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From a Cottage to a College

To celebrate Black History Month, we are turning to an under-reported but historically and aesthetically rich story—the African American architectural heritage in Virginia. Some sites are notable for being designed by African Americans; others for the roles they played in black history, from Booker T. Washington's birthplace to Moton High School, scene of a student strike that led to Brown v. Board of Education. Following are entries from the just-published Buildings of Virginia: Valley, Piedmont, Southside, and Southwest by Anne Carter Lee and a team of coauthors. This is the latest volume of our Buildings of the United States series, published in association with the Society of Architectural Historians. All of these selections will appear in our online archive, SAH Archipedia, and some already appear in Archipedia’s open-access version, Classic Buildings. (For further reading, may we suggest Calder Loth’s Virginia Landmarks of Black History and Lynn Rainville’s Hidden History: African American Cemeteries in Central Virginia.)

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Booker T. Washington National Monument
(In Boones Mill and Westlake Corner vicinity, Franklin County, Piedmont)
Mid-19th century; later additions.
12130 Booker T. Washington Hwy.

Booker T. Washington was born into slavery in 1856 in a log cabin on the tobacco plantation of James and Elizabeth Burroughs. In his autobiography, Up from Slavery (1901), Washington recounts the story of his hardscrabble childhood and evolution into a major educational and cultural figure of his time. The pragmatic Washington not only established in 1881 a school for African Americans in Alabama that became Tuskegee Institute but also helped lead America's blacks and whites to a better understanding of each other. A replica of the one-room cabin where he lived as a child has been constructed along with other outbuildings and a center for interpreting this history. In his autobiography, Washington wrote of his childhood home, "The cabin was not only our living-place, but was also used as the kitchen for the plantation. . . . The cabin was without glass windows; it had only openings in the side which let the light in, and also the cold, chilly air of winter. There was a door to the cabin--that is, something that was called a door--but the uncertain hinges by which it was hung, and the large cracks in it, to say nothing of the fact that it was too small, made the room a very uncomfortable one . . . we slept in and on a bundle of filthy rags laid upon the dirt floor."

Pittsylvania County Courthouse
(In Chatham, Pittsylvania County, Southside)
1853, L. A. Shumaker; 1898 addition, Bartholomew F. Smith; 1917 addition, Stanhope S. Johnson and Pritchett and Henderson; 1968 addition.

1 N. Main St.
Pittsylvania's brick courthouse not only holds a place in the evolution of Virginia's courthouse architecture but also one in the civil rights and constitutional history of the country. Here in 1878, after he excluded African Americans from serving on jury duty, Judge J. D. Coles was charged with violating the Civil Rights Act of 1875 and was subsequently arrested and jailed. He then petitioned the Supreme Court to be released from custody. Ruling against him in the case Ex parte Virginia, the court held that he had violated the Civil Rights Act and the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment that extended federal citizenship to blacks. Although limited in its immediate impact, the ruling was a portent of changes to come in the distant future.The Pittsylvania County Courthouse and the neighboring Old Campbell County Courthouse, on which it was modeled, are Greek Revival with fashionable all-stretcher brick bond on the facade. Although both courthouses have five-bay facades, Doric porticos on the upper floor give their front elevations a vaguely three-part aspect reminiscent of earlier Jeffersonian buildings. The elaborate Pittsylvania courthouse has an entablature with triglyphs and guttae and a two-stage square cupola. The courtroom retains its original paneled ceiling, but its aedicule and paneling, as well as its benches, are twentieth-century additions. Gazing down from the walls of the courtroom are portraits of prominent white, male Pittsylvanians. On the ground floor are the treasurer's and clerk's offices. The clerk's office was enlarged in 1898, court-related offices were added in 1917, and a rear addition for the sheriff's and commonwealth attorney's offices was completed in 1968.

Buena Vista Colored School
(In Buena Vista, Shenandoah Valley)
1915, 1926.

30th St. at Aspen Ave.
In the middle of Buena Vista's boom, the town's first African American school and church (1891) were built on this lot at the northern edge of town. The church moved in 1902 but the school remained. It burned in 1915, but was rebuilt immediately, keeping the same simple, four-bay, one-story, brick rectangular form. A central chimney vented the woodstove that was the only source of heat for the two-room interior. In 1926 a section was added to the east that extended the facade to seven bays. The resulting three-room building served as the town's only school for African American children in grades 1-7 until 1957. It never had indoor plumbing and photographs show a wooden and later a brick outhouse. The brick outbuilding that survives was used for wood and coal storage. A local group is working to restore the building as a museum and community center.


Virginia State University (Virginia Normal and Collegiate Institute)
(In Colonial Heights and Vicinity, Southside)
1882 chartered.

