Robert Coles, Pioneering Black Architect, Dies at 90

Image of Robert Coles with a building in the background
Robert T. Coles and the framework of the Health, Physical Education and Recreation Complex at the University of Buffalo’s Amherst Campus (later Alumni Arena, SUNY Buffalo State), which his firm was commissioned to design in 1968. Photographer: Irene Haupt, Courtesy Buffalo Arts Publishing
story by Mark Sommer

Robert Traynham Coles often told the story of how a teacher at the renamed Hutchinson Central Technical High School dissuaded him from studying architecture because there weren’t black architects.

He ignored the advice.

Coles went on to a long and distinguished career designing a number of public buildings in Buffalo. Among them are the Frank E. Merriweather Jr. Library, 1324 Jefferson Ave.; the JFK Community Center, 114 Hickory St.; and the University at Buffalo’s Alumni Arena and Natatorium, as well as buildings in New York City, Washington, D.C., and Providence, R.I.

But Coles, who died Saturday at HighPointe on Michigan Avenue at age 90, is remembered as much for the advocacy and support he showed on behalf of minorities and women entering the architectural field.

“He was the first black architect I ever knew about, and was a positive role model to me and others who worked under him,” said Michael Wright, a senior architect and project manager at University at Buffalo’s Facilities Planning and Design. “He served as a mentor for me while I was in college, and when I started my profession after graduating in 1977 from Howard University.”

Ed Watts of Watts Architecture and Engineering said Coles, who he met as a teenager, was a major influence in his decision to become an architect.

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