Rediscovering Mr. Rayfield

The legacy of a pioneering African American architect is being restored by an indefatigable Southern Baptist preacher

To reach the safe at the back of Allen R. Durough's basement, you must take one of several narrow paths that snake through head-high piles of junk—books and bins, old clothes, box fans, filing cabinets—all stacked on and around a dozen gutted pianos, reminders of Durough's years as a professional piano tuner.

The safe is the size of a small armoire, with six-inch-thick steel walls and a combination lock that Durough is careful to conceal as he rotates the dial in the presence of strangers. He bought the safe for $2,000 to protect his most prized possession, a century-old cache of architectural printing plates.

To see the plates, I have traveled to Bessemer, Ala., a down-at-the-heels steel town 15 miles southwest of Birmingham, where Allen Durough lives with his wife, Dorothy. It's a smoldering July afternoon, and I am surprised to find an artificial Christmas tree standing in their living room. Durough, 65, hobbled by poor health and obsessed with the daily operation of a Christian thrift store, has been too busy to take it down.

The printing plates are another obsession. They are engraved with  the designs of Wallace A. Rayfield, believed to be America's second formally trained African American architect. Rayfield designed hundreds of structures throughout the South prior to the Great Depression, among them theaters, schools, residences for prominent black professionals, one of the country's first black-owned banks, and many, many churches. His buildings were backdrops for the civil rights movement of the 1960s; a few became synonymous with the struggle. But Rayfield died destitute during the Second World War, and his contributions to the growth of Birmingham and other cities were largely forgotten.

Allen Durough hopes to change that. In 1993, after he inadvertently discovered the 411 plates, this white, Southern Baptist preacher began an arduous struggle to catalog Rayfield's work and restore his legacy. Despite economic hardship, failing health, and criticism over his lack of scholarly training, Durough forged ahead. He put together a team of researchers, set up a printing press in his basement, and dragged his wife across the South, a three-ring binder of documents in hand as he knocked on strangers' doors in search of Rayfield buildings. At one point during my visit, the stooped, rail-thin Durough leans on a cane and holds up a copy of his newly published book, The Architectural Legacy of Wallace A. Rayfield (University of Alabama Press). "I didn't think I'd live to see the day," he says, and I realize he means it literally.

In 1993, Allen R. Durough was cleaning out a derelict barn on his property when he noticed a heap of dusty metal boxes in the back corner. The first time Durough tried to get to the boxes, he crashed through a rotted floorboard, scraping his shin and nearly giving up in anger. Only by prying boards off a back wall was he able to reach the mysterious cache.

Inside he found thick wood blocks with metal faces into which were etched drawings of churches and schools and business advertisements bearing the inscription "W. A. Rayfield & Co., Architects." Unaware of their significance, he tossed the blocks into the yard, intending to take them to the county dump. But something about the delicate etchings piqued his curiosity. 

"I called what seemed like everybody in town, but nobody had heard of Rayfield," says Durough. "Then I phoned the folks at the Birmingham Historical Society, and the woman literally screamed on the phone, she was so excited." For years, she had searched for information about the name she had seen carved into the cornerstones of so many Birmingham buildings. Durough realized he had stumbled upon a historical treasure trove.

Born in Macon, Ga., around 1873, Wallace Rayfield, son of a railroad porter, was a preternaturally gifted draftsman. He graduated from Howard University in Washington, D.C., and received architecture degrees from both Pratt Polytechnic Institute and Columbia University in New York, where he was recruited by Booker T. Washington, director of Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute in Alabama. As an instructor of mechanical and architectural drawing at Tuskegee, Rayfield worked alongside Robert Taylor, the first black architect to graduate from MIT. Rayfield oversaw the expansion of the school's mechanical drawing department from a cramped room with boards nailed atop saw-horses to a large, well-lit space with 47 drafting tables. Rayfield also made his first foray into printing with Industrial Drawing Book, a textbook meant to bring a degree of professionalism to the young school.

