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10 pioneering African-American architects in the nation's capital

The past and present inspirational figures who have practiced in Washington, D.C., and whom history often overlooks

African Americans are underrepresented in the field of architecture, and the progress made to further diversity in the field has been slow and barely steady. While African Americans made up 13 percent of the total U.S. population in 2010, only 2 percent of licensed architects in the U.S. are African American. Even so, for many decades, Washington, D.C., has been a center of concentration for African-American architects.

According to Harrison Mosley Ethridge, Ph.D., in “The Black Architects of Washington, D.C.,” at one time, D.C. had the highest concentration of licensed African-American architects in the U.S. The buildings they designed and constructed serve as visual reminders of the status and aspirations of these architects—as well as how much of a rarity African-American professional architects have been, especially at the turn of the century.

Right from the beginning, though, African Americans impacted the shape of the nation’s capital. Indeed, the White House was built by the hands of African Americans, both enslaved and free. Even so, discrimination, a segregated collegiate system, and extremely limited commission opportunities have been enough to hold African Americans back from either pursuing the field or prospering in it.

While African Americans played a major role in the construction of the White House, they were left out of the planning and building stages of the McMillan Plan of 1902, a comprehensive planning document for the development of the monumental core and park system of Washington, D.C. Despite this and despite everything, there were still African-American architects who were able to break through and prove to the city—and to the nation—that they were capable in more ways than one.

Before 1968, most contracts given to African-American architects were for additions or renovations to existing structures. But this isn’t the full spectrum of work that they achieved. One notable project that proves this is the Shaw Joint Venture of 1968. According to Ethridge, this was the largest comprehensive building survey ever conducted in the nation. Headed by African-American architects in D.C., the survey assessed the exteriors of nearly 6,000 buildings in Shaw in order to classify each as either sound, deficient, or extremely deficient. Because of the Shaw Joint Venture, many of D.C.’s minority firms were able to enter the mainstream of the architectural profession.

Furthermore, D.C.’s Howard University has graduated a variety of talented architects who went on to make contributions to the city’s landscape. Howard University founded its architecture program in 1910, and since then the organization has been both an anchor and a beacon of the African-American architectural community, according to Ethridge. It was also the first American school to offer a specialization in tropical architecture, climatology, and environmental technology.

While Washington, D.C., may be better known for its government agencies than its stunning architecture, many of its designers have turned heads and left long-lasting impacts on the community and the field of architecture. Below, get to know 10 architects who practiced in D.C., designed for D.C., and lived in D.C.

John A. Lankford

Born in December 1874 in Potosi, Missouri, John A. Lankford is known for being Washington, D.C.’s first professional black architect.

Perhaps most notably, Lankford designed and supervised the construction of the True Reformers Building. In 1905, he organized a D.C. branch of the National Negro Business League, a self-help organization founded in 1900 by Booker T. Washington to encourage the development of African-American businesses. He later served as the branch’s first elected president.

He arrived to the nation’s capital in 1902 after receiving several degrees, including a bachelor’s degree in science from Shaw University, Raleigh, in 1898; master’s degree in science from Morris Brown College in Atlanta, Georgia, in 1901; and master’s degree in science at Wilberforce College in Wilberforce, Ohio, in 1902.

In a matter of 32 months after coming to Washington, D.C., Lankford designed, overhauled, repaired, and built over $500,000 worth of work, ranging from churches to hotels to residential units. Despite the lack of civil liberties offered to African Americans at the time, Lankford’s business still prospered.

Because of this, he has been regarded as the "dean of black architecture."

William Sidney Pittman

This Alabama-born architect arrived to D.C. around 1905, at about the same time as Lankford. Pittman became the city’s second professional black architect, and later established an architectural practice with a specialty in steel construction. He studied mechanical and architectural drawing in 1897 at the Tuskegee Institute, and later at Drexel Institute in Philadelphia.

In about 1905, he began work as a draftsman in the office of Lankford and within a year opened his own office. By circa 1907, he won a design competition for his columned Georgian-inspired Negro Exposition Building at the Jamestown Tricentennial Exposition. In “The Black Architects of Washington, D.C.,” Ethridge writes that Pittman was hailed by contemporaries as the first black person whose design had ever been accepted by the federal government.

