Securing commissions as an architect is no easy feat, even when one has academic connections, career mentors, and a balance sheet that’s in the black. In trying to garner such commissions under the tyranny of exclusion, lack of professional advancement, and racial discrimination, the field becomes exponentially more difficult to navigate.
As we examine diversity—and the lack thereof—in the architectural profession today, we also want to look back at some pioneering talents. But the story of early architects and craftsman of color will always be incomplete: We will never know how many potential designers were denied careers by systems of discrimination and a lack of access.
Julian Abele (1881–1950)
Few designers have such a rich legacy, yet Julian Abele still managed to hide in plain sight for decades. As the chief designer for Horace Trumbauer, himself a legendary Gilded Age architect, Abele produced decades of skilled design, laying out the grand Philadelphia Museum of Art, mansions in Newport, and Duke’s exquisite Gothic Revival campus (at a time when an African American like Abele was not even allowed to attend).
Abele’s modest manner—and the firm’s policy of eschewing individual signatures on blueprints and plans—has made it tricky for historians to suss out the full extent of his contributions, even after Abele became the co-leader of the firm in 1938 following Trumbauer’s death.
When Duke finally renamed a campus quad after Abele in 2016, it was a rare example of a campus celebrating its architect. Abele, who was the first African American to graduate from the University of Pennsylvania School of Architecture, created a legacy few can match.
Vertner Woodson Tandy (1885–1949)
Born in 1885 in Lexington, Kentucky, Tandy was a pioneer for much of his life. He was one of the founders of the prestigious Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity while at Cornell (he created the famous pin for the first-in-the-nation African-American fraternity) and the first African American to become a member of the New York National Guard during World War I.
But Tandy made his true mark as an architect in New York City, creating work like Saint Philip’s Episcopal Church (where he was buried in 1949) and the Ivey Delph Apartments, a sleek, six-story Art Moderne building later added to the National Register of Historic Places.
Briefly partnering with another trailblazing African-American architect, George Washington Foster, Tandy would become one of the AIA’s first African-American members, eventually establishing himself as “Harlem’s most distinguished architect,” according to the book When Harlem Was in Vogue. He was even given the commission to design the Liberian Building for the 1939 World’s Fair in New York.
His most famous commission was Villa Lewaro, the palatial suburban estate of black entrepreneur and self-made millionaire Madam C.J. Walker. Tandy’s design, a Georgian-style residence, was his “masterpiece.”
Beverly Loraine Greene (1915–1957)
Chicago-born architect Beverly Greene would rack up an impressive resume working alongside some of the greats of modernism. She became the first African-American woman licensed to practice architecture in Illinois (and likely the country) in 1942.
She landed her first job with the Chicago Housing Authority, but soon moved to New York City, where she found it easier to land work, including an assignment to help design the massive Stuyvesant Housing Project. Greene soon left to work for Isadore Rosefield, a firm that specialized in health facilities, but would go on to collaborate with Edward Durell Stone and, later, Marcel Breuer, with whom she designed the UNESCO Headquarters in Paris.
Hilyard Robinson (1899–1986)
A decorated soldier who served in France during World War I, Hilyard Robinson was a prolific architect in and around his hometown of Washington, D.C. Robinson mastered a sensitive, elegant, and modern approach, gaining insight into Western architectural history during trips to Paris, Germany, and Scandinavia. First-hand observation of Bauhaus and classical styles proved catalysts for his progressive designs, and his work was displayed in an exhibition at New York’s Museum of Modern Art as early as 1936.
Robinson’s greatest achievements were for the greater good, whether that meant public housing projects—such as the celebrated Langston Terrace Dwellings in D.C. (airy, open spaces for the working class), educational facilities at Howard University (where he taught for decades), or other government projects, like an airbase for the famed Tuskegee Airmen, the first defense contract given to an African American.
Paul Revere Williams (1894–1980)
Beyond his designs for English Tudor and Spanish Colonial homes in and around Los Angeles, Paul Revere Williams made a huge impact on Southern California. His work includes the otherworldly Theme Building at Los Angeles International Airport as well as an extension to the iconic pink-and-green Beverly Hills Hotel, which, owing to the color of his skin, Williams couldn’t visit without being escorted by the owner.
Renowned for his “creative eclecticism” and his long list of private commissions for the upwardly mobile, Williams was an affable architect to the stars. He created showy homes for the likes of Frank Sinatra, Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz, Martin Landau, and Bill “Bojangles” Robinson.
Williams pushed himself to design homes despite being told the path would be fraught for an African-American architect. (He’d only heard of one other black architect, but, as he later wrote in Ebony, he just figured that meant there was room for more.) When Williams realized some white clients might be uncomfortable sitting next to him when reviewing plans, he learned to draw upside down so he could position himself across the table.
Clarence Wesley "Cap" Wigington (1883–1967)
Few architects can say they helped create the look of their city. But Clarence Wesley Wigington, one of the lesser-known figures on this list, produced an extensive body of civic work for St. Paul, Minnesota, during the first half of the 20th century, a rarity for any architect, especially an African-American one in that era.
Growing up in Omaha, Nebraska, Wigington made his artistic skills plain as a teenager, winning prizes for his drawings and sketches at the 1898 Trans-Mississippi Exposition. He would eventually apprentice under Thomas Kimball, a renowned local architect and future AIA president, and open his own practice in Omaha in 1908. He wouldn’t stay long, as rising racial resentment led him to seek opportunities elsewhere.
