I look forward to presenting the keynote talk to begin “Preservation Week” produced by Preservation Piedmont in Charlottesville, Virginia. The theme of this year’s week long event is “Threatened Sites & Communities.”
This is a very timely, and nationally significant, theme. Late last year someone contacted me about an African American high school constructed in 1949 in Louisiana that has been considered for sale despite the fact that it was architect designed as an “international style” composition, and publicized as a national model for its curriculum and design prior to the 1954 Brown v Board decision. Since I received the invitation to Charlottesville my good friend, Susan Barnes-Gelt (@SBGtweets), sent me an article about the pending demolition of an African American homestead (1897) in Denver, Colorado. The owner, Joseph Adolphus Thomas-Hazell, became one of the founders of the Colorado Black town of Dearfield, Colorado (1910).
Last week Ellen Hunt, AIA (http://ww.epharchitect.com), and I stumbled onto a Rosenwald School located in central Texas that was unknown, even to the Rosenwald Schools Initiative of the National Trust for Historic Preservation. Every historic resource that is lost, demolished, or ignored represents a loss of opportunity for American education, economics, sustainability, and quality of life.
The Capote Black settlement of Guadalupe County, Texas is a classic example of the origin, evolution and transition of African Americans from life as slaves into lives as American citizens. The church is one hundred and forty years old. I have been working with the Capote Restoration Committee since fall of 2012 to preserve the structure and document its construction.
There are many lessons of sustainable construction integrated into the structure. I thought it would be appropriate to share one for Earth Day 2013. A significant amount of history has been gathered regarding the pottery works that members of the Wilson family operated from ca.1857 to 1903. The African American business produced things such as storage jars, urns, and churns. One of the reasons for the success of the pottery was the availability of native clay soil with inherent plastic and adhesive qualities.
In the process of systematically disassembling deteriorating parts of the church I asked the general contractor, Earl Greenwood, to excavate to the base of some of the brick piers. At the bottom, we discovered hand formed concrete footings. After some research I found out that a White medical physician and chemist, Dr. John E. Park, had developed a formula for load bearing “limecrete” in the Seguin area in the 1850’s. Dr. Park used native materials from central Texas, including the same type of clay soil that the Wilson’s used in their pottery. Various historical sources also, verify that Dr. Park used African American slaves as labor to build a number of “limecrete” structures in Guadalupe County before the Civil War. The African Americans who worked for Dr. Park are not given much credit for knowing how to mix the “limecrete”. But none of the thirty five “limecrete” footings at the church have disintegrated or cracked over more than 100 years of service. “Limecrete” has the ability to absorb and release moisture as the moisture content of the surrounding soil changes. The footings are even specifically shaped according to their particular locations, interior, corner and perimeter. It’s obvious that African American knowledge of local construction materials and techniques has been underestimated. Surely there are other similar untold stories across America.
In 2011 Mrs. N.Y. Nathiri, Director of Multidisciplinary Programs (Preserve the Eatonville Community/P.E.C.), asked me to create a program that would illuminate at least one broad legacy of Eatonville, Florida, the oldest incorporated African American town in America. The program was to be presented at the 2012 Zora Neale Hurston Festival of the Arts and Humanities (ZORA! Festival). I had visited Eatonville many, many times over the course of more than twenty years. Bit by bit I began to understand that the town’s garden legacy can be authentically traced directly to Dr. Booker T. Washington, Tuskegee Institute, Alabama, and a small rare group of local African American horticulturists. Documentation of the simple physical existence of an historic African American community is exceptionally difficult, at best. Documentation of the origins of the gardening philosophies, practices and techniques of an historic African American community is nothing short of miraculous. But this fact serves to expand interpretation of African American gardens beyond the simple stereotype of “folk garden” or “folk landscape.”
Instruction of gardening philosophies and techniques were formally taught in classes (vocational) led by Mr. Russell C. Calhoun, the first principal of Eatonville’s Robert Hungerford Industrial School, and in practical home demonstrations with residents in the community. These lessons have been passed from one generation to the next since the turn of the century. For example, sugar cane has been grown on the town proper for more than 110 years. Truck gardening and horticulture stabilized the town’s economy. Citrus fruit and pineapple was grown for commercial sale around Orange County from the early 1900’s through World War II. Gardening transformed the town’s physical and cultural landscape, and set national standards for environmental sustainability. The annual Negro Farmer’s Conference was held in Eatonville at the Hungerford School in 1911.
Based on these findings, and my landscape architectural experience, I proposed and presented the “Eatonville Yards & Gardens Tour” at the 2012 ZORA Festival. I organized the tour around nine of Eatonville’s more accomplished gardeners. Most of the gardens are integrated into residential yards. Sometimes the distinction is so subtle that yard and garden blend without notice. Though most are considered “vernacular” in style, each has a theme or characteristics that forms a prosaic composition. In other words, these are not traditionally styled gardens that mimic the French parterre, English picturesque landscape or American modern minimalist compositions. They are authentic American landscapes that express creativity, culture and environmental awareness.
Mrs. Nathiri has asked me to lead the “Yards & Gardens Tour” at the 25th Festival in January of 2014. I will be joined by a remarkable cultural historian, Dr. Lydia C. Charles, Ph.D. Dr. Lydia will expand on the national relationships between gardening, education, civil rights and socio-cultural issues. The preliminary agenda calls for one tour group, but since this will be the Festival’s “silver anniversary” I think it might be appropriate to organize space for an additional group. If anyone is interested in participating in an expanded tour group I ask that you e-mail Mrs. Nathiri, mention my name, and request that she add this to the schedule:
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.