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  • The Architectural Legacy of Wallace A. Rayfield: Pioneer Black Architect of Birmingham, Alabama by Allen R. Durough
  • Margaret Earley Whitt (bio)
Durough, Allen R. The Architectural Legacy of Wallace A. Rayfield: Pioneer Black Architect of Birmingham, Alabama. Tuscaloosa: U of Alabama P, 2010.

The first engaging story in the book must be among the dreams of the intellectually curious in all disciplines. In the fall of 1993, Allen Durough, insurance executive and Baptist minister, was in the process of taking down an old barn on his property in Bessemer, Alabama. Before the bulldozer arrived, he needed to clear out some metal boxes in the rear of the structure. And here is the dream made reality: in those old boxes were 411 printing plates belonging to Wallace Rayfield (1873-1941). Durough knew they were beautiful drawings done by an architect, but he had no idea as to their value. As any good researcher would do, he began to make calls, one person suggesting he might try another, until finally he called Marjorie White at the Birmingham Historical Society, who exclaimed that she had been searching for twenty years "trying to find virtually anything pertaining to Mr. Rayfield's life and work" (xiii). And so it began, a search that lasted for about seventeen years and involved the help of over a hundred individuals to locate those buildings—churches, homes, schools, business offices—designed by Wallace A. Rayfield, whose most famous building is arguably the 1909 Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, site of the September 15, 1963, bombing that killed four young black girls on a Sunday morning.

Through White, Durough discovered that the only extant information on Rayfield was an eight-page booklet in the Birmingham Public Library. When Durough was successful in his calls, he reached people who knew about Rayfield and the responses were always filled with unbridled enthusiasm. Vinson McKenzie, Architectural Librarian at Auburn University, called the find, "in his opinion . . . the greatest discovery of the century pertaining to architectural history" (xiv). Durough thanks 189 people, listed by profession and location, in his acknowledgment section, most of them associated with churches across the South that Rayfield designed. In documenting the work of Rayfield, Durough and his assembled research team spent years traveling all over the South searching for existing Rayfield buildings.

The book proper begins with an introduction on Wallace Rayfield's life, most likely the most exhaustive existing biography. Following the introduction is a compendium of 359 images of known Rayfield structures; also included are his advertisements and textbook illustrations. Most of the images are reproduced from the original printing plates that Durough discovered in his barn. All other images are appropriately documented, most of them the property of the various building owners. [End Page 216]

Wallace Rayfield, the only child of mulatto parents, grew up in Macon, Georgia, where his property-owning father was a Pullman porter and his mother, a seamstress. He lived in a "mixed" neighborhood where only the white children attended public school. However, Rayfield received his early education at an intermediate and high school located at the Christ Presbyterian Church. Northern missionaries supported the school where Rayfield's artistic talent was early recognized. His mother died before he became a teenager, and his traveling father moved him to Washington, DC, to be raised by an aunt. His tutor secured him an apprenticeship with the A.B. Mullett architectural firm, designers of the United States Treasury building, where he stayed two years and learned many aspects of the trade that were to serve him well the rest of his life.

Rayfield's education continued at Howard, Pratt Polytechnic Institute in Brooklyn, and finally Columbia University, where he was offered a position at Tuskegee by Booker T. Washington. Under his leadership at Tuskegee in the Division of Architectural and Mechanical Drawing, Rayfield saw the student population increase from 35 to 320 students, and the drawing tables multiplied from "several" to 47 "spread between two adjoining rooms illuminated by an abundance of natural light" (4). Rayfield's division was in large part responsible for the expansion of the physical plant at Tuskegee. Rayfield influenced the curriculum and proposed a textbook that he...


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