John Edmonston Brent (1889-1962), Landscape Development Plan for Addition to Houghton Park, 1-8-1945; Colored pencil and graphite on paper, 22 x 26 3/4 inches; City of Buffalo, Department of Public Works
John Edmonston Brent
Born: Washington, D.C., U.S.
John Edmonston Brent (1889-1962) was an American architect who spent the majority of his career working in Buffalo, N.Y. His grandfather, the first John Edmondston Brent, was born a slave, but later purchased his freedom and that of his wife. His father, Calvin Thomas Stowe Brent, was the first African-American architect in the District of Columbia and had his own practice as early as 1876, though he died when John Brent was 10.
Brent was born and raised in Washington, D.C. He studied carpentry and then architecture at the Tuskegee Institute, which was then the most acclaimed school in the country for training African American architects, from 1904 to 1907. Upon graduating, he worked briefly at Howard University in Washington and later the firm of Vertner Woodson Tandy in New York City before receiving a full scholarship to the Drexel University School of Architecture in Philadelphia, graduating in 1912.
Brent then moved to Buffalo, N.Y., and soon started employment with Max G. Beirel, thus becoming the first African American architect in the city. Between 1912 and 1926, he worked with several architectural firms, including Henry Osgood Holland, where he worked on plans for Hutchinson High School; Waterbury & Mann, where he worked on the Wanakah Country Club plans; Julius C. Schultz; and North and Shelgren.
Among Brent’s most significant architectural designs is the Michigan Avenue Branch YMCA (1928, demolished in 1977), which made him the second African American in the United States to design a building for the Young Men’s Christian Association. (Eight of his architectural drawings for the project were exhibited at the Howard University Art Gallery in 1931 in an exhibition of the work of Negro Architects presented by the Department of Architecture.) The building became the center of the African American community of Western New York. It was his first major commission, received while he was employed by the firm of Oakley & Schallmore, though he left in 1926 to complete the project from his own home office at 99 Lonsdale Avenue in Buffalo. Later commissions included work on private and public buildings, including:
Mitchell Miles Residence, 4550 Genesee St., Cheektowaga, N.Y., 1928
Clara L. Payne Summer Cottage, rural Eden, N.Y., c. 1930s
Myron McGuire, DDS Medical Office, 482 Jefferson Ave., Buffalo, N.Y., c. 1930s
Wales Hollow Camp, Center Rd., Wales, NY, 1934
Appomattox Club House, Eagle St., Bertie, Ontario, Canada, 1956
From 1931 to 1934 Brent worked for the U. S. Department of the Interior on the Founders Library and other buildings at Howard University. From the Great Depression through the 1950s, the Buffalo Parks Department employed him, and documents show his involvement with the designs and landscape architecture of Front Park, the Buffalo Zoological Gardens (in collaboration with the institution’s director, Marlin Perkins), and other public spaces. In 2013, Gates #3 and #4 of the zoo (erected in 1935) were listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
In 1958, Brent was recognized as “Man of the Year” by the editor and publishers of the Negro Directory of the Niagara Frontier. In addition to his architectural engineering and design accomplishments, he and his wife Neeton were very active in their community and were pivotal in founding the Buffalo Branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). He became the first president of the organization in 1914.
A major retrospective of his work will be mounted at the Burchfield Penney Art Center in late 2015.
Biographical information adapted from architect Robert Traynham Coles's essay about Brent for the book African-American Architects: A Biographical Dictionary, 1865-1945, published in 2004. Initial research compiled by Christine Parker, Diversity Research Fellow at SUNY Buffalo State.
Everett L. Fly, "National Register Approved: Entrance Court at the Buffalo Zoo / Buffalo, New York-2," http://126.96.36.199/%7Eeverettfly/national-register-approved-entrance-court-at-the-buffalo-zoo-buffalo-new-york-2/. (Accessed 6/12/2015)
Barbara A. Seals Nevergold, "John Edmonston Brent: Master Builder," http://buffalorising.com/2015/02/john-edmonston-brent-master-builder/. (Accessed 6/12/2015)
Cynthia Van Ness, "Buffalo's First Professional African-American Architect: Some Preliminary Findings," http://www.buffaloresearch.com/essays/brent.html. (Accessed 6/12/2015)