Originally built for Trinity A.M.E. Zion church in 1905, the small church at 777 Morton Street was designed by black architect William Sidney Pittman.
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. (more…)