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Zoo gates by black architect on Historic Register

Brent Rollins remembers his great-uncle John E. Brent as very loving and a humble man – a good guy.

But what he did not know until he became an adult was that his late great-uncle was an important architect and community leader in the City of Buffalo in the early 20th century.

“He was just Uncle John who worked at City Hall,” said Rollins, 71, of Glenwood Avenue, following a recognition ceremony Friday at the Buffalo Zoo to honor Gates 3 and 4, which were designed by Brent, Buffalo’s first African-American licensed architect.

The structures were recently listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

About 35 people attended Friday’s ceremony, including members of the Michigan Street African American Heritage Corridor Commission; Brent’s 85-year-old son, Robert Milliner, who lives on Oakwood Place; and Brent’s 71-year-old great-niece, Jennifer McGriff, of Lexington Avenue. McGriff is Rollins’ sister.

“It’s a good feeling,” Rollins said about the gates’ recent status as historically significant landmarks. “We feel that it’s long overdue.”

Brent was employed by the city’s parks department from 1935 to 1957 and worked on the design, planning and implementation of more than 16 facilities and exhibits at the Buffalo Zoo, as well as Gates 3 and 4.

Located at the corner of Parkside Avenue and Amherst Street, the gates were built between 1935 and 1938 as the formal entrance court and gateway to the zoo.

They are centered on two promenade walks that radiate from the central zoo grounds and the large animal exhibits.

The structures are intact and in their original location.

The Michigan Street African American Corridor Commission partnered with the Community Foundation for Greater Buffalo earlier this year to get the gates listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Although the zoo itself already is listed on the National Register, the commission felt it was important to highlight Brent’s gates in particular.

The Community Foundation provided $8,500 to fund research and professional services to complete the application for the register.

Another of Brent’s architectural accomplishments was the design of the former Michigan Street YMCA. In addition to his engineering and design accomplishments, Brent was the first president of the NAACP Buffalo Branch, said Karen Stanley-Fleming, chairwoman of the heritage commission.

In other zoo news, a two-hour Zumbathon will be held Sunday to raise money for the Arctic Edge Polar Bear Exhibit as part of the “Our Bears Belong in Buffalo” campaign.

A group of local Zumba fitness instructors are hosting the sold-out event, which will feature 150 participants. They will join five licensed Zumba instructors for aerobic dancing, music, a basket raffle, refreshments and more.

The event will take place from 1 to 3 p.m. at the zoo’s Children’s Resource Center.