The Intriguing Lives of Mary & Harold Cohen
By Linda Levine
Photography by Jessica Koukounis.

Harold and Mary Cohen.
Urban pioneers Mary and Harold Cohen have long sustained a life of extremes. They’ve moved further and further “downtown” over the twenty-five-plus years they’ve lived here, interweaving this period with travels to many corners of the globe. On each return to Buffalo, they live in a style of privileged purity: absolute Bauhaus. When they’re away, they live with the dangerous chaos of equatorial jungles and Tibetan mountain ranges.

Buffalo became home in 1974 when Harold took up the post of Dean of the University at Buffalo’s School of Architectural Planning & Design, and Mary accompanied him here. The School’s foundation (now the School of Architecture & Planning or SAP) was laid a few years prior, but he has been its major builder. Harold, who had studied with Bauhaus masters Lazlo Moholy-Nagy and Serge Chermayeff at Chicago’s Institute of Design, hired a cadre of professorial stars who stayed at the University at Buffalo for many years. And he designed his academic program from a philosophy that architecture in the third quarter of the twentieth century was not merely the act of the architect, no matter how strong, but the architect in the context of urban planning: designing public spaces in inter-relationship with buildings and other spaces. Look around, and you can see he’s been proven right.

Harold’s only other devotion over the years has been entomology. Mary started him out as an entomologist by giving him a small collection of insects—butterflies, beetles, bugs—and together the couple took their interest much farther. After buying, they began catching insects, at first in Costa Rica. Throughout the 1970s they went chasing them amongst the cloud-forests of the Venezuelan mountains, amassing such a valuable collection that the Smithsonian asked them to leave it to the Institution in their will. They agreed, but didn’t wait to accede to the flattering request, instead forwarding the collection almost immediately. They’d done the identifying, laying out, and pinning of the various species, and Harold had designed large glass display cases, drawers, and a closet for their professional library at home, where the collection was initially housed.

Upon her returning to Buffalo from Venezuela, Mary began overseeing the entomological department for the Museum of Science, where for sixteen years she served as a volunteer. Both of the Cohens designed the Museum’s Insect Hall, which partly became a permanent exhibition. Today the fascinating winged creatures they collected are available to see in all but their natural habitats—where many of them are now instinct. The habitat replications in the Museum are designed by the late Paul Marchand, whose exquisite work they knew from Smithsonian models. They invited him to work with them, at a late age in his life when he had little confidence he could still do such creations. But Harold is a great one for instilling self-worth, and so is Mary.

The Cohens are scientist-collectors, and impassioned aesthetes. Harold’s strength of observation derives from a fascinating background in art. In addition to his tutleage under the dynamic Moholy-Nagy, Harold also studied with the weaver Anni Albers, painter Joseph Albers, and sculptor Alexander Archipenko. Harold founded the design department at Southern Illinois University, Carbondale, where he hired such art and design luminaries as Ray and Charles Eames, Josef Albers, Kenneth Snelson, Harry Callahan, Chermayeff, and others to give seminars or teach for a semester. During this period he designed housing, modular buildings, and produced tables and a famous chair. Cohen went on to teach at Johns Hopkins University and the Institute for Behavioral Research in Maryland, among other teaching positions, before coming to Buffalo. In 1981 he designed a building in Costa Rica — a research station made of local timber. He became so respected as a designer that in 1989 the Burchfield-Penney Art Center celebrated him with a retrospective show, Harold L. Cohen, Designer, a 40-year Profile.

Mary, whose interest in art is as strong and well-informed as Harold’s, became a potter when she moved to Buffalo, working in the organized, scientific fashion suited to her personality. The forms of her pots show an Asian simplicity, the glazes are quiet with subtle shadings. The eye she has developed for the beauty of pots, through making them, shows in the Cohen’s remarkable collections of pottery from other potters and other places.

Harold and Mary Cohen’s
downtown Buffalo apartment.
As part of a synergistic creative tradition combining art and science, they also came to know the architect Buckminster Fuller — “Bucky” to them — inventor of the geodesic dome. He often came to Buffalo and stayed with them. Harold hired him for every faculty he ever headed, but Mary knew him at least as well. After her first career as a high school English teacher, which shaped her into an incisive critic, she edited two of Fuller’s major books, and all of his articles.

She was the hostess with the mostest during Harold’s tenure as SAP Dean, entertaining luminaries like the designer Serge Chermayeff and urban planner Edward Logue, whom the School brought to Buffalo to educate students and engage with the community. The Cohens felt that the University had a major obligation to Buffalo. That is why the SAP, upon Harold’s insistence, remained at the traditionally-styled Green and Wicks Hayes Hall, while the rest of the humanities and social sciences moved to the new campus in suburban Amherst.

