Clarence Wigington, architect

Clarence Wigington's Highland Park Water Tower, St. Paul, MN
Wigington’s 1928 Highland Park Water Tower is on the National Register of Historic Places. Shutterstock image.

A contemporary of Julia Morgan, Clarence Wigington was the nation’s first African-American municipal architect. Despite a lack of formal training, he became a senior architectural draftsman in the office of the St. Paul City Architect in 1915. The lead architect in over 90 St. Paul municipal projects, he designed schools, fire stations, and park buildings.

Wigington developed his skills by attending art school. He then served a six-year apprenticeship as a draftsman for the architect Thomas Kimball. In the years before World War I, St. Paul was growing fast. The city advertised an examination for architectural draftsmen; Wigington received the highest score.

During World War I, Clarence Wigington became a leader of the African American community. He petitioned the Adjutant General of the Minnesota Home Guard to form a “colored” battalion. Wigington received an appointment as captain. Minnesota, Illinois, and New York were the only states with African Americans serving in their Home Guards.

How then shall the leaders of a struggling people be trained and the hands of the risen few strengthened? There can be but one answer: The best and most capable must be schooled in the colleges and universities of the land…to be the group leader, the one who sets the ideals of the community where he lives, directs its thoughts and heads its social movements.—W.E.B. DuBois

Public works and private practice

In the 1910s and 1920s, the city budget was minimal, restricting the scope for imaginative design. Even so, three of his buildings are on the National Register of Historic Places. These are the Highland Park Water Tower (1928), the Holman Airfield Administration Building (1939), and the Harriet Island Pavilion (1941).

The Great Depression suppressed local spending even further. However, the federal Works Progress Administration funded some of Wigington’s best work. In addition to the more permanent brick and stone buildings, the WPA funded his designs for several Winter Carnival Ice Palaces. These allowed Wigington to exercise his creative imagination more freely.

World War II brought an end to the Works Progress Administration. The nation turned its resources away from domestic construction toward the war effort. However, once the war ended there was a growing need for housing.

Throughout most of his career, Clarence Wigington also maintained a private practice, designing homes and houses of worship. These include the McVay house (1917), the St. James AME Church in St. Paul (1922), the Sons of Jacob Synagogue in St. Paul (1947), and the Griffin house (1957).