Sensitive, Contextual, Modern: Examining Works by Alonzo Robinson, Wisconsin’s First Black Architect


Paul Wellington and Kelsey Kuehn


Supervisor, Milwaukee Public Library and Architectural Historian, Jacobs Engineering Group


Regional Spotlight, Milwaukee, Wisconsin, Diversity of Modernism
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Beyond Cream City Brick Part Two
Sensitive, Contextual, Modern: Examining Works by Alonzo Robinson, Wisconsin’s First Black Architect

This essay examines three built works by Wisconsin’s First Black Registered Architect, Alonzo Robinson. Under-recognized for his distinct modern contributions to Milwaukee’s landscape, this piece takes a closer look at significant works from Robinson’s portfolio that represent his dedicated service to this city, his faith, and his community.

“Highly sensitive” - this is how the Milwaukee Star, one of the city’s Black newspapers, described Alonzo Robinson’s designs in 1974. Nearly two decades after he became Wisconsin’s first Black registered architect in 1956, Robinson had his own practice but still stood alone as the state’s sole architect of color. It was a title that he never wanted to hold for as long as he did.

Born in Asheville, North Carolina in 1923, Robinson grew up in Delaware where he studied Industrial Arts for three years at what was then called Delaware State College for Colored Students (today Delaware State University). His education was interrupted when he was drafted into the Navy as a Technical Sergeant stationed in Okinawa during World War II. After the war Robinson went on to study architecture at Howard University, where he received his degree in 1951. He came to Milwaukee in 1954 where he accepted a job as an architectural designer with the City Bureau of Bridges and Buildings. Robinson served the city for over a decade before entering private practice and eventually founding Wisconsin’s first Black-owned architecture firm. In 1975 he returned to public service as an architect with Milwaukee County and, upon his retirement in September 1998, the county declared Alonzo Robinson Day in honor of his “service, hard work, professionalism, and integrity.”

Robinson’s portfolio varies from private homes to community churches to large commercial complexes, but the majority of his work is quietly incorporated into Milwaukee County’s civic buildings, mainly in the form of additions and renovations. Three significant projects analyzed here form an understanding of Robinson’s sensitive modern aesthetic and explore his dedicated service to this city, his faith, and his community.

Pilgrim Rest Baptist Church

Throughout his career, Robinson designed numerous churches for many of Milwaukee's Black congregations. Pilgrim Rest Baptist Church is the earliest and perhaps most notable example of his religious design work. The congregation broke ground on its new home in 1959. At the time, Robinson was only a few years into his role at the city's Bureau of Bridges and Buildings. Notably, the project was entirely planned, financed, designed, and built by Black Milwaukeeans. Several setbacks, including structural emergencies and congregation layoffs, caused the church to be completed in an unexpected five years. When Pilgrim Rest opened its doors in 1964, it became the first Black congregation in Milwaukee to construct its own edifice.

The new facility contained a prayer room, library, conference rooms, and offices, located in the basement below the altar. Constructed of brick and block, the church is nestled discreetly between two duplex houses and quietly maintains the neighborhood scale and rhythm. Its rectangular plinth is topped with an A-frame structure, neatly housing a balcony for overflow. Strong horizontal lines in the balcony windows emphasize the church’s connection beyond its walls. Robinson’s modern design symbolizes a break from traditional Black churches of the 1950s, and provides a symbolic structure of progression within the Black community. By 1980 Pilgrim Rest Baptist Church had outgrown and moved on from the space Robinson designed. The building’s current tenant, the Inter-Denominational Church of the One Lost Sheep Foundational Ministries, has maintained the exterior of Robinson’s original design with minimal changes.

Fire Administration Building

At the time of the groundbreaking for the Milwaukee Fire Department (MFD) Administration Building in 1959, Robinson had been with the Bureau of Bridges and Public Buildings for less than 5 years. Plans attribute him as "Designer in Charge" for the project. MFD’s new headquarters was occupied in the winter of 1961. Up until the construction of the MFD Administration Building, Milwaukee's Fire Department shared spaces with other city agencies in City Hall and the Public Safety Building. Once completed, the three-story headquarters finally offered adequate space for emergency vehicles, equipment, training, offices, and living quarters for department staff.

Robinson designed the fire department’s headquarters with a noticeable difference in its ground and upper floors. Its sleek, rectilinear, contemporary design differs from his religious work but maintains a sensitivity in scale and massing. The ground level consisted of an unfinished brick facade, interrupted minimally by vehicle doors, public entrance, and singular ribbon window. The second and third floors feature a dark grey panel facade with black trimmed windows, with black panels sandwiched between each floor of glazing. Additionally, steel beams placed between each pair of windows protrude slightly above and below the upper floors, further emphasizing verticality and the fire department’s presence on a prominent corner in Milwaukee’s downtown.

In February 2021, the Milwaukee Common Council unanimously voted to rename the building the Alonzo Robinson Milwaukee Fire Department Administration Building, nearly 60 years after its completion. MFD’s headquarters, Robinson’s first major project post-licensure, is most likely the only building in the heart of downtown designed by a Black architect. Additionally, as one of the few public buildings in Milwaukee bearing the name of its architect, the headquarters will honor Robinson’s contributions to the city and success in the face of adversity.

