Austin Kent in Buffalo, NY
By Bill Parke
Unitarian Universalist Church Historian
February 21, 2004
Historic photos on SAIC Web Site
TEXT Beneath Illustrations
Edward Austin Kent
Edward at Yale
309 Elmwood Avenue
512 Delaware Avenue
The Women's Christian Association Building
Flint & Kent Department Store
618 Delaware Avenue
The "Steamboat House"
88 West Utica St.
The luxury ocean liner was three football fields long. From the keel to the top of the funnels, it was 175 feet tall. The rudder alone was 78 feet high. 15 watertight bulkheads, each incorporating watertight doors closed by operating a single electric switch on the bridge in the event of an emergency, filled the hull of the ship. Millions of rivets held steelplates almost an inch thick to make up the hull. It was felt that the ship could survive all known hazards and that its size, strength and design made it as safe as was humanly possible,
On the starry night of April 14, 1912, in calm seas, the ship was slicing through ice fields at 22 knots (25 mph), near top speed, At 11:40pm, on its maiden voyage from Southampton to Now York, it collided with a gigantic iceberg. On board were sixteen lifeboats and four collapsible boats, which all together could accommodate little more then half the passengers, Less than three hours later, the ship many thought was unsinkable was headed to the bottom of the, Atlantic Ocean, The ship's name? Titanic. Of 2,208 passengers, 1,523 would perish, one of them was Edward Austin Kent, the only Buffalo resident lost in the tragedy,
Edward Austin Kent was born on February 19. 1854, in Bangor, Maine. His parents moved the family to Buffalo at the end of the Civil War, His father, Henry Mellen Kent, purchased a business with W. B. Flint and renamed it Flint & Kent. Located on Main Street between Huron and Chippewa, it became one of the finest department stores in Buffalo, His mother, Harriet Farnham Kent, was known as "a woman of refinement. She had excellent and discriminating literary tastes and was in the best sense a cultivated woman."
Kent attended the Briggs Classical School of Buffalo and then earned a degree in Civil Engineering in 1875 from the Sheffield Scientific School at Yale University,. He then studied architecture at the famous L'Ecole des Beaux Arts in Paris where other Americans, such as H.H. Richardson, Louis Sullivan, and Richard Morris Hunt, had also studied to become architects. After additional study in South Kensington, England, he returned to the United States in 1877.
He entered the office of noteworthy architect Joseph Lyman Silsbee, first in Syracuse and then, after a two-year stint as a government architect in Washington, DC, in Chicago as a partner in the firm of Silsbee and Kent. (Another Unitarian architect, Frank Lloyd Wright, worked for Silsbee two years later.)
In 1884, Kent returned to Buffalo where he developed a considerable architectural practice, designing the homes of many prominent Buffalonians as well as the Otto Building (Theatre Place), the Flint & Kent store, Temple Beth Zion on Delaware Avenue, the Chemical #5 firehouse on Cleveland Avenue, the Women's Christian Association Building, Toronto's Board of Trade and a 150-room hotel at Lakewood just outside Chautauqua.
He and his brother, William, were frequent collaborators, and it was with him that Kent designed the superb mosaic floor of the Ellicott Square Building and our church, the First Unitarian Church of Buffalo as it was then called.
In 1886, Kent helped to form the Buffalo Society of Architects and was elected its first secretary. In 1890, the group consolidated with the national American Institute of Architects (AIA), becoming the first local chapter of that organization. Kent was three times elected its president, in 1892,1893, and 1901,
In 1900, his sketches and studies were part of the Joint Annual Exhibition of the Buffalo Society of Artists. In 1909, he was the delegate of the Buffalo Chapter of the AIA to an international conference in Berlin,
Members of the Kent Family were devoted Buffalo Unitarians. Both his parents were members of the Unitarian church that preceded our current one, the Church of Our Father at Delaware and Huron. In fact, his father was on its building committee.
So when John J. Albright, a Buffalo industrialist and philanthropist, offered to sell two of his lots on the corner of West Ferry and Elmwood near his mansion to the church at half their market price and the Board of Trustees accepted, Edward Austin Kent was asked to design a church that would meet Mr. Albright's two conditions: that the church edifice shall be acceptable to him as to architecture, and the front of the church shall be seventy feet from the sidewalk line.
The resulting design was trumpeted in the local press, with The Illustrated Buffalo Express writing:
(The building) has great interest and novelty from its unusual construction. It is to be of a beautiful buff Indiana Limestone, both outside and inside, and like the parish churches of Europe, will have also a stone floor, making it at once monumental and fireproof, The great oak wood roof trusses are largely copied from famous roofs of the thirteenth century, and the whole church will have the feeling of the attractive Gothic parish churches of the southern counties of England, in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries.
