Buffalo's First Professional African-American Architect: Some Preliminary Findings

Cynthia Van Ness, 2001-2013


John Brent

In the New York State census of 1925, John E. Brent reported his age as 33, making his year of birth around 1892. According to a biographical profile of him in the Buffalo American, which does not reveal his age, Brent was born and raised in Washington, D.C. He entered Tuskegee Institute in 1904, graduating with an architecture degree in 1907. After two years as a schoolteacher in Washington, he entered the School of Architecture at Drexel Institute and graduated in 1912 at the ripe age of 20. Brent then moved to Buffalo, NY. Further research is needed to confirm this apparent precocity.

The unsigned article in Buffalo American goes on to list the architectural firms which employed Brent between 1912 and 1926: Max G. Beierl; H. Osgood Holland; Waterbury & Mann; Julius E. Schultz; North Shelgren & Swift; Oakley & Schallmore. While in the employ of Holland, Brent worked on the Hutchinson High School plans. While in the employ of Waterbury & Mann, he worked on plans for the Wanakah Country Club.


Michigan YMCA

In 1926, John E. Brent became the second African-American to design a "colored" YMCA, Buffalo's Michigan Avenue YMCA. It opened in April 1928 and became the cultural center of Buffalo's African-American community. It cost $200,000 to build, half of which was donated by Buffalonian George Matthews. It boasted a cafeteria, gymnasium, swimming pool, barber shop, tailor shop, library; and classrooms, locker rooms, dormitory rooms, and billiard tables. It was demolished in April 1977.

Lillian Serece Williams wrote extensively about the significance of the Michigan Avenue YMCA in Buffalo's African American community in her book, Strangers in the Land of Paradise  (1999).

Eva Noles, in Talking Proud: Buffalo's Blacks  (1986), attributes another building to Brent: Dr. Myron McGuire's dentist office. Post-war city directories for Buffalo show a Dr. Myron McGuire at 482 Jefferson Avenue.  This address is now the site of recently-built infill housing.

Upon winning the commission for the Michigan Avenue YMCA, Brent opened his own practice, and may have been self-employed from 1926 into the 1950s, when Buffalo City Directories list him as an architect with the Buffalo Parks Department. 

Brent remained involved with the Michigan Ave. YMCA, serving as a board member and fundraiser. He was also a founding member of the Buffalo chapter of the NAACP, serving as its first president. Later he served on the Local Council of the State Commission Against Discrimination.

Brent lived at 219 Glenwood Avenue with his wife Neeton, and was active in St. Philip's Episcopal Church, earning the Bishop's Medal for meritorious service. He died on October 27, 1962, and is buried in Forest Lawn Cemetery, Section 37, Lot 94.

Update, June 3, 2013: Brent's gates for the Buffalo Zoo have been added to the National Register of Historic Places.


Sources Consulted

  • Online Sources, Which Turned Up Nothing

Brief Biographies of American Architects
http://www.sah.org/aame/bioint.html

Buffalo News Archives, 1989 to present
http://www.buffalonews.com

Circle Association's African-American History of Western New York State
http://www.math.edu/~sww/0history/1900-1935.html

Cyburbia.org
http://www.cyburbia.org

Digital Schomburg
http://www.schomburg.org

National Association for the Advancement of Colored People
http://www.naacp.org

National Union Catalog of Manuscript Collections
http://www.lcweb.loc.gov/

New Deal Network
http://www.newdeal.feri.org/

U.S. Social Security Death Index
http://ssdi.rootsweb.com/cgi-bin/ssdi.cgi

Western New York Index, 1983-1996
http://www.wnyindex.com/

World Biographical Index
http://www.biblio.tu-bs.de/

  • Proprietary Databases

Dialog@Carl Architecture Database

Ethnic Newswatch

Galenet Biography Resource Center

  • Monographs & Pamphlets

Avery Index to Architectural Periodicals. Boston, MA : G.K. Hall, 1963.

Avery Obituary Index to Architects & Artists. Boston, MA : G.K. Hall, 1963.

Hasauer, Kenneth. The Second Fifty Years: A History of the Young Men's Christian Association of Buffalo and Erie County, 1902-1952. Buffalo, NY: YMCA, [1952].

Noles, Eva. Buffalo's Blacks: Talking Proud. Buffalo, NY: Eva M. Noles, 1986.

Twenty Years in the Service of Youth: The Michigan Avenue YMCA. Buffalo, NY: Young Men's Christian Association, 1943

Who's Who in Colored America. New York: [various publishers], 1927-1944, 1950.

Who's Who of the Colored Race. Chicago, IL: Frank Lincoln Mather, 1915.

Williams, Lillian Serece. Strangers in the Land of Paradise: The Creation of an African-American Community, Buffalo, New York 1900-1940. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1999.

  • Articles & Serials

Buffalo City Directories. Buffalo, NY: [various publishers], 1926-1965.

Biography and Genealogy Master Index. Detroit, MI: Gale [various years].

"John E. Brent, Second Negro Architect of the United States to Have Charge of Building 'Y' for Colored Men." Buffalo American, May 4, 1926: page unknown. Preserved in Local Biographies scrapbook," v.4, p. 165, Grosvenor Room in the Buffalo & Erie County Public Library (BECPL).

Locke, Henry. "Blacks Should Mourn Michigan Ave. 'Y' Loss. Buffalo Courier-Express, April 17, 1977: F-9.

"Michigan Ave. 'Y' Has Vital Role in City." Buffalo Courier-Express, July 19, 1953: 20-A.

Young Men's Christian Association. Annual Report. Buffalo, NY: Young Men's Christian Association, 1920-1930.

  • Unpublished Sources

Local History File, a card file to periodicals &  newspapers in Buffalo, compiled 1930 to present

BECPL Prominent Black Buffalonians File [card file compiled 1980s]

New York State Population Census, 1925, Ward 17, City of Buffalo, Erie County, New York State


  • Picture Credits

Brent portrait:
Twenty Years in the Service of Youth. Buffalo, NY : Young Men's Christian Association, 1943: 5

Michigan Avenue Branch:
Hausauer, Kenneth C. The Second Fifty Years ... 1902-1952. Buffalo, NY : Artcraft Printers, [1952?]: 29

Special thanks to Sharon Holley for supplying Brent's date of death and burial place.


This article is fully protected by copyright and may not be copied and pasted anywhere without written permission.  Last updated  3 June 2013.