National Register Process: Entrance Court at the Buffalo Zoo /Buffalo, New York-3
From my initial exposure to the background of John Edmonston Brent I sought to interpret his career and achievements using multidisciplinary, and professional, standards. I did not pursue the research for nostalgic or sentimental reasons. Through the course of my Black Settlements In America (TM) studies and projects I learned that broad professional primary research of authentic documentation and comparative analysis often reveals more than traditional accounts. Even basic accounts indicated that Mr. Brent’s life and career were extraordinary. He was the son of an African American architect, Calvin T.S. Brent, and a Tusegee graduate. John Brent was the architect of record for Buffalo’s Michigan Street “Colored” YMCA (1926), located at the intersection of Michigan and Broadway. From my 1980‘s research of African American architect, and Tuskegee graduate, W. Sidney Pittman I was aware that this was one of twenty three “Colored Y’s” built with funding from local communities and Mr. Julius Rosenwald (CEO of Sears & Roebuck). These facts also suggested important relationships beyond Buffalo. Unfortunately, the Michigan Y was demolished in the 1970’s.
But a few archived news articles mentioned that Mr. Brent had worked at the Buffalo Zoo. So, I was convinced that there was more to learn, and I decided to search for other pieces of his work that might remain in the city. Dr. Donna Fernandes, Zoo President/CEO, was gracious enough to allow me to interview her staff and enlist their working knowledge of the zoo’s evolution.
At first it seemed as though there was no record of Mr. Brent’s association with the Zoo. But, Ellen Hunt, AIA Architect: http://ww.epharchitect.com, and I made a series of telephone contacts. This led to Mr. Burke Glaser, Senior Architect, with the City of Buffalo. Mr. Glaser knew where the old zoo drawings were stored, and agreed to let me look through them in his downtown office. The drawings were stored in large metal flat files. The first search session yielded seventeen original tracings initialed, “J.E.B.”, by Mr. Brent. Two additional visits yielded twenty three more original drawings. My original expectation was to find architectural drawings, of buildings. Instead, I found a group of what can only be classified as exquisite landscape architectural drawings. Most were pencil on vellum, but a few were pen and ink on linen and mylar.
Apparently, I asked so many questions about Mr. Brent, that a newspaper article and word of mouth eventually reached his descendants, Robert Milner, Janessa Robinson, Jennifer McGriff, and Brent Rollins. They came to a meeting and asked why a Texan was so interested in their great uncle. After quickly outlining my interpretation of Mr. Brent’s significance, the descendants agreed to schedule an oral interview. The first interview set the stage for a series of interviews and conversations over the next six months. These provided insights and leads into, and authentic documentation of, Mr. Brent’s civic and professional career that had not been exposed previously.
Though I had authentic drawings, it was not clear which, if any, of the original structures remained. The zoo exhibits had evolved, and changed out of necessity. And, the gate numbers had changed. In May of 2012 Ms. Jean Miller, Zoo Registrar, and Jennifer Fields, then Zoo Public Relations Coordinator, walked me across the zoo. They pointed out physical changes and shared background stories on various features. Since I had studied the original drawings for gate #3 and #4 I began to recognize specific details as we approached. When we reached the east seat wall of gate #4 I realized that it was intact.
My years on state and municipal historic review boards immediately told me that National Register criteria could be met. The gates were more than 50 years old; remained in their original location; had not been significantly altered; were built using distinctive construction techniques and materials; formed a distinguishable composition; and could be authentically associated with the life and career of John Edmonston Brent. It was clear that the Entrance Court could, and should, be considered on its own merit.
Ellen and I spent the next six months verifying, cross referencing information, and filling in details on the Zoo and Mr. Brent. I made a trip to the Rakow Research Library in Corning, New York to verify the type of glass Mr. Brent specified for the lights in the gate pilasters.
I also spent a day in the National Archives in College Park, Maryland to gather and verify documentation on Mr. Brent’s work in Washington, D.C. The process used obvious existing documentation, but also searched for new authentic information. We used information contained in a single line of text, periodicals and whole books. We used public records and private collections. We combed through municipal, county and state records. We established geographic contexts using local and national references. We compared written data against oral information. We used photographs, maps, engineering and architectural drawings. And, hours were spent on the actual site documenting and studying the physical qualities, characteristics and details of the composition components. The end product was a twenty seven page nomination narrative that covered every aspect of the Entrance Court, from the public art to the key people who worked with Mr. Brent. The comparative multidisciplinary process enabled the State and National Register listing of an important American physical composition and the American landscape architect and architect who created it.