Roger Margerum & the Magic of the 45-Degree Polygon

Architect Roger Margerum and his wife, Fran. “The hardest thing in the world is to build your own home,” he says. “You just don’t see architects designing their own house. Maybe they’re afraid they don’t have the talent to do something so personal.” // Photographs by Balthazar Korab and Justin Maconochie

Roger Margerum’s wife, Fran, asked him to design a house for her after he closed his full-time practice in 2000. And though, he’d lived in apartments his entire life, he gladly granted her wish — with one condition.

“I had to satisfy her, but also myself,” Margerum says. “And the only way to satisfy myself was to design something architecturally significant. I believe I’ve done that. To my knowledge, no one before has used the 45-degree polygon as a rigid module.”

A diamond in the rough, Magerum’s three-year-old home faces the street at a 45-degree angle — the same geometric slant that forms and defines the entire structure.  It also provides a view. From a Mies van der Rohe chair in the center of his living room, he can see the masts of 40-foot sailboats docked in the Grayhaven Marina to the south, and then glance north to view the street scene of his east-side neighborhood. “The site fits me because I can relate to the inner city and the other side of the coin,” he says.

A pioneering African-American architect, Margerum — like his home — has always stood out. Raised by his mother on Chicago’s south side, he loved to draw and was enrolled in Saturday classes at the Art Institute of Chicago when he was 10. Eventually, he’d take her suggestion that he become an architect and attend the University of Illinois, obtaining an architecture degree in 1955.

It was rare to see an African-American enrolled in architecture school, particularly in the 1950s. It was even more unusual to see minorities working at large firms. Yet upon graduation, Margerum was hired by renowned contemporary architect Walter Netsch to work at the Chicago firm Skidmore, Owens, and Merrill. “Working with giants like Walter Netsch, Gordon Bunshaft, Stanley Tigerman, Bruce Graham, and Gertrude Kerbis, I don’t think anybody’s had better exposure to modernist architects,” he says. “Something had to rub off.”

After a divorce in 1968, Margerum followed his children to Detroit and joined Smith, Hinchman, and Grylls (The Smith Group), where he brought in Japanese designer Isamu Noguchi to design Hart Plaza’s Dodge Fountain and helped spearhead joint-venture projects with minority architects in the city. In 1973, he started his own firm with offices in Chicago and Detroit, where he designed modern community centers, churches, businesses, and schools.

“Roger is significant on a number of levels,” says Dr. Craig Wilkins, a University of Michigan professor of architecture and author of The Aesthetics of Equity, an examination of how African-Americans have been excluded from the study and practice of architecture. “One, that he was able to practice at all. Two, that he did it so well with prestigious majority firms for such a long time. And three, that he had his own practice and influenced so many African-American architects.”

Now “semi-retired,” Margerum — who will receive a lifetime-achievement award from the National Organization of Minority Architects next fall — has a studio on the mezzanine level of his home where he continues to develop new projects, including a prototype for an affordable 1,000-square-foot, movable, 45-degree angle house for office workers moving to the city.
“I’ve proven that you can go beyond the square-modular design we’ve used for 100 years,” he says. “You can take the architect out of Chicago, but you can’t take Chicago out of the architect.”

The second floor includes a great room, dining room, family room, and a kitchen. The home is essentially a cube deconstructed (diagram) then reconfigured in a series of 45-degree triangles. Its angular and airy great room spills out onto an outdoor deck (below) facing the Grayhaven Marina. Airy and angular, the home’s second-floor great room is filled with natural light and a variety of comfortable spaces. “The area affords general circulation and, instead of going from room-to-room, you’re going from space-to-space,” Margerum says. The 3,000-square-foot home contains modernist artwork from Frankenthaler, Motherwell, and Vasarely.