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Sylvia Coles, wife of well-known Buffalo architect, lifts the curtain on life in the public eye

You might call Sylvia Coles a woman of contradictions.

But then, she's led a contradictory life.

A Lutheran minister's daughter raised in the Victorian parsonage of a rural Missouri town that was almost exclusively white, she would marry the second black man she knew.

A free spirit who snuck out to meet her boyfriend late at night – in an era when such things were not done – she would keep from her parents the fact that her suitor was African-American.

An architect's wife, she would tour much of Europe – then settle in Buffalo.

And, a woman who advocates the independence of women in their own pursuits, she would spend much of her life behind the scenes, managing and working for the architecture firm of her ambitious, career-driven husband.

“I think a lot of architects' wives don't stay around,” said Sylvia Coles, in the spacious, light-filled living room of the 1960s-era home in Buffalo that she shares with her husband, the noted architect Robert Traynham Coles.

“I have come to look at it as – ” She paused, choosing her next word carefully. Then she smiled.

“A challenge.”

Perhaps these contradictions are part of the reason why Sylvia Coles has chosen this moment in her long and colorful life to release a memoir.

At 83, she could easily have stayed silent. Remained in the background, as she knows so well how to do.
After 60 years of marriage to her well-known husband – a milestone the couple will reach Thursday – she could have simply let the world wonder about what exactly had created and sustained their lengthy union.

Instead of speaking out in this way: forthrightly, even bluntly, about the heady ups – and dizzying downs – of her life with her husband, and the ways in which she has tried in the past few decades of her life to come into her own.

This is quintessential Sylvia Coles.

The woman who in many ways has defined her life in opposition – as a counterweight to her husband's eventful career; a balancing force in her household – is now doing, instead of what the world expects, precisely the opposite.

Even today, after more than 50 years in this city, Sylvia Coles will tell you that she considers herself not so much a Buffalonian – a label her husband proudly and publicly claims – but a citizen of the world.

“I've never called myself a Buffalonian,” said Sylvia Coles. “I always felt I could be at home – anywhere.”

Growing up, getting married

A child of the Great Depression, born on Christmas Eve in 1929, a few months after the stock market crash, Sylvia Meyn grew up in the places her father, a Lutheran minister, was called. Mostly, her childhood was spent in Altenburg, Mo., a rural settlement she remembers as having about 200 people when the Meyns moved there.

Perhaps the best thing about Altenburg was the cozy Victorian parsonage in which the young Sylvia played with her brother, Werner, and sister, Helen.

“I loved that house,” reminisced Coles, whose father's family is German. “It had all the desirable – and all the undesirable – features.”

“It had a wrap-around porch,” she continued. “I remember it had a tin roof. It was hard to heat. My mother used to start the furnace in the dining room before I was up.” Her blue eyes softened at the memory. “I loved the porch – you could play on the porch on rainy days.”

She graduated from Wartburg College in Iowa. Then she took an office job in Minneapolis, doing stenography. It was in that period of her life that Sylvia Meyn agreed to go with a girlfriend, Doris, to a nightclub in the St. Paul area. The Key Club was a jazz hotspot.

In her new memoir, Sylvia Coles writes about the moment she first met her future husband. Robert Traynham Coles was at the Key Club with some friends, one of whom was the young man that Sylvia's friend Doris was dating.

Robert Coles walked up to the table where Sylvia sat, and asked her to dance. He introduced himself as Bob, and said he was studying architecture.

“Bob was the first black person I had met,” Sylvia Coles said. “One of my girlfriends had a black boyfriend – I knew him, but I didn't know him well.”

The pair hit it off.

“She was a good dancer,” Robert Coles, 83, said recently, remembering. “[The Key Club] was a club that was open to interracial couples. We felt warm and open and cozy there.”

They made a date for the following weekend, then began seeing each other steadily.

But, as their closeness grew, they had to deal with the reactions provoked by their relationship. In the early 1950s, interracial romances were not common – and often sparked controversy.

While she was dating her future husband, Sylvia Coles writes in her memoir, she became pregnant and ended up having an illegal abortion. In the book, she writes about the “profound regret” she felt at that time, a sadness that has stayed with her “forever.”

Among those who were shocked by the couple's relationship were her parents. They did not learn about their son-in-law's race until after the two had married, in 1953. Mrs. Meyn walked in on them one day in the kitchen of their newlywed apartment – and got a surprise.

“It was very unusual,” said Coles, who describes her family's reactions to her husband in her book. “My parents thought that I was out of my mind. There was discrimination we faced … it really surprised us.

