One of the most successful and productive African American architects in Washington, D.C. during the first half of the twentieth century, Hilyard Robinson helped to address the housing needs of black Americans—from the poor to the affluent—and became the leading designer of public housing. His work helped to spur the passage of the first national housing act. He also supervised the construction of the Tuskegee Army Airfield in Alabama, where the famed Tuskegee Airmen trained.
Born in Washington, D.C, in 1899, Hilyard Robert Robinson graduated from the later historic M Street High School in the district and for one year, 1917, studied at the Pennsylvania Museum and School of Industrial Arts in Philadelphia. World War I was then in progress; Robinson left school and joined the U.S. Army Field Artillery Corps, 167th Brigade. He served in France as a second lieutenant. Back in the states after that, in 1919 he studied architecture at the University of Pennsylvania, under the tutelage of Paule Philippe Cret, who trained at École des Beaux Arts.
Robinson spent the summers of 1921 and 1922 in Harlem, where he was a draftsman for the noted black architect Vertner Woodson Tandy. There he was persuaded to transfer to Columbia University in 1922. From 1922 to 1924 Robinson worked as an architectural draftsman for Paul B. LaVelle, who also trained at École des Beaux Arts and was a friend of his former employer, Tandy. He taught part-time at Howard University in his home town, at the time when the university was developing its School of Architecture. Thus Robinson's relationship to Howard began before he received his bachelor's degree in architecture from Columbia in 1924. As instructor and later department chair at Howard until 1937, Robinson designed eleven buildings for the school and also played a part in establishing a distinct modernistic design on the hilltop campus. There he established contacts for personal residences that he designed or remodeled in the city.
Toward the end of the 1920s Robinson studied the slums that housed Washington's poorest blacks and then embarked on an exploration of congregated housing needs that would facilitate his work later on. On leave of absence from Howard, he completed his master's degree at Columbia University in 1931 and spent eighteen months on a subsidized tour of Europe. He examined and photographed government-sponsored housing solutions. Techniques for reconstruction of Rotterdam as well as Scandinavian contemporary style of architecture impressed him. When he returned to Howard in 1932, Robinson had a solid understanding of architectural trends in other countries.
In 1935 Robinson took a second leave of absence from Howard to pursue his interest in housing needs for the black poor and to apply low-cost techniques to new construction. The Public Works Administration, just established, was empowered to provide housing for the poor. Having studied the subject, Robinson was well suited to help the WPA pursue its mission; moreover, blacks had to be included in any plans that were advanced. Robinson began a partnership with two local white architects—Irwin Porter and Alexander Trowbridge—as well as the prominent and well-connected black architects Paul Revere Williams and his former boss Vertner Tandy. Robinson was the group's chief architect. Their charge was clear: design the first federally sponsored public housing development in the city and in the nation. Thus, Langston Terrace was born.
Because Langston Terrace was located near the U.S. capitol, it was highly visible to the general public and, in the words of Glen Leiner in African American Architects, "the most conspicuous of the fifty-one federal housing projects sponsored by the Public Works Administration." David Augustus Williston, a prominent black landscape architect also involved in the plan, developed a central common that served the modest dwellings. So attractive and functional was the development that it catapulted Robinson into the role of leading designer of public housing. It also remained his prized achievement. Because of its overall appeal and functionality, Langston Terrace and Robinson's work with it helped lead to the passage in 1937 of the first national Housing Act. Robinson moved on to other projects, including Aberdeen Gardens in Newport News, Virginia, in 1935 as well as housing for black defense workers.
- Born in Washington, D.C.
- Studies at Pennsylvania Museum and School of Industrial Arts
- Studies at University of Pennsylvania
- Becomes draftsman for Vertner Woodson Tandy
- Studies at Columbia University; becomes draftsman for Paul B. LaVelle; teaches part-time at Howard University
- Receives B.A. from Columbia University
- Receives M.A. from Columbia University; makes architectural study tour of Europe
- Begins designing and building public housing developments
- Designs home for Ralph Bunche; designs Tuskegee Army Airfield
- Develops plans for Liberia's Centennial Exposition
- Dies in Washington, D.C. on July 2
Robinson contributed to the beauty of the upscale Brooklyn neighborhood located in Washington, D.C. near Catholic University of America. In 1941 he designed the home of Ralph J. Bunche, who went on to become the first black secretary of the United Nations. His home, located at 1510 Jackson Street, NE, had a distinctive hip-roof and was designed with a subtle international style. Robinson employed John Dennis Sulton to complete the house, for he was headed to another important assignment in Tuskegee, Alabama.
The segregated armed forces had kept blacks out of the U.S. Army Air Force—the "dream team" of the military. After agitation from blacks, particularly threat of a law suit from the NAACP and Howard University student Yancey Williams, blacks were accepted into the segregated 99th Pursuit Squadron, the legendary Tuskegee Airmen. This group was relegated to a new base developed about six miles from Tuskegee Institute (now University) in Alabama. The air base consisted of hangars, shops, classrooms, and other facilities, and needed an air field for flight training. Robinson moved to the Tuskegee campus in June 1941 to be near the project that he was to design and supervise in construction—the Tuskegee Army Airfield in Chehaw, Alabama. He had a staff of twenty-one architects, engineers, and administrative personnel. The architectural firm Alexander & Repass constructed the air base. Robinson had held and completed the first defense contract given to an African American.
Robinson was well-connected in Washington. He was a member of the Washington Housing Association from 1950 to 1955. He also headed the Washington Housing Authority. After the war, he was planning consultant to the Republic of Liberia from 1946 to 1949 and developed the plans for Liberia's 1947 Centennial Exposition. He designed buildings for Howard University, such as the School of Engineering and Architecture in 1952.
He fared well during the Great Depression, as projects or commissions continued to come to him. Robinson designed the small office building that housed his business, at 1927 11th Street, N.W. Through 1962, when he went into semi-retirement, he had a staff of six or seven people but never elevated any of them to a partnership. He hired numerous architects as well but held only nominal partnerships with those politically well-connected architects who helped him to secure commissions. In private life, he was married to Helena Rooks Robinson and had one daughter who died before her teen years. Robinson died on July 2, 1986, in Howard University Hospital. His most compelling legacy was seen in his design and construction of public housing.
"Robinson, Hilyard." Notable Black American Men, Book II. . Encyclopedia.com. (September 23, 2018). http://www.encyclopedia.com/african-american-focus/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/robinson-hilyard
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