Amid a packed crowd of faces—stern men with slicked hair and tight neckties, their heads craned en masse to examine an architectural drawing laid out on a table below—one individual, seated in the front row of this photograph, stands out.
The lone Black architect in the group is Thomas Wilson Boyde, Jr., a humble and hardworking student just barely twenty years old. Clad in a utilitarian work coat, he bears a look of quiet confidence in his prizewinning work: a Master’s thesis plan for the State Tower Building in Syracuse. His reward for the elegant Art Deco design is $1,500—around $20,000 today. Yet, more importantly, he won respect and esteem among his peers after years of proving himself.
Breaking Barriers One by One
By 1928, the year this photograph was taken, the young Mr. Boyde had already broken numerous barriers. After graduating high school in Washington, D.C. at age fourteen, he became the first Black man to earn a civil engineering degree from Brown University and the first to earn an architecture degree from Syracuse University. A groundbreaking, five-decade career in professional architecture, during which he would design hundreds of structures in and around Rochester, lay ahead of him. He would soon become the very first Black architect in Rochester, and among the first in the nation, to own an independent firm, which he operated from the end of WWII through the 1970s. He helped shape the look and feel of Rochester and its suburbs, designing structures that served all the needs of the area’s booming postwar population.
Without a blueprint to follow, Boyde built a place for himself in an industry that was, and remains, overwhelmingly racially homogenous. (Even today, fewer than two percent of all licensed architects in the United States are Black.) But his career, however prolific and successful, was not without its obstacles. His daughter recounted to the Democrat & Chronicle in 1995, "As a Black professional, he had to work twice as hard as anyone else to get the recognition he deserved.”
Building a Life in Rochester
Upon Boyde’s arrival in Rochester in 1930, the esteemed local architect who hired him balked at first sight: “Mr. Boyde, why didn’t you tell me you were black?” he asked his new employee, to which Boyde replied, simply, “You advertised for an architect.”
For nearly sixty years, Boyde was largely denied credit for his contribution to the design of the Monroe Community Hospital’s ornate exterior—with exquisite “Italianate” ornamentation one scholar has suggested were inspired by Boyde’s postgraduate travels in the Mediterranean region.
Despite these indignities, Boyde established himself as an architect who could apply himself with equal vigor to projects both large and small, both commonplace and one-of-a-kind. His output can fairly be called eclectic. He designed and built nearly every kind of building one might see in the Rochester region: car washes and grocery stores, banks and medical centers, public and private housing, and magnificent large scale projects like the old Strathallan Hotel, post offices, retail plazas, fire departments, office complexes, and churches. He even designed a home for exotic birds!
Preserving Boyde’s Story
Boyde is undeniably owed recognition and celebration, both as a barrier-breaking pioneer and as a virtuoso whose talents enhanced the lives of all who lived, worked, and played in his creations. Fortunately, the Rochester Museum & Science Center proudly holds a treasure trove of materials that help preserve Mr. Boyde’s legacy.
Correspondence, letters of recommendation, newspaper clippings, photographs of Boyde’s residences and commercial projects, manuscripts, artwork, and personal documents convey the range of Boyde’s faculties and illustrate how one largely unsung architect played an enormous role in designing Rochester’s built environment.
The key to the collection—and perhaps to understanding Boyde’s work—is an archive of more than 1,200 mechanical drawings, including sketches, site plans, floor plans, and elevations. Project after project reveals Boyde’s broad talents, his good design sense, and his impeccable attention to detail.
Take a look at a few highlights:
Axonometric drawing of a proposed bank and medical center, 1961
This proposed design for a bank and medical center in downtown Rochester is an example of “midcentury modern” architecture. Boyde was particularly adept at this stark and geometric style.
Axonometric site plan for Star Market and parking lot, 1959
For several years, Boyde was regularly contracted by Hart’s Grocers to design supermarkets and warehouses for their Star Markets chain. Boyde’s markets were among the first in the area to feature broad bays of giant plate glass windows on their façade. The store illustrated in this drawing was built on the intersection of Jefferson Ave. and Columbia Ave. in the 19th Ward but is no longer standing.
Miscellaneous Details for Holy Trinity Baptist Church, 1962
Boyde’s wide variety of work included houses of worship—in particular, churches belonging to majority Black congregations. This drawing includes the simple but refined elevation (frontal appearance) and rear nave window of the Holy Trinity Baptist Church in the Upper Falls neighborhood. Today, a community garden stands in its place.
Detail, Stair Alteration
Boyde designed buildings down to their last details, including hand-drawn stair railings.
Lighting plan, Star Market, 1962
Boyde, educated first as an engineer and then as an architect, became known for “sweating the small stuff.” He painstakingly designed complex, often hidden lighting and electrical systems for his buildings as fluently as he designed their external look and feel.
Boyde’s professional seal and credit line
Today, architectural design is done primarily in computer programs rather than by hand, and fewer and fewer new architects learn how to write in a style known as “architectural lettering.” For architects from previous generations, however, this written “typeface”—with its characteristic block letters, even spacing, and horizontal guidelines—was a standard part of their education and everyday work. Though the technique was largely standardized, architects’ unique personalities can often be read in their handwriting.
Interested in learning more?
Explore Thomas Boyde, Jr.'s story further in this episode of Homework Hotline featuring RMSC's Kathryn Murano Santos, Senior Director for Collections and Exhibits. Kathryn shares other buildings in Rochester that Boyded worked on that you may be familiar with including the Rundel Building of the Rochester Public Library and the Monroe Community Hospital.