After marrying Booker T. Washington’s daughter, Portia, Pittman went on to become a member of the Republic Club, an organizer of the Volunteer Fire Company, member of the Public School Building Committee, and deacon and trustee of the First Baptist Church. His contributions to the local community were prolific.

By about 1912, was regarded as a world-renowned architect, with works that included the first Fairmount Heights school, the Garfield Elementary Public School, and the YMCA building at 1816 12th Street NW. According to Dreck Spurlock Wilson in “African American Architects,” Pittman was the first African American to design a YMCA building.

Romulus C. Archer, Jr.

Although Romulus Archer did not become wealthy in his profession, he did prove that a black architectural firm could compete with white firms, according to Ethridge.

Archer was born around 1891 in Norfolk, Virginia. After enlisting in the U.S. Army in circa 1918, he studied at Columbia University and later at the International Correspondence School in Scranton, Pennsylvania. Before opening his architectural office, Archer entered federal employment with the U.S. Treasury Department’s office of supervising architect as one of the only African Americans in the office.

His architectural firm was founded in about 1923 and lasted for four and a half decades, with projects including churches, commercial buildings, and residences, according to a Washington Post article from December 1968.

Archer was the second African-American architect to be licensed, following Lankford, according to Wilson’s “African American Architects.”

Albert Irvin Cassell

If there’s one name that reliably pops up every so often in discussions of Washington, D.C.’s historic architecture, it’s Albert Irvin Cassell. He is known for his long association with Howard University as a campus planner and architect in the 1920s and 1930s. He also notably designed the University’s Founders Library and was D.C.’s third registered African-American architect.

Founders Library in particular is one of his most prominent projects. According to Ethridge in “The Black Architects of Washington, D.C.”:

“Founders Library stands today as an early visual testimony to the capability of black architects to design a noble structure when given sufficient funding; certainly the chance seldom came the way of a black architect in that era.”

Born in circa 1895 in Towson, Maryland, Cassell grew up in Baltimore, Maryland. His interest in architecture started when he was young—he was introduced to drafting by Ralph Victor Cook during his time at Douglas High School. After graduating from Cornell University, he enlisted in the U.S. Army and later found employment at the Tuskegee Institute. By the late 1920s, he had become university architect and head of the architecture department at Howard University. He remained at the school for 18 years, designing the gymnasium, field house, armory, college of medicine, and more.

One of his many goals throughout his illustrious career was to create better housing for black communities in the nation’s capital. In addition to Mayfair Gardens, he also designed several public housing projects along with the Phillis Wheatley Young Women's Christian Association, Inc. building in Washington, D.C.

Other major projects included Masonic temples, the Provident Hospital in Baltimore, and the Virginia Union University in Richmond, Virginia.

Michael Marshall

Michael Marshall’s dreams of becoming an architect began when he was just 11 years old. It was at this age that he created his first set of blueprints. Since then, he has emerged as one of D.C.’s most prominent African-American architects.

Beyond his designs for D.C.’s Chuck Brown Memorial and the student center at the University of the District of Columbia, Michael Marshall and his firm Marshall Moya Design have made a huge impact on the nation’s capital.

Marshall’s restoration and renovation of the Howard Theatre in D.C. received significant attention in the city. Marshall Moya is also the associate architect for the new home of D.C. United at Audi Field in Washington, D.C.’s Buzzard Point neighborhood.

Marshall was educated at the Catholic University of America and Yale University, where one of his professors was noted architect Frank Gehry. At one time, Marshall worked for D.C.-based firms Hartman-Cox Architects and Ward-Hale Design Associates.

In 1989, he founded Michael Marshall Architecture, later renaming it Marshall Moya Design after he formed a partnership with Paola Moya in 2010.

Harry Robinson

No list of D.C.-based African-American architects would be complete without a graduate or faculty member of Howard University. Harry Robinson’s whole life has been influenced by the university: His great-grandfather was on the faculty, his grandmother and father were graduates, and his mother worked at the school.

After graduating from Howard University in 1966, Robinson went on to work as professor of architecture and dean emeritus of the School of Architecture and Design at Howard University. He was also the first African American to be elected president of the National Architectural Accrediting Board, and the first black person elected president of the National Council of Architectural Registration Boards.

