Grace: Black architect Clarence Wigington blazed a trail in red bricks and blueprints - Omaha.com
Published Friday, February 21, 2014 at 1:00 am / Updated at 11:32 am
Grace: Black architect Clarence Wigington blazed a trail in red bricks and blueprints

He designed a handful of north Omaha houses, a parish hall and what was then Nebraska's biggest black church.

At a time when few blacks could crack professional ranks, in a field that today remains disproportionately white, Clarence W. “Cap” Wigington built a long and successful architectural career.

Just not here, for the most part.

The man who was probably Omaha's first black architect took his pencils and his aspirations to the north. Wigington planted himself in St. Paul, Minn., where he designed some 60 buildings, including two on the National Register of Historic Places. A pavilion is named for him there. A book was written about him there.

Here, his memory is etched into a couple of cornerstones where, if you squint hard, you can make out his name.

But an Omaha woman with architectural dreams of her own wants to change that.

Some 100 years after Wigington left Omaha for St. Paul, Linda Williams is unearthing Wigington's story and sharing it. She will give a presentation at 6:30 tonight at the Douglas County Historical Society's library archives building at Fort Omaha. Photographs of Wigington and some of his buildings will remain on display through next week.

Williams draws heavily from a 2001 book called “Cap Wigington: An Architectural Legacy in Ice and Stone” by David Vassar Taylor, a St. Paul native and scholar who earned a master's degree in history from the University of Nebraska at Omaha. He wrote the book with Paul Clifford Larson, an architectural historian.

The 136-page book, published by the Minnesota Historical Society Press, chronicles Wigington's interesting and somewhat serendipitous career path.

It's a story of talent, of a boy who completed eight years of elementary school in just five years and won art contests at Omaha's big global coming-out party, the 1898 Trans-Mississippi Exposition.

It's a story of fortune, of teachers who used their own paychecks to help a teenager go to art school at night and of a family connection that got him a job in the office of the prominent Omaha architect who designed St. Cecilia Cathedral.

And it's a story of grit, of a man who tried to build a career in Omaha, Wyoming and Iowa before finding one in St. Paul. When Wigington was hired as a draftsman for St. Paul's city government in 1915 earning $100 a month, he became — according to Taylor's book — America's first black municipal architect.

“His hiring occurred at a time when few African-Americans were practicing architecture in any capacity,” the book says. “It was all the more remarkable because Wigington lacked one of the formal qualifications for senior draftsmen — an academic architectural education.”

According to the book, St. Paul at the time had outgrown its infrastructure. Fire stations needed fire-proofing. Schools were bursting. So city officials set up a government mechanism to align all of these projects in what was to be an orderly and consistent approach — with an eye toward beauty.

To get his job in the newly created Office of City Architect, Wigington had to pass an architectural exam and show what he had done in Omaha: houses and a pair of award-winning duplexes — including one that remains west of 24th and Lake. Wigington also designed the red-brick, white-columned Zion Baptist Church at 2215 Grant St. Wigington got the highest score among eight applicants in his group.

He worked for St. Paul for most of the next three decades, retiring from his city job in 1949. Wigington kept working in private practice in Los Angeles and St. Paul. He retired from architecture for good in 1963 and died in 1967.

St. Paul's draftsmen didn't always get credit for their individual input on projects, but the book's authors counted 60 different structures to which Wigington made a significant contribution. These included schools, park buildings and a city auditorium.

Wigington played a major role in the design of two buildings that are on the National Register of Historic Places: an octagonal 1928 water tower with an arched observation deck, and the Holman Field administration building, built in 1938-39 on what was then St. Paul's municipal airport.

Wigington was known for well-built, functional structures that weren't overly ornamental. But he did have a whimsical side, shown in the years he created magnificent, massive ice castles for the St. Paul Winter Carnival.

These ice castles were like nothing you'd build in your front yard. Photographs show giant structures assembled using cranes and scaffolding. They are described in the book as “half Norman castle keep, half Art Moderne.” The first Wigington castle was created during the winter of 1936-37. He designed four more in the 1940s.

While Wigington was building the city of St. Paul, he was also helping build up the local black community. Wigington successfully urged the Minnesota governor to establish a black National Guard unit during World War I, when a racially-segregated military had kept blacks out. Wigington was named captain of his all-black unit, and everyone called him “Cap” — a nickname that stuck.

Wigington also was involved in the NAACP and Urban League and pushed for fair employment.

Williams learned about Wigington after she graduated from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln's College of Architecture in 2001. The Taylor book was out, and she got a copy.

Though a century had separated the two, Williams felt a connection.

The north Omaha of her childhood suddenly held richer meaning knowing that a black architect had played a role in architectural history.

“It really changes your perspective,” she said.

Williams holds a bachelor's degree in design and is pursuing a master's degree in historic preservation. She is a certified draftsperson who designs accessible rooms for people with wheelchairs. She works for the nonprofit League of Human Dignity.

Wigington isn't the only black architect in Omaha's history. Golden Joseph Zenon Jr., for example, earned local and national recognition during a long career in Omaha. Zenon designed the Swanson Library in Omaha, the performing arts building at the University of Nebraska at Omaha and the College of Nursing at the University of Nebraska Medical Center. He died in 2006.

But architecture remains a mostly white, mostly male profession. According to the latest Bureau of Labor Statistics figures, just 1.3 percent of America's 195,000 architects are black. Just one out of four is a woman.

Williams said she drew strength from knowing that a black architect long ago designed north Omaha buildings that remain today.

She considers Cap Wigington a role model. Even if she had to go back 100 years to find him.

Contact the writer: Erin Grace

erin.grace@owh.com    |   402-444-1136    |  

Erin is a columnist who tries to find interesting stories and get them into the paper. She's drawn to the idea that everyday life offers something extraordinary.

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