Discovering An Architectural Pioneer by Sandy White

Thursday, February 11, 2016

I love local history and I found a treasure trove of it at the Burchfield Penney Art Center! 

As I walked into the gallery, I stood before a full scale replica of the Entrance Court of the Buffalo Zoo gates 3 & 4. Standing behind these magnificent gates was a full size portrait of John Edmonston Brent, Buffalo’s First African American architect.

The introduction was powerful and made me even more curious as a reporter and history enthusiast. As I walked through the gallery, I felt like I’d stepped back in time! Brent’s work is truly inspirational and I suggest you take your children when you visit the BPAC; the exhibition showcases sheer perseverance and courage by a man who lived and worked in Buffalo during the early and later part of the 20th century.

Brent (1889-1962) has posthumously received recognition in Buffalo for his design of Gates #3 and #4 for the zoo. The 8-ft. high cast iron gates that were produced in 1935 are now listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Many scholars and Brent descendants have waited decades for his story to be told in such detail. Recent research revealed his significant contributions to local architectural and landscape design.

“There are many lessons to learn from the stakeholders of the past; we need to understand and apply their mantra for building successful communities,” said Christine A. Parker, Diversity Research Fellow and honors graduate student at SUNY Buffalo State, who researched Brent.

His grandfather, John H. Brent, was born a slave, but later purchased his freedom and that of his wife Elizabeth. His father, Calvin Thomas Stowe Brent, was the first African American accomplished architect in Washington, DC, “one of the most sophisticated cities of Black culture,” according to architect Robert Traynham Coles.

Among Brent’s most significant architectural designs is the Michigan Avenue Branch Y.M.C.A. (1928), his first and largest commission. It was initially funded a gift of $25,000 by Julius Rosenwald, who was the founder of Sears & Roebuck in Chicago and patron of African American schools in the South. Brent was the first president of the Buffalo Chapter of the NAACP and the second African American in the United States to design a building for the Young Men’s Christian Association.

Walking around the exhibit you see Brent’s style in architectural and landscape designs through vintage photographs, original drawings, blueprints and true-scale copies. The exhibition is magnificent and a real treat for history buffs!



Sandy White is a Buffalo native and award winning news journalist with experience in radio, television and the film industry in Buffalo, New York and Los Angeles, California. She returned to Western New York because she loves the people, history, architecture, four seasons and the food!