“Unless you've done it,” she said, of interracial marriage, “you have no idea what it is like. You have to experience it.”

Moving to Buffalo

Soon after their marriage, the couple, who had settled in the Boston area where Robert Coles attended graduate school at MIT, left on a one-year tour of Europe, as part of a prestigious scholarship for young architects that he had won. Sylvia accompanied him.

For Sylvia Coles, that year exploring Europe became the beginning of a lifetime of travel – a passion that has led her to think of herself as a citizen of the world, not upstate New York.

“I think I'm kind of a composite of all the places I've been,” said Coles, a petite, slight woman, who wears her hair in a dramatic cropped cut.

She has seen Europe, Africa, Canada, Papua New Guinea and South America, among other places. Each time she travels, she is known to bring back – and share with others – artwork, sculpture, archaeological finds, and bits of language and culture from the places she has been.

“She was known for traveling widely, and then putting on shows about those places,” said Mary Lou Frost, a recent past president of the Buffalo Museum of Science Camera Club, where Coles was a longtime member and often put on presentations about her trips.

“People loved the fact that she traveled so widely, and then she came back,” Frost said. “One gentleman [in the club] said, 'She always captured the culture when she traveled. '  ”

“You didn't just see the things she had seen – you felt like you had been there.”

Her husband provided a contrast. Though Robert Coles has traveled to equally far-flung places, he remains staunchly tied to the Rust Belt city where his family has deep roots. Coles' father was a long-tenured upper-level employee of the postal service in Buffalo.

“I am a Buffalonian,” Robert Coles asserted firmly, on a recent day, in the bright kitchen of the couple's home. “There's no doubt. Committed.”

After their year abroad, the couple returned to Cambridge where they were raising a young family: a daughter, Marion, who was a relative of Robert's that they were raising, and a son, Darcy, that they had had together.

Then, Robert Coles was offered an opportunity to work on a building in Buffalo – a public recreation center, the John F. Kennedy center on the East Side – that he had started conceptualizing earlier, as a graduate student.

“That was the first building I did in Buffalo,” said Robert Coles. “It was my thesis at MIT.”

Robert and Sylvia Coles moved to Buffalo in 1961. Robert Coles began to work as an architect in the city, and also built the modern home on Humboldt Parkway, not far from Canisius College, where the couple still lives.

Plain-fronted and lean-lined, the 2,200-square-foot home – which Sylvia Coles calls a version of California-style design, but Bob refers to as a Techbuilt modular home – was recently named to the National Register of Historic Places. A tour of visitors will be viewing the home and grounds this spring; Sylvia Coles said it is the first time their home has been opened for a public tour.

“In Buffalo, there's not a lot of them,” said Edward J. Lindsay, president of the Buffalo chapter of the American Institute of Architects, of the recognition of the Coles' ultra-contemporary home on the national register. “Being that he designed and built his [house], that's interesting.”

“Bob's basically a contemporary architect,” Lindsay said. “He does current, modern.”

As for Sylvia, she recalled the transition from Cambridge to Buffalo as a move she was not initially in favor of making.

Even the new house struck her as a big change from what she was used to. But, over time, she said she has grown to love and appreciate it. Now, if you ask her to take her choice, she said she would choose to live in a contemporary house like the one Bob designed for them over a rambling Victorian of the kind she knew as a child.

“At first, I was very negative to it,” Sylvia Coles said, of moving to Buffalo. “But then, as I grew used to living here … I began to like it.”

“I think our lives would have been a lot different if we had stayed in Cambridge,” she said, reflectively. “I think all of our lives would have been different – and I think our children's lives would have been different.”

Marion and Darcy Coles no longer live in Buffalo. Marion, who worked as a railroad engineer, is retired and lives in California. Darcy went through difficulties with money and prospects, detailed by his mother in her memoir, and was for a time homeless, Sylvia Coles said. The Coles have no grandchildren.

Robert Coles said he isn't disappointed that neither of his children went into his profession.

“They probably had the talent,” he said. “Whether they had the inclination is something else. I don't think I led them into architecture.”

“I led them away from architecture.”

Building careers

Architecture remains an intense and demanding profession that requires a lot of practitioners, those who know about the field through personal experience agree.

It also can put enormous demands and stresses on families.

“Yeah,” said Lindsay, the president of the local architects' association, emphatically. “Especially if you own your own firm. Anybody who does it knows: it's a seven-day-a-week job. You don't spend a lot of time with the family and the children.

“That's why a lot of architects' marriages end in divorce.”

For the Coles, the years in which Bob worked to build and run his own architectural practice in Buffalo – Robert Traynham Coles, Architect, P.C., was created in the early 1960s – were busy and productive ones. The firm is still in business in Buffalo.

