Exhibit, discussion shine light on pioneering black architects

Courtesy of www.mnhs.org (l-r) Clarence W. Wigington, William Hazel and Casiville Bullard.

The hidden history of the Twin Cities’ architectural landscape is coming to life in a new exhibit. The cities are steeped in historical architecture and many do not know the fascinating stories of the people behind the buildings. 

The Mill City Museum, in conjunction with the African American Interpretive Center of Minnesota (AAICM), is hosting an exhibit titled, “The Builders: Shaping Minnesota’s Architectural Landscape on the Color Line.”

 The exhibit explores the work and lives of three men who played essential roles in shaping the face of the metro: Clarence W. Wigington, Casiville Bullard, and William Hazel.

Wigington was an architect who was born in Lawrence, KS, moving to St. Paul in 1914. While in St. Paul, he designed most of the public schools, firehouses and more. His most well- known structure is the Highland Park Tower, listed in the National Registry of Historic Places. At the time of his prominence, there were only a handful of black architects, artists and draftsmen in the country, according to Census data. 

Wikipedia The Highland Park Water Tower designed by Clarence W. Wigington is open to visitors each summer and fall. View Wigington’s handiwork and take in the fall colors Oct. 13-14.

Bullard may be the most recognizable name of the three men featured in the exhibit. He is known for the Casiville Bullard House in St. Paul that he built after his work as a bricklayer during the day. The house, which is also registered in the National Registry of Historic Places, stands as a monument to black achievement at a time when opportunities were extremely scarce.

Hazel was an architect who was denied a room at the Clarendon and Astoria hotels in St. Paul. He was arrested after making a complaint. He sued under the Equal Accommodations Act of 1885 and won, pushing back against the color line. It would be nearly 20 years before Minnesota passed a civil rights law. 

JoJo Bell, board president/director of exhibitions for AAICM, explained why these stories are important for the shared cultural history of Minnesota and especially for black Minnesotans. “I think we all pass by iconic structures in Minnesota, and for the most part, we don’t know who the architect is — whether they’re white or black — but I think it’s really cool to learn what they contributed at the time.”

Bell emphasized the idea that although these people weren’t necessarily civil rights leaders, they were blazing new territory, “whether that be Clarence Wigington working with the Urban League to ensure equity in hiring in the Twin Cities [or] Casiville Bullard building a home [while] being harassed by his white neighbors who didn’t want him there but still completing his home…,” said Bell.

She added, “I think William Hazel’s life is the biggest example of the builders facing social injustice and using laws that existed in Minnesota at the time to counter discrimination that he experienced himself.”

Wikipedia The Foshay Tower, now the W Minneapolis is one of many structures Casiville Bullard helped build.

 Along with the exhibit, which runs through October 27, the AAICM will be hosting a panel discussion on October 14 featuring current African American architects and moderated by Robyn Robinson. 

Bell hopes to add a modern contrast to the exhibit to illustrate not only the past contributions of people of color to architecture but the continued progress as well. “So I think what the panel does is, it ties the past to the present. Obviously or hopefully, there’s going to be some progress professionally for people of color in architecture… not just black people but people of color who want to enter that field. What kind of obstacles do they have? Are they similar to their counterparts or are they different?

 “So we’re trying to tie the past to the present and trying to ask the question ‘How do architects of color move forward?’ and trying to relate it to the city as well.”

“The Builders: Shaping Minnesota’s Architectural Landscape on the Color Line” provides a focused view of the contributions of black Minnesotan architects and builders in a time when aspiring for professional success as a black person was seen as an act of social disobedience. Their perseverance resulted in an enduring legacy that moved the proverbial ball forward for future generations.  

“The Builders: Shaping Minnesota’s Architectural Landscape on the Color Line” exhibit opened Aug. 8 and runs until Oct. 27 at the Mill City Museum’s central Mill Commons, located at 704 S. 2nd St., Mpls. The exhibit is free and open to the public during regular museum hours.

A free panel discussion in conjunction with the exhibit takes place Oct. 14 from 7-8 pm at the Mill City Museum. For more info, visit aaicmn.org or mnhs.org.

About Phil Hall

Phil Hall is a contributing writer to the MN Spokesman-Recorder. He can be reached at phall@spokesman-recorder.com.

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