Q&A with Dr. Tara Dudley

February 22, 2022
To celebrate Dr. Tara Dudley's appointment as a full-time faculty member, we sat down with her to discuss her background and professional trajectory and learn more about her current and future research projects
Tara Dudley standing in a cemetery talking animatedly

Congratulations to Dr. Tara A. Dudley, one of our longtime adjunct faculty members, who was recently promoted to a full-time, tenure-track position. Dr. Dudley has a long-standing relationship with the School of Architecture. She obtained both her doctorate (Architectural History) and her master’s degree (Historic Preservation) from the school in 2012 and 2003, respectively, and has served as an adjunct faculty member since 2013.
Dr. Dudley’s research methodology includes the creative use of archival resources and community engagement to highlight the contributions of marginalized communities to the built environment. Notably, she has applied this approach to her study of the architectural activities of New Orleans’ free people of color, their influence on the physical growth of New Orleans, and the historical, cultural, and economic implications of their contributions to nineteenth-century American architecture. Dr. Dudley’s current research illuminates the contributions of African American builders and architects on the American built environment, focusing on the antebellum and Reconstruction eras in Austin and Texas.
Dr. Dudley currently teaches Interior Design History I and II, American Architecture, and African American Experiences in Architecture, a seminar she designed in Fall 2019. To celebrate her appointment as a full-time faculty member, we recently sat down with Dr. Dudley to discuss her background and professional trajectory and learn more about her current and future research projects.

You have a long-standing relationship with the School of Architecture, spanning over 20 years. Tell us a bit about your trajectory and how the school might have changed in that time.
I first came to the School of Architecture in 2001 as a graduate student in the preservation program. I’ve always had an interest in historic interiors—in fact, I wanted to be an interior designer when I was in high school—and one of the reasons I decided to pursue a graduate degree in historic preservation was the realization that all my various interests and what I learned as an undergraduate in art history could coalesce into an advanced degree and a career.
At the end of my first year in the program, a local historic preservation company hired me as an intern. They liked me, so they kept me, and that became my full-time job for 19 years while I continued my master’s degree and pursued the Ph.D. in Architectural History. Once I completed my Ph.D. I started teaching as an adjunct faculty member in 2013 while continuing my work as a Senior Architectural Historian at HHM & Associates. Having had my foot in both practice and academia for so long has really informed how I approach teaching. It’s been so valuable, both for my work and for our students, to integrate projects that I’m actually working on into my pedagogy and methodology.
Since I have been a part of the UTSOA for so long and in so many different capacities, I’ve seen our programs grow and develop over time. When I first started teaching the Interior Design history sequence, for example, I’d have maybe a dozen students a semester. Now, my enrollment is about 40. We’ve also seen a greater diversity of students from across the school and across the university, which is a testament to some of the things that we are trying to accomplish here. It has been great to see how things have changed, I hope for the better, and I am excited to be a part of it!

The University of Texas Press recently published Building Antebellum New Orleans: Free People of Color and Their Influence based on your doctoral dissertation, which also just won a PROSE Award from the Association of American Publishers. How did your interest and work on this come about? Tell us a bit about the process of conducting this research and how it has shaped your work since then.
It actually all started as a term paper for Dr. Richard Cleary’s class “Architecture in the Age of Revolution.” I am a native Louisianan, and I wanted to know if the Haitian Revolution contributed at all to the architecture of Louisiana, specifically New Orleans. Now, this goes to show what we learn in history, or don’t learn, really—but I am from Louisiana, and I got a really good primary education there, but I had no idea until I started that paper that, yes, Haitian émigrés from Saint-Domingue did contribute to the built environment of New Orleans in a very significant way.
In 2006, I presented a talk at the Society of Architectural Historians Conference that encapsulated my research to date. When someone like architectural historian Dr. Richard Longstreth stands up from the audience and says: “This is great work. You need to keep doing it,” then you keep doing it! At that point, I had been compiling a massive spreadsheet neighborhood-by-neighborhood of every mention of a free person of color as a builder or property owner in the series New Orleans Architecture. The big question posed to me during my dissertation colloquium was: How are you going to narrow this down? Ultimately, I decided to focus on the antebellum period because the city of New Orleans was changing so rapidly during that time; and two families from that period stuck out to me—the Dollioles and the Souliés—who became the primary protagonists of my dissertation, and later, the book.
One of the most important priorities for this work was to tell a story about these families. I wanted to capture the details of their history and the importance of their contributions to the built environment. The details of their lives reflect the circumstances of this specific way that free people of color manipulated their relationship with the built environment to improve their personal socioeconomic circumstances, enhance their community, and contribute to the architecture of New Orleans.
From my earliest days on this project to the publishing of the book by UT Press last year, I have lived and sat with this work for a long time. My high school English teacher, who was a tremendous mentor to me, and the person I dedicated the book to once told me: “Procrastination is a sign of perfectionism.” It’s a heavy load and a responsibility to tell these stories, and I’ve felt the pressure to do it right – especially with people whose lives and work deserve so much credit and whose histories have been largely untold.

