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Profiles in Architecture & Design: African American Architects Who Changed Our World

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Published On : 02-19-2013
Author :Rexy Legaspi
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Profiles in Architecture & Design: African American Architects Who Changed Our World

At one point in our travels we have gone through Los Angeles International Airport.  Did you know that one of the great African American architects in the United States was responsible for the concept of one of the busiest airports in the world? Read on to find out more about these architects who designed distinctive buildings – from commercial buildings to luxury houses – and made a lasting impact.

 

Born in Los Angeles and an orphan at age 4, Paul Revere Williams (1894-1980) was the first African-American architect to become president of the American Institute of Architects (AIA). In a career that spanned more than 60 years, he became famous for his contributions to the design of Los Angeles International Airport including the “space ship” building in the middle of the airport; and many of the beautiful homes in Hollywood and Southern California as the “Architect to the Stars”.

 

Williams at LAX

Paul Williams photographed in front of the “theme building” at Los Angeles International Airport

  • Williams enrolled at the University of Southern California’s Engineering School and then won a prestigious architecture competition. He opened his own firm at age 28 and admitted that his “success during those first few years was founded largely upon my willingness – and anxiety would be a better word – to accept commissions which were rejected as too small by other more favored architects.”

  • In addition to LAX, Williams made a name for himself as an architect of luxury house designs to Hollywood stars such as Frank Sinatra, Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz, Anthony Quinn, Bert Lahr, Danny Thomas and Zsa Zsa Gabor. In fact, he designed over 2,000 homes during his career.


Ranch House Designs, Luxury House Plans, Traditional Houses by Williams

Examples of some of the many house plans and styles Williams designed in California and the West Coast – from traditional homes to ranches and even Southern styles.


 

  • Among his other “creations”: a unit of Los Angeles General Hospital and the L.A. County Court House. He redesigned the Beverly Hills Hotel in the late 1940s, including the Polo Lounge, and is credited for the hotel’s trademark colors of pink and green.

 

Beverly Hills Hotel

The Beverly Hills Hotel.


Paul Williams’ legacy was not only in the buildings he designed but also in the “development” of  J. Max Bond, Jr. (1935-February 18, 2009), one of the most influential African American architects in New York, who was responsible for the museum component at  the National September 11 Memorial & Museum at the World Trade Center site


J. Max Bond Jr.

 

National September 11 Memorial & Museum

  •  While a student at Harvard, racial tensions prompted one of Bond’s professors to tell him to abandon his dreams of becoming an architect. Fortunately, Bond had spent a summer working with Williams and from him, Bond knew he could rise above and conquer racial stereotypes.    

  • Bond started his professional architectural career in France. He also lived in Ghana in the mid-1960s where he designed several government buildings including the Bolgatanga Regional Library (near the border of Burkina Faso).

  • Bond served as the head of the Architects Renewal Committee of Harlem and his firm designed Harlem’s Schomburg Center for research in Black Culture, the Martin Luther King, Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change (The King Center) in Atlanta and the Birmingham Civil Institute in Alabama.




New Yorkers may be familiar with St. Philip’s Episcopal Church on West 134th Street in Harlem. Vertner Woodson Tandy (1885-1949), who became New York’s first registered black architect, designed the present building, which is the fourth home of the first African American congregation of Protestant Episcopalians in New York City. This church was constructed in 1910-1911. Tandy also designed the Ivey Delph Apartments in Harlem, now listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Vertner Woodson Tandy

Vertner Woodson Tandy

St. Philip’s Church


  • Tandy was born in Lexington, Kentucky and attended Tuskegee Institute’s architecture program. After a year at Tuskegee, he transferred to Cornell University where he received his architecture degree.  He was one of the founders – “The Seven Jewels” – of Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity at Cornell. The Fraternity became incorporated under his direction. 

