Robert Robinson Taylor (1868-1942) had a prolific and wide-ranging career. He was the nation's first academically trained African American architect as well as the first black graduate of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. For 40 years, Taylor assisted Tuskegee Institute (present-day Tuskegee University) principals Booker T. Washington and Robert R. Moton in developing and managing the school's buildings and infrastructure and directing its Department of Mechanical Industries. In addition, Taylor designed at least 40 brick and an uncounted number of wooden buildings at Tuskegee as well as significant structures in Selma and Birmingham in Alabama and in Virginia, Texas, and North Carolina.
Taylor was born on June 8, 1868, in Wilmington, North Carolina, the son of Henry Taylor, an enslaved carpenter and merchant who lived essentially as a freedman. His mother, Emily Still, came from a free black family. Robert was the youngest of four siblings. He received an excellent education at the Gregory Institute, an American Missionary Association school, and then entered the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), in Boston, Massachusetts, in 1888 to study architecture. MIT's classical design curriculum helped Taylor develop the necessary skills to create distinctive structures, whether modest or grand. A classical architectural education focuses on all building elements, such as wall dimensions and textures; proportions of wall surface to window openings; pleasing as well as convenient interior layouts; purposeful dimensioning of rooms and their connections; the practical and aesthetic properties of various materials and structural systems; and proper rendition and integration of classicism's most defining characteristic: Greek and Roman columns. Taylor's work encompassed all these design skills along with others that were particularly his own. He varied window sizes, shapes, and placement to achieve rhythmic patterns on and add interest to each exterior wall and he varied the entrances, overall building shapes, and detailing to differentiate similarly sized brick structures.
Taylor graduated from MIT in 1892 and, at the urging of Booker T. Washington, soon relocated to Tuskegee in Macon County to design campus buildings and teach industrial drawing. During the 1890s, he created plans for wooden schools and cottages that Tuskegee then offered to African Americans in small hamlets all over Alabama with the goal of providing better housing than tumbled-down log cabins and rough tenant shacks and thereby encourage healthful living and community pride. At Tuskegee, he designed a number of buildings on the campus, including the Science Hall (now Thrasher Hall); Booker T. Washington's home, The Oaks; a vast building with a classical veranda for the Department of Mechanical Industries; and the building that Taylor considered his masterpiece, the Chapel. Its picturesque exterior featured a 105-foot tower, dual entrances for boys and girls, and a cavernous interior of high-arched hammer-beam trusses that so impressed writer (and Tuskegee student) Ralph Ellison that he described it in his novel Invisible Man. A black New York journalist termed the Chapel a "Cathedral in the Black Belt" and suggested that every southerner must make at least one pilgrimage to view it. Tragically, the Chapel burned in 1957. Taylor also designed and helped build a wooden shop building at nearby Mt. Meigs Colored Industrial Institute in Waugh, Montgomery County. Taylor's buildings were visually engaging because of his talent and classical training. They created an institutional presence by giving a sense of place and ownership for African Americans who had too little of everything.
As an industrial drawing teacher during the 1890s, Taylor first showed his executive talents by developing a certificate in architectural drawing that helped young black men enter the design profession. Building trades students at Tuskegee, including those in architectural drawing, could practice their crafts while helping construct the campus as well as learning their trades' principles in classrooms and shops. This approach appealed to Tuskegee's donors who saw their gifts doing the double duty of teaching marketable skills to the very poor and developing the campus at low cost while helping the students who were doing the work earn room and board.
In 1899, Taylor moved to Cleveland, Ohio, because he wanted to learn newer building methods and had tired of teaching. There, he worked for a white architect and then tried to establish an independent practice. He continued to provide designs for Tuskegee, however, sending down the drawings for structures that included a library, an administration building, three brick dormitories, two bath houses with swimming pools, and the Huntington Memorial Academic Building, another loss to fire. One of Taylor's finest buildings of this period is the Carnegie Library, built in 1901. It was the first of many Tuskegee buildings with large classical columns. Taylor may have chosen to incorporate large Greek and Roman columns as a challenge to the framers of Alabama's 1901 Constitution, which essentially disfranchised almost all African Americans and most poor whites from the electoral process. Large Greek and Roman columns have served as emblems of political and cultural authority for most of Western history. The library walls behind and on each side of the columns demonstrate Taylor's use of varying window shapes and spacing to achieve a rhythmic façade. Tantum Hall dormitory also has large columns, but they are on the rear side overlooking a valley. Taylor also designed Carnegie libraries at black colleges in Marshall, Texas, and Salisbury, North Carolina.
