Architect Samuel Plato
Samuel Plato had a strong architectural background; he was the son of James and Katie Plato. His father, James Plato, was an apprentice of Samuel Carter, the famous slave artisan carpenter/builder. James Plato is attributed with building most of the housing in the rural area around Waugh, and was described as a “genius at mechanics.” Consequently, Samuel Plato was introduced to the building trades at a very young age. James Plato was also instrumental in the planning of Mount Meigs Institute with Booker T. Washington. In fact, the plans for the school were thought to have been drafted on the lawn of Plato’s cabin home (Smith).
Samuel Plato has an extensive educational background. He attended Mount Miegs Institute for seven years of practical training, and graduated with honors. Following Mount Miegs he attended school one year in North Carolina under the instruction of a former Mount Miegs “industrial” teacher. Unable to afford tuition at Tuskegee Institute, Plato enrolled at the State University at Louisville, Kentucky in 1898. In Louisville, Plato completed the “normal course.” He returned to Alabama for one year to teach, and then returned to Louisville with the goal of studying law. However, Mr. Grant dissuaded Plato from becoming an attorney. Plato had constructed a “combination post office and merchandising store” in 1899. Grant argued that the young seventeen-year-old Plato should develop his mechanical talent. Mr. Grant is quoted as having persuaded Plato with these words, “The man who builds a skyscraper is no fool, and those who build steam engines are like the captains of industry and give employment to lawyers.” However, Plato continued to pursue his university training for two more years, but Grant’s stayed with Plato and he then enrolled in the International Correspondence School of Scranton, Pennsylvania to study architecture (Smith). The August 9, 1913 issue of The Freeman stated that “Mr. Plato is thirty-one years old. He is a native of Alabama and had the advantage of good training in his trade at Tuskegee, Mt. Meig’s Institute, Winston Academy, N.C. and the State University at Louisville, KY. He is thoroughly equipped for his work and is destined to be one of our greatest light in the field of architecture.”(Smith)
Plato's Architectural Career
The development of Samuel Plato’s career was unique for an African American architect of his day. The first account of Plato professionally using his building skills is at State University in Louisville. He earned board and tuition repairing campus buildings, and constructed home near Bardstown, Kentucky, for Dr. C.L. Pruce, one of his University Professors, which was in the late 1890s. Plato was also awarded the commission to build Mr. Grant’s “combination post office and merchandising store” during the State University period. These contracts were completed before his 18th birthday. In 1902 Plato left Louisville, presumably after completing the correspondence course in architecture, and went to Marion, Indiana. His first Marion commission was to complete woodwork and stairs for an eight-room house, a fifteen-dollar job with board included. After that a high school commission was given to him and the white carpenters walked off the job after one hour refusing to work for a black contractor. He was then given another job to build a high school in an African American area. Between 1912 and 1946 public works projects were being awarded to Plato relatively soon after his arrival to Marion. In 1906, Plato was given a government contract to build a $10,000 addition to the Soldier’s home in Marion a sizable contract for the time. Plato received considerable assistance making bond for his first federal project, due to the confidence that the influential families had in Plato. In 1912, Samuel Plato’s career skyrocketed to success starting with a contract for $135,000 to create J. Wood Wilson’s house other wise known as the Hostess House. Then with a $16,000 contract to do wood work on a post office, and a $100,000 contract to build a partial residence for Wilson on West Fourth Street. Samuel Plato’s career had progressed from a small contract to build a staircase and woodwork in 1902, to homes, schools, churches, mansions, retail stores and manufacturing facilities by 1915 (Smith).
Along with having a successful career, Plato kept involved socially and politically. When Plato was fired from the high school project his noted prophecy was, “Those of you who would not work with me will work for me someday.” This is the first mention of political involvement that is attributed to Plato (Smith).
Building the Wilson Mansion
The construction of Wilson’s fifteen room elaborate mansion required a large number of carpenters. The workers who had refused to work along side Plato were now requesting employment on this massive project. Plato gave one stipulation, that his workmen be admitted into the mechanics union. The local union president resigned, but after an all night meeting, the black carpenters were admitted into the union. “This started a crusade throughout the state of Indiana to accomplish the same result wherever Plato got a contract to erect a building.” In spite of his success, Plato also had stayed in touch socially with common goals of the African American community. He had a major association with Booker T. Washington and presented an address titled “The Rise and Progress of the Negro During His Fifty Years of Freedom.” At Allen Temple, Plato’s second Baptist Church~, Samuel Plato and T. B. Wheeler had healed “special calls” to “big mass meetings” for the citizens of Marion and Weaver. These meetings gave information on issues that pertained to the state of the African American race. When Booker T. Washington died in December 1915, Plato delivered the eulogy at the memorial service at Civic Hall. With the success of Plato’s architectural business as well as his political and social involvement in the community, Samuel Plato helped to up raise the status of African Americans in Indiana (Smith).
