Charleston’s first black architect worked on both sides of color line
Something about Charleston must have immediately captured the imagination of former 1st Lt. John C. Norman, discharged from the U.S. Army following service with an engineering unit in France during World War I.
In 1918, Norman was making his way by rail to Pittsburgh to finish postgraduate studies in architecture and structural engineering when his train stopped in West Virginia’s capital city. Here, he would eventually meet his wife and start a family — and, as the state’s seventh licensed architect and its first licensed architect and structural engineer of African-American descent, he would design scores of residential, commercial and public works structures. Some of them are still part of the city’s urban landscape.
Now, some of Norman’s drawings can be seen by a new generation of West Virginians. His son, cardiovascular surgeon and bypass-technique pioneer Dr. John C. Norman Jr., has donated a collection of nearly 500 architectural drawings created by his father during the course of his career to the West Virginia State Archives. They can be viewed online at www.wv culture.org/history/collections/sc2012-046.html.
Norman had no apparent prior connections to Charleston. He was born in New Jersey and grew up in North Carolina, where he began his collegiate career at North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State Institute in Greensboro. But his son remembers being told that “when he left the Army, his first train stop was in Charleston.”
And, in 1919, when the elder Norman completed his advanced work in architecture and structural engineering at Carnegie Technical Institute — now Carnegie-Mellon University — it was in Charleston that he decided to launch his career.
“He started out in Charleston living in bachelor’s digs in a rooming house,” John C. Norman Jr. said in a telephone interview earlier this month. “He opened an office in the Knights of Pythias Building, at Washington and Dickinson streets.”
A solo practitioner throughout his career, Norman produced all his drawings and revisions in his second-floor office, and then walked them to Hill Photoprint on Summers Street to have blueprints made.
According to his son, the elder Norman consulted with his clients through all phases of a project — starting with helping prospective clients obtain mortgages, in many instances.
“I think his high level of personal interaction in a project, along with the quality of the work, helped him become successful,” said his son. “It also helped that he was both an architect and a structural engineer. He had the credentials he needed to get the work.”
Among the first projects Norman designed here was one of his biggest — the Ferguson Business Center, which included the 72-room Ferguson hotel, a movie theater, restaurant, beauty shop and business offices at Washington Street East and Shrewsbury Street. The hotel complex became the cornerstone of “The Block,” the center of black commercial and cultural life in Charleston during the era of segregation.
Norman’s client for the development was G.E. “Cap” Ferguson, who, like the young architect, was one of the few black Army officers commissioned to serve in World War I. Ferguson, a teacher before the war, rose to the rank of captain by war’s end, and once was the ranking officer on a ship carrying 1,700 American troops to France, giving added meaning to his nickname.
In addition to anchoring the main enterprise zone for black Charleston, the Ferguson Hotel and its nearby restaurants, shops and entertainment venues became a haven for African-Americans traveling through Charleston and encountering its repressive Jim Crow laws.
No job was too big or too small for Norman. While the Ferguson project took shape, Norman designed garages, porches, homes and shops.
“His workload was very typical of practitioners of that time, involving everything from homes to hospitals,” said Charleston architect John Harris, chairman of the West Virginia Foundation for Architecture. “Most of the smaller firms don’t specialize in a particular area now, and that was even more the case back in those days.”
In 1922, the state Legislature created the West Virginia Board of Architects, an agency charged with licensing architects doing business in the state “to safeguard the life, health, property and public welfare of the people of this state.” That year, Norman became the seventh licensed architect in West Virginia, as well as the state’s first licensed black architect and structural engineer.
He soon married Ruth Stephenson, a graduate of Howard and Columbia universities. She taught English at Garnet High School, Charleston’s sole secondary school for black students. The couple moved into a newly built Craftsman-style home at 1118 Second Ave. that Norman designed.
“My father was not a socializer,” said John C. Norman Jr. “Mom generated the social life at our house, and social activity surrounded her life and relationships.”
Ruth Norman taught English in Kanawha County schools for 53 years. At Garnet High, her students included Leon Sullivan, who would go on to become an anti-apartheid activist and long-time member of General Motors’ board of directors, and television journalist Tony Brown.
