At first glance, Birmingham’s Civil Rights District may seem like any other historic neighborhood in the country. You’ll find tourists stopping to read markers detailing important events in the movement, locals strolling through Kelly Ingram Park on their lunch breaks, and schoolchildren lining up to visit museums for school trips. What many people don’t realize, however, is that scattered throughout these city blocks are hidden architectural treasures that tell the story of black excellence.
The district is one of the few places in the nation to showcase the work of three black architects from different generations: the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church and Rectory by architect Wallace Rayfield, the Masonic Temple Building by architect Robert Robinson Taylor, and the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute by architect J. Max Bond Jr.
“I consider this three to four block radius to be one of the rarest cultural landscapes and historical settings in the United States, showcasing the contribution of two generations of black architects to our nation,” said Brent Leggs, senior vice president of the National Trust for Historic Preservation and managing director of his African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund.
Leggs first began working with local leaders in 2015 as part of a lobbying campaign to build the Birmingham Civil Rights National Monument. During the 1950s and 1960s, several significant moments in the struggle for racial equality took place in the streets and buildings of what is now recognized Civil Rights District. Officially designated by President Barack Obama in 2017, Birmingham’s National Monument covers about four blocks of the borough and includes black history sites like the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church and the Masonic Temple Building.
Denise Gilmore, who previously worked with Leggs at the National Trust, is serving as executive director of the social and racial justice department in Birmingham. in her current function, she oversees the preservation and further development of the monument. For her, the buildings reflect Birmingham’s important role in the modern civil rights movement and shed a light on local heroes.
“These pages are reminiscent of the battles,” says Gilmore. “The buildings provide the narrative and the stories for what happened in the struggle for civil and human rights in the 1950s and 1960s.”
One of the city’s most recognizable landmarks is Wallace Rayfield’s Sixteenth Street Baptist Church. Born circa 1873 in Macon, Georgia, Rayfield was only the second officially trained black architect practicing in the United States at the time. He earned degrees from Howard University, Pratt Polytechnic Institute, and Columbia University before being recruited by Booker T. Washington to teach at Tuskegee Institute in Alabama. In 1908 he opened his own architectural practice in Birmingham, where he focused on creating safe spaces in churches for Black people to congregate. Gilmore notes that Rayfield “was prolific in terms of his architecture and his designs being built in Birmingham”.
The most famous of Rayfield’s Birmingham projects, the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, completed in 1911, blends elements of Romanesque and Byzantine design and demonstrates Rayfield’s meticulous attention to detail. Due to segregation in the city, the church quickly became a social center for black Birmingham residents and later a headquarters for the organization during the civil rights movement.
Most people know the church from the 1963 bomb blast that killed four black girls. Leggs notes that events in the church were catalytic in the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Today it serves as a leading example of how members of the local community who are not trained in heritage preservation can take responsibility for important architecture to tell its full story.
“It is lovely to see how the church has increased its stewardship capacity over the last few decades to be an exceptional steward of the historic church building and also the recent redesign of the vicarage to tell an overlooked story about the architectural importance of the church, and to bring the lesser-known contribution of an amazing American architect to the public,” says Leggs.
Just a few blocks away is the architectural work of the first accredited black architect in the US: Robert Robinson Taylor. He was the first black graduate from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he studied architecture. Similar to Rayfield, Taylor was recruited by Washington to design new buildings on the Tuskegee campus and develop its architectural program.
Between 1922 and 1924, Taylor worked with Louis Persley, the first black architect registered in Georgia, and the Windam Brothers, a black-owned construction company, to design the Masonic Temple Building in the historic 4th Avenue neighborhood of Birmingham. The 8-storey building, adorned with large Greek columns and decorative marble details, was one of the few places that black entrepreneurs were able to set up shop in Birmingham during the long period of segregation. Black residents flocked to the tall skyscraper to see the doctor, get their hair cut, and even attend concerts in the building’s first-floor auditorium. Music greats such as Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong and Count Basie have played at the temple numerous times. Later, it also became a place where civil rights leaders and groups like the NAACP met to plan and organize.
Irvin Henderson, the managing partner of Historic District Developerthat is renovating the Masonic Temple says, “The building is an example of collective economics from a time when people engaged in everything from Jim Crow to open lynching. In turbulent times, African Americans made that economic statement and fended for themselves.”
When the city was finally dissolved, the building fell into a deteriorated condition. Milton SF Curry, dean of the USC School of Architecture at the University of Southern California, notes that early black architects like Taylor and Wallace played important roles in shaping the nation, but so often their work is overlooked and the buildings neglected .
“The importance of these architects who designed these cultural artifacts, these buildings that anchor African-American communities, have not necessarily been lauded nationally or even regionally as significant architects because either the scope of their work or the aesthetics of their work have not adhered to the conventional type.” References to define excellence in this field,” explains Curry.
The temple sat vacant for almost a decade before Historic District Developers, a joint venture between Direct Invest Development LLC and Henderson & Company, announced their plans to restore the Masonic Temple Building with intentions of turning it back into a commercial center in 2019. Henderson notes that the Masons will remain the primary tenants, but the restored building will also house a restaurant and professional offices, and the auditorium will once again be used as an events venue.
Although not officially part of the city’s national monument, the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute was purposely built to complement the historic structures surrounding it and to tell the story of the city. J. Max Bond Jr. was selected as the lead architect for the project, even helping to set the institute’s mission and program. Bond graduated from Harvard University in 1958 with a master’s degree in architecture and founded the architectural firm Bond Ryder Associates with Donald P. Ryder in 1969. Perhaps his most enduring legacy is his role in shaping several of the country’s key civil rights and black culture research institutes.
“Here was someone who, in a way, encapsulated the fruits of the civil rights struggle that he saw with his own eyes as a young man,” says Curry. “He translated those rewards into history and architecture.”
Bond ensured that the modernist architecture of the museum, located directly across from Kelly Ingram Park, adjacent to the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church and adjacent to the AG Gaston Motel, did not dominate the pre-existing buildings that were so instrumental in telling the story the civil rights movement.
Curry notes that the building serves as an “ode to classic architectural idioms, but it’s also a nod to a refreshing modernist look, pushing this community into a sort of next-period experience of more contemporary architecture.” Founded in 1992 as a locally focused history museum and international center for civil rights research, today remains a leader in social justice education.
The three buildings, each with a different architectural style, underscore not only the tenacity of their builders, but also that of a community that has fought and continues to fight tirelessly for social justice. These Birmingham landmarks show why preserving – and ultimately experiencing – these places is so important to telling the country’s story and guiding us into a brighter future.
“These buildings represent the ingenuity and creativity of Black professionals and a community to achieve their dreams,” says Leggs. “Through preservation, there is an opportunity to revitalize this powerful legacy and community vision to revitalize this historic neighborhood and continue the important work of elevating visions of Black America.”
You might like it too