Robert T. Coles House and Studio - Table of Contents

Clinton Brown Company Architecture - Nominations

Robert T. Coles House and Studio
321 Humboldt Parkway, Buffalo NY

Excerpts from the
Nomination for
Listing on the National Register of Historic Places prepared by Architectural Historian Jennifer Walkowski and Clinton Brown, FAIA, of Clinton Brown Company Architecture

Introduction

Modern Residential Architecture

Techbuilt and Carl Koch

Robert Traynham Coles

History of the Robert T. Coles House and Studio

Examples of Other Residential Building Projects/  List of Completed Non-Residential Building Projects


Introduction

The Robert T. Coles House and Studio is significant under Criterion C as an outstanding and highly intact example of mid-twentieth century Modern residential architecture in Buffalo

Designed and constructed in 1961 by its owner, a prominent local architect, the building used pre-fabricated and pre-cut components in its construction that were drawn from Coles’s experience working for the Techbuilt Company, an innovative mid-century pre-fabricated housing manufacturer.  As such, the Coles house is an excellent example of many new ideas in modern residential architecture that were developed following World War II, including mass-production, use of new materials, and modularity. 

However, Coles also customized the design to suit his own needs, which included incorporating both his professional office and his family home into the structure. 




The building was conceived as two rectangular wings (office and home) oriented perpendicular to each other and linked by a hyphen that contains the main entrance.  The separation and planning of public and private spaces is unusually and thoughtfully rendered in the Coles House and Studio, particularly in placing the office at the front of the lot and isolating private areas of the house at the rear of the property, thus shielding them from the noise and pollution of the busy expressway under construction through the neighborhood during the early 1960s.  These goals were reinforced by the use of nearly solid walls with little fenestration on the front and side elevations, combined with a rear elevation that is almost entirely glass, fronting on a terrace and garden. 

Coles and his family have been the sole owners and occupants of the house and studio since it was built in 1961.  Not only is the building structurally intact to its construction period but it retains many of the original furnishings, artwork and other elements, all of which help to convey the architect’s original vision for the house.

Modern Residential Architecture

American residential architecture changed dramatically in the post-World War II era.  The period after the war saw a severe housing shortage, changes in demographics, and an increased demand for new and affordable housing.  “It is estimated that some 2,900,000 married veterans of the recent war will be in need of housing facilities by the end of the year 1946,” stated a report to the U.S. House of Representatives made in February 1946.  “To meet the housing emergency there is an urgent need for some 3,000,000 moderately and low-priced homes and apartments during the next two years.”  

Housing construction had practically ceased during the war, and little had been constructed in the previous decade during the Great Depression.  As a result, much of the existing housing stock dated to the nineteenth century and featured substandard electrical, plumbing and heating systems.  Those units which were available and affordable to the returning G.I.s were generally cramped apartment buildings, flats, or houses that had been carved up into units during the Depression.

This era also saw the rise of the automobile as a popular and affordable mode of transportation for the American family.  During the post-War/Cold War era the national highway system was also developed, both for military purposes but also in response to the growing ownership and use of automobiles.  As cars became increasingly affordable and prevalent in the American culture, the system of older and smaller roads, which largely dated to the early twentieth century and the early horse-and-buggy age, became clogged and crowded by the increasing auto traffic.  While cities were already seen as unhealthy and unclean with pollution, noise and crowding, this sentiment was only exacerbated by the new automobile congestion. 

These networks of new and improved roads stretching beyond the urban cores encouraged the growth of the suburbs on the outskirts of congested cities, and these undeveloped, low-density areas with green trees and open space were thought of as ideal places to raise healthy families.

Together, the shortage of good housing stock coupled with the rise of the suburbs sparked an era of intense interest in designing and building affordable and modern single-family detached houses. 

One response to this cultural shift was to develop new methods of machine-made, mass-produced and pre-fabricated housing that could be manufactured affordably, quickly and efficiently.  These concepts were not new, as pattern books and “kit houses” had been developed and sold across the country in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth century from companies such as Sears & Roebuck and Montgomery Ward; however, these concepts and techniques were refined and modernized during this era.  Architects, developers, and builders had long seen a connection between mass-production, technology and standardization in creating affordable, easy-to-build housing.  In the 1940s and 50s, housing manufacturers also had the benefit of drawing on machinery, man-power and technology developed during the war to make military equipment.

