Birmingham, Alabama, still struggles with the ghosts of the 1960s, when its name became synonymous with racial strife and injustice. Two new books deal with the city's complex legacy as manifested in its architecture. One is an architectural and landscape history of exceptional breadth and insight, the other an introduction to the city's premier early-twentieth-century African American architect.
In Landscape of Transformations: Architecture and Birmingham, Alabama, Michael Fazio, emeritus professor of architecture at Mississippi State University, has produced an absorbing book, a nuanced and many-sided account of an evolving urban setting. The author quickly tells us what the book is not: “neither a guidebook nor a comprehensive survey of Birmingham's architecture” (xiii). Hence its subtitle, “Architecture and Birmingham,” rather than “Architecture of Birmingham.” The distinction is important. For Fazio, who combines the sensibilities of a social historian and cultural geographer with the eye of an architect, Birmingham's built environment and natural setting become the means by which to interpret its star-crossed history.
This is a book much in the spirit of Peirce Lewis's 1975 study, New Orleans: The Making of an Urban Landscape. Key personalities, local and national events, and the physical landscape move in and out of a lively narrative like the actors and stage sets of a play, their interactivity crystallized through a skillful and judicious selection of signature buildings that help tell the Birmingham story. Within the narrow constraints of a purely architectural perspective, few if any of these structures would rise to a level of national significance. But in the hands of a scholar attuned to broader historical currents and to the associational attributes of buildings and place, they illuminate the life of an upstart post–Civil War southern industrial city of vaunting ambition, a community often hobbled by circumstances beyond its control and by a pervasive, self-destructive ethos rooted in racial and socioeconomic injustices. This is a complex tale that could have foundered in the hands of a lesser scholar, but Fazio handles it beautifully, not least because he possesses a graceful and lucid writing style.
Fazio's prologue, provocatively titled “The Birmingham Problem,” sets the scene by recounting the observations of critics who, from the city's earliest decades to the volatile 1960s, noted both the promise and problems of a place the local Babbitry called “the Magic City” or, more soberly, “the Pittsburgh of the South.” Resident progressives and outsiders alike encountered a political culture loathe to acknowledge, much less confront, issues such as public health, sanitation, and access to civic amenities—issues exacerbated in a racially segregated society. Fazio shows us how these problems were mirrored in Birmingham's built environment.
The book's chronologically organized chapters move us forward from Birmingham's preindustrial origins to the opening years of the twenty-first century. Along the way, by never losing the human thread of the story, the author makes even esoteric industrial processes and related construction interesting and accessible. In chapters headed “Depression in the City of Perpetual Promise” and “The Setting for Civil Rights,” we read about a mid-twentieth century downtown landscape of surprising urbanity, of commercial architecture that drew inspiration from Chicago and New York, and about the city's grudging acceptance of New Deal public housing. In “Shaping the Residential Landscape,” we learn of early-twentieth-century developers who—envisioning elite residential enclaves that would blanket the hills overlooking the city center—engaged first-rate landscape talent such as the Olmsteds, New York's Samuel Parsons, and Boston's Warren Manning to turn dream into reality. Meanwhile, a large percentage of those laboring in Birmingham's mills, mines, and furnaces—especially African Americans—lived in conditions as fetid as any in urban America. Eventually Birmingham's industrial foundations would collapse, and Fazio's narrative concludes by looking at the city's more recent reorientation around a hi-tech, university-based economy.
Says Fazio: “I took the manmade constructions and natural landscapes as my 'text'” (xiii). Thus the associational and symbolic qualities of a building or landscape—not just its inherent artistic or aesthetic merit—assume significance. A nondescript Trailways Bus Station—scene of a violent incident during the 1961 Freedom Ride—becomes part of Fazio's text alongside the city's Holabird and Root skyscraper courthouse of 1932, or its High Victorian Gothic Catholic cathedral (Adolph Druiding, 1893), a confection “send[ing] heavenward enough militantly spiky towers to satisfy an ecclesiastical regiment” (40). British architectural historian John Gloag has observed that “buildings cannot lie; they tell the truth directly or by implication about those who made and used them.”1 Gloag sees built landscapes—whether grandiose, sublime, or dreary—as “candid statements” about the true character of the individuals and collective cultures that produce them. Reading Fazio's superb account of Birmingham, it is hard to disagree.
Within the rigidly defined ethnic boundaries of early twentieth-century Birmingham, a small black business and professional class turned to one of its own for architectural expertise. Wallace A. Rayfield (1873–1941), the subject of Allen Durough's recent book, is best remembered as the designer of the iconic Sixteenth Street Baptist Church (1909)—scene of a 1964 bombing that became one of the turning points of the Civil Rights Movement. Beyond this, the architect had slipped into obscurity until Durough's chance discovery, in 1993, of a cache of 411 printer's plates related to Rayfield's professional career.2 A retired businessman and Baptist preacher, Durough found the plates while razing an old barn in the satellite steel town of Bessemer, fifteen miles southwest of Birmingham. He became curious about Rayfield—curious enough to teach himself to make images from the plates and to devote several years researching Rayfield's life and practice. This book is the result.
A short biographical sketch introduces the reader to Rayfield, but the book is essentially a pictorial compendium of Rayfield's buildings—some illustrated with images reproduced from the plates Dorough found, others though contemporary photographs. The author classifies the structures by type: houses, churches, schools, and “miscellaneous.” Thereafter he simply lists them in alphabetical order, with captions that do little more than indicate location and date. A twenty-page appendix offers a state-by-state roster of “known Rayfield structures”—over four hundred in all.
Trained at Howard University and Pratt Institute, Rayfield came to Birmingham in 1908 after serving briefly as an instructor at Tuskegee Institute. With entrepreneurial skills to match his architectural ambitions he secured commissions in no less than nineteen U.S. states, plus two in Liberia. Ecclesiastical design was his chief focus, and he promoted his work through illustrated advertisements and plan books that targeted denominational audiences.
Durough provides fresh and useful information. What is missing from his account are the kind of broad contextualization and scholarly analysis needed to fully understand buildings and the milieu in which they were made—the very things that give Fazio's study such resonance. Their absence in Durough's book may cause readers to turn away with as many questions as answers. How exactly (and how differently), one wonders, did Rayfield interact with Birmingham's black and white communities, or with African American architects of his era working in other cities? How was he able to cross the racial divide and procure commissions from a handful of white southern congregations? What would an informed critique of Rayfield's work—particularly his churches—tell us about his evolution and his limitations as a designer? Even the printer's plates that sparked Dorough's interest go largely unexplained. What would a thoughtful analysis of these artifacts reveal? Durough's admirable dedication to preserving them has resulted in an invaluable contribution to African American architectural scholarship. It remains for further research to answer many of the questions this material and Dorough's book raise.
In their own way, each of these books broadens our perspectives on urban and African-American architectural history. Fazio's adroit sifting of landscape and architectural evidence provides a model for similar studies. If Durough's book leaves more to be said about Wallace Rayfield and the experience of African American architects in a segregated society, it also suggests the potential inherent in this still-new field of inquiry.
John Gloag, The Architectural Interpretation of History (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1975), 1.
See Logan Ward, “Rediscovering Mr. Rayfield,” Preservation, Jan./Feb. 2011, 16–23.