the first academically trained African American architect and the first black graduate of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), was born in Wilmington, North Carolina, to Emily Still and Henry Taylor, a literate slave who, given virtual freedom by his white father and master, prospered independently as a merchant, carpenter, and coastal trader. Little is known about Emily Still, other than that she was described as a “mulatto” and was ten years younger than her husband. Presaging the future career of his son, Henry Taylor also constructed a number of businesses and...
the first academically trained African American architect and the first black graduate of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), was born in Wilmington, North Carolina, to Emily Still and Henry Taylor, a literate slave who, given virtual freedom by his white father and master, prospered independently as a merchant, carpenter, and coastal trader. Little is known about Emily Still, other than that she was described as a “mulatto” and was ten years younger than her husband. Presaging the future career of his son, Henry Taylor also constructed a number of businesses and homes in Wilmington. Robert R. Taylor studied at Wilmington's Gregory Institute, an American Missionary Association school, where he was taught by white New Englanders who were ambitious for their charges. Though it is possible that the Gregory Institute's teachers pointed Taylor to MIT, the impetus might have come from other Wilmingtonians. A wealthy white boy who lived around the corner from the Taylor home graduated in engineering in 1885 and Francis Bacon, brother of the designer of the Lincoln Memorial, studied architecture at MIT. Taylor once said that he had wanted to earn a liberal arts degree at Lincoln University, the elite college for African American boys near Philadelphia, before gaining his technical education. Instead, he worked with his father as a builder for a year or two before entering MIT in the fall of 1888.Taylor's MIT years were a success. He was at or near the top of his class and was awarded a scholarship for the final two years. While Taylor's own architecture class of about twelve was distinctly Yankee, his institute class would have been international. A wag wrote in Technique 1890, an MIT student yearbook, that “Sixty-seven percent [of one student class] were light-complexioned, thirty-three percent dark. Eleven percent wore eye glasses; one was color blind; and fifty percent thought they had mustaches” (58). Taylor would have been among that 50 percent as well as the darker 33 if he were a member of the class under review. Taylor's thesis design, two boards with a plan and elevation in ink and watercolor, was for a home for aged Civil War veterans from the North and South. Taylor received a bachelor's degree in Architecture from MIT in 1892. He corresponded with Booker T. Washington in the summer of 1892 while working as a “building mechanic” at a hotel at Oak Bluffs, on Martha's Vineyard. Taylor may have then gone to Cleveland, Ohio, to practice.In November 1892 he arrived at Washington's Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute, which was established to serve the desperately poor former slaves in Alabama's rural hinterland. Taylor was to teach architectural and mechanical drawing for the trades students and to design buildings. His first Alabama completion was a frame industries building for a Tuskegee daughter school, Mt. Meigs, near Montgomery, and he probably drew the printed cottage plans that were given out to farmers attending conferences at the institute. Taylor's construction of brick buildings on campus began with Science Hall (later Thrasher) and continued through the 1890s with the chapel, the Oaks for Booker T. Washington, the vast boys trades building, and Huntington Hall girls' dormitory. He also designed many wooden structures, including a primary school, student and faculty housing, a hospital, and barns.Teaching, however, was Taylor's heaviest task, since all industrial students had to draw everything they were to make. Every trade—steamfitting, plumbing, tailoring, tinsmithing, carriage building and wheelwrighting, masonry, and carpentry—started with plans and elevations because drawing promoted modern industrial processes, cognitive skills, and creativity. Drawing had a racial dimension even though it was also fundamental to white schools. Taylor wrote that drawing taught the executive thinking that slave artisans, supposedly working only under supervision, were thought to have lacked. Tuskegee's army of drawing students seems to have overwhelmed their teacher, contributing to his decision to return to Cleveland in 1899, a year after his marriage to Beatrice Rochon. The couple had four children prior to Beatrice Rochon's early death in 1906. Taylor married again in 1911 to Nellie Green Chestnut, a teacher. The couple had one child. In