Techbuilt and Carl Koch

The House and Studio derives much of its inspiration and construction methods, as is evidenced in its building materials, by architect Robert Coles's experience working for the housing company Techbuilt.  Techbuilt was a unique housing system that was developed in the 1950s by architect Carl Koch. 

Like other housing designs of the same era, Techbuilt was developed as a response to the demand for inexpensive, easy to construct, single-family houses.  It was a time where new innovations in machinery and technology also encouraged new ideas about mass-production and pre-fabrication.  This era gave rise to many innovative designs for houses, including ideas such as the Lustron House, a single-family home that could be quickly assembled on-site of pre-made enameled steel panels.  Entirely new communities such as Levittown, a development which became the epitome of post-war pre-fabricated housing, were also constructed.

Techbuilt was the brainchild of architect Carl Koch.  Born Albert Carl Koch in Milwaukee, Wisconsin in 1912, Koch studied architecture at Harvard University, receiving his Master of Architecture degree in 1937.  While at Harvard, Koch witnessed the school’s transition from the Beaux-Arts style educational program to the modern ideas brought by Walter Gropius, a German immigrant who became chair of the architecture department at Harvard in 1938.  Gropius was a highly influential modern architect, known as the founder of the Bauhaus in Germany.  In 1940-41, Koch also traveled to Sweden, where he studied in the office of Sven Markelius, a significant Swedish modern architect.  Working with Markelius, Koch refined the Bauhaus inspired education he had received from Gropius, creating his own understanding of modern architecture.

Upon his return to the United States, Koch’s first project was a community housing project called Snake Hill (1941) in Belmont, Massachusetts. Koch used this project as an opportunity to design an inexpensive house for himself and his family, who moved into one of the project’s five houses.  This project was highly influential to Koch, who decided to devote his practice to creating quality, reasonably priced housing for the post-war American family.  Koch noted the shifting and rapidly growing American population at the time and felt that creating prefabricated houses with interior plans that were able to change their configuration was the ideal way to meet the changing needs of these new families.

Koch’s first pre-fabricated housing design was a concept for the Acorn House (1947-48).  The Acorn House was designed with room units placed around a central core and its exterior created by folding stressed skin panels.  These panels were engineered by John Bemis.  An innovative idea, a stressed skin panel was created by impregnating a paper honeycomb with plastic, then gluing it rigidly to a sheathing material.  This material was thought to have strength and insulative properties and theoretically could be produced at a low cost.  The innovative and unusual Acorn House was written about and photographed for Life magazine and other popular publications of the time, but the building was commercially unsuccessful, as it presented significant issues with local building codes and met with resistance from some local municipalities.

Also in 1948, Carl Koch was called in to assist another pre-fabricated housing manufacturer, the Lustron Corporation, run by businessman and inventor Carl Strandlund.  The Lustron Corporation, founded in 1947, had been an early pioneer in post-war pre-fabricated housing, designing houses constructed of enameled steel panels.  Among  Lustron’s innovations were complete building kits that could be shipped to customers and assembled on site. Koch designed several new models to add to the Lustron company’s product selection.  He also made a thorough study of Lustron’s existing equipment, processes and fabrication methods, which resulted in improvements to the structure and innovations in the plans.  Unfortunately, the Lustron Corporation ceased operations in 1950, and none of Koch’s new ideas or models were put into production.

Koch then turned to a more successful concept for pre-fabricated housing.  In 1953 Koch invented the Techbuilt System, which would become his most commercial and critically successful idea.  Drawing more from traditional residential architectural vocabularies, the Techbuilt line was more harmonious with traditional architectural forms and sympathetic to the pre-conceived concepts of residential architecture retained by many mid-twentieth century families.  Techbuilt houses also relied on more traditional building materials, including wood, as opposed to the more radical plastics utilized in his Acorn House concept.  Koch appears to have learned much from his experiences with the Lustron Corporation and incorporated many of the concepts and features of that product into Techbuilt, including using pre-fabricated components, assembly on-site, the notion of catalog orders, providing a limited number of basic models, and other concepts. 

However, unlike the rather plain and modest forms of the all-metal Lustrons, Koch’s designs for Techbuilt incorporated forms such as steeply peaked roofs, were rendered in wood and natural materials, and featured open, spacious interiors. The simplicity and linear aesthetic of the Techbuilt house also reveals a modern Scandinavian influence, likely drawn from Koch’s time spent in Sweden.