Rayfield's skills as a printer were critical to his success as an architect. After leaving Tuskegee and opening his own architecture practice in Birmingham in 1908, Rayfield began designing and printing advertisements, newsletters, and plan books to reach a wider audience. Among the plates Durough preserved are Rayfield-designed advertisements for magazines such as The Saturday Evening Post. Some tout plans for bungalows, schools, and barns. One set features the headline "Going to Build a Church?" and offers free sample designs to anyone requesting them by mail. Rayfield used certain designs to appeal to Baptists and others for Christian Scientists, Catholics, and Lutherans. To appeal to white clients, he drew Caucasians in many of his ads.

Rayfield's efforts to build a practice paid off. He designed more than 400 buildings for clients in at least 20 states, including Illinois, Texas, and Maryland, and in Liberia. More than 130 of his structures were built in Birmingham alone. He became the superintending architect for the Freedmen's Aid Society and chief architect of the A.M.E. Zion Churches of America. He was also a community leader, supporting African Americans through a marketing newsletter called The Colored Mechanics of Birmingham, in which he promoted the skills of local black contractors. Some of his residential projects became the first to be designed, financed, and built by blacks.

"He was an incredibly savvy businessman," says University of Alabama historian Kari Frederickson. "With entrepreneurial skill and through sheer determination, Rayfield had a profound impact on the southern landscape."

So why isn't he better remembered? One reason is that his practice collapsed during the Depression, when the unemployment rate in Birmingham was twice the national average. Another reason is race: Rayfield  was one of few black architects working in Birmingham. (African Americans architects are still under-represented, making up an estimated 1.5 percent of the roughly 100,000 architects practicing in the United States today.) The final reason may have been his sudden demise. In 1941, Rayfield suffered a stroke and died in his late 60s.

"Though he was more educated and more accomplished than many white architects, he wasn't given much attention," says Durough, who is determined to make the Rayfield name—and his legacy as an architect of color—more widely known.

Eighteen years ago, soon after he found his cache of engravings, Durough bought a pair of old proof presses, carefully cleaned the antique plates, and began making fresh prints. With every roll of the press he saw Rayfield's life and work emerge like ghosts from the past. In addition to plans, elevations, and ads, he discovered designs for personal letterhead, newsletters, and portraits of the architect and his daughter, Edith.

"So much of Rayfield's material was destroyed," says Daniel Ross, retired editor-in-chief of the University of Alabama Press. "All the things a working architect would have had on paper were either sold at a bankruptcy sale or lost. But from these plates, we can see what his business was really like."

Durough recruited his brother, Jim, a friend named Steve Lightsey, and Vinson McKenzie, an Auburn University architectural librarian and a scholar of early black architects, to help research his comprehensive survey.  They scoured newspaper archives for records of Rayfield's designs, located Rayfield-related letters at the Library of Congress and the Freedmen's Aid Society Archives in Atlanta, and crisscrossed the eastern United States in search of Rayfield buildings. Allen and Dorothy clocked 3,000 miles on trips throughout Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, Texas, and Arkansas.

Durough's personal challenges—he lost his left leg above the knee after a car accident and a botched operation—make his doggedness even more poignant. "Growing up in the South, I have struggled all my life with the prejudice that exists toward African Americans," he says. Raised in the era of segregation, he did not attend school with a person of color until he entered junior college. A turning point in his life came during the early 1970s, when he was a young pastor at a Baptist church near Bessemer. A neighboring black church invited Durough to preach and share a brotherhood breakfast. Though Durough felt uneasy about how his congregation might respond, he accepted the offer. "I felt inclined to preach adamantly in favor of racial integration," he says. And four decades later he still does. 

Since he discovered the Rayfield plates, Durough has met with a range of reactions. Some people resent the fact that the historical treasure fell into the hands of a white man. And at least one local historian, who would only speak to Preservation on condition of anonymity, accused him of trying to get rich off the find. In the strongest possible terms the historian told several journalists that Durough should donate the material to a properly credentialed institution, like a public library or university. 

Durough remains convinced that what he is doing is right. "The black community has reached out to me many times to speak," he says. "They've expressed over and over how appreciative they are, at how much energy and time and money I've devoted to Wallace Rayfield. They say, ‘God chose the right person.' "

Historian Kari Frederickson says, "This is really a mission for Allen," and she has arranged for five of her students to help with his research. "The fact that Rayfield was African American is no small part of his commitment."

