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Robert Traynham Coles

  • 1.  Robert Traynham Coles

    Posted 05-17-2020 11:56 PM

    Dear Colleagues:

    I write to share the sad news that the incomparable Robert Traynham Coles, FAIA, departed this earth on 16 May 2020 at age 90.

    A life-long advocate for diversity, Bob was the consummate AIA junkie-simultaneously its most ardent booster and its most forceful critic.  His service to the organization is unparalleled, distinguished by his passion for building a "stairway to social justice" within his beloved profession.

    Bob joined the AIA in 1961, attended his first convention in 1964, his second in Portland, Oregon in 1968 where only a half dozen African Americans were present.  So moved was he by Whitney M. Young Jr.'s famous challenge to the profession that he attended every convention until just a few years ago, bringing that stairway to social justice with him.

    For example, at AIA's 1971 Detroit convention, Bob and other African Americans became disgruntled that discussions were not covering matters like developing low-income housing, practicing in the inner city, or working with public agencies.  Afterwards, he became one of the founders of the National Organization of Minority Affairs (NOMA) and served in various leadership positions in that organization.

    In 1974, after declaring to AIA's leadership that his "great concern and fervent goal is to make this profession look more like the society it has to serve," Bob became a deputy vice president at AIA, making him the organization's highest-ranking African American staff member.  In that position, he took a strong stand to advance practicing black architects instead of only recruiting young aspiring ones.

    Bob was elevated to fellowship in 1981, when he also received the Whitney M. Young Jr. Award.  His greatest achievement at AIA was in 1994-just two years after the rage of black poverty in Los Angeles produced one of the most violent civil disturbances in U.S. history-when he became the first African American chancellor of the College of Fellows.  As chancellor, Bob urged his conservative colleagues to set about rebuilding the human spirit in America's ravaged inner cities.

    After moving his family to Buffalo in 1961, he designed and built his home on Humboldt Parkway, which is now on the National Register of Historic Places "in recognition of its pioneering and innovative design."  Bob opened his own firm in 1963 and became active in the Buffalo community, serving on numerous boards and committees, including chairing the Committee for an Urban University, which sought to have the new State University campus located on a downtown waterfront site.

    During a career that spanned fifty years, Bob designed numerous public buildings in Buffalo including the Alumni Arena and Natatorium for the State University of Buffalo's Amherst campus, as well as buildings in New York, Washington, D.C. and Providence, Rhode Island.  His final project, the Frank J. Merriweather Branch Library, opened in 2005 and was designed like an African village to serve Buffalo's Eastside community.

    In recognition of his significant contributions to the profession, Bob received the AIA's Edward C. Kemper Award in 2019.  His firm was the oldest African American architectur firm in the northeast.

    I will miss my colleague, the incomparable Robert Traynham Coles, FAIA.

    Dr. Sharon Egretta Sutton, FAIA
    Distinguished Visiting Professor of Architecture
    • Parsons School of Design @The New School
    Distinguished Professor • ACSA
    Medal of Honor • AIA New York and AIA Seattle Chapters
    When Ivory Towers Were Black
    A Story about Race In America's Cities and Universities
    (Fordham University Press, 2017)
    Youth Activists Transforming Injustice
    (Fordham University Press, 2021)

  • 2.  RE: Robert Traynham Coles

    Posted 05-18-2020 05:59 PM
    The US architectural community has lost another leader in 2020. May he Rest In Peace.

    Sent from my iPhone
    Jeffrey Rosenblum FAIA

  • 3.  RE: Robert Traynham Coles

    Posted 05-19-2020 05:42 PM

    Bob was the Langston Hughes Professor at the University of Kansas in the spring of 1989, and he inspired a generation of young architects by his commitment to design excellence, social justice and a true sense of humanity. May he rest in peace.


    Kent Spreckelmeyer, FAIA

    The University of Kansas


  • 4.  RE: Robert Traynham Coles

    Posted 05-18-2020 06:00 PM
    Bob was an outstanding individual, an incomparable professional, and importantly a dedicated and tenacious human being in leading his cause. It was always an pleasure to chat with him at our AIA New York State and Nature Conventions. We received our Fellowships in the same year, and we are both recipients of the Kemper Award. His commitment for diversity will be sorely missed by his colleagues and the architectural community. God bless him.
    Joseph Monticciolo, FAIA

    Sent from my iPhone

  • 5.  RE: Robert Traynham Coles

    Posted 05-18-2020 06:26 PM
    Dear Sharon,
    I want to thank you and Jack Travis for bringing this news to me.  Yes, Bob was a fixture at the conventions, and he was endlessly interested and enthusiastic about your practice, wherever it happened to be.  In 1996, at the Fellowship Convocation conference in Minnesota, with my wife and 9 year old daughter watching, Bob took me by the arm and marched me up on stage.  I'll never forget it.  He was a great person, and model for Black architects in practice.  I will miss him.

