African American Architects: Saluting Designers of the Past Who Still Shape the Future
Charles McIlwain, a noted math teacher and school administrator died recently after a valiant fight against cancer. The lives that he touched in Roosevelt, N.Y. resonated through the many tributes that were shared during his home going service. McIlwain always inspired his students to strive to be the best they could be.
He focused on students understanding core subjects, especially math and science. Architecture is an area that blends both of these subjects and while this is a lucrative industry, it still remains a challenge for African American architects. However, the shoulders that these architects stand on today began with exceptional mentors such as McIlwain and are reinforced by architects who paved the way, many of whom have long been forgotten.
According to Jackie Craven in About.com, there were only about 60 registered African American architects in 1930 and a number of them helped build the United States despite facing enormous social and economic barriers. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (2005), of the 100,000 registered architects in the United States, there are approximately 1500 that are African American.
The 1930s is a significant period for African American architects because it was the period known as the Harlem Renaissance where art and culture were thriving in the Harlem community and nationwide people of color were making strides in various disciplines, including architecture.
Architects of note included three who are known as the “Invisible Trio” because their vision and accomplishments are most often not reflected in the annals of architecture to inspire future African American architects.
They include Paul R. Williams (1884-1980), an architect who was known as the “Architect for the Stars,” designing homes for movie legends and entertainers including Frank Sinatra, Lucille Ball, Tyrone Power, William “Bojangles” Robinson and media mogul William Paley. His designs are also a part of the landscape of the Los Angeles International Airport and many of its surrounding beautiful residences. His commission to design the home of a major car manufacturer further advanced his prominence among architects of his day.
Hilyard Robinson (1899-1986), an architect whose work was regarded as a blend between European Internationalism and American Modernism, focused on providing safe and sanitary public housing for working class families that included functionality and artistry. The famous Langston Terrace Dwellings in Washington, D.C. that he designed (with Paul Williams) were built in 1936 and, in 1987, listed on the National Registration of Historic Places. He also designed the Army training base of the famous Tuskegee Airmen.
Julian Abele (1881-1950), who was known for not signing his work, but his expertise was identified in his architectural drawings for institutions including Duke University and recognized as detailed and exquisite works of art. He was the first African American architect to graduate from the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Architecture and was involved in, among other projects, the presentation drawings for The Philadelphia Museum of Art, although the majority of the credit has been given elsewhere.
These African American architects and others brought their own brand to their designs and left a legacy that should be honored and remembered. So, the next time you land in Los Angeles International Airport, or drive near by the Philadelphia Museum of Art or see the historic Langston Terrace Dwellings in Washington, D.C. remember that an African American architect was a part of that structure.
Also, remember valiant educators like McIlwain, an architect in is his own right, who designed programs and inspired young students to think outside the box and to build careers that also stand the test of time.
Mereday is a contributing writer for Regal Black Men’s Magazine.