Shaping the educational architecture of Virginia in the 20th century

Through January, we’re publishing year-in-review highlights from FY2021. Download a full PDF of this year’s Annual Report to read more! This week we’re looking at mapping the physical world.

Originally from Hamilton in Loudoun County, Virginia, architect Charles M. Robinson (1867-1932) began his career in about 1887 in Grand Rapids Michigan, where he worked as an apprentice draftsman in the firm of noted architect D. S. Hopkins. In 1889 he moved to Pennsylvania, where he practiced in Altoona and Pittsburgh, and in 1906 he moved his practice to Richmond, Virginia. Robinson flourished in Richmond, and over the next quarter century he was prolific, designing public buildings such as churches, seminaries, department stores, banks, sanitariums, and hospitals.

Architectural plans, yellowed with age, arranged upon slab of stained wood.

However, Robinson is most widely known for designing hundreds of public schools in Virginia. He became the architect of Richmond Public Schools in 1910, a post he held until 1929, but his work was not limited to the Richmond area. Among the educational institutes he designed throughout the state were schools for women, schools for only white or only Black children, reformatory schools, and schools for the blind. He also created the architectural plans for all or part of the campuses of many of the state’s universities. It is no exaggeration to say that Charles M. Robinson shaped the educational architecture of Virginia in the 20th century.

Architectural plans labeled "Virginia State College for Negroes, Petersburg Virginia" in the lower right cor

Robinson never designed a building at UVA, but the Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library is now home to a collection of architectural plans made by Robinson and successor architects to his original firm, totaling more than 1,700 sets of drawings — 99% of which are the architects’ master copies, on waxed linen, onionskin, or vellum. The collection was amassed by Robinson’s great-grandson David, a passionate collector who spent nearly 40 years tracking down the plans after taking a childhood interest in his great-grandfather’s work. These original drawings include public buildings of all types, private residences, and the educational buildings for which Robinson is remembered. Drawings in the collection span from 1907 through 1994, and the collection also includes photos, letters, watercolors, modern renderings, and other materials from 1946 through 2012.

Of key interest in the archive is the more than 60 Black schools whose plans are included in the collection. The bulk of the archive dates from the Jim Crow era, and although many of these buildings — some of them one-, two-, or three-room schoolhouses — no longer exist, the architectural plans remain as essential primary sources. The Library is committed to working to build collections that highlight lesser-represented communities, and these plans for public spaces for African Americans fill a void in the Small Special Collections Library Virginiana collection. They will allow researchers to better envision and study the spaces in which segments of Virginia’s Black population lived much of their daily lives.

The collection arrived at UVA in spring of 2021. Once cataloged, processed, and made available, it will serve as an invaluable resource for scholars in the Education and Architecture schools and beyond. The breadth and depth of the archive will attract students and scholars interested in history, religion, architecture, health, cultural studies, race, and education, including the intersections between those fields.

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