Pioneering architect Robert T. Coles creates legacy of advocacy

Editor’s note: This story is part of Western New York’s Hidden History. It will be included in an upcoming documentary airing Saturday, February 18 at 12PM on News 4; Saturday, February 23 at 6:30PM on CW 23; Sunday, February 24 at 6:30PM on CW23.

BUFFALO, N.Y. (WIVB) — Robert Traynham Coles blazed a trail through Buffalo and beyond by building homes and buildings that changed our city and our culture. You could Coles a pioneer with a purpose. At the height of the civil rights movement, Coles founded his own architecture firm in Buffalo.

“It’s never easy. It’s a very difficult profession. I started the practice in 1963,” Coles recalled during a recent Interview.

The Buffalo native, born in 1929, did what few African Americans dared to do — venture into a career that was virtually off limits.

“I was the only African American in a school of 250 people. Some people had never seen an African American until they went to school at the University of Minnesota. I used to go to campus and people would sort of be turning their head and looking at me,” he said.

Coles pressed on, graduating from Minnesota and, later, from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, MIT.

“I had done a thesis at MIT about a project in Buffalo that was in an urban renewal area. It was the John F. Kennedy Recreation Center.”

City leaders loved his proposal so much that they invited him to come home and build it!

“My Master’s project sits on a shelf, and nobody pays attention to it, and his Master’s project got built into a significant building,” historian William H. Siener said with a smile.

Siener helped write a new book about Coles’ life and legacy as well as his architecture and advocacy. “He was very interested in blending outdoor spaces and indoor spaces.”

We spoke to Siener outside Coles’ legendary mid-century home in North Buffalo along Humboldt Parkway. The house turns its back on the expressway that Coles hates to this day. “The guy was a risk taker. I don’t know whether to call it the frontyard or the backyard,” Siener said jokingly.

“They really did have this remarkable commitment to urban living, and to creating spaces — public spaces — and in this sense a private space that brought people together,” Siener explained.

Coles’ career flourished for fifty years with his beloved wife Sylvia at his side. UB’s Alumni Arena and a major muncipal building in Washington, DC were among his designs.

“This is a medal that was given to me in 1995, when I became the Chancellor of the College of Fellows, which is a separate unit of the american institute of architects.” Coles said.

Coles says he’s proudest of the JFK Rec Center and the Frank E. Merriweather Library. “Those are the two most satisfying projects that i worked on why? Because they basically are buildings built for the community.”

His architecture might never have happened. Coles told us about a high school teacher who tried to turn him away from architecture. “He took to me aside and he said, ‘Bob there are no Black architects. Why don’t you go into some other field? The ministry. Social work. Or something like that.’ And i said, No. I want to be an architect.”

Coles calls himself stubborn but determined. His biggest advice is to “make the right choices. Find something that you like to do, and pursue it with a passion.”

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