December 22, 2021

Preserving Thrasher and Sage Halls at Tuskegee University: Q&A with Kwesi Daniels

The HBCU Cultural Heritage Stewardship Initiative derived from a need to cultivate and uplift historic Black colleges and universities across the nation. This work is in tandem with the standard set by the African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund to protect and restore places where significant Black history happened and highlight the key roles they have played in American society.

This year, eight HBCUs were awarded more than $650,000 in funding to develop cultural heritage stewardship plans for their campuses and historic sites. The sole goal of this initiative is to partner with HBCUs to empower and preserve the legacies of the campuses and ensure that the stories of their foundations are upheld to educate and inspire future generations of students to pay it forward. As part of this work, we conducted a Q&A with each grant recipient to learn about the history and work at each of these significant institutions.

After its founding as the Tuskegee Normal School for Colored Teachers in 1881, Booker T. Washington’s leadership instilled an enduring value to the impact of student led work and labor at what is now Tuskegee University. Washington set a precedent of “learning by doing” for students and spearheaded several student projects on campus—including the very first building, Porter Hall.

Another key leader in Tuskegee's campus growth was Robert R. Taylor. Taylor was the nation's first academically trained Black architect as well as the first Black graduate of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Exterior of a brick building with red detailing in the upper floors and with three sets of covered entryways. Used as a residence hall.

photo by: Tuskegee University

Exterior of Sage Hall at Tuskegee University. Designed by Robert R. Taylor.

Under his direction, students trained in architecture and the construction trades, producing many of the world's preeminent Black architects such as Walter T. Bailey and Wallace Rayfield. "Learning by doing” continues to be central to Tuskegee University's educational philosophy. This is evident in efforts to preserve two of the earliest building designed by Taylor, Thrasher Hall (1893) and Sage Hall (1927).

Originally built as the Science Building, it was renamed Thrasher Hall in 1903 after Max Bennett Thrasher, a journalist and writer who served as publicist for Booker T. Washington. Sage Hall (named for Russell Sage of New York) was completed in 1927 as a dormitory for male students, with help from students in brick masonry and geometry. In this Q&A, Dr. Kwesi Daniels, head of the architecture department at Tuskegee University, speaks to how the preservation of historic Thrasher and Sage Halls are continuing this legacy.

Why is this place important to preserve?

Tuskegee University is the site where Black students were transformed into global legends. Our grounds provided the canvas for Dr. George Washington Carver, Dr. Washington, Robert R. Taylor, the Tuskegee Airmen, Rosa Parks, the Commodores, and so many others to become social change agents. Robert R. Taylor’s arrival at Tuskegee introduced the campus to the scientific techniques of architecture, encouraging the other Black architects to teach the students, design the campus, and build the buildings. Additionally, Tuskegee was the training ground for these early Black architects to learn the craft of architecture and to use that craft to create Black spaces all over the world

What inspires you about this project?

As a Tuskegee University architecture graduate, I am inspired to contribute to the long-term existence of my alma mater. The preservation of Robert R. Taylor’s first building (Thrasher Hall) and one his last buildings (Sage Hall) excites me because we are restarting the “Tuskegee Machine” that has sat dormant for generations. The machine was built on the backs of community/student labor, and it was a testament to Dr. Washington’s philosophical statement “cast down your bucket.”

The department of architecture is casting down our bucket into the field of preservation and demonstrating how architecture students and faculty can use the coursework to preserve these structures. This project allows us to demonstrate how architecture can contribute to the longevity of Tuskegee and subsequently other HBCUs.

Black and white exterior from 1904 of a brick academic building.

photo by: Tuskegee University

Exterior of Thrasher Hall in 1904.

Exterior of a multistory brick building with a square cupola. In the front there are a series of street lamps and a covered entryway.

photo by: Kwesi Daniels

Exterior of Thrasher Hall in 2020.

How will students be involved in the preservation plan of Thrasher and Sage Hall?

Students will be involved in the preservation plan of Thrasher and Sage Halls through our historic preservation courses. These classes will be used to teach students about the history of Thrasher and Sage Halls and will connect them with the technical strategies required to develop a stewardship plan. The buildings will be used to provide the students with hands-on instruction in the use of laser scanning, architectural investigation, and architectural documentation.

How will the preservation plan of Thrasher and Sage Hall contribute to the legacy of the architect, Robert R. Taylor?

The preservation plan of Thrasher and Sage Halls will contribute to the legacy of Robert R. Taylor by reinforcing in students the value of preserving his architecture. Since Thrasher Hall is Taylor’s first building constructed on campus, the process of preserving it will introduce the students to the proportions of the building and will provide an understanding of how the building transformed the construction processes on the Tuskegee Institute campus. Additionally, studying Thrasher and Sage Halls will provide a context for students to better understand the other buildings Taylor designed on campus.

Three students in yellow shirts working on restoring a historic window that is on a triangular frame on a wooden table.

photo by: Molly Baker

A group of students participated in a window workshop at Tuskegee University as part of the National Trust's Hope Crew program.

Considering the campus's age of 140 years, there are many buildings over 100 years old. Are plans for training students in specialized preservation techniques in the future for maintenance purposes?

Tuskegee’s 140-year-old campus and foundational teaching methodology demands we teach our students, staff, and community specialized preservation techniques. The dissemination of these preservation techniques is the way we ensure the buildings continue to survive for more decades. We have already begun the process of teaching the techniques to our students through historic window restoration workshops and plan to continue developing more workshops to train the surrounding workforce in the traditional trades.

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Monique Robinson is a graduate student in architecture and historic preservation at the University of Pennsylvania. In the Summer of 2021 she was an intern with the National Trust's HBCU Cultural Heritage Stewardship Initiative.

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