Obituary: Joseph Amisano 1917-2008

Atlanta architect Joseph Amisano, FAIA died on Saturday April 12. A partner of the firm Toombs, Amisano, & Wells, his work defined the progressive period of post-WWII Atlanta.

Born in New York City, Amisano went on to study at Pratt Institute, where he received his Bachelors (1940) and Masters of Architecture degrees (1941). His early practice was in the Manhattan firms of Sanders & Breck and Harrison, Abramowitz & Fouilhoux. In 1942, a job designing facilities for Pan-Am airways brought him to Brazil, where he had his first experience with the built work of Oscar Niemeyer. In 1950, he travelled throughout Europe and the Mediterranean as a recipient of the prestigious Rome Prize.

In 1954, Amisano joined the partnership of Toombs & Wells in Atlanta. Toomb’s reputation for modern design had previously been established through such projects as the 1947 Atlanta Rich’s department store expansion- a four-story steel and glass structure known as the “Crystal Bridge”. Following Amisano’s partnership, the firm gained the commission for the Lenox Square Shopping Center [1954-, altered]. Completed in 1959, the original open-air arcade with its expressive concrete canopy became a central feature of the suburban annexation and growth of metropolitan Atlanta.

In the 1960s, Amisano’s design work included the Visual Arts Center (1962) [now Lamar Dodd School of Art] for the University of Georgia, the original Fernbank Science Center (1963-5), and the Atlanta Memorial Arts Center (1965-8) [altered]. The John Knox Church (1964-5) was one of Amisano’s most celebrated Atlanta projects and won the 1967 AIA Award, the only church in the nation honored that year. Located on Powers Ferry Road, the church was designed as an intimately scaled response to its residential context. The main sanctuary was anchored by a low square base of rough-hewn stone, topped by a high pitched shingled roof. The exterior’s modest use of material belied an expansive interior defined by a timbered roof frame channeling natural light from openings above the altar.

Amisano was recognized as one of the dominant urban form givers of 1960s-80s Atlanta. He remodeled the Federal Reserve Bank downtown and added a garden plaza in the early 1960s. His 148 Cain Street Building and Northside 75/Beta Buildings were not atypical of the period, but his Cities Services Building (1968-70) at the edge of Lenox Square was a refined and taut exercise in late Modern office building design, standing out from the crowd of speculative office towers and commercial architecture in a fast developing city. Amisano’s Peachtree Summit Building of 1975-8, with its open corner balconies exposing to view the building’s powerful structural features of post and slab, became a prominent Atlanta landmark rising above the downtown expressway. And underground, Amisano made an asset of the raw rock and exposed earth walls of his Peachtree MARTA station of 1975-82 which became one of the most notable public spaces in the transportation system. Rugged dynamited geology is juxtaposed to the sweeping architectural vault and high technology of the rail tracks and to the steepest and longest escalators in the South, all masterfully composed within this notable rapid rail station.

In the 1980s, Amisano’s work with the firm included the Robert Woodruff Library at the Atlanta University Center serving Atlanta’s traditional black colleges, and the Second Church of Christ Scientist, Atlanta (1984-6) a poetic expression of light constructed in reinforced concrete (featured in Docomomo’s Fall 2007 Newsletter). Following retirement from his firm, Amisano remained active in design, as evidenced by a colorful proposal for a Cabbagetown Atlanta home in 2004. In that year, Amisano was featured in a public roundtable of Atlanta’s early Modernist architects, co-sponsored by Docomomo’s Georgia Chapter at the Atlanta History Center.

To the extent that an architect may change the face of a city, Amisano’s impact on Atlanta may be said to have been substantial. He designed some of Atlanta’s best known works of the period, an era labeled Late Modern and Brutalist, and the range of this work is noteworthy.

Contributed by Jon Buono and Robert Craig, PhD