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Buffalo Artist James Cooper III to Produce New Mural Honoring John E. Brent

Thursday, July 9, 2020

Buffalo, NY – The Albright-Knox’s Public Art Initiative recently announced a new mural by Buffalo-based artist James Cooper III, depicting John E. Brent, Buffalo’s first African American architect, will be installed at the Buffalo Zoo.

Cooper produces colorful and evocative abstract works for traditional and public settings. Most recognizably in our landscape, he worked with William Cooper (no relation) to produce two large fifty-foot by twenty-foot murals installed at the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus near the intersection of High Street and Michigan Avenue. Cooper has also worked with John Baker and other local artists to produce murals for the Buffalo Sabres and the City of Buffalo.

For this project, Cooper collaborated with Christine Parker, a local historian and authority on the life and legacy of John Brent. Parker curated an exhibition at the Burchfield Penney Art Center, Through These Gates: Buffalo’s First African American Architect, John E. Brent (October 9, 2015–March 27, 2016), detailing Brent’s contributions to our region. In addition to his architectural work, Brent was an active leader in the African American community, serving as the first President of the Buffalo Branch of the NAACP.

Among Brent’s most significant architectural designs is the Michigan Avenue branch of the Y.M.C.A. (1928), which was his first large commission. He posthumously received recognition in Buffalo for the gates and landscape architecture he produced for the Buffalo Zoological Gardens. The cast iron gates, numbers three and four, created in 1935 and anchored in concrete piers with Onondaga limestone veneers, provide welcoming entrances to zoo paths. The structures were listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2013.

Cooper has utilized the scholarship and materials provided by Parker to create a mural celebrating Brent’s accomplishments, with the finished work to be installed at the Buffalo Zoo adjacent to Brent’s iron gates.


John Edmonston Brent, 1889–1962
Buffalo’s First African American Architect

John Edmonston Brent was a native son of Washington, D.C., born into a family of African American architects. He was named after his grandfather, who was born a slave and later purchased his freedom and that of his wife, Elizabeth. Brent’s father, Calvin Thomas Stowe Brent, was also an architect. Both grandfather and father contributed to the design and construction of Episcopalian churches, homes, and various structures in the historical U Street Corridor in Washington, D.C. Many of these structures remain and are located in the African American Historical Corridor of the city; many have been placed on the National Registry of Historical Places.

Brent received his primary education in the public-school system of Washington, D.C. In 1904, at the age of fifteen, he enrolled in carpentry at Tuskegee Institute and graduated in 1907. He then returned to Washington, D.C., until he was awarded a full scholarship for architecture at the Drexel Institute of Arts, Sciences, and Industry in Philadelphia, graduating in 1912.

Brent was employed by the Department of the Interior from 1931 to 1934 and was assigned to Howard University along with a team of talented Black architects. They contributed to the design of Founders Library, Frederick Douglass Hall, and the chemistry classroom building. Following this assignment, Brent worked on smaller commissions from his Lonsdale Road office and residence in the historic Hamlin area of Buffalo. Known for his design of the Michigan Avenue Y.M.C.A. at 585 Michigan Avenue (demolished in 1977), he was encouraged to apply for a junior landscape position with the City of Buffalo’s Parks Department on the recommendation of the Executive Director and Curator of the Buffalo Zoo, Marlin Perkins, of the famed Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom. Brent was employed by the City of Buffalo from 1935 until his retirement in 1959. In 2013, Brent’s design of the Entrance Court at the Buffalo Zoo (1938) was placed on the National Register of Historic Places.