Since Harold’s retirement, the Cohens have been traveling—in recent years to Papua, New Guinea. It’s a place that few Americans visit, even fewer on their own, as they did. To add to their existing collection of cultural artifacts, purchased on trips to Bolivia, Ecuador, Argentina, Central America, China and Japan, they returned with native Papuan crafts, impressive for their scale alone. They timed their visit for a major festival, and in a small boat with a few others went to look at sculptures, representative of various cultures.

Their apartment, with its pristine white walls, is a background for these carefully selected wares, which they’ve hand-carried or shipped back. For years, they’ve pursued an energetic interest in native cultures, acquiring powerful sculptures. Their critical opinions are informed by decades of gallery-going and treks to sites where the art is made. What Mary likes about their collection is that “everything we have, we chose together. We like the same things.”

Just before going to New Guinea they were the first to move into the handsomely reconstituted Nemmer office building at 600 Main Street, corner of Chippewa Street. “Somebody had to prove it was all right to move downtown, so we started the ball rolling,” Harold said. Their apartment is a perfect jewel on a high floor, where they feel they embrace the city. In daylight they revel in their skyline view across the riverfront and beyond; at night they look across the Niagara to Canada. The apartment is so small, however, that they have had to give up a vast orchid collection, gathered from various forays to the jungle. Even so, they live beautifully, always with room for greenery—an exotic cactus, fresh cut flowers—by an aesthetic that says that everything valuable, whether architecture, art, actually any category of design, grows from one idea.

Together they designed the apartment spaces, beginning with the living-room overlooking the river, to include a dining area and a pass-through into the kitchen. They held onto their large Mies van der Rohe steel and black leather chairs, coffee table of their own design, and the Scandinavian table they use for all their meals. They designed custom-made spaces and cabinets, behind whose doors they store most of their books and their art collection, while highlighting numerous pieces. The bedroom, with its library divider, has a sitting room to one side where there are Mies Brno chairs and a television. They have a shared study, as always. In their scaled-down living quarters, sometimes the study doubles as a guestroom. The only other couple I’m aware of, who designed a shared study for their famous home in Massachusetts, were Alma and Walter Gropius, leader of the Bauhaus and one of Harold’s teachers.

The long, narrow foyer gives the Cohen’s apartment a sophisticated Manhattan feel. At the foyer’s end hangs a large black and white woven image of a face, a tapestry by the weaver Evelyn Anselevicius.

Before and after their trip to New Guinea, they traveled to Europe, and, unafraid, squeezed in a trip to Egypt after Americans were warned not to go there. Impressed with Egyptian sources of the world, they planned a second trip, but by then Egypt was absolutely off limits. My own feeling is that much of their fascination with travel, exposing them to culture, derives from their deep sense of their own culture: particularly Harold’s background and pride as a Jew with orthodox roots. Both Cohens share a fascination with the world’s religions, especially as expressed by European and Asian art and architecture, and in Mary’s case, literature.

Upon his retirement, Harold promised himself he would resume his early life as a painter, and he’s made an art studio for himself in an oldish building around the corner on Chippewa Street. But, as if constitutionally unable to remain in one place, he still travels constantly. These days, at age seventy-five, he commutes to Cuba, Bolivia, and Venezuela to see to the manufacturing and distribution of an extraordinary object he invented. This invention, called the “golden box,” was recently distributed to 23 Bolivian villages, and contains an insecticide he designed to counter a deadly insect, the chagas bug. The chagas bug infiltrates houses and spreads disease, attacking the soft tissues of a person, and killing whole populations in countries whose climates are conducive to its habitat.

He’s also initiated an adobe housing design, in order to inhibit the disastrous effects of earthquakes. He rediscovered that this ancient way of shaping structures reduces shock damage more than does modern design. To promote the adobe style, which he’s implemented in Bolivia, the couple lately traveled to China and Tibet, where Mary, taking a bad fall, had to be carried by sherpa down the mountain. But nothing keeps her from her appointed rounds, maintaining their office files, and international correspondence.

Part of the Cohen’s collection.
In fact, Harold couldn’t do his valuable work were it not for Mary. She speaks some Spanish, and spends hours painstakingly translating letters from Central and South American colleagues. She hosts them when they come to Buffalo for meetings, in which she plays a substantive role. She’s taught herself her way around the computer, for her sake and her husband’s. She organizes their life. She calls him “The Rabbi,” the one who needs to save the world. If so, she’s “The Rabbi’s Wife.” They’re devoted to each other, and their children and grandchildren.

Somehow their very urban address fits this time of their lives. They remain as committed to Buffalo as ever, but after twenty-five years of close engagement with a broad reach of the community, they feel free to live a little detached and take more time for themselves and their projects. It seems an entitlement they’ve earned. They love life at Main and Chippewa streets, surrounded by the hum of the urban atmosphere, within walking distance of theaters, restaurants, and the Olympic Towers health club. And then they go away, to continue their adventure to foreign cultures, absorbing religions and folkways in exotic parts of the earth. Fortunately for the culture of this city, these supportive enthusiasts always come back.

Linda Levine writes on the arts and historic preservation.


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