William Sidney Pittman

Brief Biography       Dallas Times Herald Article - 1986      Listing of Pittman's Buildings


 

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William Sidney Pittman (brief)

AMEChurch.jpg (221377 bytes)

This handsome Gothic style church, constructed in 1916-1917, was designed by noted African - American architect William Sidney Pittman. The building has been a center of African - American life in Waxahachie since its construction.

William Sidney Pittman came to Texas to make a name for himself away from the influence of his famous father-in-law, Booker T. Washington. He had been educated at Tuskegee Institute and Drexel Institute in Philadelphia. Before moving to Dallas, he designed several buildings for the Tuskegee Institute and developed the Fairmont Heights housing development for blacks in a suburb of Maryland. In 1907, he became the first African American to win a federal commission for the Negro Building at the national Tercentennial Exposition at Jamestown, Virginia.

Pittman designed several buildings throughout the state of Texas including the Pythian Temple (1915-16), the St. James African Methodist Episcopal Church (1920), both in Dallas; the Allen Chapel A.M.E. Church in Fort Worth; and the Joshua Chapel A.M.E. Church in Waxahachie.


Dallas Times Herald Article - 1986

The Pride of Sidney Pittman

By Mary Barrineau

Of the Times Herald Staff

Sunday, December 7, 1986

 

Effort under way to preserve monument to black heritage

Sidney Pittman died a pauper and was buried in an unmarked grave in South Dallas. But a legacy of the strange life and brilliant mind of Dallas' first black architect still stands on Elm Street.

The gray brick building is not particularly large, or grand, or striking. It is one of several buildings in the Union Bankers Insurance Co. complex.

But for a quarter of a century after its completion in 1916, the building designed by Booker T. Washington’s temperamental son-in-law was the cultural and professional hub for black residents of Dallas.

Built as the state headquarters for the Knights of Pythias, a black fraternal organization, the Pythian Temple on the western edge of the Deep Ellum district housed offices for the city's first black dentist, first black surgeon and other professionals. Black schools and social clubs hosted elaborate parties and dances in the top-floor auditorium. The building at 2551 Elm remains the only commercial structure in Dallas built for blacks, by blacks, with black money.

Both the building and Pittman's career in Dallas had auspicious beginnings. Pittman, married to black educator Washington's daughter Portia, moved his family from Washington, D.C., to Dallas to make a name for himself away from the influence of his famous father-in-law. His first Dallas project, the Pythian Temple, became the place to go for blacks. "Was it elegant?" said 70-year-old Mable Chandler of Dallas. "Well, it was elegant according to our standards. But you have to realize it was all we had. It had a very smooth dance floor. You had to watch your step or your feet would slide right out from under you."

But Pittman and his Pythian Temple fell on hard times.

Pittman's bright architectural career disintegrated in Dallas, as did his marriage, both victims of his eccentric personality and bitterness. Later, he published a weekly newspaper called the "Brotherhood Eyes" that became an outlet for his rage. He wound up serving two years in federal prison for venting his frustrations in print, convicted of using the post office to send obscene materials.

And the Knights of Pythias building was lost as a black social center when the organization went into receivership and was forced to sell the building in 1939. It changed hands several times until Union Bankers Insurance Co. purchased the building 20 years later.

Now historians and blacks who recall the building in its heyday want to see it preserved by City Council designation as a historic landmark.

Pittman's wife and three children are gone now. The only remaining copies of "Brotherhood Eyes" are yellowed and crumbling. The black preachers Pittman attacked for filling their coffers while ignoring the homeless and hungry are dead, as are most of the people who bought the paper faithfully to read Pittman's attempts to, as he put it, "clean the Race of crooked Leaders" and "expose the unfit and misfit within the Race."

But the old Knights of Pythias building still stands. It broke no new ground architecturally. And today, not much is left of the building's charm. The red brick exterior has been painted gray. The smooth, wooden dance floor has been covered. The interior has been chopped up into floors of office cubicles.

But because Pittman designed it, and because of its importance to the heritage of black Dallas residents, historians and blacks who remember it fondly want to protect it. It is one of only a few non-church buildings in Dallas designed by a black architect.

Two years ago an attempt to get the building designated a city of Dallas landmark failed to get City Council approval after the owner objected, saying the move would devalue the building and adjoining property by more than $1 million.

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Now City Council member Al Lipscomb and others are again attempting to get landmark approval for the building.

"It's the tallest and largest building ever built by blacks in this town and that alone means something," said Lipscomb. "But the part Pittman played is also important. We have some young people who need some role models. The buildings black people have are primarily churches. I think that's why we have so many young preachers. We need some young black architects, too."

Lipscomb blames himself for the failure of the designation two years ago. "I think I pushed too hard. I felt so strongly about it that I was unyielding. I pushed people into a comer. I should have used more tact," he said.

Since the defeat, Lipscomb says he's used every opportunity to talk up the project. I think I’ve got the support of a lot of people who probably didn't know about the building before," he said.

City hall insiders say the City Council defeat of landmark designation may have been as much retribution against Lipscomb for failing to vote the "right" way on other issues as it was hesitance by the council to override the owner's objections to historic preservation of the building.

