The architecturally progressive and ambitious designs provided by the faculty and graduates of North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University (NCA&T) in the mid-20th century are increasingly taking center stage as the contributions of Black builders and architects gain greater study and recognition. Architectural historian Eric Woodard states “the strong legacy of design and innovation, coupled with a sure sense of community and civic and social responsibility, pride and activism…is inextricably linked to the historically progressive culture from which grew the Architectural Engineering Program at NCA&T.”
The path to the establishment of NCA&T’s influential Architectural Engineering Program was set with the founding of the university in 1891. Then known as the Agricultural and Mechanical College for the Colored Race, as early as 1895 architect Orlo Epps (1864-1926) served as Professor of Physics, Applied Mathematics, and Mechanics according to the college’s Annual Catalog.
James R. Stewart Jr., Archives and Special Collections Librarian in the F. D. Bluford Library at NCA&T considers Epps to be the first head of the university’s Mechanical Department. A white architect, Epps designed every building on campus constructed before 1905 according to a history of the institution written by Prof. D. K. Cherry in 1922. That includes the College’s main building completed in 1893 [image, right]. By June 1899, Epps was reported by the Greensboro Patriot newspaper to be “formerly connected with the colored A. & M. College.”
Leadership changes within the Mechanical Department in 1898 included Jesse Haskell Bourne (1874-1953), appointed as the new Department Head and Professor of Mechanics; George C. Snow, Instructor in Department of Mechanics; C. H. Evans, Joinery and Wood Turning; and L. A. Snead, Blacksmithing. However, by September 1899, the Greensboro Telegram newspaper reported “Prof. Hugo Diemer was elected to fill the vacancy caused by the resignation of Prof. J. H. Bourne of the mechanical department. Prof. Diemer is a graduate of the Ohio University.” Bourne was a graduate of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology; Diemer (1870-1939) later gained notoriety in work management and efficiency in Ohio.
These early instructors reflected the practical and vocational education espoused by Booker T. Washington to provide Black students advanced skills in farming and building. Promotional literature through the university at that time advanced that “It is the aim of the Mechanical Department to give students a thorough training in at least one of the mechanical arts. Our students have the choice of taking a course in wood working or one in metal working.” Though not reflective of architecture by name, students’ instruction in construction and materials implies an element of architecture in their education in construction.
For example, within the department of woodworking, training was subdivided into three parts: joinery, wood-turning, and cabinet work [image, right]. The two-year joinery program provided students with coursework in wood-turning and cabinetmaking and includes advanced joinery and details of house construction.
Wilmington NC native James Benson Dudley, an editor and political activist in the mid-1890s, rose to the role of President of the institution in 1896. Dudley raised the profile of the college regionally and hired more Black faculty members who were representative of the student body. Dudley also aligned with Booker T. Washington in believing that the trades were the key for young Black citizens to gain financial independence in North Carolina.
Though Dudley’s particular focus increasingly turned to agriculture instead of mechanics, he strategically strengthened the college’s program by emphasizing the trades components of the Mechanical Department. Workforce demand likely fueled growth in the “profitable” building trades.
By April 1901, Dudley reinstated architect Orlo Epps as head of the Mechanical Department. The Greensboro Telegram newspaper reported “…President Dudley is constantly seeking to enlarge this industry and thereby increase its contribution to the college funds. At the same time the President is vigorously pushing the establishment of profitable industries in the Mechanical department…the brick yard…will soon be yielding a revenue to the college, and at the same time will be furnishing the students with much needed aid and valuable practical experience.”
At the same time, the college made an interesting tactical entry into house construction through its carpentry program. In April 1901, the Greensboro Telegram, reported “In the Mechanical department are found carpenter shops. The boys working in this line make anything from small model to a house.” [image of Washington DC Project 1906, right]
A month later, the school began its brick manufacturing business. Historically, brick making was the purview of Black entrepreneurs such as Greensboro Zephaniah Mitchell and his son-in-law James Dean. President Dudley entered the college into the market, offering 30,000 fine hard brick for sale through the Mechanical Department in May 1901.
In 1902, the Greensboro Patriot reported “…the Mechanical Department…has a brickyard, tin shop, shoe and harness shop, and blacksmith shop (image, right). It teaches practical carpentry, and to this end has built several houses in the city. It teaches plumbing, brick laying and plastering and cabinet work, all in a practical way. These trades are pursued primarily of course for the purpose of instruction, but they are made as nearly self-supporting as possible, and nearly everything taught in the Mechanical and Agricultural Industries departments pays some return to the college, and some pay satisfactory profits.”
