Feb 7, 2023
When flying into Los Angeles, one of the first things you notice out the airplane window is the ubiquitous palm trees. The second thing? The iconic LAX Theme Building. But do you know what that midcentury marvel has in common with The Mall of America, The Philadelphia Art Museum, and the UNESCO Headquarters in Paris? They were all designed by Black architects!
The architects whose work and stories briefly examined here are just a small sampling of the men and women who have shaped our industry and - literally - the places we live, work, learn, pray, and play. They have inspired generations through their stories of courage, genius, and perseverance. In honor of Black History Month, let us introduce you to 15 Black architects that you should definitely know about.
Robert Taylor was a trailblazer in the field of architecture, becoming the first Black architect in the United States to receive accreditation. Taylor paved the way for others as the first Black student to enroll in architecture at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Upon graduation, he caught the eye of Booker T. Washington, the founder and first president of Tuskegee Institute, who sought him out to design and construct new buildings on campus and establish its architectural and engineering programs. Although Taylor left Tuskegee for a brief time, he eventually returned in 1902 and remained there until his retirement in the 1930s.
During this time, he designed an impressive 25 buildings on campus, including Washington's family home. Additionally, he left his mark on other institutions, including Selma University and the Colored Masonic Temple in Birmingham, Alabama. In recognition of his pioneering contributions, the U.S. Postal Service honored Taylor with a commemorative stamp in 2015. Fun fact: Taylor's great-granddaughter, Valerie Jarrett, served as a senior advisor to President Barack Obama.
Robert Augustus Rayfield was a pioneer in the world of architecture, becoming the second formally trained Black architect to practice in the United States. After earning his degree from Columbia University in 1899, he was recruited by none other than Booker T. Washington to join the faculty at Tuskegee Institute. In addition to teaching, Rayfield ran his own successful architecture practice, even offering mail-order plans to clients across the country. In 1908, he made the move to Birmingham, Alabama to focus on his private practice, making history as the first Black architect to set up shop in the state. With branch offices throughout Georgia and Alabama, he designed over 400 buildings in 20 states, with more than 300 of them still standing today, including the iconic 16th Street Baptist Church and Van Buren Sanitorium.
William Pittman was born into humble beginnings in Montgomery, Alabama as the son of a former slave. Despite these obstacles, he persevered and developed a passion for architecture, studying architectural drawing at Tuskegee Institute. Thanks to a scholarship, he was able to attend the all-white Drexel Institute in Philadelphia and earn his architectural degree. Upon returning to Tuskegee, Pittman gave back by teaching and designing buildings for the campus expansion. He eventually made his way to Washington, D.C., where he established a thriving architecture practice and designed many of the city's most prominent buildings.
To top it all off, he married Portia Washington, the daughter of none other than Booker T. Washington himself! Some of his most notable commissions include the Fairmount Heights housing development for Black people in Maryland, the Negro Building at the Tercentennial Exposition in Jamestown, Virginia in 1907, and the Colored Carnegie Library of Houston.
The story of Moses McKissack III and Calvin Lunsford McKissack is nothing short of amazing! These two grandsons of an African-born slave and trained builder were the first two black architects to be licensed in Tennessee in 1922. They went on to form the nation's first black-owned architecture firm, McKissack and McKissack, which still operates today and is now the oldest black-owned architecture and engineering firm in the country. In 1942, the firm won a multi-million-dollar federal contract to design the Tuskegee Army Airfield, the largest project awarded to a black-owned firm at that time.
The McKissack brothers had a legacy of building and design in their family, with their grandfather Moses coming to America in 1790 as an enslaved person owned by a prominent contractor who used him as a builder. This knowledge was passed down to his son and then to his grandsons. The brothers went on to design many homes, churches, schools, and other structures including the Morris Memorial Building in Nashville and the 99th Pursuit Squadron Airbase in Tuskegee, Alabama. Not only influential architects, but influential Americans, Moses was appointed to the White House Conference on Housing Problems.
In 1990, Deryl McKissack, granddaughter of Moses McKissack III, opened her own firm in Washington, D.C. Today, the firm has offices in several cities across the US and has contributed to several notable projects, such as the MLK Memorial and the National Museum of African American History and Culture on the National Mall. The McKissack legacy continues to inspire and leave its mark on the architectural world — in fact, McKissack & McKissack remains the oldest minority-owned architecture and constructure company in the United States.
Abele started his journey by enrolling in the Pennsylvania Museum School of Industrial Art's two-year architecture drawing program. From there, he became the first African American student ever admitted to the architecture school at the University of Pennsylvania and graduated with flying colors in 1902.