In addition to hosting book club meetings and bridge games, the Norman home was visited by some of the top figures in American art and entertainment. Those spending time at the Normans’ Second Avenue home, often when en route to concerts elsewhere, included internationally known contralto Marian Anderson; singer, actor and social activist Paul Robeson; and lyric tenor Roland Hayes.
For recreation, Norman would occasionally enjoy trap-shooting or grouse-hunting with friends and his Irish setter bird dog. “But I think he enjoyed his work most of all,” said his son. “He worked seven days a week, except on Sundays, when he went to work after church. I remember going to projects all over Charleston and in Huntington, Parkersburg and Morgantown in his Hupmobile — the same car he used for 20 years. He was ultraconservative with his finances.”
While Jim Crow laws were in effect in Charleston for most of Norman’s career, his design work was sought by builders, business operators and homeowners on both sides of the color barrier. “His reputation for producing quality work enabled him to be successful across society,” said his son.
Norman was keenly aware of the disconnect between being a black man supporting the integration efforts of Walter White and the NAACP, while designing structures with separate facilities for blacks and whites. “He was very conscious of the work he was doing and the time in which he was doing it,” said his son. “But he never really talked about it — he seemed to transcend it. It was just something left unspoken.”
By the late 1920s, Norman had established a relationship with West Virginia State College (now University), then an all-black higher education institution. There, he was a part-time instructor, teaching building construction. Norman was commissioned to design 12 units of faculty housing, which he laid out in two rows at the lower end of the campus. The two-story brick housing units were built by Norman’s students and are still in use.
Norman’s workload expanded in the 1930s, with the architect taking on design projects ranging from the conversion of a building containing a 600-seat movie theater and a Knights of Pythias lodge on Charleston’s West Side into Staats Hospital, to designing the art deco-style Shanklin’s Grand Theater in Ronceverte. A wave of school building activity during the 1930s kept Norman busy designing such projects as Simmons High School in Montgomery and Washington High School in London, as well as poultry houses for the Industrial Home for Colored Girls in Huntington and Lakin State Hospital in Mason County.
In Charleston, projects designed by Norman included Frankel’s Men’s Store in the Arcade building on Virginia Street, Faulkner Hardware Store on Washington Street West, a garage and showroom for Capitol Motor Sales on Broad Street, and the Washington Manor housing project on Clendenin Street. Over the years, Norman designed at least 30 homes, an equal number of apartment buildings, and 20 shops, stores and offices in Charleston alone.
His work also helped shape Montgomery, where he designed at least 10 homes, 11 apartment buildings of varying sizes and a number of commercial buildings ranging from a jewelry store to a funeral home. In Gauley Bridge, he designed the three-story Conley Hotel and adjacent movie theater.
Norman’s busy practice was put on hold during World War II, when he returned to service for his country — this time, working on a hush-hush project near Washington, D.C.
“He served at Langley, Virginia, working in the wooded area now dominated by the CIA,” said John C. Norman Jr. “He was working on classified construction projects dealing with the invasion of North Africa and D-Day. They were using his skills to design and build portable pontoon bridges, and figure out how to get around or remove beach obstructions they expected [German Field Marshal Erwin] Rommel to use” to defend against an invasion force landing on the coast of France.
After the war, Norman commuted for a time between Charleston and Washington, where he taught at Howard University, according to his son, but he eventually resumed his role as a full-time architect. His post-war design projects included designing an addition to Garnet High, an auditorium and gymnasium at the West Virginia Colored Deaf and Blind School in Institute, renovating the administration building at West Virginia State, designing a log cabin for Lawrence Carson at Lake Chaweva, and drawing plans for a solarium for W.L. Clark in Charleston.
He continued to practice through the 1950s, until a neurological disorder sidelined him and, in 1967, claimed his life.
“He was a man who was very serious about his work and very devoted to my mother,” said John C. Norman Jr.
“Having repeat clients and buildings that stand the test of time” are two indicators of a successful architect, Harris said. “He had plenty of both.”
Reach Rick Steelhammer at email@example.com, 304-348-5169 or follow @rsteelhammer on Twitter.