William Sidney Pittman and His Church on Morton Street
At the beginning of February, we learned that the small church at 777 Morton Street, NW, has been sold to a developer and is going to be developed into a new three-building, 26-unit condo project. The church building currently sitting on the lot is to be incorporated into one of those buildings, but will be significantly altered and largely unrecognizable after construction. This got me wondering about the building and I’ve since learned that it was originally built in 1905 for Trinity A.M.E. Zion Church — a historically African-American Christian denomination that officially formed in 1821. Washington’s A.M.E. Zion church dates to the 1880s.
The church building is modest, and in reaching out to Patsy Fletcher — a member of the Historic Preservation Office who I’ve worked with on the Historic Park View walking trail and various African American heritage trail nominations — I learned that this was often true of black churches. According to Fletcher, an important point is that for the most part early black church buildings are going to be modest mainly due to the lack of substantial funds to erect anything more monumental. In many instances, the parishioners did the actual building of the structure once they had the design.
I also learned that the church on Morton street was designed by architect William Sidney Pittman, the first professional African American architect to maintain his own office. Moreover, the church on Morton Street was Pittman’s first commission as a professional architect.
Based on Susan Pearl’s biography of Pittman in African American Architects: A Biographical Dictionary, here’s what is known about the architect.
William Sidney Pittman was born in 1875 in Montgomery, Alabama, on April 21, 1875, and was educated in the segregated public schools of Montgomery. As a young man, Pittman worked for his uncle, Will Watkins, who was a carpenter. In 1892, at the age of seventeen, he enrolled at Tuskegee Institute, where he studied drawing under R.R. Taylor, the first African American to graduate from the Beaux-Arts architecture program at M.I.T. Pittman completed his studies in mechanical and architectural drawing in 1897 and graduated with a degree in architectural drawing. With financial support from Tuskegee Institute’s principal, Booker T. Washington, Pittman continued his education at Drexel Institute in Philadelphia, and earned a diploma in architectural drawing in 1900. Pittman returned to Tuskegee to teach as an assistant in the Division of Architectural and Mechanical Drawing. In this capacity, he also supplied blueprints for several buildings on the Tuskegee campus.
Pittman left Tuskegee for Washington, D.C. in May 1905. He began work as a draftsman in the office of John Anderson Lankford, and by October he opened his own office at 494 Louisiana Ave, NW, in the same building as Lankford in an effort to establish himself as an architect. This made Pittman the only African American architect in the United States maintaining his own office. His first commission was to design a new church for the Trinity A.M.E. Zion congregation on Morton Street, NW. The project progressed well, with the cornerstone being laid on December 10, 1905, and the building completed in advance of dedication ceremonies beginning on May 27, 1906.
In the fall of 1906, Pittman entered and won the competition for the design of the Negro Building at the Jamestown Ter-Centennial Exposition. There were five architects in the competition, and the selection of Pittman’s designs marked the first time the Federal Government accepted designs from an African American architect. The exposition was partially support by appropriations from the U.W. Congress and work was under the supervision of the secretary of the treasury. Pittman was contracted to supervise construction of the building, which marked the first federal contract with a Black architect.
Open for six months in 1907, the Negro Building was a significant success and launched the career of its architect. The cost to construct the Negro Building was estimated at $30,000. The building was planned in the colonial style and finished in pebble dash. It was a two story structure with a frontage of 250 feet and a depth of 156 feet. The lower floor contained a post office, administration offices, and about 38,000 feet of exhibition space. The second floor was designed with a large assembly and a concert hall seating 3,000 and 2,000 people respectively.