Wigington moved to St. Paul in 1914, and by 1917 had become the city’s senior architectural designer, which opened up a world of civic commissions. He made his mark around town with firehouses, schools, golf clubhouses, airports, and even temporary ice palaces, which were highlights of the city’s winter carnivals.
The Harriet Island Pavilion, a sleek stone public recreation facility he designed in 1941, was later added to the National Register (and renamed the Clarence W. Wigington Pavilion in 1998). “Cap,” who would later move to California and Kansas City before passing away in 1967, left a lasting legacy in St. Paul, with nearly 60 buildings still standing.
Norma Sklarek (1926–2012)
Called the “Rosa Parks of architecture,” Sklarek was raised by Trinidadian parents in Crown Heights, Brooklyn. She would become a trailblazer in both New York and California, and was the first female architect to be licensed in both states.
During the Depression, her father, a carpenter, suggested she look into architecture, a career she doggedly pursued despite difficulty finding employment. She was one of two female students in her 1950 graduating class at Columbia University, and was rejected 19 times before finding her first job.
After a stint at the New York Department of Public Works in the 1950s, Sklarek went on to work for a string of high-profile firms, including Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, Gruen and Associates, and Welton Becket Associates, where she oversaw the massive $50-million renovation of Terminal One at Los Angeles International Airport before the 1984 Olympics. The next year, she co-founded Siegel, Sklarek, and Diamond with Margot Siegel and Katherine Diamond; it was the largest women-owned firm of its day.
Gilbert Leong (1915–1996)
At a time when Chinese Americans struggled for wider acceptance, architect Gilbert Leong not only helped shape LA’s Chinatown, but also designed homes and community monuments throughout Southern California.
Much of the Chinese-American architect’s work—such as the courtyard garden at Pasadena’s Pacific Asia Museum—came after a landmark 1948 Supreme Court decision struck down long-held restrictions on Chinese ownership of land. One of Leong’s many upscale suburban homes, the residence of a local Asian-American judge, was picketed by protesters who didn’t want a person of color moving into the neighborhood.
But Leong’s work for the community went well beyond buildings. He also served as a founder and director of the East West Bank, a savings and loan institution that assisted the Chinese-American community, until he passed away in 1996.
Takeo Shiota (1881–1943)
Born near Tokyo in 1881, Shiota immigrated to the United States in 1907 and eventually settled in New York, where he would become the first landscape architect to showcase Japanese styles in the U.S. (he even penned a book on the subject in 1915).
The Japanese Hill-and-Pond Garden at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden—a winding series of artificial waterfalls, rolling hills, and a shinto shrine that opened in 1914—was his most lasting and influential work, a model for similar landscapes across the country.
He would go on to create gardens for clients throughout the New York area, and was even commissioned to design the Astor Hotel rooftop. Later, he formed a lasting partnership with Iwahiko Tsumanuma (who would go by the name Thomas S. Rockrise), another pioneering Asian-American architect and designer. Rockrise’s son, George, would become a well-known advocate of the modern landscape movement, designing the grounds of the UN Headquarters in New York City.
Wendell Jerome Campbell (1927–2008)
Wendell Campbell, a student of Mies van der Rohe at the Illinois Institute of Technology in Chicago, was a respected architect and urban planner who co-founded the National Association of Minority Architects in 1971.
Campbell grew up in East Chicago, Indiana, and was inspired to become an architect after watching his father, a carpenter and contractor, build homes. He told the Chicago Tribune he was struck by the unfairness he witnessed on the job. His dad would work all day drawing up plans, then an architect would make minor adjustments and sign his own name to the blueprints.
After serving as a combat engineer in World War II, Campbell took advantage of the GI Bill to pursue an architecture degree. But when he graduated from IIT in 1956, Campbell had trouble securing a permanent position: Firms where he applied insisted there were no openings, and an Illinois state employment counselor told him perhaps he had chosen the wrong profession.
Campbell eventually found a full-time position with the Purdue-Calumet Development Foundation, where he established a reputation as an expert in urban renewal and affordable housing developments. He would go on to design a number of celebrated community buildings, including a remodel and addition for Chicago’s DuSable Museum of African American History and an expansion of the city’s sprawling McCormick Place convention center.
John Chase (1925–2012)
John Chase, the first licensed African-American architect to practice in Texas, was one of the cofounders of the National Association of Minority Architects.
After growing up in Maryland and studying at historically black Hampton University in Virginia, Chase pursued work as a draftsman. By 1949 he was working for Lott Lumber Company in Austin, Texas, a black-owned firm that specialized in homebuilding.
To pursue his ambition of designing his own buildings, he knew he needed an advanced degree, so in 1949 he inquired about studying at the University of Texas at Austin, a school known for both academic excellence and for being segregated. His timing was fortuitous: In 1950, the Supreme Court ruled against segregation in three separate civil cases, including Sweatt v. Painter, a case concerning the School of Law at the University of Texas. Chase applied for architecture school that summer; he was one of UT Austin’s first black students.
During his studies, Chase received hate mail and was shadowed by federal marshals for his own protection. After graduation, he took a job as an assistant professor at Texas Southern University (TSU) in Houston. Chase became one of the state’s leading modernist architects. Projects such as the Riverside National Bank, with its streamlined diamond roof pattern, his Martin Luther King Humanities Center on the TSU campus, and a U.S. Embassy commission in Tunisia established a thriving practice.