An Homage to Robert Traynham Coles (August 24, 1926-May 16, 2020)

Friday, May 22, 2020

An Homage to Robert Traynham Coles (August 24, 1926-May 16, 2020)

Architecture + Advocacy—what a perfect summation of the life of Robert Traynham Coles, who sadly passed away on May 16th. This extraordinary architect not only designed aesthetically pleasing structures in Buffalo, Chautauqua, Niagara Falls, Rochester, Boston, New York, Washington, DC, Atlanta, Georgia, and Providence, Rhode Island; he inspired a new generation of architects because he had the fortitude to become an architect when the field was not welcoming to African Americans.

It is an honor to write about Bob Coles, whom I knew for decades as an intelligent, compassionate man. He founded his private practice in 1963, which grew into an award-winning, multi-architectural firm, Robert Traynham Coles, Architects, P.C., that “provides comprehensive design services to clients throughout the northeastern United States, and specializes in the planning and design of commercial, institutional, social welfare, recreational, educational, cultural, residential and transportation facilities.” His modernist designs utilize clean lines, massive volumetric forms, soft curves, gridded windows, and a contrasting play of vertical and horizontal external motifs. To my eye, so many of his buildings look like colossal sculptures placed strategically in our landscape, casting dramatic shadows whose geometric forms slowly transform as the sun moves across the sky. For example, the jutting corners of SUNY Buffalo’s Health, Physical Education & Recreation Complex, which is part of the Alumni Arena completed in 1983, displays a pleasing collection of shape-changing triangles, trapezoids, squares, and rectangles. Inside the Complex, the Natatorium, completed in 1987, contains a 50-meter pool, diving platform, and seating for 2,500 spectators. It received a Design Award from the National Spa and Pool Institute and served the World University Games.

One of Coles’ most unique buildings is the Frank E. Merriweather Jr. Branch Library on Jefferson Avenue in Buffalo. Completed in 2006, the 20,000-square foot, inner city library is named for the publisher of the Buffalo Criterion, the oldest African American weekly newspaper in upstate New York, which was founded by his father, Frank E. Merriweather, Sr. Both men used the newspaper as a platform to serve civil rights initiatives and laud achievements of the city’s citizens. With an African American audience in mind, Coles symbolically based his design on the traditional African village, which encourages open communal experiences of daily life, sharing meals, and storytelling as people move among homes and other structures. A cluster of six connected circular buildings with a central domed circular space for the circulation desk allow freedom of movement. Skylights admit natural light to stream through clear and colored glass to enter the lobby, circulation rotunda, and extended circulation area. Patrons can easily visit the African American Resource Room, Reading Areas, Meeting Room, Auditorium, and Children’s Programming Room. Two buildings house mechanicals, offices, and public facilities. The unusual curvilinear profile of the architectural configuration is especially welcoming.

One of Coles’ earliest designs is his own house and studio—the home he shared with his wife Sylvia, who is a photographer, and their two children, Darcy and Marion. When it was built in 1961, Humboldt Parkway was a tree-lined residential neighborhood and part of Frederick Law Olmsted’s park and parkway system, which tragically was later replaced by a noisy, highly trafficked expressway. Its modernist plan made it stand apart from all the surrounding homes as a jewel of contemporary design in the International Style. Just like Frank Lloyd Wright, Coles focused his attention on a cohesive arrangement of interior and exterior spaces, with the entrance off a courtyard instead of directly from the street. A delight to visit, the residence has a smart, flowing layout; a pronounced use of windows and glass doors facing the backyard terrace; and landscaping with sculpture, by artists such as Jack Solomon, that make every angle an aesthetic visual experience. As a testament to its distinction, the Robert and Sylvia Coles’ Residence was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2011.

