Rochester's first Black architect built a legacy fit to be studied. Now it will be
The rest of the house had long since gone to bed, but Thomas W. Boyde Jr. was still working.
Smoke curled from a spent cigarette in the ashtray. A row of graphite pencils lay ready to use. He kept them sharpened to a lethal point — not more than five feet of drawing before restoring the point with a heavy desktop sharpener — not just because it was his personal preference, but because the job required precision.
Boyde was an architect but also an engineer at heart, and that meant resolving problems with certainty. What candlepower was needed at the level of a school desk for a student to be able to see her work? What nailing patterns were needed for different building materials? What mix of grass seed would best serve in the front or back lawn?
"He was obsessed with his work," Boyde's son, Thomas W. Boyde III, said. "That's all he did was work. Two, three in the morning, you'd see the light in his room."
Boyde was the first Black architect in Rochester and the designer of hundreds of houses, offices, stores and community buildings throughout Monroe County. Most prominent is Monroe Community Hospital, whose compelling facade he created shortly after arriving in Rochester in 1930.
His legacy, intact but faint 40 years after his death in 1981, will be burnished in the coming year through a $30,000 "cultural preservation survey" conducted by the Greece Historical Society.
The five-member survey team will seek to create an inventory of remaining Boyde structures and designs, to record the memories of those who knew him and to place him in the context of other Black American architects in the mid-20th century.
They will build on a collection of documents and artifacts at the Rochester Museum and Science Center. The funders for the project are the Preservation League of New York State, the New York State Council on the Arts and the Rochester Area Community Foundation.
Christopher Brandt, an architect with the local firm Bero Architecture, is part of the effort. He first got to know Boyde's work as a child growing up in the Browncroft neighborhood of Brighton, where some of the houses on his street caught his eye. Boyde designed them, he learned.
"He was one of the first architects that I became intimately acquainted with nearly fifteen years ago before pursing my own career in the profession," Brandt said in a statement. "I look forward to reviewing his beautiful color renderings again, and am honored to be part of the team that seeks to uncover, document, elevate, and celebrate the full and complete accomplishments of his decades long career."
The inquiry into Boyde's life and career will be illuminating as well regarding the community where he spent most of his professional career. He and his work were mostly overlooked in Rochester; developers looking to sell houses in the Monroe County suburbs seldom saw fit to promote the name of the Black architect who designed them.
"All too often, because of the era of Jim Crow, those early (Black) architects either were forced into the shadows, or had their work questioned, because of their race," Jeffrey "Free" Harris, a historian on the project, said in a statement. "This project, I believe, is a part of a larger project to bring those architects, and their works out of the shadows, and into a deserved spotlight."
When Boyde arrived in Rochester in 1930, he was the only (and first) Black architect in town. Ninety years later, the tally is the same, at least among licensed architects — though Boyde's great-granddaughter is working to become the second.
A career of firsts
Thomas W. Boyde, Jr., was born on Christmas Day, 1905, in Washington, D.C., in the neighborhood of Howard University. He attended several colleges before graduating from Syracuse University in 1928, becoming the university's first Black graduate in architecture.
Boyde worked in New York City for two years before coming to Rochester in 1930 in response to a job posting by Siegmund Firestone, a local architect who had gained the commission for the $4 million Monroe County Home and Infirmary.
When he arrived, Firestone was caught off-guard. "I was not aware that you were a negro," he said.
"You advertised for an architect," Boyde replied. "You didn't ask about the color of my skin."
Firestone conceded the point, and Boyde was assigned to design the exterior of the Home and Infirmary (which today is Monroe Community Hospital). He chose features associated with the Lombardy region in Italy, which he had studied in school: intricate patterns of color and texture in the stone work as well as a statuary of gargoyles and grotesques high above ground level.
If anything, he and Firestone succeeded too well. The Great Depression had just begun and local budget hawks were outraged at the "palace" built to house the poor and the sick. A grand jury was commissioned to investigate whether public funds had been squandered, but turned up no wrongdoing.
As a junior member of the firm, Boyde was not named publicly in this debate. A Times Union column from June 1933, though, warned of a "Senegambian ... in the woodpile (that) is very, very dark indeed."
He returned briefly to Washington, D.C. in the late 1930s for some work related to Howard University, and was in Buffalo during World War II doing airplane engineering work related to the war effort. According to his family he also contributed to the Rundel Library building.
A full slate of work
In 1947 Boyde opened his own architectural firm, located at 104 East Ave. From then until his death in 1981, he maintained a full schedule, churning out houses, office parks, grocery stores and anything else that was asked of him.
Among his most prominent commissions were a series of Star Market and Big N grocery stores and the headquarters for Great Lakes Press on Central Avenue.
Martin Rose worked for Boyde from 1963 to 1966 before leaving to launch his own firm.