Techbuilt houses were originally available in six different models.  A catalog from the late 1950s also offered a variety of small “vacation cottages,” as well as showcased the use of Techbuilt systems for college dormitories and office buildings. 

Techbuilt houses were among the most popular of the pre-fabricated housing available at the time; by 1963 over 3,000 kits had been sold to customers located across the country.

Techbuilt houses were designed to be affordable, quick to construct, and to meet the needs and tastes of the modern young American family.  Many of the models cost less than $20,000, depending on how many “extras” were added.   More extravagant models could cost up to $70,000.  The houses were reasonably spacious, averaging about 1700-square feet, but they could be expanded to almost any size. Buyers would receive a catalog from the Techbuilt Company in which they could view the various models, options and upgrades.  Once they made their selections and worked with the company to make any modifications, the kit was shipped directly from the factory to the site. 

Since the houses were partially pre-fabricated, parts for the building were shipped on a single truck, making even their delivery efficient.  Techbuilt houses had pre-assembled wall panels, which featured fiberglass insulation.  The beams were pre-cut to size, and windows and sliding glass door units were also shipped on the truck.  Local franchised builders would receive the working drawings from Techbuilt containing any changes or upgrades made by the owners and oversee the on-site construction.  It was noted that this system reduced the architectural fees to an average cost of $300 in 1960.

One of the goals of Techbuilt designers was to create a residential building that contained no wasted space.  Every square foot of the house was carefully and tautly designed to maximize the functionality of the building while minimizing materials, time, labor and costs.  One way to increase efficiency was to eliminate the traditional basement.  Instead, the foundation was incorporated into the structure of the first story, saving both money and time.

The Techbuilt house designs, which utilized a basic post-and-beam construction method based on regular modules, also maximized the flexibility of the interior space.  The Techbuilt system was designed around a four-foot module, making the non-structural wall panels interchangeable and customizable both as exterior and interior walls, arranged based on the owner’s needs and design.  Since the post-and-beam structural system eliminated the load carrying needs of the exterior walls, this allowed for walls to be customized with solid, combination solid and window, or all window units.  Owners could create as many or as few rooms as they wanted, arranged with great flexibility.  Ideally, Koch envisioned that Techbuilt houses could be quickly and easily assembled, disassembled, and later reassembled in a variety of configurations.  Techbuilt models were typically designed with a gabled roof without an attic, giving the vaulted interior spaces an even greater sense of volume and light.

Techbuilt houses were a product designed for the modern needs of American families in the 1950s, and the house designs were marketed utilizing the newest technology as well.  In February 1954 a two-part program titled “Excursion,” sponsored by the Ford Foundation, aired on television and chronicled the construction of a Techbuilt house from foundation to completion.  Narrated by actor Burgess Meredith, the program was immensely popular and watched by millions of viewers.  Immediately, the company was flooded with orders, many from young families looking to build affordable vacation homes.  The houses were also featured in another show called “Omnibus.”  In utilizing this still new and exciting medium for advertising, Techbuilt may have been one of the first housing types launched by television.

In 1958, Koch, along with Andy Lewis, wrote a book that helped to promote and distribute his Techbuilt concepts. At Home with Tomorrow outlined Koch’s experiences with the Techbuilt system, as well as other experiments and thoughts on prefabricated architecture.  The Techbuilt house also gained public and critical accolades and was cited by the American Institute of Architects (AIA) as the “Best Development House.”  The New York Times dubbed them “The People’s Choice.”  In the late 1950s Koch was noted as designing a number of city planning projects for Webb & Knapp Development Corporation, including a new subdivision of 185 townhouses in Buffalo (unidentified at this time).  At nearly the same time, Techbuilt took on a new architect and custom design manager, hiring Robert T. Coles in 1959.

During the 1960s and 70s, Carl Koch continued to pioneer new ideas in housing.  During this era, Koch moved into designing large-scale public housing.  Many of these projects incorporated pre-stressed concrete components, which he called Techcrete.  One of his most successful uses of this product was at the Techcrete Academy Homes (1962), located in Roxbury, Massachusetts.

Throughout his career, Carl Koch sought to find new, cost-effective housing technologies and designs to accommodate the needs of the modern American.  Whether it was through his Modernist-inspired Techbuilt houses or his Techcrete systems, Koch was a pioneer of twentieth-century ideas in housing.  In 1994 Koch was crowned the “Grandfather of Prefab” by Progressive Architecture magazine, capping a successful career as a pioneer in reinventing modern American residential architecture.  He died on February 3, 1998 at the age of 86.  Carl Koch’s philosophies on creating affordable, flexible and modern housing influenced many architects and designers, including Robert T. Coles.

