Harold Wallace, photographer, Portrait of John E. Brent, ca. 1950s; gelatin silver print on paper, 5 x 4 inches; Private Collection
Through These Gates: Buffalo’s First African American Architect, John E. Brent
On View Friday, October 9, 2015–Sunday, March 27, 2016
Recent research has uncovered significant contributions to architectural design, landscape architecture, and draftsmanship made by John Edmonston Brent (1889-1962) in the city of Buffalo and surrounding counties of Western New York. His grandfather, John Brent, was born a slave, but later purchased his freedom and that of his wife. His father, Calvin Thomas Stowe Brent, was an accomplished architect in Washington, DC, “one of the most sophisticated cities of Black culture,” according to architect Robert Traynham Coles, who wrote a biographical sketch about John E. Brent for the African-American Architects: A Biographical Dictionary, 1865-1945, published in 2004. Named after his grandfather, Brent was born in our national Capitol, educated at the Tuskegee Institute, and received a full scholarship at the Drexel Institute of Art, Science and Industry, graduating in 1912. He came immediately to Buffalo, New York and started employment with Max G. Beirel; thus becoming the first African American architect in the city. He was a member of the American Institute of Architects. In addition to his architectural engineering and design accomplishments, Brent became the first president of the Buffalo Branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) on November 30, 1914.
Between 1912 and 1926, Brent worked with several architectural firms, including Max G. Beirel, Henry Osgood Holland; Waterbury & Mann; Julius C. Schultz; North and Shelgren, and Oakley & Schallmo. In 1926, he opened his own home office at 99 Lonsdale Avenue in Hamlin Park in Buffalo and managed many private commissions.
Among Brent’s most significant architectural designs is the Michigan Avenue Branch Y.M.C.A. (1928), which was his first large commission. It was initially funded by Julius Rosenwald, who was the founder of Sears & Roebuck in Chicago. Subsequent funders included Mrs. Anna McDougall, who started a capital campaign endowment, and Mr. and Mrs. George B. Mathews, whose magnanimous endowment gift of $100,000 was known as the Booker T. Washington Foundation. Brent was the second African American in the United States to design a building for the Young Men’s Christian Association. Unfortunately it was demolished in 1977.
From 1931 to 1934 Brent worked for the U. S. Department of the Interior on the Founders Library and other buildings at Howard University in Washington, DC. During the Great Depression through the 1950s, the Buffalo Parks Department employed him, and documents show his involvement with designs of Front Park, the Buffalo Zoological Gardens, and other public spaces. In 1958, Brent was recognized as “The Man of the Year” by the editor and publishers of the Negro Directory of the Niagara Frontier. (“The Woman of the Year” was Mrs. Cora P. Maloney, “the first woman in the city of Buffalo to become Councilman for the Masten District. They both were lauded as “Outstanding Citizens of the Community” and pictured on the cover of the publication.)
Brent posthumously received recognition in Buffalo for the gates and landscape architecture he produced for the Buffalo Zoological Gardens. The cast iron gates #3 and #4 produced in 1935 that are anchored in concrete piers with Onondaga limestone veneers provide welcoming entrances to earlier zoo paths. The structures were listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2013. He continued working on drawings for zoo structures and grounds for the next two decades, working together with landscape architect Roeder J. Kinkel. He also contributed to the design of private and public buildings, including:
The Mitchell Miles Residence, 1928
4553 Genesee Street at Holtz Road, Cheektowaga, NY
Demolished February 8, 1990
Mitchell Miles was the brother of Marshall Miles, the manager of Joe Louis, a champion U.S. heavyweight boxer. In later years, the Miles family allowed their garages to be used as a drop-off station for the Miles Dairy. Farmers would deliver their products for distribution to customers in the Michigan Avenues area of Buffalo. The structure was sold and reused by the Curtiss Wright Aeronautics Company during World War II. From 1941 to 1946, Curtiss Wright used it as the “Bundles of America Day Care Center” to care for the children of their employees—predominantly women whose husbands were in military service.
