February 2, 2022
Edward Lyons Pryce, the Black Landscape Architect that Preserved the Tuskegee Institute
Smith’s early research, supported by Pryce’s experience, indicates that early Black practitioners navigated toward strong institutional attachments, like Tuskegee, after being shut out of commercial practice. “They couldn’t go into traditional firms, so that’s why—Tuskegee, Howard University, North Carolina A&T —a lot of the HBCUs are where some of the Black landscape architects ended up,” he says.
Born in Lake Charles, Louisiana, Pryce grew up in Los Angeles, and graduated in 1937 with a degree in horticulture from Tuskegee. George Washington Carver was his mentor, and Pryce helped with the agricultural scientist’s studies of Black subsistence foods, like wild lettuce and dandelion greens, tracking their vernacular use and nutritional value, and establishing a theme in Pryce’s career of applying disciplinary rigor to horticulture practices born out of pure necessity.
While back in Los Angeles in the late 1930s, Pryce was introduced to landscape design when he was working as a landscape foreman on the estate of the president of Southern Pacific Railroad, according to African-American Architects: A Biographical Dictionary, 1865-1945, edited by Dreck Spurlock Wilson, one of few resources on Pryce’s life. He earned an undergraduate landscape architecture degree from Ohio State in 1948, studying during the day, working at a steel mill at night, and sleeping at a drafty YMCA, according to Landscape Architecture Magazine (LAM). He still earned top honors, and was awarded the 1947-48 Certificate of Merit, recognizing him as the best student in the program. Still, no would hire him. Potential employers all acknowledged his skills, but clients would simply not be “comfortable” with a Black designer says, Pryce Hoytt.
So, he returned to Tuskegee. There he overlapped with David Williston, Pryce’s landscape design predecessor, the first-ever Black landscape architect. Pryce was attracted to him because he “was doing engineering, horticulture, and art, all the things I was good at,” as he told told LAM. From 1948 to 1977 he was the superintendent of buildings and grounds and professor at the school of architecture, continuing on as consulting landscape architect until 1990. He earned an MLA from the University of California, Berkeley, in 1953, and became the first Black fellow of ASLA in 1979, an organization he had previously been denied membership in because of his race.
Very few people have had as much an impact on the Tuskegee campus as Pryce, and it’s likely his greatest legacy is his work as a landscape preservationist. In 1972 (the same year he became the first Black landscape architect to be professionally licensed), he wrote the grant proposal that resulted in the Tuskegee campus being nominated as a National Historic Site. Today, Tuskegee is the only HBCU that’s a National Historic Landmark, and the only HBCU that offers a program of study in historic preservation. “We attribute that all to him,” says Kwesi Daniels, interim head of Tuskegee’s architecture school. As a preservationist, Pryce reconstructed Williston’s planting and paving plans, and painstakingly reproduced historical maps of the campus, and his work still guides preservation of Tuskegee today.
One of Pryce’s most important legacies is documenting how the Tuskegee campus embodied its unique pedagogy. From its founding by Booker T. Washington, the school focused on teaching students discrete, marketable trades segregated by gender rather than broad areas of knowledge embodied in a degree. Men learned to be wheelwrights, carpenters, and masons, and students used these skills to build the campus itself. Women learned sewing, mattress-making, and more. Because Black people had very limited access to capital and land, their best chance at lurching out of the day’s enforced racial and economic hierarchy was to compete at highest possible level of wage labor, and this philosophy drove the development of the campus. Buildings were grouped together by trade instead of degree program, a tradition that continued during Pryce’s time, when, for example, the nursing school, the school of veterinary medicine, and the hospital were placed together. “When Pryce documented the campus, he set the early foundations for recognizing the uniqueness of our campus, [and] that students didn’t just make the buildings, but they made the bricks that went into the buildings,” says Daniels. Tuskegee was made from locally sourced bricks, timber, and labor. “You’re talking about sustainability before sustainability existed,” he says.
According to Tuskegee’s 2009 Campus Heritage Plan, Pryce worked carefully to incorporate existing trees into new landscape designs, preserving islands of soil around trees sited in parking lots. He emphasized boulevards and formal courtyards, pushing parking lots to the periphery of the site and occasionally screening them with hedges. Walkways tended toward graceful arcs, as did his plantings. “He would never plant anything in a straight line,” says Pryce Hoytt.
Pryce let nature guide his designs, preferring to subtly align landscapes with existing topography (a probable influence from Williston), like his “soft-terraced spaces” at the Paul Rudolph-designed Tuskegee Chapel, says Daniels.
One of Pryce’s most persistent challenges was keeping the campus maintained with minimal funding, and he developed clever work-arounds to deal with this, some of which are now standard landscape practice. He grew all the flowers used in graduation ceremonies in the campus greenhouse. He and landscape crews would pull trees and shrubs from nearby forests, grafting hyper-native ecologies into his plans; now the low-maintenance and low-carbon default for many designers. Pryce Hoytt says her dad “loved whatever was natural to Alabama.”
Pryce’s dedication to Tuskegee meant “not using [a] lack of funding as a reason [why] you can’t [achieve] excellence, but recognizing excellence is what’s necessary,” says Daniels.
A simple lack of resources is also what pushed Smith and his colleagues at the Black Landscape Architects Network to focus their efforts on scholarships. From his past experience as the Chair of the landscape architecture department of Baltimore’s Morgan State (another HBCU), the biggest barrier to entry for many Black students isn’t talent or ability, but cost. The Edward Lyons Pryce Scholarship will award two scholarships of $2,000 each to a Black undergraduate and graduate student. “I would get students who wanted to come, but it was a graduate program, so most of them were a bit older [and] had families and were trying to work as well as go to school, and I never had the resources to help them with two or three credits of courses. So, talking with the board, we felt that it was important to increase the number of Black landscape architects in the profession by helping sustain the students in programs.” The scholarship winner is expected to be announced later in February.
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