Robert Traynham Coles, RA, FAIA

From his start working for Carl Koch in 1959, Robert Traynham Coles has become one of Buffalo’s most prominent and respected architects.  Coles has contributed many notable and award-winning architectural projects to the area and has also played an active role in the local, regional and national architectural community through lectures, teaching, professional activities, and in other endeavors.

Robert Traynham Coles was born in Buffalo on August 24, 1929, one of four sons born to George Edward and Helena Vesta Traynham Coles.  George Coles worked as a postal worker, an occupation that provided a rare financial stability to the family during the Depression era.  As a result, the Coles family was often one of few African American families in many of the neighborhoods in which they lived. In the era before the Civil Rights movement, Coles was one of only a handful of African American students in his elementary school.  Later Coles attended the Technical High School (now known as Hutchinson Technical High School), where, of the 1,800 students, enrollment of African-American students was limited to only a dozen. In 1943 Coles was placed in a course called building design.  During the height of World War II, when new construction was at a virtual stand-still, this was an unpopular and undesirable class at the school.  However, it was in this class that Coles gained a new perspective on the world and was inspired to pursue a career as an architect.

After graduation, Coles attended Hampton Institute (now Hampton University) in Virginia between 1947 and 1949. Dissatisfied with the architectural curriculum at the school, Coles transferred to the University of Minnesota.  Here, Coles received his Bachelor of Arts degree in 1951 and a Bachelor of Architecture degree in 1953.  After graduation, Coles entered the architectural program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and in 1955 he earned his Master of Architecture degree.

Despite his absence from Buffalo for eight years while he attended school, Coles’s graduate thesis at MIT involved the city of his birth. In a combined research and design thesis, Coles created an urban renewal project for the neighborhood in which he had attended high school.  Titled “Community Facilities in Redevelopment Areas, A Study and Proposal for the Ellicott District in Buffalo, New York,” the project was created with the Buffalo Urban League as the client.  Coles’s thesis reached a receptive audience in Western New York and was widely publicized in Buffalo.

Following his graduation from MIT, Coles won the prestigious Rotch Traveling Scholarship awarded by the Boston Society of Architects.  Coles, his wife, Sylvia, and the couple’s young son subsequently spent the next year traveling throughout Europe.  Upon their return, Coles entered the Boston architectural firm of Perry, Shaw, Hepburn and Dean as an intern architect.  In 1957-58, Coles worked as an architect for the notable Boston firm of Shepley, Bulfinch, Richardson and Abbott.  While at the latter firm, Coles worked on several projects, including buildings at Harvard University and Dartmouth College. Coles then worked for a year with Carl Koch and Associates and a year with Advance Planning Associates.  While working for Koch, Coles contributed to the firm’s work on the Metropolitan Boston Arts Center and designed a housing project in Brookline, Massachusetts. From 1959 until 1960, Coles worked as architect and custom design manager for Techbuilt, Inc., where he designed and built over 200 buildings throughout the eastern United States.

In 1960, Coles realized every young architect’s dream when he received word that his thesis project was being commissioned.  Coles and his family left Boston and returned to Buffalo to design and construct his Ellicott District Recreation Center.  Today this project, located just south of Clinton Street in Buffalo’s Willert Park neighborhood, is known as the John F. Kennedy Recreation Center.  During construction of the recreation center, Coles worked as coordinating architect with the firm of DeLeuw, Cather and Brill.  Following the completion of the project in 1963, Coles established his own architectural firm, Robert Traynham Coles, Architect pc.  Still in operation in 2011, Coles’s practice is the oldest African American owned architectural firm in New York State and in the Northeast.

In the early 1960s, Coles became an outspoken advocate for a downtown presence for the new campus proposed for the University at Buffalo.  In 1962, the University at Buffalo (UB) was absorbed into the State University of New York (SUNY) system.  During the early 1960s, enrollment at UB was rapidly surpassing the capacity of its small campus, located at Main Street and Bailey Avenue in the city’s northern area.  Projections indicated that by 1975 UB’s enrollment could reach over 40,000 students, prompting the need for an expanded new campus.  Five sites were initially reviewed for the new campus; however, only two sites were serious contenders: one located in downtown Buffalo adjacent to the waterfront, and another located in the suburbs of Amherst. In 1963, New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller commissioned a study of the two sites.  Although urban planners found the waterfront site optimal for the new campus, in 1964 the governor and the UB trustees recommended development of the new campus in Amherst.  Between this decision and the ground-breaking for the campus (now known as North Campus) in late 1967, many people continued to advocate for the downtown waterfront campus.  Among them was Coles, who believed that the downtown campus would be more convenient for the city’s lower-income inner-city residents, who could not afford to commute to the northern suburbs.  In 1966-57, when he was only in his mid-30s, Coles chaired a committee of civic leaders campaigning for the downtown site.  Despite losing the debate, Coles’s firm was later commissioned to design UB’s $27 million Health, Physical Education and Recreation complex, later renamed Alumni Arena, built 1979-1985 on the new North Campus in Amherst.  While a win for Amherst, the loss of North Campus to Amherst is considered by many to have had devastating impact for Buffalo’s downtown.  

Coles’s resume reflects his focus on large-scale commercial and civic projects rather than on residential architecture.  While examples of his residential designers are relatively few (refer to Sections VI and VII), there are several residential projects that reflect Coles’s style and design philosophy.  The residence for Mr. and Mrs. Gerald Berlyn, constructed in 1965 in Worcester, Massachusetts, shares some similarities in form and materials with Coles’s home.  Like the Coles house, the Berlyn house features a centrally located circulation core in a split-level configuration.  Located on a dramatically sloping site, the Berlyn house makes use of a cantilevered living room, which features a carport below, that is reminiscent of the cantilever employed by Coles for his own living room.

Buildings such as the weekend house for Dr. Lydia Wright and Dr. Frank Evans, constructed in Attica, NY in 1968, are similar in materials to the Coles residence.  While the two houses share simple rectangular massing, the Wright-Evans house also uses wood post-and-beam structure coupled with wood plank ceilings and large expanses of glass that are similar to the Coles house. 

The weekend house for Dr. and Mrs. Joseph Ravin (1970, Ellicottville, NY) is perhaps the most similar to the Coles house.  This design features a cantilevered living room with a recessed porch, nearly identical in appearance to that at the Coles residence.  Coles’s residential projects all share a similar, minimalistic, Scandinavian-inspired modernist design, utilizing natural materials, including wood and stone.  While varying in form and configuration, Coles’s residential designs all share a compact, simple and functional design that minimizes wasted space and incorporates storage and utility spaces efficiently within the building without a traditional basement or attic.  Coles believes that these similarities in form, materials and design stem from his clients’ appreciation of the design and appearance of his own house.

In 1961, Coles joined the American Institute of Architects.  At the 1968 conference held in Portland, Coles heard civil rights leader and fellow MIT alumnus Whitney Young issue his famous keynote address, challenging the architectural profession to become more engaged and involved in the urban crisis.  Active in a variety of social causes and using architecture on behalf of the overall improvement in the community, Coles was instrumental in starting the Community Planning Assistance Center of Western New York (CPAC), a community design center to bring technical assistance to community organizations that sought to develop their neighborhoods but lacked funding to pay for assistance.  Coles served as AIA’s deputy vice president of minority affairs from 1974-1976 and received an honorary Doctorate of Letters from Medaille College in 1977 in recognition of this leadership.  Because of his continued commitment to social equality in the architectural profession, Coles was awarded the AIA’s Whitney M. Young, Jr. Citation, the AIA’s second highest award, in 1981. Also in 1981, Coles was made a Fellow of the AIA, a prestigious recognition of his service to the architectural community.  In 1989 Coles made what he feels was his most significant contribution to the field of architecture when, as Langston Hughes Professor of Architecture and Urban Design at the University of Kansas, his inaugural lecture, “Black Architects, An Endangered Species” was published as a guest editorial in Progressive Architecture.

In the 1980s and 90s, while continuing his architectural practice in Buffalo, Coles served as a professor at other colleges and universities.  Between 1990 and 1995 he was an associate professor of architecture at Carnegie Mellon University.  He also served in a variety of visiting positions at the University at Buffalo and at the University at Kansas.  Coles also served on the juries for several notable projects, including the U.S. Post Office National Design Competition, the City Plaza National Design Competition in Lexington, and the State Association of Architects Design Awards in New York City.

The list of civic, political and philanthropic activities and groups to which Robert T. Coles has joined or participated is long.  He served as council member of the Burchfield Art Center; Arts in America; Erie County Horizons Waterfront Commission, Board of Directors; Built a New City, Inc.; Preservation League of New York State, and many others.  Coles also served as a fellow of the AIA on numerous committees and task forces and served as an honorary trustee of the Western New York Public Broadcasting Station since 1987.  He is a member of Alpha Kappa Mu, the National Organization of Minority Architects, in which group he has served a variety of leadership roles.  The many awards Robert T. Coles has received throughout his career include an AIA Award of Merit, received in 1963 for his personal residence.  Coles was also been honored by the AIA New York State Chapter in 2004 in recognition of his lifetime service as an architect.

Robert Traynham Coles continues to practice, focusing on large-scale projects located primarily in Buffalo and Western New York.  Coles has devoted his life to the betterment of his community and the people in it through a wide variety of professional, educational and service activities and involvement.  The affordable, adaptable and efficient design and construction of his own residence and studio reflects his concepts about affordable housing in urban neighborhoods.  Energized by a lifetime committed towards using architecture for social activism, Coles’s ideas about what an architect is, and should be, are best summarized by statements made in 2004:

[Architects] must in their works, build the demonstrative alternative to the way we live today. They must be initiators as well as implementers – leaders more than followers. They must truly be revolutionaries who see their architecture as a broad movement to enhance the quality of life of urban people.

History of the Robert T. Coles House and Studio

Although he had initially planned on building his home in Massachusetts, in 1961 Coles returned to his hometown of Buffalo to design and build the Ellicott District Recreation Center.  With a young family and a busy architectural practice to accommodate, the need for housing was imperative.  Coles quickly adapted the plans he had developed to his new situation and new setting, reflecting his belief in a universal design, a design theory that  created a generic, flexible design for a building that could be translated to a variety of settings and sites.

Coles selected a parcel of land on Humboldt Parkway in the Hamlin Park neighborhood.    Using many of the materials, designs and concepts of the Techbuilt system, Coles was able to complete the design in only three months and construction in an additional three months.  Coles’s house is unlike any of the surrounding houses in the early twentieth century Hamlin Park neighborhood, which is dominated by American Foursquare and Craftsman style buildings, typically with spacious front porches facing the street.  With its low, non-descript, rectilinear presence, shielded from Humboldt Parkway by shrubs and fences, the Robert T. Coles House and Studio presents a contrast to its traditionally designed neighbors.  While adjacent houses were designed to feature public spaces fronting right onto the street, Coles’s house and studio was designed with a rather utilitarian fašade facing onto the busy Scajaquada Expressway/Kensington Expressway interchange and private areas located on the interior of the property.   

For much of the early twentieth century, this area was comparable to other parkway neighborhoods in Buffalo, featuring the Olmsted-designed Humboldt Parkway, a lush green ribbon of grass and trees which served as a slice of parkland running throughout the neighborhood.  The majority of the houses in Hamlin Park were built during the parkway era, when the street was a spacious 150-foot wide park-like lawn used for socializing, recreation and outdoor activities.  In response, houses were designed with their primary fašade facing towards the grassy green park, often with spacious porches that bridged the transition between the tranquil, public parkway and the building, welcoming people to linger there.

Coles’s house reflects a new age in this neighborhood, where automobile traffic replaced the horse and buggy.  At the time Coles purchased the parcel in 1961, construction of the expressway had just begun. In the span of a few years, the serene tree-lined ribbon of Humboldt Parkway was excavated for a sunken multi-lane roadway, which funneled traffic in and out of the city at a new pace.  The new highway would not be completed until 1968; however, Coles anticipated that this new expressway would bring noise and pollution to the neighborhood.  In response, Coles designed his house and studio in a new and innovative way.  As the architect described it shortly after construction, “I deliberately understated the house from the street because I feel that a house should be primarily for the people who reside in it and their guests.”  

The Robert T. Coles House and Studio was designed with sensitivity to sheltering private spaces from the noise and traffic, while making the public spaces accessible to the street.  On a large scale, the two units, public and private, are separate from each other, maximizing the separation of the two spaces in the overall building itself. The public unit (the office and studio) is located adjacent to the street, making it accessible for the staff, clients, public and others to access at grade. Private areas (the house) are located at the rear of the property, sheltering spaces such as bedrooms and family spaces from the noise of the street overlooking the rear court and garden.  This configuration meant that the elevation visible from the street consisted primarily of a garage door rather than an elegant front porch.  The spacious porch is still evident at Coles’s house, but it has been located facing the rear court to the south of the property, overlooking a quiet, tranquil yard and a lush canopy of trees.

Similarly, each elevation of the building was designed with a special awareness of private and public spaces within and their relationship to the landscape and setting without.  Thanks to the flexibility of the non-structural wall panels, drawn from the Techbuilt system, walls could range from open and transparent to solid and impermeable.  Coles’s house and studio feature primarily solid walls facing the street to the north, shielding it from the noise of the expressway just a few feet away.  The building also generally features solid wall panels on the east and west facades, providing a sense of privacy from the adjacent houses. 

The western wall of the studio, a space requiring good lighting for drawing and drafting, also features large windows.  Here, as a measure of privacy for the studio, a large courtyard and sculpture garden, which features works given to Coles by sculptor Jack Solomon, is also located, enclosed by shrubs and plants to afford additional quiet and tranquility. 

On the southern fašade of the private unit, the wall is composed nearly entirely of large window units and floor-to-ceiling sliding glass doors, allowing for light to flood the interior.  Facing into the private rear court, this fašade is permeable to the light and natural environment of the yard.

Although the Coles house and studio incorporate many of the ideas, concepts and materials of the Techbuilt system into its design, the building is a custom-designed home built to meet the needs of Coles and his family.  The Douglas fir post-and-beam structural system of Coles’s house and studio are directly from the Techbuilt model; however, the Coles house has a flat roof rather than the more typical gable roof found in Techbuilt houses.  Pre-fabricated wall panels and factory-ready windows and sliding glass door units were also used, proving to be a great time-saver.  Like the Techbuilt model, the Coles house and studio is constructed without a basement level; instead, the foundation was incorporated into the lower level of the house.  Also similar to the two-story Techbuilt models, the master bedroom was located on the upper level, and additional bedrooms were on the lower level. Coles also made a number of  modifications to the Techbuilt house designs, including running the beams in an opposite direction, eliminating the vaulted interior spaces, and carefully controlling solid versus transparent walls to adapt to the more urban environment (many of the Techbuilt houses were built as beach properties rather than city residences).  Also, the manner in which Coles divided public and private spaces into two separate units, connected by a transitional hyphen space, is his own innovation

The Robert T. Coles House and Studio is an award-winning project recognized by the architectural community. In 1963, the house was awarded the New York State Association of Architects’ “Award of Merit” for its excellence in design. Coles was recognized for his outstanding work in the category of excellence in design by his peers with this award. The Robert T. Coles House and Studio is part of a long line of architects’ homes and studios.  Like the homes of other architects, the Coles house reflected its designer’s architectural philosophies and served as a model for his functional, efficient, flexible and affordable design ideas.  Coles’s house embodies his ideas on affordable, socially conscious housing, as well as the architectural designs and theories of mid-twentieth century modern architecture.


  EXAMPLES OF OTHER RESIDENTIAL BUILDING PROJECTS (provided by R.T. Coles)

1970    Weekend House for Dr. and Mrs. Joseph Ravin – Ellicottville, NY ($50,000)
1968    Weekend House for Dr. Lydia Wright and Dr. Frank Evans – Attica, NY ($40,000)
1965    Residence for Mr. and Mrs. Gerald Berlyn – Worcester, MA ($100,000)

LIST OF COMPLETED NON-RESIDENTIAL BUILDING PROJECTS (provided by R.T. Coles)

2007    Public School 128 Design – Queens, NY
2006    Public School 118 Feasibility Study – Bronx, NY
2006    Program Study, Middle College High School – Buffalo, NY
2006    Frank E. Merriweather Jr. Branch Library – Buffalo, NY
2005    School #36 Renovation – Buffalo, NY
2001    Johnnie P. Wiley Pavilion Offices – Buffalo, NY
2001     JFK Playground Shelter – Buffalo, NY
2000    Renovation of Apollo Theater into Public Access Television Station – Buffalo, NY
2000    Langston Hughes Center Renovation – Buffalo, NY
1999    Ralph Wilson Stadium Lower Bowl Seating Replacement – Orchard Park, NY
1998    Harlem Hospital Center-New Ambulatory Care Facility – New York, NY
1998    Public School 233 Addition & Modernization – Brooklyn, NY
1998    Reconstruction of Westside & Genesee Street Community Center – Buffalo, NY
1997    Ph. II-Friends to the Elderly Center Renovation – Buffalo, NY
1997    Renovation of 945 Genesee Street – Buffalo, NY
1997    Conway Field Shelter/Concession Stand – Buffalo, NY
1996    Offices for Watts Engineers – Buffalo, NY
1994    Tauriello-Lakeview Homes – Buffalo, NY
1994    Geneva B. Scruggs Center, 1461 Main Street, Renovation – Buffalo, NY
1994    Geneva B. Scruggs Intermediate Care Facility – Buffalo, NY
1993    War Memorial Stadium Demolitions & Construction of New Athletic Facility – Buffalo, NY
1992    Business Office Building and Campus Demolition, College of Staten Island, NY
1991    Albion Community Residence – Albion, NY
1990    Gethsemane Baptist Church, Addition – Buffalo, NY
1990    State University College at Brockport Roof Replacement Projects – Brockport, NY
1990    Human Services Office Building, County of Ontario, NY – Canandaigua, NY
1990    Geneva B. Scruggs Health Care Renovation, Women & Children’s Unit – Buffalo, NY
1990    Wende Correctional Facility, Renovation/New Construction – Alden, NY
1989    Research Institute on Alcoholism Renovation – Buffalo, NY
1988    Erie Community College City Campus, Teaching Kitchen, Phase II – Buffalo, NY
1988    Asarese-Matters Recreation Center – Buffalo, NY
1987    Gowanda Psychiatric Center Rehab Treatment Center – Gowanda, NY
1987     Health, Physical Education & Recreation Complex, Phase II – Natatorium,  SUNY at Buffalo, Amherst Campus – Amherst, NY
1987    Bidwell Station Post Office – Buffalo, NY
1986    Burgard Vocational High School Addition & Reconstruction – Buffalo, NY
1986    Buffalo Psychiatric Center Dining Room Addition – Buffalo, NY
1986    Frank Reeves Municipal Center – Washington, DC
1985    Repair & Alteration Program, Buffalo/Western New York Post Offices
1985    Erie Community College City Campus, Teaching Kitchen, Phase I – Buffalo, NY
1984    Utica Station – Buffalo, NY
1984    Removal of Architectural Barrier, Varies Resident Engineers Offices – Western New York
1984    Providence Railroad Station – Providence, RI
1983    South Park Yards & Shops – Buffalo, NY
1983     Health, Physical Education & Recreation Complex, Phase I – Alumni Arena
    State University of New York at Buffalo, Amherst Campus – Amherst, NY
1983    157 Delaware Avenue Renovation – Buffalo, NY
1983    Lindbergh Center Station – Atlanta, GA
1983    Operations Control Center – Buffalo, NY
1983    Port of Entry Restaurant – Amherst, NY
1982    William-Emslie YMCA – Buffalo, NY
1982    Jefferson Avenue Fašade Signage and Rehabilitation Program – Buffalo, NY
1982    Fašade Rehabilitation for Hertel Avenue Stores – Buffalo, NY
1981    Niagara Community Center & Girls Club – Buffalo, NY
1981    5 Spaces, VA Medical Center, Renovation – Buffalo, NY
1981    VA Medical Center Supply Processing, Renovation – Buffalo, NY
1981    Rosalia Street Telephone Garage, Renovation – Buffalo, NY
1980    One Niagara Square, Renovation – Buffalo, NY
1979    Federal Office Building, Renovation – Buffalo NY
1978    West Seneca Branch Post Office – West Seneca, NY
1978    Sherman L. Walker Human Services Center, Renovation – Buffalo, NY
1974    Public School 40 – Buffalo, NY
1974    Sperry Playground – Buffalo, NY
1974    Perry Day Care Center – Buffalo, NY
1973    Ellicott Neighborhood Advisory Council/UDC Housing Project – Buffalo, NY
1973    Northeast Neighborhood Facility – Rochester, NY
1972    Urban Park Housing Development – Rochester, NY
1972    Sherman L. Walker Human Services Center – Buffalo, NY
1971    Bacon Hall, Renovation – Buffalo, NY
1968    Local 34, Inc., Renovation – Buffalo, NY
1967    Friendship House of Lackawanna – Lackawanna, NY
1967    Joseph J. Kelly Gardens, Housing for the Elderly – Buffalo, NY
1967    Sample Memorial Playground – Chautauqua, NY
1964    Lanigan Field House – Buffalo, NY
1963    John F. Kennedy Recreation Center (originally named Ellicott District Recreation Center) – Buffalo, NY


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