On March 21, 2013 the New York State Historic Preservation Board approved the “Entrance Court at the Buffalo Zoo” National Register nomination that Ellen Hunt and I prepared for the Buffalo Zoo and City of Buffalo, New York. The elapsed time from my first trip to Buffalo to the State of New York nomination approval was one year and three days. We invested more than five hundred hours in the research, interpretation and production of the nomination, without financial compensation. The discovery included the gates and forty (40) original drawings initialed by Mr. Brent. We recognized that this was so rare, and the physical condition of the gate face stone so fragile, we felt it imperative to act as quickly as possible. Of course, it was challenging, but we learned an enormous amount about Buffalo, American history, and the career of an extraordinary African American landscape architect and architect,
John Edmonston Brent (1889-1962). Mr. Brent was born in 1889 and raised in Washington, D.C. His father, Calvin T.S. Brent (1854 – 1899), was the first African American architect in Washington, D.C. after the Civil War. When John E. Brent completed his primary school (grades 1-8) studies he attended Tuskegee Institute in Tuskegee, Alabama from 1904 – 1907. He studied carpentry and architecture while at Tuskegee. William S. Pittman, architect for the first “Colored YMCA” in America was an instructor in the Architectural Department during Mr. Brent’s first two years. Pioneer African American landscape architect, David Williston, was a Tuskegee professor of Horticulture and Landscape Gardener also during Mr. Brent’s first two years. The professional works of Mr. Williston and Mr. Brent would be included in a juried exhibit at Howard University in 1931.
Mr. Brent returned to Washington and worked for the District of Columbia Parks Department for two years. Mr. Brent attended Drexel Institute in Philadelphia from 1909 – 1912 where he studied architecture and took a course landscape design. He graduated with a degree in architecture. He immediately moved to Buffalo, New York and worked one to three year periods for a number of local architects until 1926. He took the State of New York architects examination in the winter of 1926 and received his license (#2977) in March of 1926. Mr. Brent is credited as one of the founders of
the Buffalo chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). However, there were no quality recreational facilities open to people of color. Mr. Brent was selected to design and supervise the construction of the Michigan Street Y.M.C.A. in Buffalo. Public accommodations in the United States were segregated, even down to amusements, restaurants, drinking fountains and YMCA’s. Under a challenge grant by the philanthropist Julius Rosenwald, 21 segregated YMCA’s were built across the country to provide community, a place for personal and spiritual growth and a way to build bridges to the larger world. Mr. Rosenwald was the CEO of Sears & Roebuck, and one of the wealthiest men in the country. Rosenwald was initially interested in helping to fund YMCA’s because he believed in the mission of the organization and was unwilling to see the racial divide. He put up 25% of the cost of the building, which was roughly $125,000, if the local community could raise the remaining amount. Buffalo was the second city to accept the challenge. Mr. Brent became the second African American architect to design a “Colored Y.M.C.A.” in America. Mr. Rosenwald personally attended the opening dedication of the Michigan Street Y, and commended Mr. Brent for his architectural design and construction supervision work. The Michigan Street YMCA served local residents and out-of-town visitors until it was demolished in 1977.
John Brent, was employed by the Buffalo Parks Department and worked on design, planning, and implementation of more than sixteen facilities and exhibits at the Buffalo Zoo from 1935-1957. In 1944 he became the fifth African American architect member of the American Institute of Architects (A.I.A.). The Buffalo Zoo is the third oldest zoo in America. Only three other African American architects are known to have held such prominent municipal positions in the United States prior to World War II, and prior to Federal civil rights legislation.
Buffalo and Erie County have very long, deep and diverse histories. Buffalo was established in 1803, and African American residents were recorded as early as 1806. Sixty four properties and districts were listed on the National Register of Historic Places in Erie County through 2012. Only three of those were designated in the area of African American historical significance. The Entrance Court at the Buffalo Zoo is located approximately three and one half miles north of downtown and serves as an example of the broad range of African American contributions to the city’s evolution. Mr. John Edmonston Brent, an African American landscape architect/architect, worked with people of many ethnic backgrounds. The entrance court is part of a facility that serves all of Buffalo, and visitors from all parts of the world. It is also Mr. Brent’s last remaining complete composition in America.
New York State Parks & Historic Preservation Press Release
Special thanks to Dr. Donna Fernandes and the Buffalo Zoo Staff; Mrs. Janessa Robinson, Mrs. Jennifer McGriff, Mr. Brent Rollins, Mr. Robert Milner (Brent family descendants); New York State Assemblywoman Crystal Peoples-Stokes; Mr. Burke M. Glaser, City of Buffalo Department of Public Works; Watts Architecture & Engineering, P.C.; Mrs. Mary H. Baldwin, Deputy City Clerk, City of Buffalo; Ms. Peggy A. LaGree, First Deputy Erie County Clerk; Ms. Cynthia VanNess, Buffalo and Erie County Historical Society.