The Architecture of Samuel M. Plato

Cardinal Greenway

Architecture Black History Commerce, Economy & Work

The architectural work of Samuel M. Plato has been cataloged by the National Register of Historic Places eight times. Louisville, Kentucky’s Broadway Temple A.M.E. Zion Church, pictured here, is one of his most notable buildings – being deemed in its nomination form as “a significant work of an important Black architect.”

In front of the J. Wood Wilson House—now better known as Hostess House, a restaurant, event venue and gift shop—is a state historical marker for Samuel Plato (1882–1957). “African American architect and contractor,” the sign explains, “House here attributed to him.” [1] Plato built this mansion in 1912 for a Marion businessman and his wife, and it was one of his earliest—and certainly most grand—forays into Neo-Classical and Colonial Revival architecture. In 1912, Plato had lived in Marion for almost 10 years and was a decade into his career. After attending the State University in Louisville, Kentucky, at the turn of the 20th century, Plato learned architecture via a course from the International Correspondence School of Scranton, Pennsylvania. [2] He arrived in Marion in 1902 or 1903, attracted by the wealth amassing in the area as a result of Indiana’s natural gas boom.

Initially, Plato struggled to find work as an architectural draughtsman or contractor due to his race—being offered jobs only as a manual construction laborer or a carpenter. But when a contractor he was working for was dismissed for embezzling, his break finally came.

Plato was chosen as his boss’s replacement to finish the eight-room house. “When completed,” he told an audience in 1911, “the work was so well done that I secured four houses to build immediately, comprising in all 26 rooms.” [3]

Between 1903 and 1921, when he moved back to Louisville, Plato was the contractor on many buildings, several of which he designed. You can ride over to 917 South Adams St. to see the stunning Craftsman style home he designed and built in 1905, and then continue down South Adams to number 1415, the Platonian Apartments (1910). Or visit his 1913 commission, the First Baptist Church, at the corner of Fourth and Nebraska streets. [4]

Plato continued to face discrimination throughout his career. “How hard it was that a man should prepare himself in this life to make an honest living, and yet must be continually turned down on account of his color,” he said in an address to the National Negro Business League in 1911. [5]

Nevertheless, he would persevere. Plato would become a successful business owner in the early 20th century, credited with getting many Black laborers into building craft unions, which were notoriously segregated at the time.

After his move to Louisville, Plato increasingly worked on projects for the federal government, including housing and post offices. He was, in fact, one of the first Black contractors to win federal construction contracts.

Plato's skill and perseverance were key to his success, but so was Elnora Plato (1891–1975), Samuel's second wife. Elnora was also a businesswoman, though her expertise was in the construction of garments and not buildings. Before they married, she opened and operated a successful dressmaking shop. Elnora's earnings from this business helped support Samuel’s, as did her work as his business manager. Together, the Platos traveled the country, from building project to building project. [6]

Plato died in Louisville in 1957. Today, eight of Plato's buildings are on the National Register of Historic Places, and he is commemorated on historical markers here and in Louisville. [7]


  • [1] Indiana Historical Bureau, “Samuel Plato State Historical Marker Annotated Text,”
  • [2] Plato was not the only Black architect of the era to learn architecture from a correspondence course. Others included Robert Charles Bates, David Augustus Williston, Romulus Cornelius Archer III, brothers Arthur Edward Lankford and John Anderson Lankford, and brothers Calvin Lunsford McCissack and Moses McCissack III. Dreck Spurlock Wilson, African American Architects: A Biographical Dictionary, 1865-1945, s.v., “Samuel M. Plato” (Routledge, 2004), 454–58.
  • [3] Samuel Plato, “Contracting and Building,” in Report of the Eleventh Annual Convention of the National Negro Business League (Nashville, TN: A.M.E. Sunday School Union, 1911), 69.
  • [4] Wilson, African American Architects, 454–58.
  • [5] Plato, “Contracting and Building,” 71–2.
  • [6] Pen Bogert, “Samuel M. Plato: Building a Dream,” The Filson Historical Society,
  • [7] Bogert, “Samuel M. Plato."

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