His travels to Europe after graduation left a lasting impact on his work and style. He quickly rose to the rank of chief designer at the prestigious architecture firm of Horace Trumbauer, where he made a significant contribution to the design of numerous academic and cultural institutions along the East Coast, from Harvard's Widener Memorial Library to the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
Abele's masterpiece, however, was the design of the west campus of Duke University, including the grand university chapel, the stately Allen Administration Building, and the imposing Duke Indoor Stadium (which was renamed Cameron Indoor Stadium in 1972). In recognition of his impact, Duke's main quad was renamed the Abele Quad in 2016.
A vanguard of municipal design, Clarence W. "Cap" Wigington was the first registered Black architect in Minnesota and the first Black municipal architect in all of the United States! Raised in Omaha, Nebraska, Cap honed his architecture skills as an apprentice under the talented Thomas Kimball, who would later become an AIA president. In 1908, Cap opened his own architecture practice in Omaha, but due to rising racial tension, he made the move to St. Paul, Minnesota in 1914.
And what a move it was! By 1917, Cap had secured the title of senior architectural designer for the city and spent the next several decades leaving his mark with a stunning portfolio of civic work, including schools, fire stations, parks, and other iconic landmarks in St. Paul. To this day, nearly 60 of Cap's buildings stand tall, proudly showcasing his legacy. From the Highland Park Golf Clubhouse to the downtown St. Paul Police Station, Cap's handiwork is a testament to his remarkable talent and determination.
Vertner Woodson Tandy was a trailblazer in more ways than one. He shattered barriers and made history as the first registered black architect in New York State, the first black architect to be a member of the American Institute of Architects (AIA), and the first black man to pass the military commissioning exam. While attending Cornell University, Tandy also co-founded Alpha Phi Alpha, the nation's oldest African American fraternity.
Tandy put his architectural skills to use designing beautiful and impactful structures, including the 1910 St. Philip's Episcopal Church in Harlem, which was the first black Episcopal church in New York. He also created the 1918 Villa Lewaro, a Georgian-style residence (below) that was a masterpiece and home to Madam C.J. Walker, a self-made millionaire and cosmetics entrepreneur.
Tandy's path to architecture started at Tuskegee University, but he completed his degree at Cornell University, which allowed him to become the first black architect licensed in New York State. His most well-known work, Villa Lewaro (shown), was the home of Madam C.J. Walker in Irvington-on-Hudson, NY. In addition to Villa Lewaro, Tandy's firm, Tandy & Foster, designed the Ivey Delph and St. Philip's Episcopal Church in Harlem.
Despite being told he shouldn't pursue it at Los Angeles' Polytechnic High School due to the color of his skin, he went on to study at the Beaux-Arts Institute of Design and train at top LA firms before starting his own practice as California's first licensed African-American architect.
With a versatile style that left a lasting impact on LA's booming built environment, Williams quickly became known as "Hollywood's architect." He designed homes for some of the biggest names in entertainment, including Cary Grant, Lucille Ball, and Frank Sinatra. And it wasn't just the stars who benefited from his skills — he left his mark on commercial and civic buildings across the city and country, including the Crescent Wing of the Beverly Hills Hotel, St. Jude Children's Research Hospital in Memphis, and the iconic spaceship-like Theme Building at LAX.
Despite the countless barriers he faced, Williams remained steadfast and determined, even learning how to draw upside down so he could work with white clients who were uncomfortable sitting next to him. In 2017, he was posthumously awarded the AIA Gold Medal, making him the first Black American to receive the award.
With over 2,000 designed homes and a 50-year career that played a major role in shaping Southern California's architectural style, Paul Revere Williams is a true inspiration. He mixed styles and types, from hotels and restaurants to churches and hospitals, and defined the spaces that embody Hollywood glamour. So, go ahead, add his name to your list of architectural legends.
Albert Irvin Cassell was a prominent African American architect, educator, and community leader. Based in Washington D.C., Cassell was instrumental in shaping the American academic community, particularly at Howard University, where he served as a professor and architect. He designed several important buildings for the university, including the Georgian-style Founders Library, which remains a symbol of the university today. In addition to his work at Howard, Cassell also designed buildings for Virginia Union University in Richmond and Morgan State University in Baltimore. He was also the founder of the architecture firm Cassell, Gray & Sutton, where he worked on projects for the Roman Catholic Church of Washington and the government of the District of Columbia. Some of his notable projects include work on Reagan International Airport (previously known as Washington National) and the Pentagon. Throughout his career, Cassell dedicated himself to furthering the education and success of African Americans in the architecture profession.
Hilyard Robinson was an architect and educator who was born and raised in Washington, D.C. He received his degree in architecture from Columbia University in 1924 and worked for several architecture firms in the city before becoming a professor at Howard University, where he taught architecture for several decades.