Whatever the reasons for the defeat, Lipscomb is optimistic that his attempts to make the building a city landmark will meet with more success this time around. The makeup of the council has changed, and city officials are hopeful that they can work out a settlement with the building’s owners.

"It's possible we can answer the owner's concerns about economic loss if we can figure out the right solution," said Ron Emrich, the city's senior planner for historic preservation.

Union Bankers' attorney, Steven Schneider of Dallas, said the company is again studying the proposal for landmark designation, but that no decision had been reached on whether to go along with the designation this time around.

Landmark designation would require owners of the building to obtain city approval before making changes to the exterior of the building. "The whole concept is to at least preserve the building the way it is, and not do more to take it away from the way it was originally," said Emrich. "They could do routine maintenance, such as repainting it gray. But they could not paint it pink."

The designation wouldn't prevent demolition of the building, but would require an eight-month waiting period during which a solution short of demolition would be pursued by the city.

Lipscomb himself remembers the days when the Knights of Pythias Temple was a gathering point for blacks who didn't want to hang out at the bars or clubs in Deep Ellum. "I remember going with my sisters to the dances down there," said the 61-year-old Lipscomb. "The only way my mama would let them go is if I tagged along as a chaperone. Oooo, I used to make them so mad."

Lipscomb's grandfather, accountant J. W. Jeffrey, had an office in the building. "My favorite thing to do was ride the elevators," said Lipscomb. "In those days, black people couldn't just walk into a department store downtown and ride the elevators. The one at the temple was the only one we could ride," he said.

Marzelle Hill, 84, operated the elevators when she was a teenager. Her father, Dr. M. C. Cooper, was the first black dentist in Dallas and had a corner office on the building's ground floor. "He could crack his door and keep an eye on me in the elevator while he worked on patients in the chair," she said.

When she was older. Hill sang in a 10 - member women's choral club directed by Portia Pittman. "We practiced at her house, but Sidney wasn’t usually home when we were rehearsing. They didn't do anything socially."

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It was no wonder the Pittmans didn't frequent the kind of parties and social events held at the Pythian Temple. Pittman was demanding and unpopular.

Portia Pittman's biographer, Ruth Ann Stewart, wrote that few whites used his services, and that blacks who could afford his services usually took their business to white architects.

"This kind of reverse racism on the part of his own people enraged Sidney. He became a trial to live with and increasingly more bitter," said Stewart.

"He was highly individualistic and an eccentric in a time and place that were intolerant of such behavior, especially in a black man. Over the years he had come to wear his hair slightly long and he always looked as if he had slept in his suit. Portia recalled that he wore the same clothes over and over, his mind being on other than material things."

In addition, said Stewart, he was professionally very exacting and severe in his standards. "For this he gained a few small jobs and some measure of respect from the white Dallas community. But members of the black community found him arrogant and considered him too big for his breeches."

Sidney, in turn, felt that his training and experience were unappreciated. After all, he had been schooled at Washington's Tuskegee Institute and Drexel Institute in Philadelphia. He had been the first black to be awarded a contract by the federal government when he won the design of the Negro Building at the Jamestown exposition in 1917.

A large part of Pittman's problem may have been his light-colored skin, said Donald Payton, associate researcher for the Dallas Historical Society who helped raise funds to mark Pittman's grave last year. "The guy looked as white as any white man, yet he was very into issues of race. He suffered the plight fair-skinned blacks have always suffered. He was too white to be accepted by blacks and too black to be accepted by whites."

Pittman designed the St. James African Methodist Episcopal Church in Dallas, the Joshua Chapel AME Church in Waxahachie and the Allen Chapel AME Church in Fort Worth. But after a while, the jobs dried up.

Portia taught music in the public schools to supplement the family income. But in 1928, she decided to leave her husband. She went home to Tuskegee to live after Pittman had a particularly violent argument with their teenage daughter, Fannie, who had inherited her father's volatile temper.

In 1931, Pittman turned to publishing to provide a forum for his campaign against the hypocrisy of some black leaders. He published the "Brotherhood Eyes" every Saturday, gathering gossip sent in by correspondents called "the Eyes" across the South, and goading the black establishment with his criticisms.

Nearly all blacks in Dallas read the "Brotherhood Eyes," especially those who might be a target of Pittman’s barbs. Teenagers hid the newspaper in their desks at school. Grown-ups found it a never-ending topic of conversation. Pittman printed hearsay and used language outrageous for the day, but he wrote so cleverly and with enough truth in his charges that everyone wanted to read him.

"It really was a scandal sheet," said Marzelle Hill. "I remember when I was teaching school going in the women's rest room at Booker T. Washington and feeling real guilty about something he'd written. I thought he was writing about me."

Under a standing headline, "Serious and Frivolous News Items of Negro Life In Dallas," he ran items such as "High School Mix-up Involves Two He-fessors And One She-fess and Another Sis Teacher in S. Dallas," "Oak C1iff Dumping Ground for Trash Parsons" and "Seven Year Feud Ends in One Death and Murder Charge Against Killer."