Cleveland Taylor worked for a white architect and on his own while keeping Tuskegee as a client. He designed the institute's girls' industries building Dorothy Hall, the Lincoln Gates, boys' and girls' bath houses, and the Huntington Memorial Academic Building.In 1902 he returned to Tuskegee, but as director of industries, not as a teacher. He was now responsible for hundreds of students enrolled in a complicated curriculum that interlocked with the academic department, but that also produced marketable goods and services for the region. Students learned their trades through this practice, acquiring the knowledge that Washington hoped would counteract discrimination, as he believed that tolerance and even admiration would follow from white dependence on black skills.Taylor's buildings from 1903 until Washington's death in 1915 included the brick Carnegie Library, Rockefeller Hall, four Emery dormitories, the Office Building, Douglass Hall, White Hall, Tantum Hall, John A. Andrew Hospital, the Veterinary Hospital, and New Laundry (later the visitors' center). He also designed Carnegie libraries for black colleges in Salisbury, North Carolina, and Marshall, Texas. Taylor's buildings show sensitivity to site, scale, and the richly textured, multihued Tuskegee bricks. Windows of different shapes and sizes are placed as in syncopation. The massing is triadic—an emphasized center with subsidiary wings—but each building ingeniously differs from the others in how this is managed. The three libraries and several more Tuskegee buildings have large classical columns like those on county courthouses or white people's mansions. The architecture seem to deny the Jim Crow restrictions locking in all around them. Although Taylor did not design the largest building of the Washington era, the imperially scaled Tompkins Dining Hall, he was involved in every phase of the building's design and construction. After Washington's death Taylor formed an architectural partnership with Louis H. Persley (1890–1932), then the institute's drawing teacher. Together they designed buildings for the newly established College Department, a multipurpose structure at Selma University, and a Masonic temple and office building in Birmingham. The visual character of these large and technically more advanced works is less intimate or personal than the earlier ones.As an institute officer after 1903, Taylor's off-campus responsibilities gradually increased along with a reputation for interracial tact. He might address the trustees in a New York meeting or meet with millionaire donors in their homes. In 1923, as ranking institute officer when Tuskegee's second principal, Robert Russa Moton, was away, Taylor faced down the Ku Klux Klan as it drove past the campus. He was subsequently named vice principal although he continued his previous duties as department head as well as head of buildings and grounds. Taylor served on a politically sensitive committee that evaluated Red Cross refugee camps for black victims of the 1927 Mississippi River flood. In 1929 he went to Liberia to help found the Booker T. Washington Institute. There he assessed the country's agricultural and industrial potential, outlined a curriculum to serve it, advised on governance and staffing, sketched a campus plan, and designed a few buildings. Taylor capped the trip with a grand tour of Europe. That year Lincoln University awarded him an honorary doctorate.In 1932 Taylor suffered a massive heart attack while visiting his son in Chicago. This son, Robert Rochon Taylor, was a housing activist; the high rise Robert Taylor Homes, the nation's largest public housing project, would be named after him. Robert Robinson Taylor then retired from Tuskegee, returning to his native Wilmington so that his presence would not burden his successor. There he lived a gentleman's life with a townhouse, a waterside cottage, and a car and driver to travel between them. In retirement he worked to achieve racial fairness. He served as the first African American on the board of a black state college, Fayetteville State Teachers College, and along with Hugh MacRae, a white leader of the 1898 Wilmington coup d'état, lobbied the federal government for funding to establish a black farm community. In addition to advocating better civic amenities for Wilmington's African American population, he supported greater fairness in the federal government. In 1941, for example, he wrote to the director of the U.S. Civil Service Commission to request that federal job applications not require photographs.In December 1942, while visiting family, Taylor died in the Tuskegee chapel that he had designed and which he considered his greatest architectural accomplishment. A month following his death the New Brooklyn Homes in Wilmington, North Carolina's first public housing project, was renamed the Robert R. Taylor Homes in his honor.
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