In 1903, Taylor returned to Tuskegee as both architect and administrator, heading up the Department of Mechanical Industries and overseeing buildings and grounds. Under Washington's leadership, Taylor designed seven more brick dormitories; a larger hospital with grand columns; a veterinary hospital; a classically styled laundry; and a decorative gateway. Many structures from this era, including dormitory Rockefeller Hall, feature a design device that Taylor favored: a large window that lights up a staircase landing and offers visual interest in the exterior wall. Such windows also grace the rear walls of the four Emery dormitories and, front and center, the staircase tower on Dorothy Hall, the Girls' Industries Building. Although he did not design it, Taylor (and Washington) did the interior planning for the largest building of the period, the domed and columned Tompkins Dining Hall. A white builder/architect from Georgia was the architect, but Taylor and Washington decided space allocation and interior arrangements. Taylor also engineered it so that the great dining hall did not have to be interrupted by supporting posts, as it is now. Taylor finished the interiors and supervised construction after the architect died.
After Washington's death in 1915, Taylor continued his work under Tuskegee's second principal, Robert R. Moton. He was joined in his efforts by a younger design partner, Louis H. Persley, who trained at the Carnegie Institute of Technology. They designed two new dormitories and larger buildings for the newly established College Department, including the Frissell (now Ford) Library, the Armstrong Science Building, and Logan Hall, which housed the auditorium/gymnasium. They also designed Tuskegee's third primary school, the brick Chambliss Children's House (recently the Chambliss Business House).
In addition to structures at Tuskegee, Taylor and Persley designed a brick school at Snow Hill (Wilcox County); a multipurpose classroom, office, and chapel structure at Selma University in Selma, Dallas County; and, on Fourth Avenue in Birmingham, the Colored Masonic Temple, which was in an eight-story office building that also housed a general-use auditorium. It would serve as the social and business center for the city's black community during the age of segregation and as a gathering place during the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s.
In 1929, Taylor traveled to Kakata, Liberia, in Africa, to help found the Booker Washington Agricultural and Industrial Institute,
a normal, industrial, and agricultural school modeled on Tuskegee. He studied the country's economic opportunities and wrote a curriculum for the school that would
support those varied endeavors. He proposed governance and staffing, sketched a campus plan, and designed several buildings.
In 1932, Taylor returned to his hometown of Wilmington, where he worked for racial justice during the last decade of his life.
He also served as a trustee of Fayetteville State University. In December 1942, while visiting family in Tuskegee, he collapsed
in the chapel he had designed and built and died on December 13, in the hospital he had designed and built. He was buried
in Wilmington’s Pine Forest Cemetery, which his father had helped found. Taylor was married twice. He wed Beatrice Rochon
Taylor in 1898. The couple would have four children before Beatrice died in 1906. In 1912, he married Nellie Chestnut Taylor,
with whom he had one child.
Weiss, Ellen. Robert R. Taylor and Tuskegee: An African American Architect Designs for Booker T. Washington. Montgomery: NewSouth Books, 2012.
Williams, Clarence G. "From 'Tech' to Tuskegee: The Life of Robert Robinson Taylor, 1868-1942." Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Libraries, 1998; http://libraries.mit.edu/archives/mithistory/blacks-at-mit/taylor.html
Wilson, Dreck Spurlock, ed. "Robert Robinson Taylor." African American Architects: A Biographical Dictionary, 1865-1945. New York: Routledge, 2004.
Published May 16, 2012
Last updated June 14, 2012