Buffalo, New York, Mayor Byron Brown has requested that the city’s Utica Street Transit Station, one of 14 stations serving the Buffalo Metro Rail system, be renamed in tribute to the architect who designed it, Robert T. Coles.
Coles, a pioneering African-American architect, community activist, and civic icon in his native Buffalo, passed away this past May at the age of 90. Coles was a founding member and maiden secretary of the National Organization for Minority Architects (NOMA) and designed numerous modernist landmark buildings around the city including the JFK Community Center, the Alumni Arena and Natatorium at the University at Buffalo, and the Frank E. Merriweather Jr. Library. Also locally famous is his own home and studio, an experimental hybrid-prefab structure located in the Hamlin Park Historic District. It was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1991.
That all said, the Utica Street Station, a straightforward concrete edifice completed in 1985 with two platforms buried 40 feet beneath street level and late 1970s-commissioned public art pieces by Craig Langager, Margie Hughto, and George Smith, isn’t the most aesthetically remarkable or highly regarded of Coles’s extensive hometown output. (Coles also, as Mark Byrnes wrote for CityLab in 2018, designed the Lindbergh Center Station MARTA station in Atlanta.) Utica Street Station is, however, highly public, heavily trafficked, and tied into the city’s transit wayfinding system, which would help to ensure that, as Brown wrote in a letter to the Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority (NFTA)’s Board of Commissioners requesting the change, Coles’s “public legacy leaves a lasting mark and serves as a continuing inspiration in the community he lived in and loved so much.”
In the letter sent from Brown’s office to the NFTA, which also points that less than 10 public places in the city are named in honor of prominent Black Buffalonians, Brown refers to Coles as being “widely acknowledged as a leader, innovator and trailblazer in both local and national architectural circles.” At the time of his death, Coles’s eponymous firm, established in 1961, was the oldest African American-owned architecture firm in New York.
The letter continued:
The fact that there are far less memorials to Black individuals in Buffalo than there should be, especially in light of the prominent role Black residents have played in shaping our local and national history and culture, must be addressed. Renaming the Utica Street Station to honor Robert T. Coles and placing the appropriate interpretative signage and materials will be a critical step in addressing this disparity. By using Buffalo’s public spaces to honor the history and contributions of Black people they can serve as a means of furthering dialogues around racial equity and the importance of Black artists, thinkers, clergy, inventors, architects, government leaders, educators and others who are critical to understanding Buffalo, New York State, and our nation’s diverse heritage.
Stretching a relatively modest 6.4 miles, Buffalo Metro Rail was established in 1984 and ranks 25th in the U.S. in terms of light rail daily ridership. There are ongoing plans to expand the system northwards into the inner-ring suburb of Amherst. No existing stations in the system are named after individual people, and largely reference street names and places, i.e. Allen/Medical Campus, Fountain Plaza, Amherst Street, and Eerie Canal Harbor. A future Robert T. Coles Station would break the mold, as it should.