By Mark SommerPublished May 17, 2020|Updated May 18, 2020 Aug. 24, 1929 – May 16, 2020 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. "He was incredibly respected in the architectural community, and was a mentor to many of us by showing what a minority architect could achieve," Watts said. "A lot of our success is due to him." Coles became, in 1994, the first African American chancellor of the College of Fellows at the American Institute of Architects, an organization that honored him repeatedly with numerous local and state awards recognizing his work on behalf of minority architecture students and graduates. He was awarded the Edward C. Kemper Award from the national AIA in 2019 for his continued significant contributions to the profession. He was also a founding member and the first secretary of the National Association of Minority Architects. "One of the most important lessons from his life and work is he was a great architect," architect Clinton Brown said. "He's often pigeonholed as an African American architect. His work is some of the best architecture ever built in Buffalo." Coles was a modernist architect, and the home he built at 321 Humboldt Parkway was one of his finest creations, Brown said. "His house on the parkway was the sleeper. It's a distinctively and exemplary modern house, as distinctive as Jefferson's Monticello," Brown said. "He was one of the few architects to be living in the house he designed when it was listed on the National Register of Historic Places as one of America's most significant houses." Mayor Byron W. Brown saluted Coles as a major figure in Buffalo. "Bob Coles was a Buffalo original and a brilliant, trailblazing figure in architecture," Brown said. "He fought for African American representation in all aspects of architecture and mentored architects of all races. His creative vision came to life throughout Western New York and in other parts of the nation." Coles was born in Buffalo on Aug. 24, 1929, two weeks before what's considered the start of the Great Depression. He graduated Buffalo Technical High School and graduated the University of Minnesota, where he co-founded the university's NAACP chapter, with a bachelor of architecture degree. He also met his future wife, Sylvia, there; they were married in 1953. Coles earned a master's of architecture two years later from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Coles studied in Europe after graduating thanks to a Rotch Travelling Scholarship from the Boston Society for Architecture. He apprenticed in Boston, and while working there as an architect and custom design manager for Techbuilt was asked to design the JFK Community Center. It was cited by the local chapter of the American Institute of Architects in 1965 as "one of the best designed buildings in Buffalo of all time." He returned to Buffalo in 1961 and opened his own firm two years later. He also became active in the community, which included founding the East Side Community Organization and the Community Planning Assistance Center and trying to get UB to move to a downtown waterfront site rather than Amherst. Cole also promoted minorities and women in an architectural field that was slow to open its doors to them. "He believed in the architect as an activist and advocate," said Rishawn Sonubi, an architect who got his first job under Coles. "He knew by advocating in such hard terms it would hurt his practice in private work, so he did a lot of public work." Other buildings Coles designed include the Joseph J. Kelly Gardens Housing for the Elderly in Buffalo; the Urban Park Housing Development in Rochester; the Providence railroad station; and the Frank Reeves Center for Municipal Affairs in Washington, D.C. Coles taught as a professor of architecture at the University of Kansas, and later worked as an associate professor of architecture at Carnegie Mellon University. He published his memoir "Architecture and Advocacy" in 2016. Coles was also featured in the book "African-American Architects in Current Practice" (Princeton Arch Press), by Jack Travis, an architect and interior design teacher in New York City. Coles, through his practice and his mentoring and advocacy, "leaves us a legacy of one of the greatest African American architects who ever lived," Travis said. Coles' hobbies included sailing on Lake Erie, chartering sailboats to sail with his wife in both the American and British Virgin Islands, and traveling to other continents. Sandy White, owner of Mustard Seed World Consulting Group, said Coles had a sharp mind, thought expansively and cared greatly about others. "He was very aware and in tune with the world," White said. William Siener, a former executive director of the Buffalo History Museum, said his friend was engaged with the world up until dementia eroded his memory. "Bob never gave up thinking about the project he was going to work on next," Siener said. "He was creative and thoughtful right up to the very end." Survivors include his wife, Sylvia Meyn Coles; a son, Darcy; and a daughter, Marion. A celebration of his life will be held at a later date.