Walter T. Bailey

Walter T. Bailey (1882-1941) became the first African-American to graduate with a Bachelor of Science in Architectural Engineering at UIUC in 1904 (Fig. 3). In 1910 he received an honorary Master’s Degree in architecture from UIUC. Bailey hailed from Kewanee, Illinois, where he attended Kewanee High School. He arrived on campus in 1900. Following his graduation, he worked briefly for Harry Eckland, an architect in Kewanee, and for Spencer & Temple, an architectural firm in Champaign. During that time he assisted in planning Colonel Wolfe School in Champaign (1905). That same year, he was appointed Head of the Mechanical Industries Department at Tuskegee Institute in Tuskegee, Alabama, where he also supervised the planning, design, and construction supervision of all new campus buildings. While at Tuskegee he designed White Hall (1908), a girls’ dormitory, as well as two churches in Montgomery, Alabama (1910, 1912). He remained at Tuskegee until 1916 when he opened an office on Beale Street in Memphis, Tennessee, a street nicknamed “a main street of Negro America.”

The Knights of Pythian, a large national fraternal order of African-Americans formed in the post-Civil War era, comprised a significant clientele for Bailey. It provided programs for recreation, racial and social advancement, life insurance, and death benefits; as well as aid to the sick, persons with disabilities, elderly, orphans, and widows. During Bailey’s career in Memphis, he designed the Mosaic State Temple Building (1922) and the Pythian Theater Building (1922-23), both in Little Rock, Arkansas. He also designed the Pythian Bath House and Sanitarium in Hot Springs, Arkansas (1923), a recreational facility exclusively for African-Americans (Figs. 4-5). Ironically, although many African-Americans served as laborers in Hot Springs’ elaborate bath houses, they were prohibited from using them. The Pythian Bath House provided a respite from the oppressive world of Jim Crowe.

In 1924 Bailey moved his practice to Chicago, site of two of his major projects: The National Pythian Temple (1927), and the First Church of Deliverance (1939). Both served as icons of African-American achievement and power on Chicago’s South Side, a region then commonly referred to as Bronzeville or Black Metropolis and a destination for those escaping the South during the Great Migration. When it was completed, the National Pythian Temple, an eight-story building with a steel frame, yellow brick facing, and decorative terra cotta reliefs, was one of the tallest buildings in the area. It provided an auditorium for large gatherings, commercial and office space for African-American businesses, as well as residential apartment units. Bailey’s design for the First Church of Deliverance expansion, also on Chicago’s South Side, became an Art Moderne landmark. The church was known for its gospel music and radio broadcast ministries, and its architectural style was a reflection of these new religious mediums. In response to its radio broadcasts, the congregation swelled and needed expansion.

Bailey died of pneumonia in 1941. Although his work was overlooked for decades, he was rediscovered as the subject of a 2002 Masters’ thesis as well as one of two UIUC African-American architecture alumni featured in the 2004 publication, African American Architects: A Biographical Dictionary 1865-1945 .


Bey, Lee, “Black Designer All But Forgotten,” Chicago Sun-Times (February 9, 1998), p. D13.

Kriz, Mikael David. Walter T. Bailey and the African American Patron. Master’s Thesis, Art History Program, School of Art and Design, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, 2002.

Lee, George Washington. “Poetic Memories of Beale Street,” West Tennessee Historical Society Papers 28 (1969), p. 65.


taa.design said...

As a fellow Fighting Illini it's great to see a write up on Walter Bailey. I did some research on him will at UIUC...one of my new hero's.

And as a Fellow Rattler...nice work Chin.


Nicole said...

I was wondering what your source was for the photograph. Is it on of the three listed at the bottom? Thanks!

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