During its most successful periods, the firm had 20 or more employees, operated offices in Buffalo and Washington, D.C., and completed major multimillion-dollar projects including the physical sciences and natatorium at the University at Buffalo's North Campus (known as Alumni Arena) in Amherst and the Frank E. Merriweather Jr. Library on Jefferson Avenue in the city.

“The concept was extremely well-received. This was really a vision of his,” said Mary Jean Jakubowski, director of the Buffalo & Erie County Public Library system, of Coles' design for the Merriweather library, which was completed in 2006. The 20,000-square-foot library, which cost in the range of $4 million to $5 million to build, was designed in the style of an African village, with different circular spaces uniting to form the overall structure.

“It is such a successful building,” Jakubowski said. “It was so unique, and so advanced, beyond what any other libraries were at the time.”

Today, Jakubowski said, the library remains one of the most visited city branches. “It's tremendously used,” she said.

But the practice of such intensive craft translated to some difficulties for the Coles family, Sylvia Coles writes in her memoir.

In the book, she writes that her husband was “not a family man” while practicing his profession.

The long hours demanded by architecture, especially when an architect is running a solo firm, are a drain on a family, and result in extra stress for the spouse, said Sylvia Coles. There were times when the family went camping or traveled, and they did enjoy sailing trips on sailboats, both locally and in the tropics.

But there were also a lot of stresses, she said.

“[Architects] are occupied with getting ahead,” she said. “With their profession – I don't get [the sense] that they are family men.”

“They are very egocentric. They have to be egocentric, to be going after the work they do.”

Robert Coles, who said he has read parts of his wife's memoir, said the profession is one that demands much of those who practice it.

“Architecture has its swings,” he said. “Its high points and low points. If you are an architect – and if you are a black architect – you face even more difficult challenges.”

Others who have shared these sorts of lives – and who know the Coles as a couple – agreed.

Susan Allen Toth, a Midwestern writer who married an architect who was a college friend of Robert Coles, said that being married to an architect is not a job for the faint of heart. Toth has written essays on the subject.

“I adored my husband. We had a wonderful life together,” said Toth, who was married to James Stageberg for 28 years – a second marriage for both.

“Architects have to have very sturdy egos to survive,” she said. “It is a difficult profession. Very few rise to the top – and I am using 'top' in a very local sense.”

The wife of an architect has to have her own kind of strength, said Toth.

“It takes a woman with a very strong sense of her OWN self, to stand up to that,” she said. “You have to establish your own identity.”

Her own time

That is a pursuit at which Sylvia Coles has applied herself, the past few decades.

In that time, she has worked to separate herself from her husband's architectural practice, where she had long performed tasks as an office manager, bookkeeper and in other roles.

In fact, the hardest part of their marriage might well have been those periods “during the years when I was thinking of breaking away from the firm,” Sylvia Coles said. “I think [Bob] might have seen that as disloyalty.”

“But I was interested in developing my own life,” she said, “instead of just working for him.”

She earned two graduate degrees from UB, an MBA in 1980 and a master's degree in social sciences in 1997.

“She stood out,” said Dr. John C. Boot, a retired professor from UB's School of Management. “She made the grade on her own qualifications. I think she's a courageous woman – and I think she's a very competent woman.

“She was courageous to try something new – and to start late in life.”

Sylvia Coles combined her interest in travel with her interest in anthropology and social sciences studies, using her trips to do field research and collect material and ideas.

She also in this period dedicated much of her time to photography. A longtime member of local camera clubs, Coles began to enter her work in local competitions and exhibits.

Those who know her photography describe it as displaying a special eye for the world around her – particularly nature, and man-made structures, and the places where the two intersect.

“With photography, anybody can take a nice picture,” said Donald J. Siuta, director of the Art Dialogue Gallery in Buffalo and a longtime member of the board of directors of the Buffalo Arts Commission. “But Sylvia had a knack of capturing something a little bit different.”

“She had a good sense of composition,” said Siuta, who exhibited her photos in his space. “I did see that there was a lot of talent. She was doing something really unique.”

Though they are dissimilar in some ways, Siuta said that artistic talent might be one of the key commonalities between Sylvia and her well-known husband.

“That's what might have drawn them together,” he said. “But she had that talent within her.”

Sylvia Coles has also found her own space in her writing. The memoir is evidence of that.

That is why even the painful parts – about her early life; about her complex relationship to her husband; about her children – are worth discussing in public, she said.

“I figured, if I was writing about myself – I felt I should be as honest as I could.”