By Erick Johnson, Gary Crusader
Behind Israel CME Church at Washington Street and 23rd Avenue sits vacant, a decaying little wooden house. Most of the windows are blown out, old furniture can be seen piled up in the living room. Most of the white paint has peeled away. Empty bottles, milk containers and garbage litter the front and backyards.
This was once the home of an architect who designed Gary’s first and only Black hospital. He was W.W. Cooke, Gary’s premier Black architect, the son of a former slave. He broke racial barriers and designed numerous buildings and homes in Gary’s Black community and other neighborhoods in America.
He was a man before his time and a master of his craft. Cooke was among numerous professionals who advanced the social, economic and political agenda of a rising Black middle class, who established Gary’s Midtown Central Business district when Gary was segregated under a white political establishment.
Today, nearly 70 years after his death, Cooke remains one of Gary’s forgotten unsung heroes. While some of his buildings remain, few know about the brilliant, trailblazing pioneer who was Indiana’s only Black architect in Gary’s early years.
While the Hall of Fame display in Gary’s reopened main library showcases the contributions of Mayors Richard G. Hatcher, Rudy Clay and other prominent citizens, there is no photo or mention of Cooke or his contributions to Gary’s early years as a Black architect. Despite his significant contributions, he remains a forgotten figure.
During his illustrious career, Cooke designed 40 buildings throughout the Northeast. Many of them were U.S. Post Offices and structures on college campuses. In Gary, Cooke built churches and settlement houses, the historic St. John Hospital and commercial buildings. These buildings showcase Cooke’s range of architectural styles, including classical, colonial revival, and even elements of Prairie Style design. None of these buildings still exist. Some have been demolished and others are crumbling along with Cooke’s legacy. With little money in Gary, there’s small chance these historic structures will be restored or saved for generations to come.
At a time when there were few opportunities for Blacks, Cooke lived a successful life as a Black architect.
He was born December 27, 1871 in Greenville, South Carolina. His father, Wilson Cooke, was once a slave whose wife, Magdalena Walker, was a free Black woman before the Civil War. Cooke’s father was Greenville’s most prominent Black citizen who owned a grocery store and a tannery. In 1868 Cooke’s father served in the South Carolina General Assembly.
W.W. Cooke received his primary education in schools in Greenville until age 14. He also worked as a carpenter’s apprentice. After years of study he earned a bachelor of science and technology degree at Claflin College in Orangeburg, S.C. in 1902. Cooke then studied architecture at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and art history at New York’s Columbia University, and designed the Slater Training Building, where Claflin’s industrial courses were held.
Between 1902 and 1907 Cooke was a practicing architect, employed by the Freedman’s Aid Society and Women’s Missionary Society of the Methodist Episcopal Church. Because Blacks were not allowed to take tests in Washington D.C., Cooke traveled to Boston in 1907, where he took a three-day federal civil service examination. He passed and became the first Black man to be employed with the U.S. Treasury Department, where he was an architectural draftsman.
In 1921, Cooke was among millions of Blacks who migrated to the Midwest during the Great Migration. He settled in Gary’s Midtown Central Business District. In 1929, he became the first Black to obtain an Indiana state architect’s license.
Gary was just 26-years-old, and many of its buildings were designed by prominent white architects like George Washington Maher and Frank Lloyd Wright. But Cooke used his talents to transform the landscape of Midtown’s Central District, where Blacks were forced to work and live. The district was bounded by Broadway to the East, Harrison to the West. The Southern border was 29th Avenue and the northern boundary was 10th Avenue, according to the late historian Dharathula “Dolly” Millender in her book, Images of America: Gary’s Central Business Community.
Perhaps Cooke’s most famous works in Gary include the First AME Church, 2001 Massachusetts St.; it was built in 1923 and still stands today. At 109-years-old, it is Gary’s oldest Black church. It was founded in 1909 after members began meeting in one another’s homes for Sunday worship services. An asymmetrical brick building, First AME became a community centerpiece. In 2007, the church moved services to a new wing added to the structure after a two-year project.
Cooke designed Gary’s historic Saint John Hospital at 22 East 22nd St., a two-story prairie-style medical center that opened in 1929. The brick building was built at a time when most public hospitals in Gary and Indiana did not admit Black patients or allow Black doctors to practice. The hospital closed in 1950 and was abandoned. The vacant and vandalized landmark has a collapsed roof, broken windows, crumbling brick, water damage and an owner unable to invest in repairs. The structure is on the Indiana Historical Endangered Places list.
Cooke also designed many homes on the east side of Broadway. Many of these homes were simple, two-story, boxy structures made of brick and stucco.
Another building that Cooke designed, the three-story brick, Campbell Friendship House, is boarded up and vacant at 2100 Washington St. When it was built in 1928, Campbell Friendship House was the first settlement house in Gary to have a gymnasium. The structure is of a vernacular federal gothic style, featuring classical column pilasters, limestone sills, and radiating brick voussoirs arching over large fixed windows. The main structure is one hundred and twenty-five feet by fifty feet, with the gymnasium standing at ninety feet by thirty feet. The building has undergone extensive alterations throughout the course of its history, although the gymnasium and its elevated platform stage area has stood relatively unaltered since its original construction date.
Campbell Friendship House was started by several church missionaries in 1912, six years after the founding of Gary, Indiana. They operated at a different location and served predominately white residents. Like most settlement houses, the facility provided food, clothing, shelter and healthcare services to the needy. Between 1920 and 1930, while Gary was becoming a city of 100,000 the African American population increased 238 percent and composed one-fifth of the total population. Blacks were not turned away and were treated equal as whites. From 1946-1947, the House served over 900 registered families, and served over 1,233 individual children and adults during that same period. It’s unclear when the settlement house closed, but the building has fallen in severe disrepair.
Cooke also designed the John Stewart Settlement House and the Trinity Methodist Episcopal church. Both structures were built in 1925 and were located across the street from one another at 15th Avenue and Massachusetts. The John Stewart Settlement House, was a 2 1/2-story, “U”-shaped, Tudor Revival style brick and stucco building. Reverend Frank S. Delaney and Trinity Methodist Episcopal Church built the settlement house to help African-Americans in the community, including World War I veterans and people who moved from the South to Gary to work in the area’s steel mills. It was the only settlement house built with the sole purpose of aiding Black residents. It was listed in the National Register of Historic Places in 1977 and delisted in 1992.
In 2014, the Indiana Historical Bureau placed a historical marker on the site where the Stewart Settlement House once stood.
Cooke was also active in Gary’s Black community. He was one of the chief members of Gary’s Board of Trade (Noon-Day Business Club) with Chicago Defender founder Robert S. Abbott. The group was filled with doctors, lawyers and business owners. Cooke was the only architect.
Cook was also a board member of the Stewart House and a director of the Gary Building and Loan Association that was organized with $1,000,000 capital.
Cooke’s daughter, Anne, was one of the few Blacks to graduate from Gary’s segregated Emerson High School in 1926.
The 1929 stock market crash and the Great Depression forced Cooke to close his practice. He found work again with the U.S. Treasury, and served as a construction engineer. He supervised the building of Post Offices around the Midwest. He retired in 1941 and died in his home at 2319 Adams Street in 1949. He was 77 and is buried at Fern Oaks Cemetery in Griffin, Indiana. His house is still there, but its condition is so severe, it will most likely be demolished.