages.

After his retirement, he continued to participate in civic affairs, taking a keen interest in the ongoing development of Ann Arbor. As late as 2005, he spoke at a public hearing concerning the Farmers' Market. He offered a simple design alternative to the Ann Arbor Parks and Recreation's plans for the development of the Farmers' Market. In presenting his proposal, he restated his belief that architecture is best when it acts as a backdrop to enhance human community and living. "I have been a resident of Ann Arbor for 52 years, returning [in 1952] after spending nine years away after graduating from the University. Ann Arbor is my hometown. My feeling for the market is my feeling for the whole of Ann Arbor. The Farmers' Market is [one of] our city's important historic monuments. We can help to complete its founders' vision…and maintain its aura of basic simplicity so that farmers and locals can transact business, and there can be social and friendly exchange for all."

During his thirty years at the University, he was inventive in his methods of teaching design, encouraging students to discover design principles through their own exploration. His students were a constant source of stimulation and he enjoyed the interaction of studio teaching. Many of his students remember evenings at the Lees' residence when discussions ran late into the night.

His belief in the value of education continues with two scholarships which he and his late wife Elsie set up at the University of Michigan and with a grant for continuing teacher-development in the Nanaimo-Ladysmith School District, B.C., Canada.

The Lee family requests that gifts in his memory be made to either of the two scholarships at the University:

  1. The Joseph T.A. Lee and Elsie Choy Lee Scholarship at the Taubman School of Architecture and Urban Planning (2000 Bonisteel Boulevard, Ann Arbor, MI 48109), which annually provides support for a graduate architecture student who "shows the most promise for a career that has a balanced, integrated, and broad approach to the design of human space."
  2. The Elsie Choy Lee Scholarship at the Center for Continuing Education for Women (330 East Liberty St., Ann Arbor, MI 48104), which annually supports "undergraduate and graduate women in facilitating their own work in art, writing, or music. It is also given to students researching women of creativity who have struggled to find their own voices within those fields."

Mr. Lee is survived by his sister, Anne Lowe of Vancouver, B.C.; his children Rowe Lee-Mills (Ann Arbor), Justin Lee (Seattle, WA), and Puwen Lee (Arlington, VA) and grandchildren Justine Lee-Mills, Lars Lee, Catherine Lee-Mills, and Jessie Lee-Bauder. Memorial service will be 2:00 p.m., Tuesday, October 6, 2009 in the Kerrytown Concert House, 41