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Hilyard Robinson
Hilyard Robinson


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One of the most successful and productive African American architects in Washington, DC 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, DC, 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 US 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 US 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.

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