On Sunday afternoon, Feb. 17, there will be a ceremony at Broadway Temple AME Zion, Broadway and 13th Street, to honor Samuel Plato, the architect who built the church more than 100 years ago.
There’s nothing unusual about a dedication to honor the person who designed an original building, especially in these days of appreciation and protection of historic architecture.
What’s unusual is that Plato was an African-American. And that, in those earliest decades of the 20th century, was indeed out of the norm.
The trend in American architecture around the turn of the 19th century was artisans and designers borrowing fancy European residential styles for wealthy clients. We can see evidence of those projects throughout the city, mostly in Old Louisville and the Cherokee Triangle.
Many of those architects were scions of wealthy families, trained in premiere Eastern universities or in Europe.
That was certainly not the case for Plato. He was born in 1882, in Deep-South Alabama, when the wheels of Reconstruction had fallen off and the plight of subjugated Southern African-Americans was only slightly better than before the Civil War.
Plato’s father was in the building trade, but Plato chose to enroll at Simmons College in Louisville, then primarily a bible school, graduating in 1902. However, he also took a mail-order program in architecture with International Correspondence Schools and, after graduation, moved to Marion. Ind., to ply his new trade.
While in Marion, he built private homes, apartment buildings, municipal buildings and churches, but one of his most unusual projects was back in sweet home Alabama.
“One of his first commissions was a Post Office in Decatur, Alabama,” said the Louisville architect and historian Steve Wiser, one of the organizers of the event. “The people who hired him didn’t know he was black, and when he went down to do a site visit, they were ‘kind of surprised.’”
Wiser likens it to the scene in the movie “Blazing Saddles” when the Cleavon Little character rides into town and the townsfolk realize they’ve hired a black sheriff.
Of course, he had a federal contract to do the work and the locals couldn’t take the job away from him. But, Wiser noted, “after that, he worked on the project remotely from Indiana.” No more Alabama site visits.
In a similar incident right in his adopted hometown, the school board hired Plato to build a school in Marion, not realizing he was a black man. “When they found out, they insisted on taking the project away from him,” Wiser related, “but the workers on the site, who were mostly black, threatened to strike unless Plato was kept on the project.
“He ended up befriending many white people in Marion who championed him and helped him get projects.”
While in Marion, Plato designed and built the Broadway Temple in Louisville in 1915, then moved permanently here in 1920 and developed a thriving practice.
According to Wiser’s records, Plato built churches, schools, commercial buildings, office buildings, freestanding residences and entire neighborhoods. He might be most well-known for developing the land into residences after Camp Zachary Taylor closed following World War One. Today, those include the Camp Taylor neighborhood, as well as Audubon Park and Poplar Level.
Plato also built a stylish masonry building for the Mammoth Life Insurance Co. in the early 1920s on Sixth Street and Muhammad Ali. “It might have been his greatest achievement,” Wiser surmised, “though few people in today’s Louisville know it exists.”
In the 1950s or 60s, in the era of urban renewal, it was covered up with a white metal façade in the pursuit of contemporaneity. Today, it’s the River City Bank Building and, said Wiser, “nobody knows of this beautiful structure behind the façade.”
Furthermore, Plato became a go-to architect for U.S. Post Office buildings around the country – some 26 up and down the East Coast and in Ohio and Indiana, mostly in the New Deal period of the 1930s and pre-war 40s.
He also built the main building of his alma mater in 1924 and, in one of his final projects, the school’s Wood F. Axton Hall in 1949.
According to Wiser, nine of Plato’s buildings are on the National Historic Register. “Having one project on the register is an achievement,” Wiser said. “Having nine is simply amazing.”
Plato died in Louisville in 1957, at age 75.
The marker to honor the architect in the church that he built “is long overdue,” said Wiser, who helped spearhead the ceremony with the cooperation of the American Institute of Architects/Central Kentucky Chapter, and the Louisville Historical League, two of the sponsors along with the Neighborhood Planning & Preservation organization.
The ceremony – falling appropriately within Black History Month – will begin at 2 p.m., with the unveiling and dedication of the marker. Then there will be a tour of the church and a presentation of images of Plato’s work. Wiser will speak, as well as Martina Kunnecke, head of the Samuel Plato Foundation, and African-American architect Darnell Faris, who was formerly with Louisville Urban Metro Design Services.
It’s free and open to the general public. Wiser said the church can accommodate “several hundred people.” There’s free parking available in the lot to the west and north of the church as well as on-street parking nearby.