April 25, 2017

The Legacy Of Pioneering African-American Architect Wallace A. Rayfield

16th Street Baptist Church front

photo by: Rain0975/Flickr/CC BY-ND 2.0

Wallace Rayfield designed the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama.

To reach the safe at the back of Allen R. Durough’s basement, you must take one of several narrow paths that snake through head-high piles of junk—books and bins, old clothes, box fans, filing cabinets—all stacked on and around a dozen gutted pianos, reminders of Durough’s years as a professional piano tuner.

The safe is the size of a small armoire, with six-inch-thick steel walls and a combination lock that Durough is careful to conceal as he rotates the dial in the presence of strangers. He bought the safe for $2,000 to protect his most prized possessions, a century-old cache of architectural printing plates.

To see the plates, I traveled to Bessemer, Alabama, a down-at-the-heels steel town 15 miles southwest of Birmingham. The 411 plates—inadvertently discovered by Durough, a Southern Baptist preacher, in 1993—are engraved with the designs of Wallace A. Rayfield, believed to be America’s second formally trained African-American architect. Rayfield designed hundreds of structures throughout the South prior to the Great Depression, among them theaters, schools, residences for prominent black professionals, one of the country’s first black-owned banks, and many, many churches.

His buildings were backdrops for the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s; a few became synonymous with the struggle. But Rayfield died destitute during the Second World War, and his contributions to the growth of Birmingham and other cities were largely forgotten.

Born in Macon, Georgia, around 1873, Wallace Rayfield, son of a railroad porter, was a preternaturally gifted draftsman. He graduated from Howard University in Washington, D.C., and received architecture degrees from both Pratt Polytechnic Institute and Columbia University in New York, where he was recruited by Booker T. Washington, director of Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute in Alabama.

Wallace Rayfield

photo by: G.P. Hamilton/Beacon Lights Of The Race

A photograph of a young Rayfield.

As an instructor of mechanical and architectural drawing at Tuskegee, Rayfield worked alongside Robert Taylor, the first black architect to graduate from MIT. Rayfield oversaw the expansion of the school’s mechanical drawing department from a cramped room with boards nailed atop sawhorses to a large, well-lit space with 47 drafting tables. Rayfield also made his first foray into printing with Industrial Drawing Book, a textbook meant to bring a degree of professionalism to the young school.

Rayfield’s skills as a printer were critical to his success as an architect. After leaving Tuskegee and opening his own architecture practice in Birmingham in 1908, Rayfield began designing and printing advertisements, newsletters, and plan books to reach a wider audience.

Among the plates Durough preserved are Rayfield-designed advertisements for magazines such as The Saturday Evening Post. Some tout plans for bungalows, schools, and barns. One set features the headline “Going to Build a Church?” and offers free sample designs to anyone requesting them by mail. Rayfield used certain designs to appeal to Baptists and others for Christian Scientists, Catholics, and Lutherans. To appeal to white clients, he drew Caucasians in many of his ads.

16th Street Baptist Church exterior

photo by: Andrew Fong/Flickr/CC BY 2.0

The 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham became an icon of the Civil Rights movement after a bomb killed four black teenage girls in 1963.

Rayfield’s efforts to build a practice paid off. He designed more than 400 buildings for clients in at least 20 states, including Illinois, Texas, and Maryland, and in Liberia. More than 130 of his structures were built in Birmingham alone. He became the superintending architect for the Freedmen’s Aid Society and chief architect of the A.M.E. Zion Churches of America.

He was also a community leader, supporting African-Americans through a marketing newsletter called The Colored Mechanics of Birmingham, in which he promoted the skills of local black contractors. Some of his residential projects became the first to be designed, financed, and built by blacks.

“He was an incredibly savvy businessman,” says University of Alabama historian Kari Fredrickson. “With entrepreneurial skill and through sheer determination, Rayfield had a profound impact on the southern landscape.”

So why isn’t he better remembered? One reason is that his practice collapsed during the Depression, when the unemployment rate in Birmingham was twice the national average. Another reason is race: Rayfield was one of few black architects working in Birmingham. The final reason may have been his sudden demise. In 1941, Rayfield suffered a stroke and died in his late 60s.

“So much of Rayfield’s material was destroyed,” says Daniel Ross, retired editor-in-chief of the University of Alabama Press. “All the things a working architect would have had on paper were either sold at a bankruptcy sale or lost. But from these plates, we can see what his business was really like.”

The most famous Rayfield building still stands. Completed in 1911, the 16th Street Baptist Church was the site of a 1963 bomb blast that killed four black teenage girls. It immediately became an icon for the civil rights struggle. Today, 16th Street Baptist has become a popular destination for tourists, and now is part of the Birmingham Civil Rights National Monument.

“Though he was more educated and more accomplished than many white architects, he wasn’t given much attention,” says Durough, who is determined to make the Rayfield name—and his legacy as an architect of color—more widely known.

This story was excerpted from the article "Rediscovering Mr. Rayfield," which originally appeared in the January/February 2011 issue of Preservation magazine.

Logan Ward is a Fairfax, Virginia-based freelance writer and a frequent contributor to Preservation magazine. His work has also appeared in Garden & Gun, Outside, and Popular Mechanics.

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