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An Architectural Pioneer

Harold Wallace, photographer, Portrait of John E. Brent ca. 1950s
An Architectural Pioneer
John Edmonson Brent Exhibit at Burchfield Penney Art Center

The Burchfield Penney exhibit Through These Gates is about John Edmonson Brent, the first black architect in Buffalo. The title makes it sound—a little—like it wasn’t that hard. The exhibit materials contradict any such idea. He only had one major building commission in his life, for the old Michigan Street YMCA, Michigan near Sycamore, a “colored YMCA,” in the words of a contemporary newspaper account. But otherwise lots of job search.

As indicated on a job application ten years after the YMCA commission—and successful completion of that project—for a junior landscape architect position with the City of Buffalo. On the application he lists previous employment with nine architectural firms—a tenth period of employment was on the YMCA job—and the reason for leaving the firm, in each case, “lack of work.”

He got the Buffalo job and for the rest of his career worked alternately for the city Parks Department and the Buffalo Zoo, designing and overseeing the execution of various facilities and constructions of the sort that might not have the architect or designer’s name prominently displayed. The gates reference in the title is literal as well as metaphorical. He designed and oversaw construction of the Buffalo Zoo main entrance gates on Parkside Avenue at Russell—wrought iron spear verticals and scroll-end diagonal support pieces—a facsimile of which is part of the exhibit.

The materials include Brent’s actual work desk and some of his architect’s tools, an assortment of pencils and rulers and a slide rule, and his technical drawings for a number of zoo and parks facilities realized and unrealized, such as for plantings for the zoo elephant yard, the plan for the Amherst Street zoo entrance, and for an addition to Houghton Park, to include an open-air Greek theater to seat 3,000 spectators.

Another drawing for the Parks Department is of the waterfront from LaSalle Park to Tifft Street, showing Times Beach—pre-degradation state—including symmetrically laid-out bathing beach and boat basin. Erie Basin was commercial docks, without the arm enclosing the present sailboats marina. The skyway was a concept but not yet a reality, but Michigan Street continued on a bridge over the City Ship Canal to the Outer Harbor.

Another conceptual drawing is for a new building for the Cold Spring Baptist Church on VerPlank Street.

Brent was active in the area African-American community. In 1914 he became the first president of the Buffalo chapter of the NAACP. Documents on display also attest his involvement with the Appomattox Club, an African-American group dedicated to “advancing the social life of its members, their families, and friends in the community.”

A miscellany drawing shows the route of a month-long summer of 1947 family car trip from Buffalo to Birmingham, then on to New Orleans, Los Angeles, Seattle, Denver, St. Louis, and back home, along with a daily destination log, noting each day’s gas consumption and oil usage, and costs. An average of about 15 gallons of gas a day, at about 23 cents a gallon, and two quarts of oil a day, at about 35 cents a quart.

The metaphorical sense of the gates title reference relates more to an adjacent room display of artifacts and photos and text on chronologically latter day African-American architects with area connections, starting with Robert Traynham Coles, and including Edward O. Watts, Sr., Edward O. Watts, Jr., Rishawn T. Sonubi, Leslie Harris, Roland A. Coleman II, Kisha Patterson, Mel Lewis Alston, Anna Noel Perry, Alfred D. Price, and Obi Ifedigbo.

The Brent and adjacent exhibits continue until March 27, 2016.

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