Above the masthead of every issue was the paper's slogan in red letters, "A Newspaper That Doesn't Cross the Color Line." A box on page one described the newspaper's purpose. "B. E. is after the Evil Doer Within the Race. It plays no favorites and recognizes no sex. It works through the ‘Eyes.’"

But the black establishment was enraged that Pittman got away with his attacks on its members. An editorial in the post-Thanksgiving, Dec. 5, 1936, edition of the "Brotherhood Eyes" revealed just how big a rift existed between Pittman and the black ministers.

"What is it about those who profess to be our spiritual leaders that impels them to think so much of their own welfare and so little of others? Why is there so little self denial and such an excess of selfishness among the salaried shepherds of His sheep?" he wrote.

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Four years previously, he wrote, about 200 pastors and other self anointed leaders met and organized to collect funds to prosecute and convict him for "preaching the real gospel of our blessed Lord." They collected $1,100, "more money than any group of Negro preachers ever collected before [anywhere] among themselves for any purpose," he said.

How much more blessed it would have been to collect such an amount for charity, said Pittman. "Even now as we meditate on these things, we are wondering which among our many churches has, or have, already launched any plans looking forward to reaching out with a helping hand to some motherless or fatherless home, or to some cold shanty, or to some sick room where a doctor is sorely needed."

The preachers' attempt to get rid of Pittman apparently failed that time, but he later served two years of a five year sentence at Leavenworth Federal Penitentiary in Kansas for sending obscene material, presumably his newspaper, through the mail.

Biographer Stewart said Portia claimed that she helped get him released early through her friendship with Franklin D. Roosevelt's housekeeper, who asked Roosevelt to secure his release. Officials at Leavenworth say most of the records on Pittman have been destroyed, but that he was paroled on June 13, 1939, after two years of a five-year sentence.

Pittman disappeared from Dallas city directories until 1946, when he reappeared and was listed every year until two years before his death in 1958.

Willie Gary of Dallas, whose stepfather owned the Powell Hotel where Pittman lived in his later years, remembers that despite the controversy that surrounded Pittman, he was treated with respect. I think that was more because he was married to Portia and people had respect for her and her father," said Gary, whose mother left him the few remaining copies of the "Brotherhood Eyes."

"He didn't go out of his way to talk to people, and he very seldom went anywhere. I think he was extremely bitter," said Gary. "His room was a mess, books and papers scattered everywhere. His mind seemed sort of in the clouds." Pittman never failed to wear a coat and tie, even though the clothes might look rumpled and dirty, Gary said.

Yet Pittman seemed to keep up with some matters of the day such as politics. "I remember that back in 1948 when Henry Wallace was running for president on the Progressive Party ticket, they had some meetings in the hotel. Pittman told my mother she had to be careful. And, sure enough, she was paid a visit by the police after she had a reception for the Progressives." said Gary.

When Pittman died in 1958 at the age of 82, said Gary, he was penniless. Gary's mother took up a collection to pay for his burial, and the Pinkston family donated a plot for him in the Pinkston family cemetery in South Dallas.

"He and my daddy were friends," said L. G. Pinkston of Pinkston Mortuary. Last year, Pinkston located Pittman's unmarked grave in the Glen Oaks Cemetery on Hatcher Street near Oakland Avenue. The Dallas Historical Society marked the site with a granite stone, donated by architect and society board member Enslie O. Oglesby, Jr.

Oglesby said he doesn't know much about Pittman, but that "I hate for anyone to be in an unmarked grave, especially a fellow architect."

So Pittman finally got a stone for his grave. The building he left behind is still waiting for its marker.

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A Listing of William Sidney Pittman's Buildings

Collis P. Huntington Memorial Building, Tuskegee, Alabama (1900-1905)

Douglas Hall, Tuskegee, Alabama (1900-1905)

Rockefeller Hall, Tuskegee, Alabama (1900-1905)

Carnegie Library, Tuskegee, Alabama (1900-1905)

R. F. Turner Apartments, New York City, New York (1906)

Voorhees Industrial School, Denmark, South Carolina (n.d.)

Pittman House, Fairmount Heights, Maryland

Fairmount Heights Housing Development (1907-1911?)

Negro Building, National Tercentennial Exposition, Jamestown, Virginia (1907)

Young Men's Christian Association (Y. M. C. A.), Washington, D.C. (1907)

Agricultural Building Tuskegee Alabama (1908)

Garfield Public High School, Washington, D.C. (1908)

Kentucky Normal and Industrial Institute (1908)

Allen Chapel A. M. E. Church, Fort Worth, Texas (1912-1914)

Knights of Pythias Temple, Dallas, Texas (1915-1916)

St. James A. M. E. Temple, Dallas, Texas (1919-1921)

Joshua Chapel A. M. E. Church, Waxahachie, Texas (1919)

Colored Carnegie Library, Houston, Texas (n.d.)

Wesley Chapel A. M. E. Church, Houston, Texas (n.d.)

United Brothers of Friendship Hall, San Antonio, Texas (n.d.)

Grand United Order of Oddfellows (Negro) Lodge Building, San Antonio, Texas (1924)

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