    Michael Willis FAIA
    Oakland CA

  • 6.  RE: Robert Traynham Coles

    Posted 05-18-2020 10:15 PM

    Thank you Sharon for sharing this sad news. Bob was a vibrant member of AIA New York State as well, receiving the Kideney Gold Medal in 2004 – the highest award that AIA New York State bestows. His professionalism and his spirited personality will be missed by many around the country but particularly in New York State.


    May he rest in peace.


    Peter J. Arsenault, FAIA, NCARB, LEED-AP


    Peter J. Arsenault, Architect



  • 7.  RE: Robert Traynham Coles

    Posted 05-18-2020 11:39 PM
    Bob Coles, FAIA, will be missed.  He was truly was an iconic figure in our profession. I first met Bob when I was elected to serve on the AIA Board of Directors in 1996.  I was the new guy on the block and Bob and I clicked right away. We spoke at every opportunity.  He was most impassioned about having been selected for the 1981 Whitney Young, Jr Award.  Years later, in 2004, after I was honored to receive the Whitney Young, Jr. Award, Bob told me that the 6 honorees who preceded him receiving this award had been presented with beautiful medals with neck ribbons.  He and all recipients, including me received a paper certificates.  He said, Terry, you've designed AIA medals, why don't you design one for the Whitney Young Jr Award.  It occurred to me, if the AIA had presented WYjr medals to the first six recipients, then the company who make AIA medals may have the original mold. I phoned Erffmeyer and Son Co., and asked if they had a mold for the Whitney Young, Jr. medal. They said they did and sent me a photo of a beautiful 31/2" tall oval medal with the image of an eagle on the front, the same eagle on the back of the AIA Gold medal. That sparked my interest, and I called the AIA Archives who suggested I talk to a guy who was writing a book about AIA medals. He said that the medal looks like the award that AIA presented to artists for a period of time to recognize artists, writers and others.

    After learning this, I figured out that sometime preceding Bob Coles WYjr award, the AIA decided to re-purpose this medal. The medal historian said that Lady Bird Johnson and Claus Oldenberg were recipients of this arts medal. That is why 24 Whitney Young, Jr. Award recipients, from Bob Coles to me, received paper awards and no medal.  I reported this to AIA Board members Marshall Purnell, FAIA and William Stanley, FAIA, (recipient of the1995 WYjr Award).  Marshall suggested that I write a letter to the AIA President about what I learned. William Stanley, FAIA, also wrote a strong letter, and the AIA voted to make this right and present the original large medal to all previous WYjr Award recipients who had not received a medal. During the AIA Convention in Las Vegas in 2005, thirteen previous recipients of the WYjr Award were in attendance on stage to be presented with the newly designed medal and dark green neck ribbon. Later that day, original WYjr 31/2" tall medals encased in plexiglas as a desk display was presented to the the former recipients.  Stanford Britt, FAIA, the 2005 WYjr recipient, was the last to receive the large original medal, and along with all previous recipients received the newly designed WYjr medal and handsome dark green neck ribbon.  The new medal, with the same original eagle design, is the same size as the AIA Kemper Award, AIA President's medal and the Chancellor of the College of Fellows medals.  

    So, Bob Coles started the ball rolling for a Whitney Young Jr. medal and in 2005 had a big smile on his face when all recipients up to Stanford Britt, FAIA received the historic 31/2" tall medal and the newly designed medal with dark green neck ribbon. From 2005, rightfully all Whitney Young Jr. Award recipients receive the new medal award. 

    Terrance Brown, FAIA
    Fellow of the American Institute of Architects
    BSA Doctorate of Commissioner Science
    Dean-Doctoral Studies-Tri-Council Commissioner College
    VP-Area 6 Outdoor Programs-BSA
    Unit Commissioner
    ASM-Troop 714 & Girl Troop 1919
    Jr. Vice Commander-Corrales VFW Post 5432
    PO Box 1
    Corrales, New Mexico, 87048

  • 8.  RE: Robert Traynham Coles

    Posted 05-19-2020 03:44 PM
    Edited by Sharon Egretta Sutton 05-19-2020 03:46 PM
    How great to know the story of this medal and Bob's role in its production.  I will cherish mine even more now.

