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Markers of History: Philadelphia to Washington to Central Florida

Despite the title of the sitcom, it isn’t always sunny in Philadelphia, but on this day in May 2016 the temperature was comfortably in the low 70s and the intermittent sun had more than a fighting chance of breaking through the clouds. For me it was as bright as a day could be as I celebrated one of the greatest days of my professional life as an architect. Sitting on a charted bus with a flowing black robe folded across my lap, I was headed to the Irvine Auditorium on the University of Pennsylvania campus. Together along with the other members of the new class, I was on my way to the Investiture Ceremony for the College of Fellows of the American Institute of Architects. The bus turned right from 15th Street onto Walnut Street and came to an abrupt stop. I looked up and to the right and there it was. A sign, but to me, it was not just any sign. It was a rectangular black historic marker with gold lettering that read, “LOUIS I. KAHN 1901 - 1974.” It was so close to me that if not for the closed bus window I could have leaned out and touched it.

Image: Louis I. Kahn Sign, courtesy of Daniel Kirby, FAIA

The name Louis I. Kahn was so familiar from my days in architecture school. First the diagrams of the Philips Exeter Library in Francis D.K. Ching’s book on architectural precedents, then being captivated by the strong geometry and humanity of the projects like the Salk Institute, and then absorbing the wisdom in the oversized white volume called, “What Will Be Has Always Been: The Words of Louis Kahn.” I had devoured them all, and Kahn became my favorite architect. As many have said, “I. Kahn” was an “icon.” This marker at the location of his former office at 1501 Walnut Street brought back so many memories of architecture school from learning the language of design, to the highs and lows of pinups, and of course all-nighters in studio. All of these pointing not just to a memory, but a shared history.

After its brief, but meaningful pause, the bus continued along Walnut Street towards the Irvine Auditorium. This location of the ornate and symbolic investiture ceremony provided a chance to interact with the legacy of another architect that was long denied his due place on any historic markers. While I was learning about Kahn, there were other stories that I needed to hear. The Irvine Auditorium opened in May 1929 at the time when both theaters and public transportation in Philadelphia remained legally segregated. The octagonal auditorium with its gothic detailing, red brick exterior, and huge 11,000 pipe organ was designed by the firm of Philadelphia architect Horace Trumbauer. The firm’s chief designer was Julian Francis Abele (pronounced “able”) who was the first African American to be admitted and the first to graduate from architecture school at the University of Pennsylvania.

Image: Irvine Auditorium, courtesy of Daniel Kirby, FAIA

Born in 1881, Abele was the grandson of a Presbyterian minister who was educated in the Quaker-run Institute for Colored Youth. Despite not being allowed to live in the dormitories or dine in the cafeteria, Abele was a popular and capable student. By his senior year at the University of Pennsylvania, Abele has been nicknamed “Willing and Able” and was elected president of the student architectural society.

Abele also conceived the campus of Duke University, designing the chapel and most of the original buildings on a campus, but due to Jim Crow laws he was refused accommodation when attempting to visit the campus. There was little acknowledgement of Abele’s role at Duke until 1982. Abele also designed the Widener Library at Harvard University and the Philadelphia Museum of Art. In Florida, Abele designed the First Church of Christ, Scientist which was constructed in 1928 at the corner of Okeechobee Boulevard and Flagler Drive in West Palm Beach.

Although I was born less than 100 miles from the University of Pennsylvania campus and was even accepted for graduate study there, I did not learn of Julian Abele until just prior to my Investiture Ceremony. This place represented such a special connection to history.

From the deserved and long delayed recognition of Abele, we turn to one of the profession’s most visible markers. Chiseled into an imposing dark granite wall located within the two-story atrium at the headquarters of the American Institute of Architects, are the names of AIA Gold Medal recipients. To date there are only 80 names of Gold Medal recipients on that wall, beginning with Sir Aston Webb in 1907 and ending with 2021 recipient Edward Mazria, FAIA. Some received the award while living and others such as Thomas Jefferson, Eero Saarinen, and Samuel Mockbee received the honor posthumously. From the recognition of Webb in 1907 through 2013, there were no women and no black architects on that wall. Following the posthumous recognition of trailblazing California architect Julia Morgan in 2014, an effort began to and bestow the honor upon the first African American member of the American Institute of Architects and the first certified Black architect west of the Mississippi. Paul Revere Williams (1894-1980) was one of the most prolific architects in Southern California, he began his practice in the early 1920’s amidst a boon the real estate market. He earned acclaim for design of the MCA Building, Beverly Hills Hotel, and residences for Hollywood celebrities including: Frank Sinatra, Lucille Ball, and Sammy Davis, Jr.

Creating a successful practice at the time he did was a demonstration of tremendous resolve and even adoption of special skills. To keep his clients at ease, Williams taught himself to sketch buildings upside down so he could be seated across the table instead of next to his clients. In a 1937 essay Williams wrote, “I came to realize that I was being condemned. Not by lack of ability, but by my color.” Williams was recipient of the NAACP Spingarn Medal and was the Omega Psi Phi Fraternity Man of the Year in 1951.

