Buffalo historians uncover story of a Rosenwald YMCA architect

Posted on July 18th, 2013 by

It seems that every one of the Rosenwald YMCAs has a story behind it.

We first learned the background of the Buffalo YMCA from Buffalo Research, the website of a local historian in the city named Cynthia Van Ness. The “Michigan Avenue YMCA” was part of the third wave of Rosenwald-supported African American YMCAs. In the early 1910s, Rosenwald offered $25,000 towards the construction of a new building for any city’s African American YMCA that could raise an additional $75,000 within their community. This offer was renewed twice, in 1915 and 1924.

The very first Rosenwald YMCA, built in Washington D.C., was designed by Tuskegee graduate William Sidney Pittman. However, by most accounts, it was not until 1924 in Buffalo, New York, that another of the Rosenwald YMCAs would be designed by an African American architect. John E. Brent, the architect of the Michigan Ave YMCA, was a native of Washington D.C. and actually was a student of Pittman’s at Tuskegee.

Van Ness’s website lead us to an excellent work of local history by University at Buffalo’s Lillian Serece Williams, entitled Strangers in the Land of Paradise: Creation of an African American Community in Buffalo, New York, 1900-1940. Williams includes a lengthy section on the Michigan Ave YMCA. After Brent arrived in Buffalo, he worked for a series of architecture firms (notably contributing to the Art Deco Hutchinson High School, still in use and known today as Hutch Tech). In 1926, he formed his own firm and designed the YMCA as his first commission.

As with the other YMCA building campaigns, Rosenwald’s challenge grant was successful in spurring the local community into contributing. A meter that tracked the fundraising efforts was placed in the center of city at Lafayette Square. White citizens of the city also contributed, including the owner of the Buffalo Courier George Matthews. Matthews was the biggest single contributer to the YMCA, and his $100,000 investment allowed the building to be larger than planned.

Buffalo’s citizens raised the necessary funds in a short time, and according to Williams’ book, Rosenwald’s check arrived Dec 24th, 1924. As with his gift to the Washington D.C. YMCA, the date of the check recognized the Christian spirit of the YMCA by appearing as a kind of Christmas present. While this may seem ironic given that Rosenwald was Jewish, his support of the YMCA speaks to his pragmatism and open-mindedness.

The Michigan Ave YMCA opened on April 15, 1928. Williams recounts the opening ceremonies, which Rosenwald attended, in her book. Rosenwald personally lauded Brent on “the completeness and architectural beauty of the building both inside and out,” then called Brent to the podium to congratulate him on the “beautiful and successful building he had created for the colored group of Buffalo.” Indeed, the Michigan Ave YMCA was a center of the African American community for many years, with people like Brent and Matthews staying involved in its administration. Like the Senate Avenue YMCA in Indianapolis, it hosted public forums with prestigious speakers like W.E.B. Du Bois, Mary Mcleod Bethune and Walter White of the NAACP. However, as the black population of Buffalo shifted progressively eastward, the YMCA fell victim to the disinvestment of the near East Side and was ultimately demolished in 1977.

Because of population decline and large-scale abandonment, Buffalo as a city presents unique challenges to historic preservationists. Its citizens are, however, uniquely dedicated to preserving whatever possible from Buffalo’s huge stock of architectural treasures. While some of these treasures are lost to history (such as Frank Lloyd Wright’s Larkin Administration Building), others (like the gargantuan Art Deco Central Terminal) have been preserved through the sheer will of passionate citizens. Unfortunately Brent’s YMCA belongs to that former category, but its memory lives on.

Brent’s name was in the air in Buffalo recently for a different commission. After painstaking research, Everett Fly and Ellen Hunt produced a successful nomination of his “Entrance Court at the Buffalo Zoo” to the New York State Register of Historic Places (which will potentially lead to its listing on the National Register of Historic Places). The nomination was interesting because the gate, which is no longer in active use by the zoo is basically unknown, and Brent’s contribution to the historic zoo (one of the oldest in the country, nestled in a Frederick Law Olmsted-designed park) was seemingly forgotten. You can read more at Fly’s blog, which also includes a picture of Brent at work and a signed drawing of his Michigan Ave YMCA.

By Michael Rose