15 Important African American Architects

The Famous Black Architects of U.S. History

old black and white photo of many young people building a large building
Tuskegee Institute Students Working on New Building. Bettmann/Getty Images (cropped)

Black Americans have always faced enormous social and economic barriers, and the architects who've helped build the country were no different. Nevertheless, there are a number of black architects who have managed, designed, and constructed some of today's most admired structures.

Before the American Civil War, black slaves may have learned building and engineering skills used only to benefit their owners. After the war, however, these skills were passed on to their children, who began to thrive in the growing profession of architecture. Still, by 1930, only about 60 black Americans were listed as registered architects, and many of their buildings have since been lost or radically changed.

Although conditions have improved, many people feel that black architects today still lack the recognition they deserve. Here are some of America's most notable black architects who paved the way for today's minority builders.

Robert Robinson Taylor (1868–1942)

illustration of postal stamps with black money on each
Architect Robert Robinson Taylor on 2015 Black Heritage Stamp Series. U.S. Postal Service

Robert Robinson Taylor is widely considered to be the first academically trained and credentialed black architect in America. Growing up in North Carolina, Taylor worked as a carpenter and foreman for his prosperous father, Henry Taylor, who was the son of a white slaveholder and black woman. Educated at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Taylor's final project for a bachelor's degree in Architecture was "Design for a Soldiers' Home"—it examined housing to accommodate aging Civil War veterans. Booker T. Washington recruited him to help establish Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, a campus now forever associated with Taylor's work. The architect died suddenly on December 13, 1942, while visiting Tuskegee Chapel in Alabama. In 2015, he was honored by being featured on a stamp issued by the U.S. Postal Service.

Wallace Augustus Rayfield (1873–1941)

large brick building, symmetrical, two towers on either side of front gable with three arched entrances -- many stairs going up to the arches
16th St. Baptist Church, Birmingham, Alabama. Carol M. Highsmith/Getty Images (cropped)

While Wallace Augustus Rayfield was a student at Columbia University, Booker T. Washington recruited him to head the Architectural and Mechanical Drawing Department at Tuskegee Institute. Rayfield worked alongside Robert Robinson Taylor in establishing Tuskegee as a training ground for future Black architects. After a few years, Rayfield opened his own practice in Birmingham, Alabama, where he designed many homes and churches—most famously, the 16th Street Baptist Church in 1911. Rayfield was the second professionally educated black architect in the United States, right behind Taylor.

William Sidney Pittman (1875–1958)

William Sidney Pittman is thought to be the first black architect to receive a federal contract—the Negro Building at the Jamestown Tercentennial Exposition in Virginia in 1907—and the first Black architect to practice in the state of Texas. Like other black architects, Pittman was educated at Tuskegee University; he then went on to study architecture at Drexel Institute in Philadelphia. He received commissions to design several important buildings in Washington, D.C. before moving his family to Texas in 1913. Often reaching for the unexpected in his work, Pittman died penniless in Dallas. Sadly, his architecture in Texas has never been fully recognized or preserved.

Moses McKissack III (1879–1952)

brown, mesh metal exterior of boat hull-like building
National Museum of African American History and Culture, Washington, D.C. George Rose/Getty Images (cropped)

The grandson of an African-born slave, Moses McKissack III was a master builder. In 1905, he joined his brother Calvin to form one of the earliest black architectural firms in the United States: McKissack & McKissack in Nashville, Tennessee. Building on the family legacy, the firm is still active and has worked on thousands of facilities, including the National Museum of African American History and Culture (managed design and construction) and the MLK Memorial (architect of record), both in Washington, D.C.

Julian Abele (1881–1950)

Gothic-style stone church with one dominating square tower
Duke University Chapel, Durham, Norrh Carolina. Lance King/Getty Images (cropped)

Julian Abele was one of America's most important architects, but he never signed his work and was not publicly acknowledged in his lifetime. As the first black graduate of architecture at the University of Pennsylvania in 1902, Abele spent his entire career at the Philadelphia firm of the Gilded Age architect Horace Trumbauer. Abele was working for Trumbauer when they received a commission to expand the campus of Duke University, a whites-only university in Durham, North Carolina. Although Abele's original architectural drawings for Duke University have been described as works of art, it wasn't until the 1980s that Abele's efforts have been acknowledged at Duke. Today Abele is celebrated on campus.