Throughout his career, Robinson was greatly influenced by the Bauhaus style, which he encountered during his travels to Europe in the 1930s. He designed several notable buildings in Washington, including the Langston Terrace Dwellings, which was the first federally funded housing complex in the District of Columbia and the second in the United States. Robinson also served as an architectural consultant to the government of Liberia.
In addition to his architectural work, Robinson was an educator who had a significant impact on shaping the field of architecture through his teachings at Howard University. He worked closely with other notable architects such as Ralph A. Vaughn and Paul Williams.
Beverly Lorraine Greene broke multiple glass ceilings in the field of architecture. Born in 1915, she was the first African American woman to be licensed as an architect in the United States, in Illinois, in 1942. After earning a degree in architectural engineering from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, she went on to receive a Master's in City Planning and Housing, and later, a Master's in Architecture from Columbia University in 1945.
Greene began her career in architecture in the late 1930s working for the Chicago Housing Authority, where she made a positive impact in her community by participating in an African American committee that raised money to purchase an ambulance for the International Brigade fighting in the Spanish Civil War and leading the South Side Girls' Club to raise awareness and address the needs of African American girls during the Depression.
Greene eventually moved to New York City, where she worked for prominent architecture firms and on notable projects, including the theater at the University of Arkansas, the Arts Complex at Sarah Lawrence College, buildings for the University Heights Campus of New York University, and the UNESCO United Nations Headquarters in Paris. Despite facing racial barriers and discrimination, Greene continued to be an advocate for professional black women throughout her career, and her achievements have left a lasting impact on the architecture field.
John Moutoussamy was a pioneering African American architect who made history by becoming the first Black architect to design a high-rise building in Chicago. Moutoussamy graduated from the Illinois Institute of Technology in 1948 with a degree in architecture and went on to make a significant impact on the built environment of the city. A mark of how far we still need to grow as a society his landmark building, the Johnson Publishing Company headquarters, remains the only downtown Chicago tower designed by a Black architect.
Throughout his career, Moutoussamy continued to push boundaries and create innovative designs, such as Richard J. Daley College, Olive–Harvey College, Harry S. Truman College, and the Chicago Urban League building. He was a partner at the architecture firm Dubin Dubin Black & Moutoussamy and was recognized for his contributions to the field through his service on the board of trustees of Loyola University Chicago and the Art Institute of Chicago.
Moutoussamy's work is a testament to his talent, perseverance, and commitment to excellence. He broke down barriers and paved the way for future generations of Black architects to follow in his footsteps.
Wendell Jerome Campbell was a Chicago-based architect who, after graduating from the Illinois Institute of Technology in 1956, faced difficulties finding a permanent position in the field. Despite this, he went on to make a significant impact on the architecture and urban renewal landscapes of the city. Campbell's background in urban renewal and affordable housing developments, honed during his time at the Purdue-Calumet Development Foundation, would become a hallmark of his own architectural firm, established in 1966.
Throughout his career, Campbell was known for his innovative approach to urban planning, and his work reflects this, including the Genesis Convention Center in Gary, Indiana, as well as renovations to the McCormick Place Convention Center. In addition to these larger projects, he also designed a number of schools, churches, and other civic buildings throughout Chicago.
Campbell was a true trailblazer in the field of architecture, and his contributions to the industry went beyond his designs. In 1971, he co-founded the National Organization of Minority Architects and served as its first president, working tirelessly to promote diversity and inclusivity in the field. Through his commitment to this cause, he paved the way for future generations of architects from underrepresented groups.
Norma Merrick Sklarek was a pioneer in the field of architecture. She was the first African-American woman to attain licensing as an architect in both New York and California, and made history as the first African-American woman to become a member of the American Institute of Architects in 1959 and its first Black female fellow in 1980. Sklarek received her education at Columbia University and went on to lead numerous large-scale commercial and civic projects such as the Pacific Design Center in Los Angeles, The California Mart, San Bernardino City Hall, the Mall of America, the U.S. Embassy in Tokyo, and Terminal One station at Los Angeles International Airport. In 1985, she co-founded Siegel, Sklarek, and Diamond, which was the largest woman-owned architecture firm of its time. Sklarek's iconic projects demonstrate her unique sense of line and color, and her legacy serves as inspiration for future generations in the industry. Despite facing discriminatory quotas in architecture education, Sklarek persevered and became a role model for others.
Sklarek once illuminated the challenges she faced entering the profession, saying: “The schools had a quota and it was obvious, a quota against women and a quota against blacks. In architecture, I absolutely had no role model. I am happy today to be a role model for others that follow.”