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.