NCA&T student Adam Watson (1870 – 1908), a native of Warren County, earned recognition in the spring term of 1899 for making a steam engine and thought to be the first made in the state by a man of color. He was one of the “Superior Seven” of 1899 – a member of the first graduating class of NCA&T. Upon graduation, Watson was hired as foreman of the campus carpenter shop in May 1899, and by 1902 he was recognized within the school community as Head of the Department of Mechanics and a professor of Mechanical Drawing and Architecture. In May 1905, the New York Age newspaper announced that work stared on the new dormitory, later known as Vanstory Hall. The article stated “plans for the building were drawn by Adam Watson, director of the mechanical department, who himself is a graduate of this school.” Historian James Stewart considers Professor Watson to be the first head of the Mechanical Department of color at NCA&T. Poor health forced him to leave in 1906. Watson is also credited as the first person of color to design a building on the campus.
In addition to Watson, other notable graduates provide a glimpse inside the talent associated with the earliest history of the university. The Greensboro Daily Record in 1907 referenced Prof. G. A. [Gaston Alonzo] Edwards as a graduate of the class of 1901. Edwards [image, right] later joined staff at Shaw University in Raleigh and cultivated an architectural practice in that city. Edwards held licensing certificate #54 on July 22, 1915, “the only man of color among the initial group of architects whose licenses were granted because they were practicing prior to 1915” according to historians Catherine W. Bishir and Edwards’ granddaughter Hazel Ruth Edwards.
Members of the graduating Class of 1903 included J. W. Holmes, an architect at the St. Augustine School in Raleigh and his classmate A. A. Oldham of Chestnut Street in Greensboro. Other graduates found employment across the state as brick masons, carpenters, and builders.
Lawrence B. Jeffries of Alamance County was another notable attendee. According to the Greensboro Daily News in 1910, “he spent a number of months studying in the mechanical department of the A. & M. College” and received practical training from some of the best contractors and builders to be found in this section of the country. Jeffries was the contractor of several undocumented churches around the state and Greensboro’s East Washington Street School for Black students. Another example of his work was the Suggs Block, a three-story commercial building erected by D. C. Suggs at 505 East Market Street. Not only did Jeffries design and build the structure, but his architecture firm Jeffries and Foster was located within the building.
Upon Professor Watson’s resignation, his position was filled at the beginning of the 1906 fall term by Professor Charles Warner Pierce. Pierce (1876-1947) was a native of Georgia and was a graduate of the Armour (later Illinois) Institute of Technology, Chicago. He came to Greensboro after four years as chief engineer at the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama. Pierce is thought to be one of the nation’s first African-American chemical engineers.
Professor Pierce was replaced by Professor F. C. Johnson of the Chicago Manual Training School, the Armour (Illinois) Institute of Technology, and Tuskegee Institute by way of Florida State A&M College.
The annual catalog of the college for school year 1906-1907 documents an increasingly sophisticated approach to architectural education. For example, coursework included lectures in architecture and included drawing. Subjects included Egyptian, Greek, Roman, Byzantine, Romanesque, Gothic, and modern architectural styles. Courses reviewed architectural history, development, and constructive features, and drafting classes [image, right] served to “illustrate and fix the same in the minds of the students.”
By the 1915-1916 term, the faculty of the Department of Mechanical Arts included W. H. Markham as Department Secretary, W. N. Nelson as Instructor in Carpentry, and A. D. Watkins as Instructor in masonry. The program took quarters in a new two-story Mechanic Arts Building (later renamed Crosby Hall in honor of the first president of NCA&T). There, carpentry, lighting, and plumbing programs were located on the first floor, and bricklaying shops were housed in the basement. Drawing rooms and a photography studio were located on the uppermost level.
A Bachelor of Science in Architectural Engineering was among degrees offered by 1921. Coursework for the degree included the History of Architecture, Advanced Drawing, Surveying, and Architectural Design in addition to Foreign Language, Calculus, Physics, Qualitative Chemistry and Hydraulics. A. D. Watkins instructed students in Brick Masonry and Plastering; C. H. Buck taught carpentry, and L. P. Byram instructed engineering.
