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E. H. Butler Library, Buffalo State, The State University of New York

Archives & Special Collections: Coles, Robert

The Monroe Fordham Regional History Center

Personal Papers: Robert Traynham Coles

"I believe that because architects have the ability to see things as they can be, they have a special task which goes beyond simply designing the physical environment. They must be activists involved in the social and political life of the community. They must address their efforts to change in these areas as well, so that people can make the needed adjustments to an increasingly challenging and rich urban world. They must in their works, build the demonstrative alternative to the way we live today. They must be initiators as well as implementers—leaders more than followers. They must truly be revolutionaries who see their architecture as a broad movement to enhance the quality of life of urban people." 

Robert Traynham Coles is a native of Buffalo, New York, who was born on August 24, 1929 and passed on May 16, 2020 at the age of 90.  Robert was one of four sons born to George Edward and Helena Vesta Traynham Coles. Coles attended Buffalo Public Schools graduating from Buffalo Technical High School.  From 1947 to 1949, he attended the Hampton Institute (now Hampton University), where his parents graduated in the early 1900s.  He transferred to the University of Minnesota where he completed his undergraduate work.  He received a Bachelor of Arts in 1951 and a Bachelor of Architecture in 1953, both from the University of Minnesota.  In 1955, he completed a Master of Architecture at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (M.I.T.) in Cambridge, Massachusetts.   

He opened his own firm, Robert Traynham Coles, Architect, P.C. in 1963, which he has managed since that date.  It is the oldest African-American owned architectural firm in New York State and the Northeast. In 1964, he brought Saul Alinsky and the Industrial Area Foundation (IAF) to Buffalo to organize the city’s poor.  In 1968, he was awarded the commission to design the Health, Physical Education and Recreation Complex at the University of Buffalo’s Amherst Campus.  In 1972, he started the Community Planning Assistance Center of Western New York (CPAC) a community design center to bring technical assistance to community groups who wanted to develop their neighborhoods but lacked the funds to pay for technical assistance.

Coles has been involved in a number of civic, political and philanthropic activities including:  council member of the Burchfield Art Center; Arts in American; Erie County Horizons Waterfront Commission, Board of Directors; Build a New City, Inc.; trustee, Preservation League New York State; trustee, Western New York Public Broadcasting Station.  He has continued as an Honorary Trustee of the Western New York PBS since 1987.  Mr. Coles has also served as a Fellow of the AIA on numerous committees and task forces, such as the National Housing Committee, National Urban Design and Planning Committee, Social Responsibility Committee.  He is also a member of Alpha Kappa Mu, the National Organization of Minority Architects and has served as the treasurer and vice-president of that organization. Mr. Coles is married to the former Sylvia R. Meyn and the couple has two children, Marion Brigette and Darcy Eliot. 

Collection Information

Microfilm Collection (2005): 

The Coles Papers were organized in folders and categories by Robert T. Coles.  They were indexed and prepared for microfilming by Monroe and Freddie Mae Fordham.  The papers were microfilmed by Tanisha Fordham (a student volunteer from the Buffalo Academy of the Sacred Heart High School) and James Prok (a student at Buffalo State College).  The papers were microfilmed under the supervision of the Monroe Fordham Center for Regional History, Buffalo State College.

Manuscript Collection (2017/2020): 

Boxes 1-5 Coles manuscript collection was donated and organized in 2017 by Sylvia Coles, Robert T. Cole’s wife. Box 4 was donated following Robert Cole’s death in summer of 2020. The papers are available for research in the SUNY Buffalo State Archives & Special Collections Department. 

Diversity in Architecture Conversation - Robert Coles, and William Bates

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