Image: Daniel Kirby, FAIA, FAICP & Phil Freelon, courtesy of Danile Kirby, FAIA

In 2017, the American Institute of Architects selected Williams as recipient of the Gold Medal. While the specific details of the Gold Medal selection proceedings are confidential, as has been reported in the press, the late Phil Freelon, FAIA presented the nominating speech for Williams. I was also fortunate to play a special role that day. As a member of the AIA Strategic Council, I was a participant in the selection process and was proud to also speak as an advocate in support of bestowing this posthumous honor upon Williams.

Paul Revere Williams does not stand alone and there are many other unsung Black architects. Forty years before Williams was born, Richard Lewis Brown was born into slavery in South Carolina. Despite his circumstances, Brown came to became regarded as Jacksonville, Florida’s first known African American architect and builder. He was elected to the Florida House of Representatives in 1881 and served two terms. He built Centennial Hall at Edward Waters College, built for Duval County Schools, and was also a member of the Jacksonville Chapter of Omega Psi Phi Fraternity.

In 1933, Los Angeles Mayor Frank L. Shaw appointed Williams to the Municipal Housing Commission where he served until 1941. At this same time across Nazi-occupied Europe, the genocidal horrors of the Holocaust were taking place. Some five decades later in 1992, German artist Gunter Demnig began his tribute to remembrance of Holocaust victims. He has laid more than 70,000 Stolpersteine or “stumbling blocks.” The brass markers measure a bit less than 4 inches square and contain the name, date of birth, and the fate of a Holocaust victim. Each marker is laid on the sidewalk outside the last known freely chosen residence of the person named. Located in 24 languages in more than 1,200 cities, they constitute the world’s largest decentralized monument to the Holocaust.

On November 8, 2020 after a candlelight procession and a solemn ceremony, a black cloth cover was pulled back to reveal a state historic marker topped with a relief of three palm trees under a pediment with the heading, “Ocoee Massacre and Exodus.” This marker tells the story of the largest single incident of voting day violence in the United States which took place one hundred years earlier when prominent Black landowner July Perry attempted to exercise his legal right to vote. In the ensuing event of domestic terrorism, mobs lynched Perry, burned houses, and drove some 257 African American residents from their homes. The land previously owned by African American landowners was auctioned off and Ocoee remained without any sizeable black population for over 50 years.

Every single day that I attended high school meant a trip through Ocoee which was located between my house and the campus of West Orange High School in Winter Garden. While prevailing racist tendencies, the racial makeup of the residents, and the need to be on guard when passing through Ocoee were widely discussed, I do not remember a single specific mention during my high school days of the events of November 2, 1920. Tragically for generations, the painful legacy was present, but the event itself was largely ignored. Ocoee was not an isolated incident in Florida. Between 1882 and 1930 there were 212 documented incidents of African Americans being lynched. Given the size of the Black population, the rate of lynching was seven times higher than in North Carolina. In the 1920, the lynching of Blacks on a per-capita basis was higher than in any other state. Other significant racially motivated events include the 1923 Rosewood Massacre, the shooting of Samuel Shepherd and Walter Irvin by Lake County Sheriff Willis McCall, and the bombing of home of NAACP president Harry T. Moore in 1951.

Not every historic marker is a memorial or a tribute to achievement. Some markers are monuments to false historical narratives. We must look critically at the when and why behind such markers. Our contemporary lens is not always the truest measure. To place these markers and monuments in context, we must ask if they exist to intimidate, to antagonize, to scar, to divide, or serve as a prolonged insult to humanity?

As I pushed my own daughters’ stroller to our neighborhood playground, I had to walk past a statue of a Confederate soldier in full dress regalia. The statue donated by the United Daughter of the Confederacy in 1917. It was part of a largely successful attempt by former Confederate descendants to promote the Lost Cause Narrative. I will tell you that from the time I first read the inscription on the base monument until its removal in June 2017 from Orlando’s signature lake, it served as a constant insult. A marker that the oppressors of my ancestors and their ability to even reach back from the grave and promote the longing for a time when the basic human rights of African Americans could be denied using the full force of the government.

As we consider our architectural legacy, we cannot forget that for every name engraved on a historic marker or chiseled into a wall there are a legion of unsung architects and contributor to the process of creating and constructing buildings. As we pause to reflect upon history during this Black History Month, let’s remember those that may be missing from the narrative. Let’s pause for a minute and consider the importance of placing these historic markers and what a chance encounter with them may reveal to us and about us. Our story is all around us, if we only look for the signs.

©2021 Daniel L. Kirby, Jr., all rights reserved, used by permission of the author

Dan Kirby, FAIA, FAICP is an Orlando-based architect and urban planner. He is a principal and client services leader in the built environment practice of Jacobs, one of the world’s largest professional and technical services firms. He is the recipient of the AIA Florida Gold Medal and the AIA Orlando Medal of Honor. Kirby was the first African American to serve as President of AIA Florida and currently serves on the board of the Architects Foundation.

Image: Daniel Kirby, FAIA, FAICP, courtesy of Daniel Kirby, FAIA, FAICP

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