Out of the Shadows: The Legacy of Buffalo’s First African American Architect

Last November, the “Out of the Shadows” exhibit was on display at the Buffalo & Erie County Central Library. The traveling exhibit highlights the life and career of John Edmonston Brent (1889 -1962), Buffalo’s first African-American architect.

Despite devoting much of his architectural career to the Western New York region, Brent is a relatively unknown name. Part of this is due to the fact that many of his buildings have long been demolished, which has been an unfortunate consequence of Buffalo’s urban renewal policies of the mid-twentieth century. Among Brent’s lost buildings was the YMCA at 585 Michigan Avenue, built in 1928 as a cornerstone to what was then Buffalo’s African-American entertainment district (effectively dubbed, “Little Harlem”). The YMCA was demolished in 1977. Some of Brent’s surviving works can be found in familiar locations around the city, including the Entrance Court and Gateways to the Buffalo Zoo, Westbrook Luxury Apartments (675 Delaware Avenue), and Houghton Park (1675 Clinton Street).

As implied, “Out of the Shadows” aims to raise public awareness of John E. Brent’s contributions to Buffalo architectural legacy. His works are a testament to a time period when Buffalo’s rich heritage continued to attract seasoned architects from around the country. To overcome the challenge in traditional preservation methods, due to the fact many of Brent’s works are now gone, a series of local and national recommendations will be undertaken for continued research, including interviews with surviving Brent descendants residing in the city; promotion and preservation of his existing works; and historic designations, landmarking, and curriculum development in local public schools.

Preservation Buffalo Niagara has been a proud collaborator with local historian Christine Parker for this project, which has surveyed over 100 buildings and landscapes over the 50-year career of John E. Brent. Funding has been provided by the National Trust for Historic Preservation and the First Niagara Foundation.

Historic Preservation: A Vital Economic Engine for Western New York

Protecting and utilizing our historic building stock is key to Western New York’s quality of life, has strong environmental benefits, and is critical to helping us build community through an accurate and shared sense of history. However, in recent years, investments in our historic buildings have emerged as something more: a cultural economic driver for the region.
Investments in our historic building stock have become a much-needed job creator and economic development engine, not just in the city of Buffalo, but throughout Western New York. Just the projects involving historic tax credits have created a whopping 6,000 new jobs, which generated $17 million in State and local tax receipts, and over $500 million in total investments through 2017.
Historic Tax Credits have become one of Western New York’s most important assets in recent times. In just the past decade alone, it has become an effective way to improve the local economy while encouraging private investment and promoting small business growth, all while keeping tax rates stable. Far from being a drain on public resources, Historic Tax Credits bring a high return on investment. For every dollar invested in a tax credit-supported rehabilitation project, $1.25 returns to the US Treasury.
Twenty-four states have customized historic rehabilitation with their own state-level programs. New York has both a commercial program that mirrors the federal program, as well as a homeowner program to help people invest in their historic houses.
The following are just a few examples of works in progress were abandoned or under-utilized structures in and around Western New York are set to be revived.

Northland Corridor

This 50-acre factory complex is bounded by Fillmore Avenue, East Delavan Avenue, Grider Street, and East Ferry Street. Many of the factories within this area have been dormant since the 1980s. The neighborhood where this complex is located was largely shaped by the Buffalo Belt Line, which covers a 15-mile radius around the city. This rail line was where factories (such as the Trico Plant #2 and Pierce-Arrow Factory Complex) took advantage of their product trading and shipping through the city’s railroad service.
Although some of the Northland factories are still active, they are largely underutilized, having changed ownership multiple times since the 1970’s. The 1.5 square mile neighborhood surrounding the complex was one of many across the city that was once reliant on the jobs provided by nearby factories.
The Northland Corridor project will be centered on 683 Northland, which is still used for minor storage space. Following a 2014 brownfield study, the building will be rehabilitated as a new business and training incubator, catering to job and career development for surrounding residents.
The plan is to generate long-term reinvestment in the surrounding neighborhood, addressing long-held concerns about unemployment on Buffalo’s East Side. According to David A. Stebbins, Vice President of the Buffalo Urban Development Corporation:
“This project will bring much needed investment and good paying jobs to an economically distressed area of our community.”

