Black History Month is a celebration and a time of recognition for the achievements made by African Americans in our country. Although this recognition shouldn’t just be limited to one month, we want to shine light on the African American architects, who’s accomplishments and groundbreaking success paved the way for the design and construction industries.
As stated by the National Black Chamber of Commerce, one of the richest legacies of African decedents has been construction. From building the pyramids of Egypt to building cities like New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Washington DC, many African Americans were involved in construction during times of slavery. During that time, America relied heavily on the crafts learned by Blacks who passed their knowledge and skills of the trades from generation to generation.
Working to better familiarize ourselves with their contributions and to celebrate their achievements, we want to highlight some of the predominant African American figures in architecture and construction. These individuals brought unique perspectives to the design world and left their mark on this country in a variety of ways.
Robert Robinson Taylor is arguably one of the most influential African American architects. As the first accredited Black architect in the U.S. Taylors contributions are significant. Taylor’s story began at MIT where he was the first Black student allowed at the school. At MIT he studied architecture and upon graduating he was recruited to Alabama’s Tuskegee Institute by its founder and president Booker T. Washington. Continuing his interest and career in architecture, Taylor worked to plan the construction of new buildings on the campus. Alongside this task, he worked closely with the Institutes architectural and engineering programs. Over the course of his time on campus, Taylor designed around 25 buildings including Booker T. Washington’s family home. His career didn’t just end here though. Outside of his architectural accomplishments at the University, his interests and skills led him to the designing and creation of three colonial style Carnegie Libraries for Black Colleges in Alabama, North Carolina, and Texas.
With his roots beginning in Philadelphia, Julian Abele began his educational journey at the Museum School of Industrial Art (PMSIA). For two years at the Museum School, he studied architectural drawing. Wanting to expand his knowledge, Abele was admitted to the architecture school at the University of Pennsylvania where he graduated in 1902 as the first Black student. Traveling to Europe provided Abele with an eye and taste for a different style of architecture than he was used to. With his newfound inspiration, he contributed to the designs of predominant establishments such as Harvard’s Widener Memorial Library and The Philadelphia Museum of Art. Abele also contributed greatly to Duke University’s campus, designing more than 30 buildings including its chapel, library, stadium, medical school, and hospital.
In 1904 Vertner Woodson Tandy began studying architecture at the Tuskegee Institute. After a year, he began studies at Cornell and upon graduation moved to the center of all thing’s architecture and construction, New York City. Soon after his move, Tandy became the first black registered architect in New York state, partnering with George Washington Foster, the first black registered architect in New Jersey. From their Broadway office, the team of Tandy and Foster, went on to establish what we know today as 20th century Harlem and the surrounding areas. Some of Tandy’s greatest triumphs include, Villa Lewaro, a 1916 Federal/Regency Revival manor house in Irvington, NY for Madame C.J. Walker the haircare mogul. Another is a New York city landmark to this day, the 1925 Neo-Gothic-style Mother AME Zion church, one of the oldest African American Churches in New York City.
Discouraged from studying architecture at Los Angeles’ Polytechnic High School due to his race, Paul Revere Williams was not going to let that stop him from seeking architectural education at some of LA’s top firms. Pushing past barriers, in 1923 Williams became the first Black member of the American Institute of Architects. His extensive work designing lavish Hollywood homes made him known as the “Hollywood architect.” His style was known to embody mid-century glamor with curving staircases, pink and green palettes, retractable screens and patios flowing from living spaces. From Superstars like Frank Sinatra, and Lucille Ball to Cary Grant, Williams designed for the rich and famous. Williams did not only limit his architectural talents to all things residential and glam. On the commercial side of architecture, he designed the St. Jude’s Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis, the fabulous Polo Lounge at the Beverly Hills Hotel, the Theme Building at LAX and the Georgian Revival-style MCA Building in Beverly Hills.
Born and raised in Chicago Illinois, Beverly Greene studied at the University of Illinois in the early 1930’s. At this time the campus was just barley integrated. Green was the first African American woman to graduate from the University with a Bachelor of Science degree in architectural engineering. Alongside this accomplishment she was the first to earn a master’s in city planning and housing. Utilizing her talents and passion for architecture and city planning, Green began work at the Chicago Housing Department. Her time working in Chicago was cut short, when she was offered a scholarship by Columbia University and moved to New York City. At Columbia furthering her education, she went on to earn her Master’s in Architecture. Some of Greene’s most impressive architectural work includes a theater at the University of Arkansas in 1951 as well as the UNESCO United Nations Headquarters in Paris. Sadly, Green passed away at the age of 41, not able to see the completion of the UN Headquarters or the buildings she had designed for New York University.
Norma Merrick Sklarek made waves in the architectural industry as the first Black female to become a licensed architect in both New York and California. As if this wasn’t impressive enough, she was also the first Black female to become a member of the AIA in 1959. Columbia University educated, her career led her to overseeing major projects like the California Mart and to collaborations with César Pelli that included the Pacific Design Center and the U.S. Embassy in Tokyo. Wanting to work for a firm of her own, Sklarek went on to form Siegel Sklarek Diamon, the largest woman-owned practice in the U.S. at the time. For the rest of her career, she worked as a lecturer and mentor to countless architects, passing on her knowledge and advice.
McKaissack and McKaissack is the first black owned architectural firm in the US and the oldest black owned architectural and engineering firm in the country. The history of this company dates all the way back to 1700’s. In 1790 Moses McKissack came to the U.S as a slave who was owned by a prominent contractor who used him as a builder. Passing the trade down through generations, his grandsons then became the first licensed architects in the Southeastern United States. In 1905 the firm was founded and launched by Moses McKissack III and his brother Calvin Lunsford McKissack in Nashville Tennessee. Some of the firms most notable designs during this time were the Morris Memorial Building in Nashville and the 99th Pursuit Squadron Airbase in Tuskegee, AL. The airbase’s architectural project was the largest federal contract at the time ever given to a Black-owned firm. Fast forward to 1990, Deryl McKissack, the granddaughter of Moses McKissack III, opened her own firm in the same name in Washington, D.C. The firm’s great success under her reign, allowed for expansion in Austin, Chicago, Houston, Washington, Baltimore, Los Angeles, and Dallas. Caring about the future of the construction industry and the communities she serves, sixty-one percent of Deryl McKiassacks hires are minorities, and 34% are women. Over the years her firm has had many significant contributions to civic projects including the MLK Memorial, and the National Museum of African American History and Culture on the National Mall.
At COCOON we want to acknowledge and honor these hard-working Black men and women who made a difference in their communities building environments that we still learn in, worship in, reside in, and enjoy to this day. We are grateful for their contributions to architecture and our society as a whole.
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