You’re currently working on the first biography of John S. Chase, the first Black graduate of the School of Architecture. Where has this research taken you? What is something you’ve learned or uncovered about Chase during your research that is particularly interesting or unknown about him? 

This book, in particular, is a tremendous responsibility, and I feel it keenly to get it right. Not “right” in that it’s the only story, or that it needs to be a definitive thing – in fact, I don’t want it to be definitive, rather, I hope it encourages others to learn more about Chase on their own – but right in that it does him justice.
One thing that I really want to convey about Mr. Chase is just what a good guy he was; and, within that, why it was so important for him to be a good architect. I hope this book threads together his contributions to the field of architecture, his contributions to the Black community, and, even more specifically, to the communities where he lived and for whom he designed. I hope I can convey all that in a way that humanizes him like what I did with the Dollioles and the Souliés. That it’s in my charge to do that is an awesome thing—awesome-fantastic, but also awesome-scary.
When I was a graduate student, I received the John S. Chase scholarship a couple of times. As part of the scholarship, I had to write a thank you letter and I always received one back. I never had the opportunity to meet him, but from conversations I’ve had with Mrs. Drucie Chase before her passing and from his children Tony and Saundria, he just seemed like a cool guy to hang out with and to get to know. From his experiences growing up in the 1920s and 1930s in a segregated community in Maryland to doing something different by coming down to Texas, what Mr. Chase had to go through to be so successful and achieve his dreams while also remaining humble – He created a way out of no way. Not only did he achieve his dreams, but his endeavors and his architecture provided a way for other people to do so. Through his work, he helped his clients, especially his Black clients, realize their own dreams and goals and ambitions in the built, physical form.
Much of your work focuses on uncovering and telling the (hi)stories of those whose contributions and stories are largely untold, specifically those of African American communities. In your view, how does this work of uncovering the past help shape our understanding of the present? What can it teach us as we look to the future?
Increasingly for me, this is about expanding the canon and recasting the narrative of architectural history. All this information, all the facts and details I’m finding, it’s there; it’s just in archival material that hasn’t been explored with such rigor. For many people, there is a barrier to accessing things like historic archives, I think, primarily, because there is an elitism to a lot of this work. The digitization of resources helps tremendously, but people need to know that you, too, can access this material and, once you do, there are so many ways to approach and look at the built environment. Not only do you have the solid, but you also have the voids: what’s missing and why?
There’s been an impetus, especially since George Floyd’s murder in 2020, towards the idea of “say their names.” Not only are you repopulating the narrative with these names, but you’re also giving people the opportunity to place themselves within that narrative and to establish a collective belonging to the built environment. Whether we’re talking about building and construction, or we’re talking about architecture with a capital “A,” architecture is for everybody. That’s how you diversify the field. That’s how you get students interested in these professions by helping them see themselves within them. I think the way I approach the study of history allows people from various communities, especially marginalized groups, to access those stories, see themselves in the narrative, and feel that sense of belonging.
As you transition from adjunct to full-time tenure-track faculty, what are you looking forward to most?
I am most looking forward to having more ownership over my work and research. As a consultant, there’s only so much time you can spend on a historic resource survey or whatever project, and the client can do whatever they want with the information because the finished product is technically their intellectual property. As a full-time, tenure-track academic, I can take everything that’s been marinating and coalescing in my brain and the long list of “cool future projects” I’ve been developing over the years and not only pursue them myself but present them to my students as potential research projects.
I am also looking forward to finessing my professional connections and expanding my network. In general, a lot of what I do is already very interdisciplinary. But being a full-time faculty member gives me teeth and an opportunity to pursue those things in very specific ways that can lead to change and make a difference in the world. Me researching and writing books and articles is all fine and dandy, but what does that person in Louisiana or East Texas - or any of the places about which I study, teach, and write -  know about this information? Because, again, it’s important people can see themselves and embrace their own histories. Now, I’ll have the time and the capacity to focus on that work in a very concerted way, not only to promote my own personal and academic interests, but to broaden that approach and that influence with students, the public, and the world at large.