Clarence W. 'Cap' Wigington (1883–1967)

"Cap" Westley Wigington was the first registered black architect in Minnesota and the first black municipal architect in the United States. Born in Kansas, Wigington was raised in Omaha where he also interned to develop his architecture skills. At about age 30, he moved to St. Paul, Minnesota, took a civil service test, and was hired to be the city's staff architect. He designed schools, fire stations, park structures, municipal buildings, and other important landmarks that still stand in St. Paul. The pavilion he designed for Harriet Island is now called the Wigington Pavilion.

Vertner Woodson Tandy (1885–1949)

black and white photo of mansion with columns
Villa Lewaro, the Madam C. J. Walker Estate, Irvington, New York. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division

Born in Kentucky, Vertner Woodson Tandy was the first registered black architect in New York State, the first black architect to belong to the American Institute of Architects (AIA), and the first black man to pass the military commissioning examination. Tandy designed landmark homes for some of the wealthiest residents of Harlem, including the 1918 Villa Lewaro for the self-made millionaire and cosmetics entrepreneur Madam C. J. Walker.

In some circles, Tandy is best known as one of the founders of Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity: While at Cornell University, Tandy and six other black men formed a study and support group as they struggled through the racial prejudice of early 20th century America. Founded in 1906, the fraternity has "supplied voice and vision to the struggle of African Americans and people of color around the world." Each of the founders, including Tandy, is often referred to as "Jewels." Tandy designed their insignia.

John Edmonston. Brent (1889–1962)

John Edmonston Brent was the first black professional architect in Buffalo, New York. His father, Calvin Brent, was the son of a slave and was himself the first black architect in Washington, D.C, where John was born. John Brent was educated at Tuskegee Institute and received his architecture degree from Drexel Institute in Philadelphia. He is well-known for designing Buffalo's Michigan Avenue YMCA, a building that became a cultural center for the black community in the city.

Louis Arnett Stuart Bellinger (1891–1946)

Born in South Carolina, Louis Arnett Stuart Bellinger earned a Bachelor of Science degree in 1914 from the historically black Howard University in Washington, D.C. For more than a quarter of a century, Bellinger designed key buildings in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Unfortunately, only a handful of his buildings have survived, and all have been altered. His most important work was the Grand Lodge for the Knights of Pythias (1928), which became financially unsustainable after the Great Depression. In 1937, it was remodeled to become the New Granada Theatre.

Paul Revere Williams (1894–1980)

large, brick mansion with English-tudor details
California Residence c. 1927 by Architect Paul Williams. Karol Franks/Getty Images (cropped)

Paul Revere Williams became renown for designing major buildings in Southern California, including the space-aged LAX Theme Building at the Los Angeles International Airport and over 2,000 homes in the hills throughout Los Angeles. Many of the most beautiful residences in Hollywood were created by Paul Williams.

Albert Irvin Cassell (1895–1969)

Albert Irvin Cassell shaped many academic sites in the United States. He designed buildings for Howard University in Washington D.C, Morgan State University in Baltimore, and Virginia Union University in Richmond. Cassell also designed and built civic structures for the state of Maryland and the District of Columbia.

Norma Merrick Sklarek (1928–2012)

aerial view of three-building campus, a red building, green building, and blue building around a fountain and courtyard
The Pacific Design Center, West Hollywood, California. Steve Proehl/Getty Images (cropped)

Norma Merrick Sklarek was the first black woman to become a licensed architect in both New York (1954) and California (1962). She was also the first black woman to become a fellow of the American Institue of Architecture (1966 FAIA). Her many projects included working with and overseeing a design team headed by the Argentine César Pelli. Although much of the credit for a building goes to the design architect, the dogged attention to construction detail and the managing of an architectural firm may be more important.

Sklarek loved big, complicated projects. Her architectural management skills ensured the successful completion of complex projects such as the Pacific Design Center in California and Terminal 1 at the Los Angeles International Airport. Black female architects continue to turn to Sklarek as an inspiration and role model.

Robert Traynham Coles (b. 1929 )

Robert Traynham Coles is noted for designing on a grand scale. His works include the Frank Reeves Municipal Center in Washington, D.C, the Ambulatory Care Project for Harlem Hospital, the Frank E. Merriweather Library, the Johnnie B. Wiley Sports Pavilion in Buffalo, and the Alumni Arena at the University of Buffalo. Founded in 1963, Coles' architecture firm ranks as one of the oldest in the Northeast owned by a black American.