In 1907 Pittman married Portia Marshall Washington, daughter of Booker T. Washington. Portia was a professional pianist who studied at the New England Conservatory of Music and Europe and taught music for much of her adult life. The newlyweds made their home in the African American community of Fairmount Heights, Maryland, just outside the District of Columbia boundary. The Pittmans’ three children were all born during their residence in Fairmont Heights. Sidney Pittman was involved in the planning of Fairmount Heights, where he designed not only his family home, but also the town meeting hall and the first elementary school. Pittman became active in civic affairs in the community. He was a member of the Public School Building Committee and president of the Fairmount Heights Citizens’ Association. Pittman helped organize the Volunteer Fire Department for Fairmount Heights and the Tuskegee Alumni Association of Washington, D.C.
During these years, Pittman was commissioned to design several important buildings in Washington, D.C., including the Garfield Elementary Public School (1909) and the 12th Street Young Mens Christian Association Building. The Yound Mens Christian Association cornerstone was placed in November 1908 by President Theodore Roosevelt and the building opened with ceremonies on May 19, 1912. The four-story Young Mens Christian Association building was constructed of brick with decorative quoins, a modillioned cornice, and a portico with polished stone columns. It included a swimming pool, showers and lockers, a bowling alley, a billiard room, and fifty-four sleeping rooms. During the same period, Pittman designed institution buildings in several southern states and in 1912 received several commissions in Texas. At the end of the year, he moved his family to Dallas, Texas, where he designed several churches and institutional buildings, of which the Pythian Temple was the most notable. Finished in 1916, this fife-story, classically inspired brick building was erected as the Texas state headquarters of the Knights of Pythias, a Black fraternal organization.
Pittman’s architectural career began to wane in the 1920s. Always critical and difficult to satisy, he was, by the late 1920s, unable to secure contracts from either Black or White clients. He became increasingly bitter and in 1931 published Brotherhood Eyes, a local tabloid that railed against the employment of Whites by some Blacks who had proclaimed their commitment to Black civil rights.
Portia Pittman separated from her husband in 1928 and returned to Tuskeggee, Alabama. William Sidney Pittman remained in Dallas, supporting himself by performing carpentry work. In his last years, nearly blind and destitute, he was considered eccentric, but treated with some deference. Pittman died of coronary thrombosis on March 14, 1958, and was buried in an unmarked paupers grave in Glen Oaks Cemetery in South Dallas. In 1985, through the efforts of the Dallas historical Society and several architects and admirers of his work, a granite memorial stone was erected at his grave site.
The design and construction of the Negro Building at the Jamestown Exposition was the springboard for the architectural career of William Sidney Pittman. His career, although illustrious, was relatively brief, hampered by a combination of arrogance and personal frustration. Because of his talent, ambition, and industry, however, Pittman made a place for himself.
A review of Pittman’s work in Washington, D.C., includes ten buildings designed between 1905 and 1911. While his most notable buildings are the Young Mens Christian Association building (1908) and the Garfield Elementary Public School (1909), his local work also included three churches, three residential structures, and two businesses. Much of his Washington work was modest in comparison to his Y.M.C.A and Garfield school buildings. Within this context, Pittman’s Trinity church building on Morton Street has merit. It was Pittman’s first commission as a professional architect, a solidly built brick structure, and his only D.C. church building still extant. Though clad in Formstone, the building still retains a much of its integrity.
Biography Based on: Pearl, Susan G. (2004). William Sidney Pittman (1875-1958). In African American Architects: A Biographical Dictionary (pp. 319-20). New York, NY: Routledge.
 Ethridge, Harrison M. “The Black Architects of Washington, D.C., 1900-Present.” Ph.D. Dissertation, Catholic University of America, 1979.
 “His Third Anniversary: Architect W. Sidney Pittman Completes His Three Years’ Experimental Work in the City of Washington with Flattering Success.” Washington Bee, June 6, 1908: pg. .
 “Negro Exposition Building: W. Widney Pittman, of This City, Holds a Very Unique Distinction.” The Washington Post, Nov. 25, 1906: pg. R6
 “Well Equipped for Business: W. Sidney Pittman as a Successful Architect.” Special to the Afro-American Ledger. Afro-American, July 27, 1912: pg. 7.