Zoo mural honors architect who shaped the face of Buffalo

Aug 21, 2020

For three decades, John Brent shaped the face of Buffalo as the architect for the Parks Department, then memory of him fell off our collective memory. Now that has changed.

If you travel down Amherst Street past the Buffalo Zoo, you will see Brent's civic memory has been restored by James Cooper's mural, located next to one of the zoo gates Brent designed. It is a mix of the Albright-Knox's Public Art Initiative and local history.

Not only was Brent this area's first African-American architect, he was the first president of the Buffalo Branch NAACP, He designed much of the current zoo, when construction money became available through the New Deal. He also worked on building design at Howard University.

Cooper saids Brent speaks to today, although he has been retired from the Parks Department since 1959.

"I found him highly relatable, though our lifetimes are decades apart, and that's what I found most endearing to me about learning about Mr. Brent and the things that he did," Cooper said. "The fact that he came from DC to Buffalo, versus people going from here to there. And he started a family here, had a life here, had his career here."

Brent's great-great-niece Kathleen McGriff Powers said the mural and the gates are family history.

"For me to be able to come here, when I used to come to the zoo all the time, walked back by here, ride my bike around here. And for my family, my chldren, my two daughters and my son and their spouses and my granddaughter over there, for them to be able to see this and say this is my history. This is my family," McGriff said.

Mayor Byron Brown said resurrecting Brent's memory is important.

"As we deal with a global health pandemic, COVID-19, as we deal with the global pandemic of systemic racism, it's good to know that down through the ages and even today that talent cannot be suppressed," Brown said.

Besides gates three and four, Brent also designed the national landmark old Entrance Court and outside also designed the now-demolished Michigan Avenue YMCA. The Public Art Initiative has placed an array of artworks around Buffalo showing area history.