"He was a great guy; very easy to work for, encouraging," Rose said. "I don’t think I ever had a cross word with him. He always treated me kind of as an equal, even as a junior architect."
Boyde's private residences fell squarely into the style known as mid-century modern: mostly ranches with a strong horizontal orientation, often with overhanging roofs. Rounded interior walls were a common personal touch.
One of the houses that Christopher Brandt admired as a child is on Shaftsbury Road. The current owners, Mary Ann and Herb Wolfe, purchased it in 2003 and own a framed color sketch of the exterior done by Boyde himself.
"It’s an honor to know he had anything to do with this," Mary Ann Wolfe said. "The house is nice, but it’s special to say that a man like him designed this house."
Perhaps his most prominent trait was an unrelenting attention to detail. Thomas Boyde III recalled his father would chip off a piece of the exterior paint from completed buildings and measure the thickness to ensure the painters had applied the coats properly.
He avoided most manual labor tasks around the house because he feared injuring his hands, which would hinder his work. He didn't have time for games with his three children, either.
Instead, he sought to impart his knowledge and exacting principles.
"He didn't want to play," said Thomas Boyde III, who went into the building trade himself. "I got to know him by sitting with him as he worked."
Standing on his own
As a rare Black architect in Rochester, Boyde walked a fine line in terms of civil rights expression.
He undertook several projects in the Black community, including private homes, churches and gathering places as well as low-income housing. An ambitious development he designed for the local Negro Housing and Planning Council never came to fruition.
At the same time, his former apprentice Martin Rose said, Boyde was wary of being pigeonholed, either by white or Black clients. He refused to specifically market himself for jobs in the Black community, Rose said, even if it might help him get more commissions.
"He felt he was an architect, not necessarily a Black architect, and that he should stand on his own," Rose said.
Boyde's son shared that belief, saying too much attention has been paid to his race and not enough to his work.
"He never put much emphasis on color," Thomas Boyde III said. "He put emphasis on experience and knowledge."
William Knox, a longtime friend, said in 1986 that Boyde was "something of a recluse. ... Because of racial prejudice he was bound-in and did little else besides architecture." At the same time, Knox called him "a brilliant fellow — a unique individual for his time."
In general, his son said, the family believes the scope of his work has been understated, either because original blueprints have disappeared or because, as a Black man, his contributions were not always recorded.
They hope the Greece Historical Society survey will uncover some of those blueprints and provide documentation for the full extent of his contributions.
Still few Black architects
Much has changed since Boyde came to Rochester, but much has stayed the same as well. Still in 2020, there is only one Black licensed architect in town.
Troy Williams of LaBella Associates grew up and began his career in Jamaica, then moved to the United States and arrived in Rochester in 2012. He specializes in school buildings and worked on renovations of Fairport High School and Monroe Community College's downtown campus, among others.
"As architects, we are asked to design spaces for a diverse group of end users," he wrote in an email. "While we do our best to use empathy to consider the needs of all users, I believe the development of a region’s built environment will only be truly successful when the solutions are derived from practitioners who are immersed in the culture of the community.
"Good architecture reflects our values, influences the way we behave in a space, and ultimately impacts how we interact with one another."
Williams said the field can diversify by doing more to interest young people, as he was drawn in by a high school technical drawing class in Jamaica. He pointed as well to existing outreach programs, including the ACE (Architecture, Construction and Engineering) Mentor program and a scholarship program through the Architectural Foundation of Greater Rochester.
Across the country, Black people make up 2.4% of the membership of the American Institute of Architects, according to the National Organization of Minority Architects.
Jennifer Takatch, a principal at the local firm Architectura and president of the local chapter of the American Institute of Architects, said she believes reaching out to children is the best way to build a more diverse pipeline.
"We need to be able to talk to students at every age group," she said. "Having young people really get to know what an architect does and see examples of it, I think, would help."
A family occupation
There are other Black people practicing architecture in various contexts in Rochester, Williams said, but not necessarily with formal licensure. They can work as project managers but are not permitted to call themselves architects.
One such person is Boyde's own great-granddaughter, Falon Uloth. She is a project manager at Wegmans, where she works on the design aspects of remodeling stores. She is working toward her architecture licensure now.
Uloth never met her great-grandfather but heard stories about him growing up, she said. His story was part of what made her want to become an architect, but his greater contribution may have been genetic: as a student in Rush-Henrietta, Uloth was driven by an interest in math, science and art.
"It’s just always been something I’ve wanted to do," she said. "I've always liked to draw. ... I like the creativity of it and the challenges."
Uloth also spends time volunteering with a group of local female architects, speaking with girls in school looking for a career in the STEM fields. They are often unaware of architecture as an option, she said.
"With girls, and especially girls of color — a lot of the time they've never seen (an architect) that looks like them," she said. "If a young girl can see just one person who looks like them, that can make a difference."
Contact staff writer Justin Murphy at firstname.lastname@example.org.