J. Max Bond, Jr. (1935–2009)

black man in suit, smiling, posing with architecture sketches and tools
American Architect J. Max Bond. Anthony Barboza/Getty Images (cropped)

J. Max Bond, Jr. was born in 1935 in Louisville, Kentucky and educated at Harvard, with a bachelor's degree in 1955 and a master's degree in 1958. When Bond was a student at Harvard, racists burned a cross outside his dormitory. Concerned, a white professor at the university advised Bond to abandon his dream of becoming an architect. Years later, in an interview for the Washington Post, Bond recalled his professor saying "There have never been any famous, prominent black architects...You'd be wise to choose another profession."

Fortunately, Bond had spent a summer in Los Angeles working for black architect Paul Williams and he knew that he could overcome racial stereotypes.

In 1958, he received a Fulbright scholarship to study in Paris and went on to live in Ghana for four years. Newly independent from Britain, the African nation was welcoming to young, black talent—much more gracious than the cold shoulders of American architectural firms in the early 1960s.

Today, Bond may be best known for actualizing a public part of American history—the 9/11 Memorial Museum in New York City. Bond remains an inspiration to generations of minority architects.

Harvey Bernard Gantt (b. 1943)

black man in white shirt shaking hands with black woman holding a child
Mayor of Charlotte Harvey Gantt, Democratic Candidate for the U.S. Senate in North Carolina, 1990. Cheryl Chenet/Getty Images

Born in 1943 in Charleston, South Carolina, Harvey B. Gantt fused a love of urban planning with the policy decisions of an elected official. He earned a bachelor's degree from Clemson University in 1965 after a federal court sided with him, allowing him to integrate the school as its first black student. He then went on to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) to earn a Master of City Planning degree, and later moved to North Carolina to begin his dual career as an architect and politician.

From 1970 to 1971, Gantt developed plans for "Soul City" (including "Soul Tech I"), a multi-cultural mixed-use planned community; the project was the brainchild of civil rights leader Floyd B. McKissick. Gantt's political life also began in North Carolina, as he moved from a member of the city council to become the first black mayor of Charlotte.

From building the city of Charlotte to becoming mayor of that same city, Gantt's life has been filled with victories in both architecture and Democratic politics.

Sources

  • Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, Inc. Our History. https://apa1906.net/our-history/
  • Duke, Lynne. "Blueprint of a Life: Architect J. Max Bond Jr. Has Had to Build Bridges to Reach Ground Zero." Washington Post, July 1, 2004. http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A19414-2004Jun30.html
  • Duke Today Staff. Duke Names Quad in Honor of Julian Abele. Duke Today, March 1, 2016. https://today.duke.edu/2016/03/abele
  • Fly, Everett L. Pittman, William Sidney. Handbook of Texas Online, Texas State Historical Association, June 15, 2010. http://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/fpi32
  • Kashino, Marisa M. "The Descendant of a Slave Got the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture Built." Washingtonian, September 15, 2016. https://www.washingtonian.com/2016/09/15/descendant-slave-built-smithsonian-national-museum-african-american-history-culture/
  • Murphy, David et al. “Clarence Wesley (Cap) Wigington (1883-1967), Architect.” Place Makers of Nebraska: The Architects. Lincoln: Nebraska State Historical Society, April 30, 2015. http://www.e-nebraskahistory.org/index.php?title=Clarence_Wesley_(Cap)_Wigington_(1883-1967),_Architect
  • Nevergold, Barbara A. Seals. "John Edmonston Brent: Master Builder." Buffalo Rising, February 6, 2015. https://www.buffalorising.com/2015/02/john-edmonston-brent-master-builder/
  • Smith, Jessie Carney. Black Firsts: 4,000 Ground-Breaking and Pioneering Historical Events. Visible Ink Press, 2003
  • Tannler, Albert M. "Louis Bellinger and the New Granada Theater." Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation. http://phlf.org/education-department/architectural-history/articles/pittsburghs-african-american-architect-louis-bellinger-and-the-new-granada-theater/
  • U.S. Postal Service. First African-American MIT Graduate, Black Architect, Immortalized on Limited Edition Forever Stamp, USPS Press Release, February 12, 2015, https://about.usps.com/news/national-releases/2015/pr15_012.htm