By 1930, NCA&T’s School of Mechanic Arts offered degrees of Bachelor of Science in Architecture, or Mechanical Engineering, or Building and Construction. Robust architectural coursework offered 24 classes in such topics as Stereotomy (study of the art of stone cutting), architectural shade and shadows, perspective, several design laboratories with composition and criticism, structural lectures, and study of materials.
Many classes were likely taught by Floyd A. Mayfield (1898-1975), the only Professor of Architecture in the campus directory. Mayfield [image, right] grew up in Lake Providence LA. He graduated from Howard University with post-graduate work at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor and was a practicing architect.
NCA&T was not the only historically Black institution to offer a degree in architecture. The first decades of the twentieth century saw a handful of architectural and building sciences curricula that were offered to students of HBCUs, including Howard University (1911), Tuskegee University (1940), and Hampton University (1940s).
As a point of reference, Raleigh-based N. C. State college (NCSU) initiated a Bachelor of Architectural Engineering degree through their School of Engineering at the beginning of the 1920-1921 school year. There, the Architectural Engineering Program became a department within the School of Engineering in 1927 and in 1940, the department’s name was changed to the Department of Architecture and Architectural Engineering. In 1946, the board of trustees of the Consolidated University of North Carolina approved a School of Architecture and Landscape Design for State College and hired Henry L. Kamphoefner to head the new school in 1948.
NCA&T’s Department of Architecture and Building was renamed the Department of Architectural Engineering within the School of Mechanical Arts in 1941 and was led by Floyd A. Mayfield. The Department was housed in Alexander Graham Hall, a replacement for Crosby Hall. The new building was dedicated in January 1940 in honor of the Charlotte Superintendent of Public School who was credited as an advocate for Black education.
Mayfield was dismissed by college president Dr. F. D. Bluford in the summer of 1947 for having “been interested in projects outside collegiate duties and that such occupation detracted from their posts.” A practicing architect, he was one of the first Black candidates for Greensboro City Council in 1949. His architectural style includes the streamlined Maurice Lytell House at 1201 South Benbow Road in Clinton Hills. This dwelling presages modernism with a low hipped roofline, broad windows, and a recessed main entry flanked by decorative screens that are representative of Regency Revival-style design.
In his place, William A. Streat, Jr. was named Department Chair from 1949 to 1985. A native of Virginia, Streat (1920-1994) was part of the legendary Tuskegee Airman in World War II. He earned a master’s degree in architecture from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1949 and in 1952 he became the second Black architect to be licensed to practice in North Carolina. In 1961, Streat became the second African-American to join the North Carolina chapter of the AIA [image, right].
A practicing architect, Streat’s signature style was distinctly modern, exemplified with the 1967 sanctuary for the Episcopal Church of the Redeemer at 901 East Friendly. His home at 1507 Tuscaloosa Street in Clinton Hills is a remarkable example of Mid-Century Modernism.
Gerard Gray earned a bachelor’s degree in architectural engineering from NCA&T in 1942. He served in the Army Corps of Engineers during World War II and received a master’s degree in architectural engineering from the University of Illinois in 1949. He was selected as an associate professor at NCA&T in 1953 and taught classes in drafting, building materials, and architectural history. Gray maintained his own architectural practice simultaneous to his professorship beginning in 1961.
Among the best known graduates of the Architectural Engineering Program at NCA&T in 1949, Edward Jenkins (image, right) was the first Black architect to join the NC AIA. Jenkins designed several buildings around Greensboro including Merrick Hall (1966) [Image, right, Marteena Hall (1980), Aggie Truist Stadium (1981), and the Ronald McNair Engineering Building (1984) on NCA&T’s campus.
The August 20 1952 Greensboro Record announced “Bids for construction of engineering [building]…will cost approximately $600,000. An additional $100,000 has been provided for equipment for the engineering building… Dean J. H. Marteena of the School of Engineering said that the engineering building will be a three-story, brick structure, housing five departments: Electrical engineering, mechanical engineering, civil engineering, architecture and physics.” Completed in 1954, the Greensboro Record announced “A&T’s engineering building, Gregg Cherry Hall (image, right), is brand new and a credit to any campus.”
NCA&T’s Architectural Engineering Program was accredited in 1969 by the Engineering Council for Professional Development (ECPD) and continues to be recognized through the successor review board known as the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology (ABET).
