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The work of Clarence Wigington — country's first Black municipal architect — is still seen all over St. Paul

Country's first Black architect's work featured around St. Paul
Country's first Black municipal architect's work featured around St. Paul 03:09

ST. PAUL, Minn. — You may not know his name, but if you've ever been to St. Paul, you've likely seen his work. Behind that work is the story of a deeply talented architect who defied all odds.

It stands tall above a beloved St. Paul neighborhood. Functional and beautiful, it's the Highland Park Water Tower.

It's the architecture that catches the eye — and the story behind it caught Tony Simmons' attention.

"I love history. I was always curious, what is the history of African Americans coming into St. Paul. And I came across Clarence Wigington and I was like whoa, what an incredible transformational figure," Simmons said.

Simmons heads up the High School for the Recording Arts in St. Paul, and he's bringing this history into the present.

"For me, he just really represents everything I care about in understanding our history and my history and the history my young people need to know," he said.

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Wigington was born in Lawrence, Kansas in 1883. As a student, he won three drawing contests at the World Fair. He became a draftsman and applied for an open job with the city of St. Paul in 1914. He outscored every applicant in a skills test.

"He was, as far as anyone knows, the first Black municipal architect in the country," Simmons said.

Paul Nelson chronicled Wigington's life for the History Museum.

"Generally speaking for Black professionals, opportunities were constrained. He made his way on merit, not as a Black architect, he made his way just on his own qualifications," Nelson said.

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The pavilion at Harriett Island is another example of Wigington's classic architecture. There are over 90 projects in total. He designed five St. Paul Winter Carnival castles. He also built schools and fire stations.

It's timeless structures and a timeless lesson Simmons plans to pass on to his students.

"I just want all young people to know when you get that opportunity, seize it. Do everything you can to show your contribution is capable of producing. He obviously did that and we see that every day in the city," Simmons said.

Wigington's wife, Viola, urged him to go for the architect job in St. Paul. He then started a private firm after his work with the city of St. Paul and Los Angeles. He passed away in 1967.

You can still find his work all over St. Paul.  

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