Like other architects on this list, Robinson joined the U.S. Army before enrolling in Harvard University. From 1968 to 1972, he served as an urban planner in the city for the Redevelopment Land Agency.

Robinson taught at the University of the District of Columbia until the mid-1970s, moving to Morgan State College in Baltimore, Maryland, until the later ’70s. Around this time, Robinson founded and became the principal of the Robinson Group consulting firm.

Despite all of these accomplishments, Robinson continues to give back to his community in a variety of ways. According to the History Makers project, he is the Founder of the African American Architect Initiative, vice chairman of the U.S. Commission on Fine Arts, and a professional advisor to the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center.

Barbara Laurie

The late Barbara Laurie had an incredibly promising career that was cut short, but is still worth remembering. Born in Maine and raised in Massachusetts, she graduated from Howard University's School of Architecture and Design in 1985, later serving as associate professor of architecture at Howard University for 20 years.

Laurie founded and served as managing principal of DP+ Partners, LLC, was president of the D.C. chapter of the American Institute of Architects (AIA|DC), and was a board member of the D.C. Preservation League. She also served as the chair of the board of the Washington Architectural Foundation.

Over the course of her career, she completed 200 projects, including the renovation of the historic City Museum/Carnegie Library at Mt. Vernon Square and the renovation of a house for the Rev. Jesse Jackson Sr. in LeDroit Park. She was also the manager/designer for the African American Civil War Museum.

In her honor, the AIA|DC created a scholarship program in her name for D.C. residents completing high school who are entering a degree program at a school of architecture.

Peter Cook

In an interview with Architonic, Peter Cook described himself as “not so much … unknown … [as] operating in the shadows.” This feeling was prompted by his great-granduncle, Julian F. Abele, who was one of the first and most prominent African-American architects in U.S. history.

Despite the stiff competition, Cook yearned to become an architect himself. He was inspired by vivid memories of his grandfather Julian Abele Cook, who worked at Howard University as building coordinator for Albert Cassell.

After studying at Harvard College and Columbia University until the late 1980s, Cook took a position at D.C.-based firm Davis Brody Bond, later serving as principal. During this time, he made contributions to the Benning Neighborhood Library and Watha T. Daniel/Shaw Neighborhood Library. Cook’s work can also be seen in the National Museum of African American History and Culture and the modernization and expansion of the South African Embassy on Massachusetts Avenue.

“I think this firm never loses sight of the fact that architecture is artwork performed in a social setting,” he told Architonic.

With a background in cultural and community organizations, Peter Cook currently works as a design director for D.C.-based firm Gensler, which he joined in February 2014.

Marshall Purnell

Known as one of the most accomplished architects in the United States today, Marshall Purnell is responsible for many works throughout Washington, D.C., from the Verizon Center to the Frank D. Reeves Municipal Center to the Pepco building. Other need-to-know projects include the Washington Convention Center and the Nationals Park baseball stadium.

Purnell was the first African-American president of the American Institute of Architects, a past president of the National Organization of Minority Architects, and co-founder of the firm DP+ Partners, LLC with the late Paul S. Devrouax. For over 35 years, Purnell served as design principal of the firm.

Purnell was born in Toledo, Ohio, and grew up in Grand Rapids, Michigan. After studying at the University of Michigan, Purnell taught design at the University of Maryland starting in 1973.

Kathryn Prigmore

Kathryn Prigmore’s journey as an architect began when she was in middle school. In Lee W. Waldrep’s “Becoming an Architect,” Prigmore said that she would read any and all books about architecture in the City of Alexandria Public Library.

In the early 1980s, she went to the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, later attending the Catholic University of America. Afterward, she worked for noted African-American architect Robert Traynham Coles, then served as associate dean and associate professor at Howard University from 1989 to 2003.

“The practice of architecture is a rich, white, male profession,” Prigmore said in “Becoming an Architect.” “Even as the opportunities opened up, we were often relegated to the back rooms of offices ... Today, the hearts of many are in the right place, and we are taking our places in the front offices of many firms.”

She became vice president and senior project manager for HDR until 2014, then took a position as chief operations officer and risk manager of STUDIOS Architecture.

Are there any notable architects left off this list?
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