Biography: Who Was Robert Robinson Taylor?

Robert R. Taylor from MIT to Tuskegee:  A Black Architect’s Journey

Robert Robinson Taylor (1868-1942), the first academically trained African American architect, entered MIT in 1888 and graduated in 1892.  Booker T. Washington, searching for professionally educated faculty for the Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute in Alabama, offered Taylor a position shortly after his graduation.  Taylor arrived at Tuskegee that November as a teacher, designer, and, after the turn of the twentieth century, an academic administrator of a large vocational trades program.  He directed the Boys Industries Department, educating several hundred students in more than twenty trades that included applied electricity, wheelwrighting, carriage building, tailoring, printing, steamfitting, brickmaking, plumbing, shoemaking, tinsmithing, and carpentry.  In 1916 the Boys Industries Department enrolled 447 students.  Taylor was also head of the Tuskegee Institute’s buildings and grounds and he designed much of the Institute along with buildings elsewhere — in Selma and Birmingham, Alabama, as well as in North Carolina and Texas.

It was Taylor’s good fortune to be born in Wilmington, North Carolina, a prosperous port city with, before the Civil War, a tradition of excellent black builders, both slave and free.  His father, a mulatto who was born into slavery, had prospered as a merchant and builder.  Taylor studied at an American Missionary Association school that was staffed by New England teachers.  He lived in a racially mixed neighborhood that included white architects and black builders as well as, two blocks away, a wealthy white man who had earned an engineering degree at MIT.  Taylor worked as a contractor for a year or two before going to MIT, where he studied architecture and was near or at the top of his class.  He earned a scholarship for his last two years of study.

The architecture curriculum at MIT (Course IV) was demanding, with a heavy load of courses by modern standards and such specialized horrors as “memory drawings” of the classical orders to be drawn on the blackboard to a scale announced in class.  Course IV had an art-based pedagogy with paired slides in the history lectures to help develop visual acuity, weekly trips to the nearby art museum, library research, monthly design problems and juried reviews.  As one student remembered, “Whereas in all well-conducted abattoirs the custom is to slaughter before rendering, the process here is reversed and all work is rendered first and slaughtered afterwards.”  Taylor’s thesis, an ideal solution to inspire a lifetime of practice, was a home for Civil War veterans from both North and South.

Taylor was corresponding with Booker T. Washington while he was a “building mechanic” at a hotel on Martha’s Vineyard during the summer after his graduation.  Washington was recruiting African Americans with university degrees for the faculty at Tuskegee, which was then a vocational high school. He also wanted a black architect to design the expanding campus and prove the race’s capabilities to a watching nation.  But Taylor wanted to practice, not teach, and evidence indicates that he traveled to Cleveland in the fall to begin practice.  By November, he had moved to Tuskegee to teach architectural and mechanical drawing and design buildings, remaining there for most of the rest of his career.  Taylor’s first Alabama completion was an industrial school about twenty miles from Tuskegee.  Science Hall, begun in 1893 (later renamed Thrasher Hall) was Taylor’s first major building for Tuskegee.  During the next six years he would also design The Chapel, The Oaks (a home for Booker T. Washington), the Boys Trades Building, and Huntington Hall girls dormitory as well as many residences and service buildings.

Teaching, however, was Taylor’s biggest task at Tuskegee since students in all trades had to begin with plans and elevations, a modern industrial procedure as opposed to traditional craft practice.  Perhaps drawing also had a racial dimension since it taught the creative and executive thinking that slave artisans, supposedly working under strict supervision, were thought to have lacked.  Taylor also developed advanced courses for students in the building trades and an architectural drawing certificate that he awarded to a wheelwrighting student, the future architect William Sydney Pittman.  The number of industrial students seems to have overwhelmed Taylor and may have contributed to his decision, taken in spring 1899, to return to Cleveland for a full-time practice.  Tuskegee replaced him with two drawing instructors.

In Cleveland Taylor worked for a white architect with a residential practice and then on his own.  But he kept Tuskegee as a client.  While in Cleveland he designed the girls industries building (Dorothy Hall), the Lincoln Gates, the boys and girls bathhouses, Huntington Memorial Academic Building, and probably several substantial frame structures such as the Institute’s practice school for teacher training and the hospital.  But Taylor missed organizing the curriculum — and perhaps the secure income — and returned to Tuskegee around 1902 as Director of Industries, not as a teacher. In this capacity, he oversaw up to thirty boys trades divisions, each with its own shop, classroom and faculty.  He administered a complicated curriculum that interlocked with the academic program and, with greater difficulty, with income-generating industrial production.