The Platonian Apartments
The Platonian Apartments, of which Samuel Plato created, on 1415 S. Adams were named after him. There are ten apartments, four on the north side of the court, four on the south side, and two on the east end of the court. Marion College once owned the apartments and then sold them. When constructed, the apartments were heated from an underground heating plant located at the northeast corner of the court on the outside of it. In 1988, each apartment had a steam boiler and hot water heater in the basement. All of the apartments are alike except for one. The basement contains the heating plant, a water heater, and has a recreational area. The entrance to the ten apartments on the South Adams Street had at one time contained ornamental light posts. As of 1995, the assessed value of the property totals $39,470 and the tax value totals $129,500. (Grant county office) It has been stated that Plato lived “across the street from the apartment when they were being built.” Thus, Plato and his wife lived on the west side of Adams Street, in a well-to-do white neighborhood. (Neher 47)
The Platonian Apartments as described by John Smith,
were built with character defining elements such as a low pitched hip roof with overhanging eaves, textured brick of Flemish bond on the first story and a stuccoed second story. The first and second stories are separated by a horizontally enhancing brick stringcourse. Fenestration on the first story and front entrances is defined by quo med limestone. The second fenestration is delineated by textured brick surrounds inset into stucco (all historic windows have been replaced with vinyl clad replacements). The dominant masonry porch supports are inset with limestone Arts and Crafts motifs. Diamond brick and limestone motifs are positioned in the center of the second story on all three structures. (Figures 6.14-6.18) An interesting window configuration on the Platonian Courts has been found on many additional structures demonstrating an architectural trait used by Plato. This three-part configuration includes two vertically oriented windows joined by a center horizontal unit. Plato’s interiors often include Arts and Crafts built in cabinetry and this window formation would be ideal for framing bookcases or shelving (figure 6.19).
The Apartments Today
Currently Mr. Nathaniel Johnson who is also a pastor owns the Platonian Apartments.
Mr. Johnson heard that Jon Shuttle was selling the property. He then acquired it in February of 1996. Since then, he has had the front gate as well as apartment D fixed. He has found that it is hard to find good honest tenets to live in the apartments that will pay rent on time. In the future, he plans to put a small garden in front of the apartments. As Mr. and Mrs. Johnson reflected upon Samuel Plato as “a good god-fearing man.” (Johnson) Samuel Plato took ideas from all of the other houses that he had made prior to the apartments and incorporated them into the style of the apartments. For Samuel Plato to have one of his creations named after him it shows that he took a special pride in creating the Platonian Apartments which is why they are a symbol of his architectural style and genus.
Other Plato Buildings
Another reason why the Platonian Apartments are significant is because they are apart of a chain of structures that Samuel Plato created. These structures include the First Baptist Church located at 1824 S. Branson St., the Lavengood-Richardson Bungalow, and the J. Wood Wilson/Hostess House at 723 W. 4th street. The First Baptist Church is neoclassical with colossal Ionic Limestone columns. It also has pressed metal cornice; pediment of pressed metal raking and horizontal cornices and masonry tympanum. Masonry pilasters with limestone Tuscan capitals and fenestration, which incorporates massive limestone arches with keystones, are also featured in the church. Segmental masonry arched windows, limestone flat arched windows, and a crowning parapet wall, which incorporates a creative limestone and masonry diamond and chevron pattern (Smith).
Another house that Samuel Plato created which shows how creative he could be for a more modest budget is the Lavengood/Richardson Bungalow. It has glazed tile roof gable dormer, stuccoed second story with inset textured brick string courses and window surrounds with vertical masonry accents. The design also includes a first story-textured brick, side patio with pergola and two French door entrances. Large masonry front porch supports, mulitpane front entrance with side lights, and hip roof Florida room addition with multipane casement windows also compliment the house. A separate multipane entrance off front porch, rear hip roof prairie school addition with attached first story garage and second story sleeping porch/sun room surrounded by multipane casement windows, with three masonry string courses accent the dominant first story (Smith).
With character-defining architectural features of a Colonial Revival, style The J. Wood Wilson/ Hostess House also shows Samuel Plato’s unique architectural style. He elegantly used the Ionic Order, colossal wooden columns, dentilated cornice and pediment on the exterior. He also used graceful multipaned double hung sash fenestration with both flat and round arches accentuated with limestone keystones. He used creative masonry testaments, dominant dormers and chimneys integrated into a truncated hip roof. Both main and side entrances incorporate detailed fanlights and sidelights. (Smith) The first Baptist Church, the Lavengood/Richardson Bungalow and the J. Wood Wilson! Hostess house structures that Samuel Plato created captures specific pieces of his architectural styles.
In conclusion, the Platonian apartments are a significant part of the history of Marion, Indiana. They were created by Samuel Plato a famous African American architect. Of whom was an important citizen in Marion because he was a pioneer architect and was one of the most prominent and influential African American citizens of Marion, Indiana. He has helped to make Marion the town that it is now with the architectural structures he created as well as the social and political movements he was involved in. The Platonian Apartments are a symbol of his architectural style and genius. They capture the true brilliance and uniqueness of Samuel Plato’s architectural style in a way that none of his other structures have done before. Samuel Plato also created many other important structural sights in Marion, Indiana, such as the First Baptist Church, the Lavengood/Richardson Bungalow and the J. Wood Wilson/Hostess House.
This paper was written by Alicia Black during January 2001. It was submitted as a class project at Marion High School in Mr. Lakes's AP English 11 and Mr. Munn's AP US History.