February 9, 2016

Three Influential African American Architects You Should Know About

This year marks 100 years since pioneering African American entrepreneur Madam C.J. Walker purchased land in Irvington, New York, on which her sprawling estate, Villa Lewaro, was built. Today, her restored property is a National Treasure of the National Trust, and the design of noted Black architect Vertner Woodson Tandy endures. Here, we celebrate Tandy and other influential Black architects who have left an important mark on the country’s landscape.

The Oaks by Robert R. Taylor

photo by: The George F. Landegger Collection of Alabama Photographs in Carol M. Highsmith's America, Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division

The Oaks, Booker T. Washington's home at the Tuskegee Institute, was designed by Robert R. Taylor and built in 1899.

Robert R. Taylor

The first African American architect to graduate from MIT and the country’s first academically trained black architect, Robert R. Taylor was truly groundbreaking. Born in North Carolina in 1868, he learned carpentry and construction from his father, a former slave, and worked as a construction foreman before enrolling in MIT. After graduating in 1892, he was recruited by Booker T. Washington to work at the Tuskegee Institute in Tuskegee, Alabama, where he spent nearly four decades.

There, he was an influential educator, developing the architecture and construction trade program and inspiring countless students. He also designed and built a number of the campus’ structures, including libraries, residence halls, administration buildings, academic centers, and a dining facility.

In 1899, Taylor designed The Oaks, Booker T. Washington’s home and the Tuskegee Institute’s social center, which offered employment services and on-the-job training for students. He considered the Tuskegee Chapel, a brick and stone worship space that burned down in 1957, his masterpiece. Many of his buildings still stand today.

Villa Lewaro in Irvington, New York

photo by: Historic New England/David Bohl

Villa Lewaro, a National Treasure of the National Trust, was designed by Vertner Woodson Tandy in 1918.

Vertner Woodson Tandy

Vertner Woodson Tandy was the first African American architect registered in New York State and one of the first African Americans to become a member of the American Institute of Architects. Born in 1885 in Lexington, Kentucky, Tandy trained under Robert Taylor at Tuskegee Institute. He graduated from Cornell in 1908.

Through his architecture firm Tandy & Foster, he designed a number of notable buildings. The Gothic Revival-style St. Philip’s Episcopal Church in Harlem was dedicated in 1911 and brought Tandy into national prominence. The church has been designated a New York City Landmark and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. In 1948, a year before his death, he designed the six-story Ivey Delph Apartments, a housing project in New York City’s Hamilton Heights neighborhood.

In 1918, he completed one of his most famous commissions: Villa Lewaro, the estate of Madam C.J. Walker, who created beauty and hair products for black women and became America’s first, self-made, female millionaire. The three-story house, a National Historic Landmark, sits on 3 1/8 acres in Irvington, New York, and was named a National Treasure in 2014.

Theme Building at LAX by Paul R. Williams

photo by: brewbooks/Flickr/CC BY-SA 2.0

Paul R. Williams designed the Theme Building at LAX in 1961.

Paul R. Williams

Before he was known as the architect to the stars, Paul R. Williams was a high school student in Los Angeles whose teacher advised him against pursuing a career in architecture. This teacher thought no one would want to hire an African American architect. But Williams didn’t let that stop him. He went on to become a certified building contractor and took internships and jobs with local architecture firms. He was appointed to the Los Angeles City Planning Commission in 1920, and a year later, he became a certified architect. In 1923, he became the first African American member of the American Institute of Architects.

Williams’ legacy looms large. He designed thousands of buildings throughout his decades-long career. A number of celebrities commissioned him to design their homes, including Frank Sinatra, Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz, Barbara Stanwyck, and Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, to name a few. Among his other designs are the Theme Building at LAX, the Palm Springs Tennis Club, the Los Angeles County Courthouse, the Music Corporation of America building in Beverly Hills, the Saks Fifth Avenue in Beverly Hills, and part of the Beverly Hills Hotel.

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Lauren Walser served as the Los Angeles-based field editor of Preservation magazine. She enjoys writing and thinking about art, architecture, and public space, and hopes to one day restore her very own Arts and Crafts-style bungalow.

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