Richardson Complex

According to Monica Pellegrino Faix, former Executive Director of the Richardson Center Corporation:
“Simply put, reuse of the Richardson Olmsted Campus was made possible by the Historic Preservation Tax Credits. Federal Historic Tax Credits have been crucial to the success of our work to date to eliminate blight, rehabilitate these historic buildings, and to create construction jobs and long-terms jobs at this National Historic Landmark site in Buffalo.
“500 construction jobs, and 75 new long-term jobs are being created at the Hotel Henry Urban Resort Conference Center which has just opened. Hotel Henry will attract visitors from across the globe who will be attracted to visit the College, the Albright Knox Art Gallery or just stay in a fine historic hotel, all to the benefit our entire region.
“And the best has yet to come as we move forward on the reuse of the rest of the buildings. However, we are finding during our discussions with potential developer partners who we need to finish our work that Phase 2 will probably be infeasible without the federal Historic Preservation Tax Credit program continuing. The continuation of the Historic Preservation Tax Credit program is crucial to the reuse of the remaining 300,000 square feet of this property and the strong economic development and community development impact that will result from this success.”


Buffalo Public School #77

Buffalo Public School #77 was built in 1927. Located in the North Prospect Hill neighborhood, it was designed by Ernest Crimi using bricked Neoclassical architecture.
The building was designed according to early 20th Century requirements for public schools in New York State. With a maximum enrollment of 1,100 students, School #77 was used as an English-speaking facility for Buffalo’s Italian immigrants and Italian Americans that were predominant in the North Prospect Hill neighborhood at the time. It was also used temporarily as a science lecture facility, to coincide with the opening of the Buffalo Museum of Science at then-Humboldt Park in 1929.
In 2007, School #77 was decommissioned. Since then, PUSH (People United for Sustainable Housing) Buffalo has sought to revive the building as a community-oriented facility. Plans include senior housing and a community performance theatre.
According to Jennifer Kaminsky of PUSH Buffalo, “PUSH and its development entity Buffalo Neighborhood Stabilization Company, Inc. led a multi-year planning process into the reuse of School 77. The community wanted affordable housing for seniors and space for youth programs, arts, and culture.”

Improving Access to the Benefits of Historic Preservation

It is clear that historic preservation is an important component of building healthy and vibrant communities in Western New York. What is also clear, unfortunately, is that these benefits are not reaching across all neighborhoods and all communities. PBN is committed to working to ensure that historic preservation makes a positive impact on all Western New Yorkers. Our 2017/2018 Advocacy and Technical Services agenda includes:

1. Advocacy around the Historic Tax Credit Improvement Act (H.R. 1158/S. 425): This bill will improve access to historic tax credits, an important financing tool, to neighborhood commercial centers and our rural towns and village centers;

2. New York State Tax Credit Advocacy: The New York State Historic Tax Credit has been a key component of commercial projects, and has added incentives for homeowners in low income census tracts. This important program is set to sunset in 2019, so the 2018 Legislative Season will be an important time to not only make sure that this program continues, but to make needed changes that will ensure that this program is benefiting our entire area, not just a select few communities;

3. PBN will continue its commitment to doing proactive survey work to identify and protect our regional historic assets. The Broadway Fillmore survey should be completed this year and then we will begin to implement results, and the Fruit Belt survey should wrap up in the spring. We have provided technical assistance to the University District to begin survey work, and we will be conducting a survey on Buffalo’s West Side from Richmond to Niagara Street, from West Ferry to Forest. Finally, we will be partnering with community members to revisit older surveys done in Cold Spring and Black Rock to begin to implement recommendations;

4. We will continue to provide technical preservation services to communities and individual building owners across the region;

5. We are exploring ways to bring more direct funding and assistance to our lowest income historic homeowners. Watch for more news and ways you can support this effort in 2018.

Advocacy Snapshot

Scajaquada Downgrade/Route 198

After DOT’s Public Information Meeting on August 8th, PBN submitted formal comments again asking DOT to reconsider the Buffalo Olmsted Parks Conservancy’s vision for the Scajaquada Boulevard and to reformulate plans to prioritize the park user’s experience. While there were some improvements in the presented “Final Plan”, we do not feel that enough has been done to provide safe access to park users, bolster connections to cultural institutions, and to preserve and restore one of the most significant cultural landscapes in NYS. All public comment received will be used in preparing the Final Environmental Impact Statement (FEIS) which is expected to be sent to the Federal Highway Administration in October.


On September 18th we joined Buffalo’s Young Preservationists and the Preservation League of NYS for a Wildroot Visioning Block Party. It was a great opportunity to hear from the community on what they envision for this historic structure. We will continue to keep our members and supporters updated on next steps.

