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Black History Month #5: Langston Terrace Dwellings and Hilyard Robinson

A photograph of Langston Terrace Dwellings, Washington, D.C. shows the influence of the Bauhaus movement and large scale public housing projects in Europe. Courtesy Paul R. Williams Project.

Langston Terrace Dwellings, which opened in 1938, was the DC area’s first federally funded public housing program and was built for low income Black families as part of the New Deal. Hilyard Robinson, a native Washingtonian, was the project’s chief architect. After serving in WWI, then earning a BA and MA in architecture from Columbia University, Robinson studied the work of both the Bauhaus and the Dutch Modernists. He also toured Europe and Russia and was influenced by the housing projects in Rotterdam and Vienna. According to the DOCOMOMO US (Documentation and Conservation - Modern Movement), “During the first half of the twentieth century, Hilyard Robert Robinson was one of the most prolific and socially conscious African American architects in the nation.” He was committed to the idea that carefully designed housing could improve the lives of residents. Historian Kelly Quinn, whose 2007 dissertation, Making Modern Homes: A History of Langston Terrace Dwellings, focused on the apartment complex included this quote from Robinson:

“Do not be deceived into believing that Architecture is a luxury and an indulgence for the moneyed people alone. Nothing could be more erroneous. Good Architecture is not measured in terms of dollars and cents; its merits lie in the brain and experience of the architect, who—and I implore your confidence in this statement—is a most inexpensive servant, and besides, who—if he is of the proper temperament and efficiency—loves his work.” Hilyard Robinson to readers of Howard University Record, 1925

More about Langston Terrace Dwellings:

The name Langston Terrace honors John Mercer Langston (1829-1897), abolitionist, founder of Howard University Law School, and U.S. congressman from Virginia.

The finished project consisted of 274 apartment units in the International style which surround a central commons. In 1965, 34 units were added to the original complex.

Langston Terrace Dwellings terra cotta frieze by Daniel Olney. Courtesy DC Housing Authority

The project is also significant for the public art that it features. Most important is a terra-cotta frieze by Daniel Olney, entitled The Progress of the Negro Race, which lines the central courtyard. The frieze chronicles African American history from slavery to freedom. Please note, however, that Daniel Olney was NOT a person of color.

There are also large cast concrete animals in the courtyard. One of which, a frog, was made by sculptor Lenore Thomas Straus whose sculptures also adorn Greenbelt, MD.

Children play on a large cast concrete frog sculpted by Lenore Thomas Straus. Langston Terrace Dwellings. Courtesy National Archives

Langston Terrace Dwellings is Located on 14 acres at 21st Street and Benning Road, NE. The project was on the DC Preservation League’s list of most endangered places in 2001, despite that fact that it was listed in the National Register of Historic Places and on the DC Inventory of Historic Sites in 1987.

For more on Langston Terrace Dwellings:

See the documentary, Home: The Langston Terrace Dwellings (1987), a documentary by Barr Weissman

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