Although NCA&T might have been considered a logical expansion site for a school of architecture, the Charlotte Observer announced in October 1966: “the Chancellor of N. C. State University recommended Thursday that the state’s second school of architecture be established at the Charlotte campus (UNC Charlotte). The N.C. Chapter of the American Institute of Architects (NC AIA) has recommended that the school be started by January if possible.”
Charlotte was an interesting choice for North Carolina’s second school of architecture, as NCA&T was an established and recognized program that nearly mirrored the trajectory of NCSU. NCSU Chancellor John Caldwell explained “the school of architecture at N.C. State had reached a maximum of enrollment and has been running away qualified applicants. For example, he said, one out of every six out-of-state applicants to the N.C. State school of architecture is turned away. He added that the architecture school [at UNC Charlotte] would represent a major step in making the Charlotte campus a full-fledged branch of the university.”
Though overlooked for a new school of architecture, NCA&T’s program continued under the leadership of William Streat. In May 1974, the NC AIA Magazine profiled the department alongside programs at NCSU and UNC Charlotte (image, right).
“The architectural engineering program provides considerable training in general education which is devoted to study of social and physical sciences, art, English, mathematics and the humanities,” the article stated, adding “The five-year program in architectural engineering leads to the bachelor of science degree and is full accredited by the Engineers’ Council for Professional Development.”
At the time, the enrollment in Architectural Engineering Program included 93 students with six full-time faculty. The profile noted that graduates of the program were employed in the following ways: private architectural firms (10%); Engineering firms (20%; Government agencies (55%); Industry (10%); Educational institutions (5%).
In 1980, state licensing boards passed a resolution requiring a degree from the National Architectural Accrediting Board (NAAB) accredited program for certification, effective 1984. Beginning in 1991, the National Council of Architectural Registration Boards required applicants hold a degree from a program accredited by the NAAB. Since only NCSU and UNC Charlotte maintained NAAB-accredited programs, NCA&T’s program did not fall within the requirements for registered architects. NCA&T remained focused on architectural engineering instead of architecture.
Architectural engineers specialize in the design, construction, and maintenance of buildings. They receive training to develop designs for structural systems, heating and air conditioning systems, lighting and electrical systems, and plumbing and fire protection systems. Architectural engineers work with other engineers and architects to design and construct buildings and the systems within buildings.
In the twenty-first century, NCA&T’s Department of Civil, Architectural and Environmental Engineering (CAEE) remains a benchmark of the university. Headed by Dr. Leotis Parrish, the program focuses on research such as highway design, energy efficiency and green buildings, and water quality.
Faculty have included groundbreaking instructors such as Lolalisa King (1960-2017), a woman of color who became one of the first one hundred African American women to be licensed as an architect in the United States, and quite possibly the first in North Carolina. The NCA&T campus is a pantheon of structures that carefully curates the history of North Carolina’s Black architects and its architecture chronicles the transition from European Neoclassical Revival styles to futuristic Modern styles.
NCA&T’s Architectural Engineering Program holds an important history that can trace to the origins of the university in 1891. Its faculty including Orlo Epps, Adam Watson, Gaston Alonzo Edwards, Floyd Mayfield, and William A. Streat not only trained generations of North Carolina’s Black architects but practiced architecture and took a leading role in adopting Mid-Century Modernism as a symbol of Black agency and empowerment during the Civil Rights Era. Generations of pioneering Black architects including Adam Watson, Gaston Alonzo Edwards, J. W. Holmes, A. Oldham, Lawrence B. Jeffries, William Gupple, and Gerard Gray, and Ed Jenkins were trained at NC A&T and contributed to a forward-looking body of work that stretched across the state.
Historian Catherine Bishir states “Together these men comprised the first major group of successful African American architects in North Carolina. Only isolated cases of practicing black architects such as Gaston Alonzo Edwards occurred previously in the state, yet by the early 1960s these men were working in the same city, forming a supportive group well utilized by the city’s African American intelligentsia, as well as some white clients.”
The collection of structures designed by these men has received recognition through a series of architectural studies. This work will likely result in the recognition of Civil Rights Era neighborhoods in East Greensboro to the National Register of Historic Places and honor the remarkable architectural legacy of North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University.
Written by Benjamin Briggs
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