The Founders Library, Howard University
2400 Sixth Street N.W., Washington, DC (1934-1939)
Cornerstone laid June 11, 1937; Dedicated May 25, 1939
In 1937, following his graduation from Tuskegee University, John Brent returned to Howard University. He was employed briefly in the building and grounds department as part of a team of draftsmen who created design drawings for the Founders Library, named in honor of the seventeen men who founded Howard University. The design is credited to Louis E. Fry, Sr. in the office of chief architect Albert I. Cassell, FAIA. In 1929, the U.S. Congress appropriated more than one million dollars for the construction of this new library. The cornerstone was laid June 10, 1937 and the library was opened for service January 3, 1939. The Georgian-style exterior is red, sand-finished brick with limestone trim (and looks much like SUNY Buffalo State’s Rockwell Hall.) The interior furnishings and wood paneling are silver oak. Brent may also have produced drawings to assist Cassell’s Howard University projects including the Chemistry Building and Frederick Douglass Memorial Hall (completed 1935).
Eight of Brent’s architectural drawings for the Michigan Avenue Branch Y.M.C.A. in Buffalo were exhibited at the Howard University Art Gallery in 1931 in the Exhibition of the work of Negro-Architects Presented by the Department of Architecture, Howard University.
Myron McGuire, DDS Medical Office, 482 Jefferson Avenue, Buffalo, NY, c. 1930s
This commission was to adapt rooms in a residence into a medical office.
Wales Hollow Camp, Center Road, Wales, NY, 1934
Also known as Pine Hollow “Y” Camp
Following the architectural success of the Michigan Avenue Y.M.C.A., John Brent designed residential camp cabins in the Town of Wales, New York.
3 Summer Cottages for Cora C. Cohen, Clara L. Payne, and himself, 1937
Wales, New York
Cora C. Cohen owned the 15 acres of land where these cottages were constructed. Clara L. Payne was the first African American social worker at the Erie County Department of Social Services.
New Building for Cold Spring Baptist Church, 1955
185 Verplanck Street/254 Woodlawn Avenue, Buffalo, New York
Appomattox Club’s Club House, 1956
Eagle Street, Bertie, Ontario, Canada
John E. Brent was a member of the Appomattox Club, which was founded in 1924. He designed the Appomattox Club House in 1956 by converting the second floor of a barn into a site for meetings and activities.
The exhibition illustrates John E. Brent’s architectural designs through vintage and contemporary documentary photographs, as well as original blueprints and drawings. Artifacts from Brent’s home office and the City of Buffalo enhance the display, as well as facsimile zoo gates. In addition, Brent’s legacy is illustrated with information about other African American architects in Western New York, including Mel Lewis Alston, Roland A. Coleman II, Robert Traynham Coles, Leslie Harris, Obi Ifedigbo, Kisha Patterson, Anne Noël Perry, Alfred D. Price, Rishawn T. Sonubi, Edward O. Watts, Sr. and Edward O. Watts, Jr.
About the People associated with the Exhibition
This project was initiated by, and is dedicated to, two individuals who are now deceased: the SUNY Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus Edward O. Smith, Jr., Ph.D. and Dr. Felix L. Armfield, assistant professor of History and Social Studies Education. Other campus individuals who were engaged in the planning of this project include: Dr. Hal D. Payne, Vice President of Student Affairs; Dr. Dennis Ponton, former Provost and Vice President of Academic Affairs; Dr. Mark W. Severson, Dean of the School of Natural and Social Sciences; Dr. Cynthia A. Conides, Associate Professor and Director of Museum Studies; Christopher Root, Interim Coordinator of the Monroe Fordham Regional History Center; and Dr. Albert L. Michaels, Professor in the History and Social Studies Education Department and curator at the Burchfield Penney Art Center.
The exhibition was organized by the Burchfield Penney Art Center, directed by Nancy Weekly, head of collections and Charles Cary Rumsey Curator at the museum and Burchfield Penney Instructor of Museum Studies at SUNY Buffalo State. She co-curated with Christine A. Parker, a Diversity Research Fellow and honors graduate student. During her research, Ms. Parker also worked with academicians, archivists, librarians, civic employees, town historians, videographers, and others nationwide. Exhibition design concepts were contributed by Senior Preparator Patrick Robideau. SUNY Buffalo State undergraduate students taking Ms. Weekly’s course in Curatorship wrote interpretive labels for selected works. Through These Gates: Buffalo’s First African American Architect, John E. Brent has been made possible with the generous support of Peter and Ilene Fleischmann, with additional support from Descendants of John E. Brent; SUNY Buffalo State, Equity and Campus Diversity Program Grant; Frederic K. Houston; Theodore L. and Olga Lownie; and anonymous individuals.