Central City Plaza

The Central City Development Corporation (CCDC) was a Black development group organized by some of Milwaukee's most prominent Civil Rights leaders, including Felmers O. Chaney, the city's first Black police sergeant and a longtime leader of Milwaukee's NAACP. The CCDC was organized to combat renewal and involve the Black community in the redevelopment process. In 1967 the CCDC submitted a bid to acquire a portion of the Roosevelt Development Project Area immediately northwest of downtown. The federally assisted project permitted the development of retail, service, and office space, and was intended to complement the nearby Hillside Neighborhood Redevelopment Project (Hillside Terrace residences). The CCDC’s first proposal was rejected, however after 18 months of bidding the acquisition was finally realized. Backed by the Small Business Administration (SBA), the project was to become the state’s first Black developed, owned and operated commercial complex, with intentions of reclaiming the city’s African American commercial hearth last achieved during the Bronzeville era.

Perhaps the largest undertaking of his career, Robinson was the lead designer for this commercial development that would come to be known as Central City Plaza. At the time, Robinson was in private practice as principal in the firm DeQuardo, Robinson, and Crouch Associates. The CCDC development plans called for a 56 room motel, retail, offices, supermarket, liquor store, and more, all designed with hopes to “create a sound economic base for Black residents” in Milwaukee. Robinson’s design organized these services into three buildings that anchor prominent corners of the site. At the southeast corner of the site, the largest building sits along the sidewalk at the busiest intersection. The building’s two-story rectangular massing is reduced to a single story at the rear of the site adjacent to the smallest structure, a rectangular, one story building, which respects the scale of the adjacent residential neighborhood. At the northwest corner of the site lies a two story u-shaped building, with a courtyard facing in towards the complex. Despite its height, the u-shaped building is nestled perfectly along a residential street. The three buildings are different in scale and function but are tied together by their modern materials and design. Poured concrete facades, aluminum framed windows, flat roofs, and arched entryways expressed a modern appearance and a sense of uniformity.

The CCDC development broke ground in 1971 and opened to much fanfare in 1973. African Americans accounted for a third of construction workers, immediately creating an impact within the community. Popular destinations in the complex included a bowling alley and Masterpiece Supper Club, which were intended to draw many of estimated 300-400 weekend Black visitors to the city. For a few years Central City Plaza provided a modern facility and commercial center for the Black community. Within a few years, however, many tenants were forced to close due to mounting debt and a lack of financial assistance, forcing the CCDC to surrender the complex to the SBA. Today the complex is home to public and private tenants, and has never regained its early glory.

Alonzo Robinson’s diverse and expansive portfolio reveals the passion he harboured for the field of architecture and dedication he maintained to his community. Though he worked extremely hard, it was never easy. Robinson entered the field of architecture at the budding of the Civil Rights Movement and weathered discrimination throughout his career. In 1998 Walter Wilson, FAIA, Wisconsin’s second Black architect, reflected on the importance of Robinson’s career to Black designers following in his footsteps: “By his presence here and the work that he did, he opened the door for others to come through, like me.”

As Wilson pointed out, it isn’t just Robinson’s status as the first Black registered architect in the state that deserves our recognition. Additional merit lies in his dedication to great architecture. Robinson’s modern and contemporary designs are quietly creative as they carefully balance the scale and appearance of the surrounding environment with functionality and aesthetics. Although only a small portion of Robinson’s portfolio is recorded, his known work speaks to his expert ability to negotiate with the surroundings and produce quality designs in neighborhoods all over Milwaukee. 


1962, March 11. Dedication for Fire Building Set. Milwaukee Sentinel, 13.

1964, August 15. Church Built by Prayer. The Milwaukee Journal, 4.

1974, September 9. Alonzo Robinson. Milwaukee Star.

Blackwell, Edward H. (1973, September 2). Afro-American Style for Architecture? The Milwaukee Journal, 63.

Clevert, Leslie Johnson. (1977, March 10). Future Uncertain for Once Busy Plaza. The Milwaukee Journal, 82.

Iglitzen, Marlene. (1973, August 19). Black Project in Core Plans Unveiling. The Milwaukee Journal, 117.

Miston, Bill. (2021, February 9). Common Council OKs Renaming MFD HQ in Honor of Alonzo Robinson. Fox 6 News.

Pabst, Georgia. (2000, July 1). Robinson was a Pioneer Among Wisconsin Architects. Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, 04.

About the Authors

Paul Wellington is a Milwaukee Public Library Supervisor and author of Black Built: History and Architecture in the Black Community. He is also Co-founder and the Director of Operations and Technology for MKE Black, a nonprofit that empowers and supports Black-owned businesses in Milwaukee.

Kelsey Kuehn is an Architectural Historian at Jacobs Engineering Group.

Wellington and Kuehn are both alumni of UW-Milwaukee’s School of Architecture and Urban Planning and members of the Milwaukee Preservation Alliance.  

Beyond Cream City Brick: Modernism in Milwaukee is part of the Docomomo US Regional Spotlight on Modernism Series, which was launched to help you explore modern places throughout the country without leaving your home. Previous spotlights include Chicago, MississippiMidland, MichiganHoustonLas VegasColoradoKansas, and Pittsburgh. Have a region you'd like to see highlighted? Submit an article.

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Beyond Cream City Brick Part Three
The Mitchell Park Domes: Milwaukee's Public Modernist Marvel