Tuskegee depended on its commercial enterprises, producing goods and services for a regional market.  Student-made bricks, wagons, furniture, clothing, agricultural products, printing, and building construction and repairs earned money, taught skills, and helped ease racial tensions by demonstrating ability and contributing to the local economy. Tuskegee also depended on its buildings trades divisions, including architectural drawing, for its own expansion.  Since Taylor was also in charge of buildings and grounds, it fell to him to coordinate simultaneous construction jobs among the shops, seeing to it that materials, foremen, and student workers were smoothly deployed and that all work came in under budget and on time.  He was also responsible for the growing campus infrastructure, the endless drainage and sanitation problems, power and water supplies, walkways and roads, and minutiae of individual office and classroom needs.  It is hard to imagine how he did it all while running the industrial school and, after hours, designing buildings. He seems to have credited his MIT education for his ability to juggle multiple tasks.

Robert R. Taylor designed most of Tuskegee Institute’s buildings to the end of the Booker T. Washington era — Washington died in 1915 — and through the succeeding administration of Robert Russa Moton, until 1932 when Taylor retired.  Sometimes younger black architects who were then teaching architectural and mechanical drawing contributed to the design work, especially Louis H. Persley, who from 1919 on was his partner in practice.  Taylor’s Tuskegee buildings from 1903 until 1915 included the brick Carnegie Library, Rockefeller Hall, four Emery Dormitories, the Office Building, Douglass Hall, White Hall, John A. Andrew Hospital, the Veterinary Hospital, Tantum Hall and the New Laundry.  He also designed Carnegie libraries for two black schools in North Carolina and Texas.  James W. Golucke, a white courthouse designer from Georgia, designed Tuskegee’s largest building of the period, Tompkins Dining Hall.  Yet even on this project, Taylor shaped Washington’s planning and programming decisions, negotiated between the Institute and the architect, argued for the project before the Trustees, and, after Golucke’s untimely death, figured out how to set the Hall’s dome on trusses so that posts would not interrupt the dining room’s spatial unity, as Washington had wanted.

Taylor’s buildings reveal his MIT Beaux-Arts education even when there are no obvious classical elements on display. They are characterized by Palladian triadic massing with emphasized centers embraced by flanking units that give them a  strong sense of horizontality.  His buildings have finely tuned proportions, syncopated arrangements of window shapes and sizes, discrete detailing, and contrasts between sharp-cut window voids and the wall planes that display Tuskegee’s richly textured, colorful bricks.

A few structures at Tuskegee do break into the formal rhetoric of projecting columns under entablatures and pediments —“Latin and Greek” in the words Washington would apply to useless pretensions.  Washington once said that John D. Rockefeller, who had given Tuskegee a plain but elegantly proportioned dormitory, always used words of one syllable rather than two, or two rather than three.  Rockefeller used no Greek or Latin quotes and he was the richest man in the world.  Full-blown classicism on early twentieth century “Negro” buildings in the Deep South also raises thorny critical questions.  The classical portico on Tuskegee’s Carnegie Library appeared the same year the new Alabama constitution stripped black citizens of the right to vote.  Whites who were using classical imagery in similar institutions at the same time were also enforcing Jim Crow restrictions with sanctioned violence.

Throughout his working life Taylor’s reticence and tact were used in the service of interracial diplomacy. He traveled often to New York to meet with the Tuskegee Trustees and with donors to discuss their buildings.  He was the ranking administrator on the campus in 1923 when the Ku Klux Klan marched through. The Klan was trying to intimidate the Institute into accepting white medical staffing for the adjacent Veterans Administration hospital for black patients.  Taylor stood up to the Klan and the hospital retained its black doctors and nurses.  Taylor helped investigate the African American refugee camps organized after the Mississippi River flood of 1927, concluding that those in which blacks shared management were better than those in which they did not.  His diplomatic skills joined his educational vision and design talents in 1929 when he traveled to Liberia to help found the Booker Washington Institute, built on the Tuskegee model.  Taylor studied the nation’s agricultural and industrial potential, outlined a curriculum that supported it, advised on governance and staffing, outlined a campus plan, and designed a few buildings.  He then capped the trip — and his career — with a grand tour of Europe.

In 1932 Taylor suffered a heart attack that prompted his retirement and his return to Wilmington.  There he lived a gentleman’s life with a house in town, a waterside weekend retreat, and a car and driver to go between them.  He had another ten years and he used them productively, serving as the first African American on the board of a black state college and working with a white power broker for New Deal funding to help the black community.  He wanted to return to Liberia to continue his work there but his health did not permit it.  Taylor died in 1943 on a visit to Tuskegee, stricken in The Chapel shortly after he said it was his masterpiece.

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