John H. Coxhead: Buffalo’s Forgotten Architect
By Nancy Blumenstalk Mingus
All photographs in this article © Jim Bush.

With a career nearly as long as Frank Lloyd Wright’s and a style as inspiring as H. H. Richardson’s, the name of Buffalo architect John H. Coxhead could be as familiar to us as these two world-renowned architects. Yet few people have ever heard of him. Coxhead’s most famous Buffalo building is the Delaware Avenue Baptist Church at 965 Delaware Avenue, but he designed hundreds of other buildings in Buffalo, and across the nation in more than twenty states. There are verified Coxhead buildings still standing in six states, and more than one dozen listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Coxhead was twenty-nine and already a seasoned architect when he moved to Buffalo in 1892. He graduated from the Cooper Union School of Design in New York City in 1881, attended Columbia University’s brand new school of architecture, then studied under Henry Van Brunt in Boston. For six years Coxhead worked for other moderately well known architects in South Dakota, New York City, and Chicago before setting up his own practice in 1888 in St. Paul, Minnesota. Coxhead’s best known St. Paul building is the Queen Anne-style D.W. Lawler House, a contributing property in St. Paul’s Woodland Park National Historic District. He was best known in St. Paul for his unique homes, especially his Shingle-Style homes, but he also designed several schools, courthouses, churches, and commercial blocks.

While based in St. Paul, Coxhead traveled the mid-west and designed several buildings in South Dakota, North Dakota, and Iowa.

Coxhead practiced in Buffalo for thirty-one years. He designed several churches and hospitals, as well as homes, commercial buildings, and stables. Coxhead was initially part of Carlin and Coxhead, which produced the Market Street Building (date unknown) in Buffalo and the Isaac Funk House, of Funk and Wagnall’s fame, on Staten Island. His style for public and commercial buildings during the late 1800s was Richardsonian Romanesque and his best Buffalo example of this style is the Delaware Avenue Baptist Church. This church was started in 1894 and completed in 1895. Coxhead had a vested interest in making this a beautiful church—he was a member of the congregation for his entire thirty-one years in Buffalo.

The spectacular Medina Sandstone church has two towers that closely resemble Richardson’s Buffalo Psychiatric Center (1869). The arched door openings are also reminiscent of Richardson’s masterpiece. At one time, Coxhead lived at 149 Anderson Place just off Elmwood Avenue—fairly close to the Psychiatric Center—and this perhaps influenced his design.

Coxhead favored domes and skylights in many of his works, and in the Delaware Avenue Baptist Church, the glass dome is spectacular. But it is the million-tiled mosaic Baptistery that truly set this church apart from its contemporaries. During the Pan American Exposition in 1901, visitors to the city toured the fair grounds, but they also toured the Delaware Avenue Baptist Church to see the mosaic work Coxhead had designed. The church reportedly cost $115,000 to build.

Another one of Coxhead’s local commissions was in Cuba, NY, about two hours south of Buffalo, where he designed a massive stable made entirely of concrete and terra cotta. The McKinney Stable, also known locally as the Cuba Block Barn, is a 33,000 square feet, two-story building that was recently listed on the National Register. It was built over the two-year period from 1907 to 1909 of concrete blocks molded and cured on site. William Simpson, the owner of the stable, was searching for a fireproof structure after losing some expensive foals in an earlier fire, and it was Coxhead who suggested the relatively new concrete block technology. Coxhead brought an inventor and his new mold machine to Cuba to make the two-foot-long blocks one at a time.

The expansive barn is 347 feet long and fifty feet wide and originally had forty stalls. Simpson bred and raced trotters, so the center aisle of the barn is twenty feet wide to allow the silky and trotter to turn while exercising in inclement weather.

The concrete block structure is topped by poured concrete roof supports, a poured concrete roof underlay and a terra cotta roof made by an Alfred, NY, tile company. Typical of Coxhead, the center pavilion of the barn soars eighty feet high and is topped by a cupola with large windows on all four sides. On top of the cupola, even the flagpole is concrete. The arched barn entrance is reminiscent of the Delaware Avenue Baptist Church, and this building—albeit a barn—was even more expensive, costing nearly $200,000.

A third major remaining building in this area is the J. N. Adam Memorial Hospital in Perrysburg, NY, also about two hours south of Buffalo. Named after the Buffalo mayor responsible for its creation, this hospital was owned by the city of Buffalo and run as a tuberculosis hospital for many years. Opened in 1912, this building complex is made of brick, and patterned after southern plantations, with wide verandahs, French doors from each patient’s room, and an impressive round dining room. The front of the dining room is also all French doors, and is topped by a beautiful glass dome.

Unfortunately, this hospital is in dire straits, and two patient wings added after the original Coxhead buildings were opened have been condemned. Coxhead’s grand dining area, however, is still relatively intact, although the windows have been severely altered.

What is most striking about this hospital is how little it looks like Richardson’s Psychiatric Center. Where the Psychiatric Center is dark and imposing, this hospital is bright, airy, and almost homey in its appearance.

Other local buildings designed by Coxhead include the Phoenix Club (circa 1895-6) at 352-4 Franklin Street, the Church of Our Savior Polish Baptist Church (1907), Memorial Evangelical Church (1909), First Hungarian Baptist Church (1912), and Riverside ME Church (1912). Coxhead was also architect for the City Hospital in Jamestown, NY (1908), St. Bridget’s School, and a large stable for Seymour Knox and Daniel Good in East Aurora, NY. This 1905 stable for Knox appears to be the original part of the extant polo stable on the Knox farm.

In 1898, Coxhead was commissioned to design the new campus of the Virginia Union University in Richmond, Virginia. This was one of the first black colleges in the United States and was Coxhead’s largest commission. He designed eight buildings on this campus and they are all listed on the National Register. Coxhead joined the United States Air Corps, predecessor to the Air Force, in 1918, designing hangers and airfields nationwide, but based out of the Curtiss-Elmwood Air Depot here in Buffalo. In 1923, Coxhead was transferred to McCook Field in Dayton, Ohio, and he and his wife left Buffalo. In 1926, he was transferred to the Veterans Bureau, forerunner to the Veterans Administration, where he designed Veterans’ Hospitals around the country. Models of some of these later works built by Coxhead, were displayed at the Veterans Administration exhibit at the 1933-34 World’s Fair in Chicago.

Coxhead became a Fellow of the American Institute of Architects (FAIA) in 1889, and was purported to be the oldest living member of American Institute of Architects when he died in 1943 at the age of eighty. His body was returned to Washington, DC for burial. And even though he left behind an exceptional collection of impressive buildings, few people heard of Coxhead again.

We have seen a renewed interest in Western New York’s architectural legacy over the past decade. Coxhead’s role in creating that legacy should not be overlooked.

Nancy Blumenstalk Mingus is president of Mingus Associates, Inc., a Williamsville-based writing, training and consulting company specializing in project management and historic preservation. She is working on a thesis on Coxhead for her Masters in Historic Preservation and wrote the National Register nomination for the McKinney Stable.


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