Seventy years after his death, Cooke’s work is fading. Historians say part of the problem is that few know who Cooke was in the first place.
“Cooke’s legacy is not in danger, because some of his buildings are still standing,” said Tiffany Tolbert, senior field officer for the National Trust for Historic Preservation, a nonprofit that advocates for historic sites. “It’s more people knowing he designed them.”
As Tolbert documented in a 2011 article for the Indiana Historical Society, Cooke rose from obscurity and, after losing his architectural firm to the Great Depression, returned to it.
Born in 1871 to a father who owned a barbershop and grocery store in Greenville, S.C., after gaining his freedom, Cooke was a carpenter’s apprentice before enrolling at Claflin University, founded to educate freed slaves and the first black college to offer architectural drawing. He designed buildings there and at other African American institutions in the South as part of what Tolbert called “self-sustainment.”
“The community had to build its resources,” she said. “There weren’t provisions in broader government structures. … African American buildings were designed by African Americans during segregation.”
Cooke headed to Washington in 1907 in search of a federal architecture job. He wasn’t permitted to take the civil service exam in Washington because of his race, and had to sit for the test in Boston. After he passed and landed a job at the Treasury Department, he was permitted to work only as a draftsman — the first black man to work in the department’s supervising architect’s office.
As a federal employee, Cooke created some of his longest-lived work: post offices, 17 of which he designed between 1911 and 1941. These buildings, and many Cooke created in private practice when he relocated to Gary in 1921 for reasons lost to history, weren’t dazzling modernist edifices, but neoclassical — the antithesis of, say, the work of Frank Lloyd Wright, a more famous contemporary.
While in the District, Cooke completed alterations to Asbury United Methodist Church, which still stands at 11th and K streets NW, and built a home.
About 15 years ago, Marvin Seagraves tore down that home on Kearny Street in Northeast Washington. The century-old structure was “an old, vacant house,” he said, in a rapidly gentrifying city. He didn’t know who had built it, and he didn’t take photos before he leveled the home and built another.
“I was young and trying to make things happen,” Seagraves said. “It just wasn’t really something that was on my mind.”
Lee Bey, an architecture critic and author of “Southern Exposure: The Overlooked Architecture of Chicago’s South Side,” said Cooke’s style was born of the obstacles he overcame to become an architect. Having fought his way into an industry that, even in 2019, is 2 percent African American, Cooke needed to show he could do “the same thing a white counterpart would,” Bey said.
“This is how you show others in this country that you’re not some ‘other,’ ” Bey said. “You produce a bank building and a fraternal organization building and it looks good … not flashy.”
Before his architecture firm fell victim to the Depression, Cooke designed St. John Hospital in Gary, built in about 1920 for African Americans who weren’t permitted to visit the city’s white hospitals. At the time, according to the nonprofit preservation group Indiana Landmarks, most African Americans in Gary couldn’t afford medical care.
An unfiled historical registration application from 2005 states that St. John filled a void for health care within Gary’s black community.
“It continued in this role until the 1950s, when African Americans were first allowed regular care in the larger city hospitals,” according to the application. “Once its service as a hospital ended, the structure was used as an apartment building that has recently begun to slide into disrepair.”
The slide continued for more than half a century — long after Cooke’s death in 1949. The hospital is crumbling into underbrush.
Brad Miller, director of Indiana Landmarks’ northwest field office, said the building is “beyond repair.”
“It would take a full reconstruction of the building that is not exactly feasible,” he wrote in an email.
Gary city officials announced last month they plan to raze St. John by the end of the year.
In an email, Gary city spokeswoman LaLosa Burns said the building is scheduled to be demolished as early as the last week of November. She said it “has collapsed to the point of leaning on the adjacent property and the roof has collapsed to the basement and entry cannot be gained.”
“While there has been talk about preserving the building’s history in some way, the manner has not been determined at this time,” she said.
Tolbert called the hospital’s fate “very unfortunate.”
“The city of Gary has many issues that they are dealing with,” she said. “Unfortunately, preservation doesn’t get elevated to the priority that it should. Through other channels, we have to make sure the story of Mr. Cooke is told.”
Read more Retropolis: