Buffalo Architects - Index

John E. Brent in Buffalo, NY


Michigan Avenue Branch Y.M.C.A. -  Demolished in 1977

99 Lonsdale Road office and residence

Excerpt from
"Through These Gates: Buffalo's First African American Architect, John E. Brent"
By Christine Parker
Pub. on Burchfield Penney Art Center Website (online March 2016) 
Includes 53 photos, plus more biographical information

Harold Wallace, photographer, Portrait of John E. Brent, ca. 1950s; gelatin silver print on paper, 5 x 4 inches; Private Collection.

Recent research has uncovered significant contributions to architectural design, landscape architecture, and draftsmanship made by John Edmonston Brent (1889-1962) in the city of Buffalo and surrounding counties of Western New York.

His grandfather, John Brent, was born a slave, but later purchased his freedom and that of his wife. His father, Calvin Thomas Stowe Brent, was an accomplished architect in Washington, DC, “one of the most sophisticated cities of Black culture,” according to architect Robert Traynham Coles, who wrote a biographical sketch about John E. Brent for the African-American Architects: A Biographical Dictionary, 1865-1945, published in 2004.

Named after his grandfather, Brent was born in our national Capitol, educated at the Tuskegee Institute, and received a full scholarship at the Drexel Institute of Art, Science and Industry, graduating in 1912.

He came immediately to Buffalo, New York and started employment with Max G. Beirel; thus becoming the first African American architect in the city. He was a member of the American Institute of Architects. In addition to his architectural engineering and design accomplishments, Brent became the first president of the Buffalo Branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) on November 30, 1914.

Between 1912 and 1926, Brent worked with several architectural firms, including Max G. Beirel, Henry Osgood Holland; Waterbury & Mann; Julius C. Schultz; North and Shelgren, and Oakley & Schallmo. In 1926, he opened his own home office at 99 Lonsdale Avenue in Hamlin Park in Buffalo and managed many private commissions.

Among Brent’s most significant architectural designs is the Michigan Avenue Branch Y.M.C.A. (1928), which was his first large commission. It was initially funded by Julius Rosenwald, who was the founder of Sears & Roebuck in Chicago. Subsequent funders included Mrs. Anna McDougall, who started a capital campaign endowment, and Mr. and Mrs. George B. Mathews, whose magnanimous endowment gift of $100,000 was known as the Booker T. Washington Foundation. Brent was the second African American in the United States to design a building for the Young Men’s Christian Association. Unfortunately it was demolished in 1977.

From 1931 to 1934 Brent worked for the U. S. Department of the Interior on the Founders Library and other buildings at Howard University in Washington, DC. During the Great Depression through the 1950s, the Buffalo Parks Department employed him, and documents show his involvement with designs of Front Park, the Buffalo Zoological Gardens, and other public spaces.

In 1958, Brent was recognized as “The Man of the Year” by the editor and publishers of the Negro Directory of the Niagara Frontier. (“The Woman of the Year” was Mrs. Cora P. Maloney, “the first woman in the city of Buffalo to become Councilman for the Masten District. They both were lauded as “Outstanding Citizens of the Community” and pictured on the cover of the publication.)

Brent posthumously received recognition in Buffalo for the gates and landscape architecture he produced for the Buffalo Zoological Gardens. The cast iron gates #3 and #4 produced in 1935 that are anchored in concrete piers with Onondaga limestone veneers provide welcoming entrances to earlier zoo paths. The structures were listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2013. He continued working on drawings for zoo structures and grounds for the next two decades, working together with landscape architect Roeder J. Kinkel.


John Edmonston Brent, 1889–1962

Buffalo’s First African American Architect
Albright-Knox Art Gallery, August 20, 2020

John Edmonston Brent was a native son of Washington, D.C., born into a family of African American architects. He was named after his grandfather, who was born a slave and later purchased his freedom and that of his wife, Elizabeth. Brent’s father, Calvin Thomas Stowe Brent, was also an architect. Both grandfather and father contributed to the design and construction of Episcopalian churches, homes, and various structures in the Historical U Street Corridor in Washington, D.C. Many of these structures remain and are located in the African American Historical Corridor of the city; many have been placed on the National Registry of Historical Places.

Brent received his primary education in the public-school system of Washington, D.C. In 1904, at the age of fifteen, he enrolled in carpentry at Tuskegee Institute and graduated in 1907. He then returned to Washington, D.C. until he was awarded a full scholarship for architecture at the Drexel Institute of Arts, Sciences, and Industry in Philadelphia, graduating in 1912.

Brent was employed by the Department of the Interior from 1931 to 1934 and was assigned to Howard University along with a team of talented Black architects. They contributed to the design of Founders Library, Frederick Douglass Hall, and the chemistry classroom building. Following this assignment, Brent worked on smaller commissions from his Lonsdale Road office and residence in the historic Hamlin area of Buffalo. Known for his design of the Michigan Avenue Y.M.C.A. at 585 Michigan Avenue (demolished in 1977), he was encouraged to apply for a Junior Landscape position with the City of Buffalo’s Parks Department on the recommendation of the Executive Director and Curator of the Buffalo Zoo, Marlin Perkins, of the famed Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom. Brent was employed by the City of Buffalo from 1935 until his retirement in 1959. In 2013, Brent’s design of the Entrance Court at the Buffalo Zoo (1938) was placed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Cynthia Van Ness,
In Search of Buffalo's First Professional African-American Architect: Some Preliminary Findings 
History, illustrations
(online  Sept. 2020)

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