In 2012, when I started researching John Edmonston Brent (1889-1962), Bob Coles was a primary source of information. It was his biography of Brent published in 2004 in African-American Architects: A Biographical Dictionary, 1865-1945, that helped launch an exhibition project. In that same entry, he also wrote about Brent’s father, Calvin Thomas Stowe Brent, an accomplished architect in Washington, DC, acknowledged by Coles as “one of the most sophisticated cities of Black culture.” Brent was inducted as a member of the American Institute of Architects and became the first president of the Buffalo Branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) on November 30, 1914. This dual role of architect and advocate had a profound effect on Robert Traynham Coles. Brent inspired him to make a difference in his community and beyond, achieving even greater accomplishments and paving the way for the next generations of minority architects, engineers, landscape architects, and social activists.

In 2015, the Burchfield Penney Art Center presented Through These Gates: Buffalo’s First African American Architect, John E. Brent, the first exhibition about this regional pioneer. I co-curated the exhibition with my graduate student, Christine A. Parker, whose master’s degree culminated in a video about Brent. Part of the exhibition was devoted to Brent’s legacy with information about other regional African Americans in the field, 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. The section on Coles was the largest, containing the model for his innovative Frank E. Merriweather Jr. Branch Library. When Bob and Sylvia Coles attended the opening reception, people crowded around him—eager to pay homage to their mentor and friend.

Many years earlier, in 1996, the Burchfield Penney Art Center had the opportunity to present Robert Traynham Coles: Architect, in conjunction with a traveling exhibition, Design Diaspora: Black Architects and International Architecture, 1970-1990 that was organized by the Chicago Athenaeum: Museum of Architecture and Design. Coles, a Fellow of the American Institute of Architects, was included in their international survey, so we jumped at the chance to highlight our local hero. Dr. Richard K. Dozier, AIA and Professor of the School of Architecture at Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University, wrote a wonderful essay for our brochure. “The Circle and the Square: Robert Traynham Coles, FAIA” begins with eloquent excerpts from Langston Hughes’ poetry and discusses the bold geometry in Coles’ designs while providing a biographical sketch of his impressive career. “A local and national trail blazer, Coles has built his way to the top of the profession,” Dozier wrote. “When Coles began his practice in 1963, some 233 African-American architects operated less than 50 architectural firms in the country. Since that time, Coles has emerged as an educator, mentor, and leader in his field.”

Patron should be added to that list, because Bob and Sylvia Coles donated numerous artworks to the Burchfield Penney Art Center in 2018. Among my favorites is the compelling bronze sculpture, Black Power by Jack Solomon—an abstracted, raised fist that became an iconic symbol for black power during the 1960s Civil Rights era. Internationally recognized, its origins come from the 1968 Olympics held in Mexico when gold and bronze award winners in the 200-meter sprint, Tommie Smith and John Carlos respectively, put on black leather gloves, lowered their heads, and raised their fists in a Black Power salute during the national anthem. They also had taken off their shoes before standing on the podium to protest poverty, and they wore a scarf and beads to protest lynching—but everyone remembers their raised fists as the most significant gesture. The donation represents yet another way that Bob Coles supported the arts in Western New York.

Fortunately for us, the hard-cover book, Architecture + Advocacy contains the story and illustrations that cannot fit in this brief memorial. Compiled and edited by William H. Siener, Ph.D. with Sylvia Coles, and published in 2016, it contains Dr. Dozier’s essay, as well as articles by Linda Levine and Kelly Hayes McAlonie, and several papers by Coles himself, including the talk he gave at Howard University in 2001. Significantly, illustrations show the wide array of the public buildings he designed, as well as his distinctive home. This includes schools, public housing, community centers, a playground, light rail rapid transit stations, a medical resources center, municipal buildings, and more. Many of us enjoy seeing the elegant, geometric facades of these buildings and their welcoming, functional interior spaces. In this way, the legacy of Robert Traynham Coles remains vibrant today, a reflection of his foresight, creativity, and social service. I, among so many others, will miss him greatly.

Nancy Weekly
Burchfield Scholar, Head of Collections and Charles Cary Rumsey Curator
Burchfield Penney Instructor of Museum Studies
Burchfield Penney Art Center
SUNY Buffalo State