    Sharon Egretta Sutton, PhD, FAIA
    Distinguished Visiting Professor of Architecture
    Parsons School of Design
    New York, New York

  • 9.  RE: Robert Traynham Coles

    Posted 05-22-2020 12:59 PM
    I distinctly remember the dramatic moment Bob Coles in full regalia walked me to the stage for induction into the College of Fellows in 1999. I was always pleased to see him  in later years at AIA Conferences. He was a wonderful role model and a generous man who will be missed in our profession and by all who knew him.

    James McCullar FAIA
    Firm Owner/Architect
    James McCullar Architecture PC
    Co-founder, Consortium for Sustainable Urbanization
    New York NY

  • 10.  RE: Robert Traynham Coles

    Posted 05-19-2020 05:34 PM
    Thank you, Sharon, for informing everyone with your remembrance. May I take the liberty of sharing the obituary that was published in the Buffalo News. It is especially important that so much space was devoted to Bob in a time when obituaries are short and that it was the opening story on the second front page, a prized location no other architect has been granted in the News before. No surprise that Bob would have enjoyed earning this honor, but of course he would not rest and will be striving forward to earn the next one!

    Robert Coles, 90, pioneering architect who designed UB's Alumni Arena

    Robert Coles died on Saturday at the age of 90.

    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.

    Clinton Brown FAIA
    President and Principal
    Clinton Brown Company Architecture, PC
    Buffalo NY

  • 11.  RE: Robert Traynham Coles

    Posted 05-19-2020 07:30 PM
    Wow, on the second front page.  What an honor and recognition of Bob's civic engagement in the city.

    Sharon Egretta Sutton, PhD, FAIA
    Distinguished Visiting Professor of Architecture
    Parsons School of Design
    New York, New York

  • 12.  RE: Robert Traynham Coles

    Posted 05-21-2020 01:21 AM

    Dear Friends:

    I am very saddened to learn of the passing of Bob T. Coles, FAIA, NOMA, PhD. Bob was an inspiration and a role model whom I truly admired. In the late 1960's I was the only African American attending the Oklahoma State University School of Architecture, and the first African American architect hired by Southwestern Bell Telephone Company in 1974. I met Bob at an AIA conference and again at a NOMA conference. After that coincidence, it was important to me to talk to Bob when I attended the AIA and NOMA conferences, and to share my experiences with him. From my perspective he was an enigma in architecture, so I would make it a point to seek his sage advice when I could. I remember a line that he wrote in an architecture magazine that referred to Black architects as "…a dying breed…."  At the time, me and my architecture business partner, Wally Caradine, AIA, were the only African American architects in the State of Arkansas. Wally and I faced unspeakable racial challenges that led to me relocating to Wisconsin, where I have been ever since. At the time I was the only the second African American licensed architect in Wisconsin, Alonzo Robinson, AIA, being the first. Fortunately, African American architects are not a dying breed, and I attribute Bob Coles' legacy of courage and sage leadership at AIA and NOMA for today's diversity advancements in the architectural profession.  

    Walter L. Wilson, FAIA, NOMA, NCARB

    Glendale, WI

    Walter Wilson FAIA
    Glendale WI

  • 13.  RE: Robert Traynham Coles

    Posted 05-22-2020 05:45 PM

    Kudos to you, Walter.


    A fitting tribute to a good and admirable architect, Bob Coles.




    Bob Lynch


    Robert Dale Lynch, FAIA, FAAFS, D-IBFES

    Architectural Expert & Consultant

    5408 Zoysia Court

    Haymarket, Prince William County, VA 20169-6203

    Office:    571-261-9869

    Mobile:   412-398-5665



  • 14.  RE: Robert Traynham Coles

    Posted 05-19-2020 07:17 PM
    Thank you for sharing the news as well as some great stories about Bob's life.  He was one of my professors at Carnegie Mellon and hosted a group of us on a tour of Buffalo in 1992 when the AIAS convention was there.  We lost a great one!​

    Angela Mazzi FAIA, FACHA
    GBBN Architects, Inc.
    Cincinnati OH