1 Hayden St.
Chartered as Virginia Normal and Collegiate Institutethe part of William Mahone's Readjuster platform to establish more educational opportunities for Virginia's studentsVSU is one of the oldest state-supported African American institutions of higher education in the United States and one of two land grant colleges in Virginia. Set on a lovely bluff above the Appomattox River, the university's many brick buildings are laid out in an irregular pattern with most of the earlier structures located at the south end of the campus. Although no longer standing, the college's first building, Virginia Hall (1888; demolished 1937), was an enormous Second Empire brick building designed by Harrison Waite of Petersburg. Waite was also the architect of the oldest extant building on campus, Vawter Hall (1908; later modifications), a two-and-a-half-story H-shaped structure with corbeled brick cornices. The building's elbowed gable parapets are echoed in the elbowed parapets of the single dormers centered on each long elevation. Three of the building's original wooden Doric porches survive. The adjacent former President's House (now Storum Hall, 1913) designed by Samuel Daley Craig of Petersburg is a two-story, hipped-roof brick building that has been modified, including the addition of a bay and the enclosure of a porch.Virginia's leading collegiate architect of the era, Charles M. Robinson of Richmond, designed many edifices between 1920 and 1930. His Georgian Revival brick dormitories line the north side of Hayden Street--the women's dormitories were separated from the men's to the west by College Avenue. One of the men's dormitories, Williams Hall (1934), is credited to John Binford Walford of Richmond, who joined Robinson's office in 1918 and probably helped design some of the buildings attributed to Robinson. Of the several buildings Walford designed, his most distinguished is the second Virginia Hall (1937), the principal building on the campus. The seven-bay central block of this three-and-a-half-story brick building with a full-height pedimented Doric entrance portico is framed by three-bay pedimented end pavilions. Rising from the hipped roof is a multitiered cupola. All of the buildings attributed to Robinson and Walford are in a restrained Georgian Revival that blends well with the many newer campus buildings, which are almost universally brick.The L. Douglas Wilder Building (1997, Ben R. Johns Jr.) is named for the nation's first elected African American governor. Entrance to its barrel-vaulted central hall is through double doors set in a two-story central section below a giant stylized fanlight. Gently rounded brick projections sandwich the glazed center and are in turn flanked by long rectilinear wings--solid brick on the left and two stories over a bermed basement on the right. In contrast to the red brick, a white composition-stone cornice encircles the building.

Azurest South
(In Colonial Heights and Vicinity, Southside)

1939, Amaza Lee Meredith

One dramatic exception to the campus's mostly Georgian Revival buildings is the modernist residence and studio Meredith designed for herself. The commonwealth's earliest known black female architect, she was also chair of the college's Fine Arts Department in the 1930s. Her concrete-block house, finished in white stucco, has clean geometric forms, a flat roof, and curving bands of glass-block windows emphasizing the rounded corners of the walls. On the west side of the house, the former garage was enclosed in the 1950s for use as a studio and darkroom. Attached to the studio is an open carport with modernism's favored inverted-V pipes as supports. Inside, the colorful interior has a massive Art Deco fireplace, bright mosaics, Carrara glass, and turquoise vinyl tile with metallic gold flecks. The building now serves as the VSU alumni house.

Anne Spencer House
(In Lynchburg, Piedmont)

1313 Pierce St.
Poet Anne Spencer, a notable figure in the Harlem Renaissance literary movement, lived in this two-story, shingle-clad frame house for seventy-two years. Her one-room, one-story, shingled study, built by her husband, Edward Spencer, stands in the rear yard. Both buildings are furnished as they were in her lifetime and are open to the public. Spencer's linear garden with flower beds bordering a walkway was a source of inspiration for many of her poems.

Court Street Baptist Church
(In Lynchburg, Piedmont)
1879-1884, Robert C. Burkholder

517 Court St.
This rectangular brick church with an imposing tower and steeple, something of a stylistic melange, is mostly a late American version of the German Rundbogenstil. Round arches, raised surrounds, and planar brick walls relieved by pilaster strips are characteristic features. There are also desultory Italianate and Second Empire details, although the form is that of a late, large, New England meetinghouse. Altogether, the church leaves a dignified, but hardly showy, impression. Burkholder designed it for an African American congregation, and black contractors and laborers built it. The 167-foot-tall steeple was the tallest in the city when it was completed. A severe storm in June 1993 damaged the steeple to the extent that it had to be removed and rebuilt.

Robert Russa Moton Museum (Moton High School)
(In Farmville, Prince Edward County, Southside)

900 Griffin Blvd.
Farmville's one building of national importance is an unprepossessing landmark, a modest structure on the principal street of African American houses and businesses. This, the first building constructed for the secondary education of African American children in Prince Edward County, was named for Robert Russa Moton, a Prince Edward native who succeeded Booker T. Washington as president at Tuskegee Institute. The school was the scene of an opening chapter in the civil rights movement. On April 23, 1951, Barbara R. Johns led fellow students in a strike to protest insufficient funding and crowded conditions in the facility, including classrooms in temporary wooden buildings behind the single-story brick school. Moton was conspicuously smaller than Farmville High School, built for whites in 1937, despite comparable populations of school-age children. Johns was influenced by seminal thinking on racial equality by Vernon Johns, another Prince Edward native and Martin Luther King Jr.'s predecessor at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta. The strike resulted in Thurgood Marshall and the NAACP including Prince Edward County in the case for racial integration in U.S. public schools, ultimately heard by the Supreme Court as Brown v. Board of Education. The one-story U-shaped brick building has a recessed arched entrance flanked by groups of four large windows, in turn framed by slightly projecting brick end pavilions. The building contains four classrooms in the front section, an auditorium in the center, and two classrooms and a restroom in each rear wing. The building is now an outstanding museum dedicated to the history and preservation of civil rights.

Buildings of Virginia: Valley, Piedmont, Southside, and Southwest is available now.

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