The goal of this online exhibition, The Buildings of Samuel Plato, as photographed by David S. Blunk, II, is to further understanding of the great historical, aesthetic, and moral value placed upon the buildings created by African-American architect Samuel Plato (1882-1957) in Marion, Indiana.. Through the permanent exhibition of fourteen photographs of the ten verified structures designed by Plato, the goal will be accomplished.
The photographs of Plato's buildings are meant to shed new light on the beauty they hold, by introducing unusual angles, subtle print toning, and attention to detail. The light snow, barren trees, and overcast skies all portray a sense of prominence, adding importance sweetened with whimsy to the compositions. The photography is fresh, with a new sense of composition which allows traditional perspective shots along with unusually angled and enlarged details. The subtle brown toning, created by printing a monotone print onto color (C-41) photography paper adds a slight sense of nostalgia to the collection. The attention to detail in craftsmanship, scenery, and background all pull together the unity of the exhibition.
The architecture of Samuel Plato is significant for many different reasons. The most prominent reason could be the success achieved by an African-American Architect in the early Twentieth Century. Samuel Plato turned to designing his own buildings and promoting himself after being turned away from most Caucasian-owned design and contracting companies. During the construction of his buildings, it was an unusual twist of fate that the very contractors which turned Plato down came to him seeking a job. Plato created success from failure, which is was a daunting task for anyone at the time.
The goal of this exhibition is to foster a sense of respect and appreciation for the buildings designed by Samuel Plato. Through exhibiting photography of his buildings, this message will hopefully be illustrated fully.
"Samuel Plato was born in Waugh, Alabama, in 1882. His father was trained by a former slave and carpenter named Samuel Carter (Arts Indiana 24). Plato’s father had raised him to learn the craft of carpentry. To pay for college and train fare to the University in Louisville, Plato carved out wooden washboards, which he sold for $.25 each before heading off to college. Samuel initially wanted to study in the field of law, but soon his all-consuming interest was geared toward architecture and carpentry. While in college, he did much work repairing campus buildings to earn tuition and board. After graduating, Plato relocated to Marion, presumably to find work in the gas boom economy. Increasing numbers of people were flooding the area at this time; thus, houses and other public structures needed to be built. In his first few years in the Marion area, however, no contractor would hire him due to his race. His very first job was refinishing the stairs and trim in an eight room house. The owner, so impressed by his top-quality work, recommended him for two more jobs at other residences. From this point on, Plato had very little trouble finding work. Eventually, in the early 1920’s, Plato returned to Louisville where he continued his career as a productive, high-quality architect and craftsman. Plato was the first African American to be selected for the designing and contracting of federal buildings in the United States. He is credited with building a total of 20 post offices in New York, Jew Jersey, and Kentucky. In 1957, Samuel Plato died at home in Louisville.
". . . Earl Green, a student of Grant County history, has been trying to get [Samuel] Plato on the Celebrity Audio Walking Tour of Marion for a year or so. He brought the idea to . . . city officials, who agreed it was time to honor Plato.
""First, I think he's very deserving," Green said. "Second, he breaks a stereotype of what people think [African-American] men do. He represents a success story in the field of architecture. A lot of success stories you hear about [African-Americans] stress sports. That isn't always so."
". . . In the 19 years [Plato] lived near Marion, he designed and built a number of buildings--but how many can't be verified . . . Incomplete, missing, or non-existent records complicate separating truth from legend.
""Every community has its--shall I say hero? By hero, I mean the person they look up to, the person who contributes to the advancement of the community. And [Plato] was certainly one of them," said Grant County Historian Leslie Neher."
--Article, "City officials want architect, builder added to its tour of history," by Sheri Conover of the Chronicle-Tribune, c.1988
The buildings designed and contracted by Plato are of great historical value due to their high quality of craftsmanship, authentic use of a multitude of styles, and their ability to defy age. The high craftsmanship of Plato's buildings is a product of the now famous Arts & Crafts movement, in which Plato played a large part. One trademark evident in the buildings Plato designed are the simple yet beautiful windows, along with their placement. All Platonian buildings have finely crafted windows, and most have retained some, if not all of the original glass and casings. Plato learned the art of carpentry from his father, and his talent was evident in the construction of the cabinets, doors, and windows in his buildings. Plato's styles range from bungalow, to Mediterranean, to Greek-revival, yet are all related by the superior craftsmanship and evident carpentry.
Credited for the design and construction of many buildings in Marion, Samuel Plato was an extraordinarily versatile architect in the early 1900s. He built several schools, churches, factory buildings, and homes. After the bubble of the gas economy had burst, Samuel found a job building the Marion high school. However, after only a few hours on the job, the workers ardently refused to work next to an African American. Plato was later given the task of constructing a high school in the south end of town for black students. Shortly after this incident, in 1912, Plato received the contract to build the famous Wilson-Vaughn Mansion, on the corner of 4th and Garfield Streets in Marion. Because of the unfair treatment Plato received during the high school project, he required the white contractors to allow black contractors and workers to be admitted to the union before any work was commenced. Another widely noted building of Plato’s design is the First Baptist Church on 4th and Nebraska Streets. The church was said to be structurally unstable because of its location directly on top of Boots Creek; however, the church will reach its centennial birthday, not long from now, in 2013. Although Samuel’s initial contract with the local public high school failed, he did design Marion’s first parochial school, St. Paul Catholic School. Unfortunately, the school burnt down several years later. In addition to these three prominent buildings, Plato also designed and built a set of apartments in his namesake.[http://www.wikimarion.org/Image:Platonian2.jpg The Platonian Apartments, on 15th and South Adams Streets, were owned, run, and maintained by Samuel Plato in 1910. The apartments still stand and are in full use today under the ownership of Blinn Enterprises. Plato's success as a craftsman and designer in the 1900's still shows in the variety and number of houses in and around the Marion area. His Arts and Crafts influenced buildings continue to provide style and grace to the area today.
This article and gallery was created by David S. Blunk, II as a project for the Community History Project at Marion High School. He sincerely wishes to thank William Munn, John Smith, Debi Shepler, The Chronicle-Tribune, Aaron Shepler, and David & Debra Blunk, who have helped him with the project.