  • His most famous commission was Villa Lewaro located Irvington-on-Hudson, New York, a 30-room European style luxury house design known as Italianate architecture with its signature stucco structure and tiled roof. Tandy was hired by C.J. Walker, the first female African American millionaire, who made her fortune in hair products. The mansion was named for her daughter – Lelia Walker Robinson – an anagram of the first two letters of her name.

Villa Lewaro – European style house design.




One of the prominent mid-20th century African American architects in Washington, D.C., Albert Cassell (1895-1969), was born in Towson, Maryland and began his education in the segregated Baltimore public school system. Cassell moved to New York in 1909, enrolled at Douglas High School and studied drafting. In 1915, he was admitted to the architecture program at Cornell
and was awarded his degree in 1919.  

The Founders Library at Howard University

Albert Cassell


  • Cassell designed buildings for Howard University, Morgan State University (Baltimore) and Virginia Union University (Richmond). He also designed and built civic structures for Maryland and the District of Columbia.

  • A year after his graduation from Cornell, Cassell joined the Architecture Department of Howard University as an assistant professor. He spent 18 years there as an instructor, land manager, surveyor and architect. His vision and work helped shape the campus with his designs for several buildings around the campus. The Founders Library (137), his most important design at Howard, has become the school’s architectural and educational symbol. 



In a career of firsts, New York-born Norma Merrick Sklarek (1928-2012) was the first African American woman to become a licensed architect in the U.S., first to be licensed in New York (1954) and in California (1962).


Norma Merrick Sklarek

  • Norma Sklarek became the first African American director of architecture at Gruen and Associates in Los Angeles (1966), the first African American woman to be elected Fellow of the American Institute of Architects, and the first African American female architect to form her own firm – Siegel, Sklarek, Diamond, the largest woman-owned and women-staffed architectural firm in the U.S.

 

  • Like most pioneers, she struggled during her early years.  After graduation from Barnard College and Columbia University, Sklarek could not find a job in her field – so she worked at the New York Department of Public Works. A few years later, she joined the New York architectural firm of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill where she worked for four years before moving to California. 

San Bernadino City Hall, San Bernadino, California

Fox Plaza, San Francisco, California





There are always sad side stories in the lives of renowned and successful people.  William Sidney Pittman (1875-1958), Dallas’ first black architect, who was educated at Tuskegee Institute and Drexel Institute, died a pauper and was buried in an unmarked grave in South Dallas. 

William Sidney Pittman

  • A son-in-law of Booker T. Washington, Pittman moved his family to Dallas to escape his famous father-in-law and make a name for himself.


  • In 1907 he became the first African American to win a federal commission – for the Negro Building at the Jamestown Ter-Centennial Exposition in Jamestown, Virginia. He also designed several buildings for the Tuskegee Institute and developed the Fairmont Heights housing development for blacks in a suburb of Maryland.

  • Pittman designed several buildings in Tuskegee and throughout the state of Texas, including the Pythian Temple (1915-1916), the St. James African Methodist Episcopal Church, and the Joshua Chapel A.M.E. Church in Waxahachie, Texas. He is probably most famous for the Pythian Temple which housed offices for the city’s first black dentist, first black surgeon and other professionals.

Pythian Temple, Dallas, Texas

Joshua Chapel, Waxahachie, Texas




A profile series of such prominent African American architects would not be complete without mentioning Robert Robinson Taylor (1868-1942), the first accredited African American architect in the United States and first African American student at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. His father was a contractor and builder whose cargo ships traveled trade routes between the U.S. and South America.

Robert Robinson Taylor

The original Tuskegee Chapel


  • At the invitation of Dr. Booker T. Washington, Taylor developed the industrial program at Tuskegee University in Alabama and directed the construction of campus buildings. His first project there was the Science Hall in 1893 (now Thrasher Hall and a historic campus building). He considered the Tuskegee Chapel his finest achievement, but unfortunately, a fire destroyed the chapel. The campus is the only college or university campus in the nation to be designated a National Historic Site by the U.S. Congress.



These architects and many other great African American architects and designers have succeeded in changing the way we view and appreciate architecture.



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