Rick Olivier

Ellen Weiss, an architectural historian and professor emerita at Tulane University’s School of Architecture in New Orleans, lectures on and writes about American architecture and community planning. Her recent book, Robert R. Taylor and Tuskegee: An African American Architect Designs for Booker T. Washington (NewSouth Books, 2011), chronicles Taylor’s contribution to Tuskegee Institute (now University) in east central Alabama where he designed most of the campus buildings during his 40–year career, and managed the grounds and infrastructure.

I was living near Tuskegee and I became fascinated by the campus. I mean, this is Tuskegee, after all—it’s an important place. Then I heard that these buildings were designed by a black architect—Robert R. Taylor—and I thought this is a story that has to be told.

Robert R. Taylor had an excellent grammar and high school education in Wilmington, N.C., his birthplace, at an American Missionary Association school for the children of slaves. Taylor’s father was legally a slave, even though, as the son of his white master, he was allowed to live on his own in the distant city and prosper as a carpenter and merchant. He could afford to give his son a college–level education at MIT.

At MIT, Taylor worked all the time—like any architecture student today. MIT was an international institution then as it is now, and there were students from Latin America, the Near East, Europe, and Asia. So it was a very open environment—progressive and diverse—although Taylor may have been the only enrolled African-American at the time he was there. He is MIT’s first black graduate. Booker T. Washington courted Taylor soon after graduation to come work at Tuskegee because there were no other academically trained black architects anyplace, only some skilled builders.

Taylor appeared at Tuskegee in November 1892, after graduating—and he began designing buildings for the campus and region. But he also taught architectural drawing—basic drafting for everyone in the building trades and in many other trades as well. So he was also developing a starter architectural design program as well as his own practice in the mid-1890s.

The campus (built by black carpenters and masons who could draw a little) was already 10 years old when Taylor arrived. One of Taylor’s predecessors was Booker T. Washington’s brother, who had some construction experience. But these buildings didn’t have the eloquence or character of buildings designed by a classically trained architect. Washington saw the difference. He had been trained at Hampton Institute in Virginia, for which Richard Morris Hunt designed several buildings. Washington would have seen Hunt’s work and he understood what architecture could mean for a sense of place. —As told to William Richards