The design was indeed acceptable to Mr. Albright, and has had enduring success. In 1984, Austin M. Fox called it "one of the most intriguing Arts and Crafts interiors in the city." In another publication, Mr. Fox said, "Kent's chef d'oeuvre may be this Unitarian Church, which forms a perfect small entity."
Throughout his career, Kent maintained a close association with leading architects of England and the continent,. At the time of his death, the chairman of the Royal Institute of British Architects called him "the very best type of American gentlemen."
On completing a two-month holiday that had taken him to France and Egypt, Kent was reputedly lookingforward to a comfortable retirement after returning to America. He purposely delayed his trip home to be able to travel on the Titanic's maiden voyage.
Kent settled in comfortably with the society of first-class passengers. He belonged to a writers group that met regularly, and he shared a table in the ship's Palm Room with some of its members on the evening of the disaster, as had been their custom since the inception of the voyage.
Mrs. Helen Churchill Candee of Washington, DC, a writer, was present. In advanced years, she had been entrusted to Kent's care during the journey. Colonel Archibald Gracie, a Civil War historian and member of the prominent New York City family whose name is on the mayor's mansion, was there, as was one James Clinch Smith,
When the ship struck the iceberg and he realized the enormity of the accident, Kent hurried to Mrs. Candee's stateroom and brought her to the main deck. She insisted that he slip into his coat pocket an ivory miniature of her mother, At first he protested, but to satisfy her, he accepted it and saw that she was helped into one of the lifeboats. By all accounts, Kent spent his last hours bravely, even heroically, assisting women and child ren into lifeboats and repeatedly going below to bring supplies up to the boat deck for the departing passengers before the "unsinkable" Titanic slipped below the frigid waters of the North Atlantic.
Just days after the disaster, a letter to Kent's sister from the daughter of one of the women he assisted recorded his bravery. Moreover, Kent's friend and fellow first class passenger, Col. Gracie, survived to corroborate the story. Mrs. Candee last saw him waving to her from the railing of the listing liner -- a handsome, slim, aristocratic-looking man of fifty-eight.
Kent's body was recovered at sea and brought to Halifax aboard the morgue ship Mackay Bennett, and then taken to Boston, where the body was claimed by his brother, William, Mrs. Candee's miniature of her mother was still in his jacket pocket, and was eventually returned to her.
In one of many eulogies, The Reverend Richard W. Boynton, then minister of the First Unitarian Church of Buffalo, delivered the following words:
Edward Austin Kent, with his brother, William Winthrop Kent, of New York, gave us one of his best in designing and erecting this building. It is fair that we all believe to judge a man by works, So judged, we must accord Mr. Kent true distinction and refinement of soul.
The Kents continue to have a presence in our church. In addition to the fact that our church stands as a monument to his architectural brilliance, Edward Austin Kent is remembered in a plaque by the Ferry entrance erected by the Buffalo Chapter of the American Institute of Architects.
And after his death, the names and dates of birth and death of Kent's parents were etched into the stone corbels that support the great hammerbeams at the front of the church.
These memorials form lasting tributes to Edward Austin Kent and to one of the leading families of the city and our congregation, and very deservedly so.
Buffalo Evening News
Buffalo, Erie County, New York State
Tuesday, April 16, 1912
Edward A. Kent on Ill Fated Vessel
So far as known there was only one resident of Buffalo aboard the ill-fated Titanic, Edward A. Kent, an architect, with offices at 1088 Ellicott Square, who made his home at the Buffalo Club. Mr. Kent was returning from a two-months trip abroad and was expected to reach home tomorrow.
Mr. Kent is a son of Henry Kent, formerly of the firm of Flint & Kent, 58 years old and unmarried. He is a member of the American Institute of Architects, which he represented as a delegate at Berlin three years ago.
Many prominent buildings in Buffalo attest his architectural ability, these including the Jewish synagogue on Delaware avenue, the Flint & Kent department store, the store occupied by the Morgan Son & Allen Company, and a number of residences. He also designed the Toronto Board of Trading building.
Mr. Kent had one brother, William Kent, who resides in New York. A cousin is John G. Eppendorf, of 161 Mariner street, who said this morning that Mr. Kent was aboard the Titanic and apparently was among the passengers who were lost.
- Transcribed by Linda Schmidt