Nearly 50 years after passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which provided for equal access to "public accommodations," many American cities remain deeply divided—and Birmingham is no exception. That becomes obvious as Durough and I visit some of the surviving Rayfield houses in the predominantly black neighborhood of Smithfield, developed in the early 1900s. The wide streets in this area west of downtown are lined with a jarring mix of tumbledown shacks and lovingly kept cottages with colorful flower gardens. Several blocks are gap-toothed with overgrown lots where houses, many of them designed by Rayfield, once stood. I'm at the wheel of Durough's blue van, with a folded wheelchair in back beside a mechanical ramp, when I turn onto Fourth Terrace North and pull to the curb in front of a house with a wraparound masonry porch. Designed by Rayfield, it was built in 1906 for A.M. Brown, a prominent doctor and founder of Birmingham's Children's Home Hospital. Today, it's a community center and, fittingly, home to the local chapter of the National Organization of Minority Architects.

A few blocks away on Fifth Street, we find a pair of abandoned houses with gambrel roofs. The residences were built in 1908, one for Edward A. Brown, a prominent black attorney in Birmingham, and the other for Arthur H. Parker, who organized the first Birmingham high school for blacks. Vines and unpruned trees are swallowing them both. Durough hasn't been here since he took photos for his book. Peering out through the window of his van, he shakes his head. "They're going downhill fast."

Leaving Smithfield, Durough and I stop for fried catfish sandwiches at the Green Acres Cafe, housed in the Rayfield-designed O.K. French Cleaners building, which dates to the early 1900s. Here, in the bustling, historically black Fourth Avenue Business District, the Rayfield buildings we find are in better shape than many of the houses. The former Alabama Penny Savings Bank, known as the Pythian Temple, now houses professional offices. What was originally the Dunbar Hotel is home to Urban Impact, a nonprofit center for promoting preservation and economic development. 

But the most famous Rayfield building stands three blocks away. Completed in 1911, the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church was the site of a 1963 bomb blast that killed four black teenage girls. It immediately became an icon of the civil rights struggle. Repairs were made after the bombing, and the church was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1980. But by the early 2000s, despite some renovation work, the brick was spalling, the stonework was loose, the roof needed repair, and because of a drainage problem, mushrooms were sprouting in the basement fellowship hall. 

In 2005, a group of concerned citizens, led by Neal Berte and Carolyn McKinstry, started a preservation campaign to save the sanctuary. In all, the group raised nearly $4 million, enough to pay for a three-phase interior and exterior restoration plus anticipated maintenance. "Over
$3 million came from Birmingham," says Berte, retired president of Birmingham-Southern College. "I think that says a lot about how far this community has come."

"The goal was unity," adds McKinstry, a lifelong congregant of Sixteenth Street Baptist. "A lot of people who were here in 1963 didn't know what to do. They thought, ‘What happened was wrong. Now I can do what's right.' "

The local firm ArchitectureWorks was selected as architect of record for the restoration, and Dick Pigford served as partner in charge. "We worked with a preservation architect to conduct assessment and analysis of the building, then prepared construction documents and drawings," he says. "It was a remarkable oportunity to become part of the security and future of a building with meaning for this community, this region, and the world. Dr. Berte and Carolyn McKinstry showed people who we can be when we stand shoulder to shoulder."

Today, Sixteenth Street Baptist has become a popular destination for tourists. McKinstry, who was a contemporary of the four girls and spoke to them minutes before they were killed, serves as an informal tour guide and church spokesperson. "People come every day, 365 days a year," she says. For some, it's cathartic. As if on cue, a middle-aged white couple—the man in a Hawaiian shirt, the woman in a print dress—wanders over from the Civil Rights Institute across the street. McKinstry excuses herself to show them around. Before leaving, they ask if they can give her a hug. 

As we prepare to say goodbye, Durough shifts his load of books and three-ring binder and awkwardly balances on his cane to embrace McKinstry, whom he has known for years. The sight brings to mind something that Kari Frederickson told me: "If I met Allen on the street, he's the last person I'd expect to devote 15 years of his life to researching an early African American architect, but shame on me for having any kind of assumptions. If it weren't for Allen Durough, we wouldn't know much about Wallace Rayfield."     

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