Long before the term “urbanism” became one of the rallying cries for the revival of Rust Belt cities, Buffalo beheld a true urbanist in the form of architect Robert T. Coles.
Buffalo is not a city known for its wealth of residential midcentury modern architecture stock. The city has a marvelous housing inventory, but there are not many instances of truly unique and enduring modern examples.
While most Buffalonians have been content living in more traditional-styles of housing, Coles set out to make a name for himself in the more modern realm. As a young and aspiring black architect, he would ultimately go on to design and build post-War/Cold War era housing that spoke to the individualistic character and modernist desires of young professionals and American families at the time.
Coles accomplished this while working for the Techbuilt Company, an innovative prefab housing manufacturer that cranked out catalog-friendly models that were relatively easy to assemble on site, affordable, and modular, with some Scandinavian influences. It’s interesting to think that Coles – an architect himself – worked for this company that essentially eliminated the need for homeowners to hire an architect.
Coles’ experience at Techbuilt eventually led him to follow various other notable pursuits including roles as a college professor, as well as a touted community activist. As an established architect, his focus was on large scale and civic projects. Throughout his life, he racked up numerous prestigious awards.
Reading up on Coles in a nomination* for National Register of Historic Places designation (pertaining to his own residence in Buffalo), I discovered some interesting tidbits about the architect.
First, Coles was a champion for leveling the playing field in the architectural profession. Throughout his life he utilized his own experiences and accomplishments to actively pursue civil rights affairs.
Second, Coles was a diehard advocate and vocal mouthpiece for building the University at Buffalo campus downtown, instead of in Amherst. He felt that the positioning of the campus in Amherst would not only be unfair to inner-city residents, it would also be a disaster for the city itself. He would, of course, be proved correct in his sentiments and theories.
Third, Coles would be confronted head on with Robert Moses-style tactics in the form of the construction of the Scajaquada Expressway in the 50s and the Kensington Expressway beginning in 1960. For Coles, it was the perfect storm, when, as he set out to design and build his own dream house on Olmsted’s Humboldt Parkway, an expressway was callously laid down. In light of these new revelations, he decided to design his modern house with a work studio facing the soon-to-be noisy and polluted expressway, and his residence towards the rear of the lot. Unfortunately, his neighbors living in American Foursquare and Craftsman style houses along the former parkway were now forced to endure the brunt of the expressway.
Coles’ house (lead image), located at 321 Humboldt Parkway (see listing) was built with the concept of ‘Universal Design” in mind. It was composed of two rectangles, modular in style, that were distinctly separate as home and office, yet connected for convenience sake. In 1963 the house was awarded the NYS Association of Architects ‘Award of Merit’ and is now on the National Register.
During his lifetime in Buffalo, Coles designed and constructed the Ellicott District Recreation Center (now the John F. Kennedy Recreation Center) and the Merriweather Library, both of which can be seen in this 2016 BR article by Mike Puma. The article promoted a Kickstarter campaign to publish a book on Coles, surrounding his life and works, including the years when he practiced in his own firm – Robert Traynham Coles Architect PC, which was considered “… the oldest African American architectural practice in the Northeast” in 2011.
Throughout his lifetime, Coles embodied the belief that architects “… must truly be revolutionaries who see their architecture as a broad movement to enhance the quality of life for urban people.” In a 1965 Courier Express article, Coles described Buffalo as “A city designed to be rebuilt,” due to many of the houses (presumedly on the East Side) being hastily built. In his BR article, Puma noted something else that Coles imparted a couple of years earlier: “In wandering these downtown neighborhoods, one sees much that could be saved; one wonders whether it might be better for Buffalo or any other city to rehabilitate what it already has to attract its former residents back to the city, rather than to build at tremendous cost new towers on the horizon in the midst of blight and deterioration.” Prophetic words of wisdom often times fall on deaf ears.
It is because of these convictions that Coles will always be remembered for the battles that he fought, not only due to the color of his skin, but because much of what he believed in civically, we are still fighting to this day.
Robert T. Coles (1929-2020)
*Courtesy Preservation Buffalo Niagara
Update: Mayor Byron W. Brown has sent a letter to the Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority’s Board of Commissioners requesting they rename the Utica Street Transit Station to honor Robert T. Coles, the Black Architect and Buffalo resident who designed the station and passed away this past May.
Mayor Brown wrote, “Mr. Coles was widely acknowledged as a leader, innovator and trailblazer in both local and national architectural circles. Naming a station—one that he designed—in his memory would ensure that his public legacy leaves a lasting mark and serves as a continuing inspiration in the community he lived in and loved so much.”
Robert Coles was a Buffalo resident and acclaimed architect who courageously championed the use of public spaces as a means to achieving racial equity.
There are fewer than ten public spaces named after prominent Black persons in the City of Buffalo and across the country the lack of monuments and memorials to specific Black leaders has become a subject of national attention.