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A forgotten architect’s contributions to Gary, Indiana’s past

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William Wilson Cooke designed many landmarks of the city’s African-American middle class

The Stewart House, a William Wilson Cooke design in Gary, Indiana
Calumet Regional Archives, Indiana University Northwest.

As Gary, Indiana, a formerly booming steel town, sets its sight on a comeback, many city planners and local developers have focused on the city’s rich architectural heritage as one tool to help make that happen. Between architectural tours and re-developing the city’s under-appreciated 20th century buildings and housing stock, funded in part by largesse from U.S. Steel, there’s plenty of potential, and new developments.

But like many cities working on redevelopment with limited funds, the work of certain designers gets lost in the shuffle. William Wilson Cooke, an African-American architect who worked in Gary during the early half of the 20th century, designed a number of community buildings, homes, and churches that helped define the city’s Midtown Central District. Amid a city filled with gems by Frank Lloyd Wright and George Washington Maher, the work of this pioneering African-American architect and business owners hasn’t gotten all the attention, and preservation, it deserves.

“There is knowledge and information about him within the Gary community, but it hasn’t really translated outside of that,” says Tiffany Tolbert, a field office for the National Trust for Historic Preservation who used to work in Northwest Indiana and wrote a story about Cooke’s work. “He speaks to the emergence of the black middle class in Gary at that time.”

Tingley Memorial Hall at Claflin College, an early design by William Wilson Cooke that’s part of the school’s historic district.
Wikimedia Commons

Cooke arrived in Gary in 1921, after establishing his career as an architect working for many Southern and traditional African-American colleges and universities. Born in Greenville, South Carolina, in 1871, Cooke started his architectural education in state at Claflin College of Agriculture and Mechanics, under the mentorship of Robert Charles Gates, who would teach many other black architects of that era. Cooke would later succeed Gates and briefly teach at Claflin, expanding the architectural drawing class and designing a handful of campus buildings

Cooke would focus on campus and university design, working at southern schools such as his alma mater, where some of his work is on the National Historic Register, and at Savannah State University and Voorhees College (then known as Georgia State Industrial College for Colored Youth and Voorhees Industrial Institute for Colored Youth). He even designed courthouses for the federal government In Pennsylvania, Illinois, and Ohio, the first black employee at the Treasury Department. At the time, he had to take his civil service exam in Boston, because African-Americans weren’t allowed to take it in D.C.

“Many people don’t understand how important those historically African-American schools, and their education, were to many of the black architects who would later work in the north,” says Tolbert.

Cooke moved to Gary just as the city’s black middle class began booming. In images of Cooke’s original work, he showcases command of a range of different styles, according to Tolbert, including classical, colonial revival, and even elements of Prairie Style design. But more importantly, it highlights his role as a trailblazer (he became the state’s first licensed African-American architect in 1929) and an involved citizen. In addition to leading efforts combating a rise in Ku Klux Klan activity in the ‘20s, he also became director of a local Building and Loan association.

Cooke’s most famous works in Gary include the First African Methodist Episcopal Church (1923), an asymmetrical brick building that became a community centerpiece, as well as Saint John Hospital, a two-story medical center that opened in 1929. His Stewart Settlement House from 1924 (pictured above), was a pro bono project, designed for community goodwill and the church of which he was a member, Trinity Methodist (for which he also designed a church).

Like many architects and professionals of that era, the 1929 stock market crash and subsequent depression changed the trajectory of Cooke’s career. Forced to close his business, he found work again with the U.S. Treasury, and served as a construction engineer, supervising the building of Post Offices around the midwest. After retiring in 1941, he retired, living at his home at 2139 Adams Street in Gary until his death in 1949.

Tolbert says that Cooke’s work is something people are discovering more, but need much more exposure to understand. The real issue, she says, isn’t a lack of research, but resources. Many of his buildings, including the Stewart Settlement House, have disappeared, faded away like much of the early history of the Midtown area. First AME still stands, while Saint John Hospital lies in ruin (It made Indian Landmarks’ 10 Most Endangered list).

With cities such as Gary, which have a large amount of distressed and blighted property, dollars are focused on community development. Tolbert, previously the director of Indiana Landmarks, says there are a lot of economic issues at play. Even much-lauded efforts to use historic property in Gary to fuel revitalization efforts can’t save every historic building at once.

“Once people knew the history of Cooke’s work, they were asking, ‘why aren’t we saving it?’’ she says.