Northland Corridor

The Northland Corridor project is an ambitious proposal by the City of Buffalo to rehabilitate the fifty acre former factory complex located near the Northland section of Buffalo’s Beltline. Preservation efforts were recently dealt a blow with the City’s decision to demolish the majority of 537 East Delavan, the former Houdaille Manufactuing Plant. However, consultation with PBN, the project sponsors, neighborhood stakeholders, and the State Historic Preservation Office, have resulted in the decision to maintain the elegant administrative office located along Delavan Avenue, along with the smoke stack and the Eastern Plant Area. PBN is also working with the City to save more than currently proposed of 777 Northland Avenue, the former Otis Elevator Foundry and Curtiss-Wright Metal Processing Division. While original plans called for demolishing the entirety of the building, subsequent meetings have found the City more willing to save additional fabric. We will continue to work to save this important part of our manufacturing heritage for future use.

Fruit Belt Cultural Resource Survey

Supported by a Preserve NY grant from the Preservation League of New York State, the first-ever full scale survey of historic resources in Buffalo’s Fruit Belt is currently underway. Project consultant Preservation Studios is currently taking oral histories from long-time residents, and conducting a building inventory. Results of the survey along with recommendations for next steps should be available this winter.

Broadway-Fillmore Survey

Another survey supported by a Preserve New York grant from the Preservation League of NYS, the Broadway-Fillmore Survey is nearing completion. Project consultant Preservation Studios recently presented preliminary results from their Cultural Resource Survey of the area to PBN and the other members of the Technical Advisory Committee of the Historic East Side Neighborhood Initiative (HESNI). The next step will be a public presentation in early December about the survey findings and recommendations of how we can protect and steward the neighborhood’s remaining cultural heritage.

DeVeaux Brick Barn

PBN continues to partner with the Niagara Falls Historic Preservation Society, Inc. to advocate for the preservation of the 1863 DeVeaux Brick Barn, as well as the other three remaining historic buildings on the grounds of the DeVeaux Woods State Park. Currently the New York State Office of Parks, Recreation, and Historic Preservation has engaged a consultant to complete an Historic Structures Report of the barn to assess the condition and priorities moving forward. The other remaining structures formerly part of the DeVeaux School Complex are subject to a current Niagara River recreation and real estate development RFP. We look forward to hearing the results of the Report and RFP process and working with NYSOPRHP to find a new, permanent use for these historic buildings.

Terminal A

Constructed 1930-1931, the former Ford Motor Company Plant located on Fuhrmann Boulevard was designed by notable industrial-use architect, Albert Kahn. PBN is continuing to work with our partners at the Our Outer Harbor Coalition to ensure that this significant building is incorporated into the State’s ongoing plans for Outer Harbor.

The Fight to Save Willert Park

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Preservation Buffalo Niagara has been working hard with our community partners, including the Michigan Street Preservation Corporation, for nearly a decade to preserve this important part of Buffalo’s past. Located on Spring Street, just off William Street in the Ellicott District of Buffalo, the Buffalo Municipal Housing Authority would like to tear down this complex and allow a private, Canadian-based developer to replace it with a new subsidized housing project.
These buildings, completed in 1939 and designed by Frederick Backus, have been determined to be Eligible for the National Register of Historic Places by the State Historic Preservation Office for their significance in the categories of architecture, art, community planning and development, ethnic heritage, and landscape architecture. This project was one of the first built under the United State Housing Agency, created by Franklin D. Roosevelt as part of the New Deal. It was specifically planned for African American residents, and was heavily advocated for by the Buffalo Urban League at the time.
In addition to the architectural and social significance of the complex, these buildings are also notable for the ornamental series of cast relief sculptures based on the themes of labor and family life. Designed and crafted by Robert Crombach and Herbert Ambellan, these sculptures garnered national attention, when the Museum of Modern Art singled out Willert Park as one of eight significant Modern architecture buildings in Buffalo, putting this development in the company of the Darwin Martin House, the Guaranty Building, and Kleinhan’s Musical Hall.
Despite their architectural and artistic pedigree, these buildings are not without their controversy. They contribute to the narrative of housing and social segregation in the City of Buffalo. In so doing, they also contribute significantly to our understanding of how our City has developed, and how we are continuing to think about housing, neighborhood, and community. To lose these buildings would not only continue the destruction of Modern Architecture in Buffalo, it would also hamper our ability to tell our story as a community – a story that we are still in the midst of understanding. As Buffalo begins to stabilize, as population is added, especially to our downtown and adjacent East Side neighborhoods, how will we understand and honor those who have lived and created community here?
To delve deeper into these issues as well as to bring attention to these imperiled buildings, PBN hosted a panel discussion on May 25th with Professor Henry Taylor, Professor Francis Kowsky, and George K. Arthur, Buffalo political legend and former President of the Common Council, who grew up in the complex. The meeting was well attended by Buffalo preservationists, community activists, and former residents of Willert Park, who shared their love of living in this location, and their thoughts on why it should be preserved.
PBN will continue to work with our community partners to ensure that this important place is preserved for future generations.