A few days ago when I wrote Titanic – The Buffalo Connection, I learned quite a bit about Edward Austin Kent, who lost his life when the Titanic sank. I was so intrigued that I decided to learn more and to bring it to you. This is still the anniversary week of his tragic death after all. And the whole story of the Titanic disaster is irresistible to a history nerd like me.
So here we go.
Edward Kent – The Early Years
Edward Austin Kent was born in Bangor, Maine in 1854. His parents, Henry Mellen Kent and Harriet Farnham Kent moved to Buffalo in 1865. Henry, a dry goods merchant, together with W.B. Flint, bought a large department store and renamed it Flint and Kent. Buffalo already boasted several great department stores, but Flint and Kent would become known as one of Buffalo’s finest.
Edward, like most sons of Buffalo society, attended the Brigg’s Classical School of Buffalo, an elite college preparatory school located within the park on the Rumsey Estate. He later graduated from Yale, and studied architecture at L’Ecole des Beaux Arts in Paris, where both Louis Sullivan (Guaranty Building) and H.H. Richardson (Richardson Olmsted Complex) studied. He also spent time studying in England. Pretty impressive education.
Kent came back to the states in 1877, settled in Syracuse, NY, and became a junior partner in the architectural firm of Silsbee and Kent. He then spent two years in D.C. as a government architect, which seems like an odd move. A step down? Or was government work like this viewed as prestigious back then? Doubtful. I suppose we’ll never know.
Back in Buffalo
Edward returned to Buffalo in 1884 and started his own Architectural firm and later located it in the Ellicott Square Building. The firm was quite successful. Here’s a fun and little known fact: together with his brother William, also an architect, Kent designed the much acclaimed mosaic floor in the Ellicott Square Building. People talk about the floor all the time, but not who designed it!
Kent was among those who founded the Buffalo Society of Architects in 1886, and was voted their first Secretary. In 1890, that group merged with the American Institute of Architects. Kent was elected their president three times. He represented the Buffalo Chapter of the AIA at an international conference in Berlin in 1909.
By all accounts, Edward Kent was the consummate gentleman. It doesn’t appear that he ever married, or had any personal entanglements of any kind. None that are recorded anyway.
Let’s take a look at some of his most notable designs.
Some of Edward Kent’s Notable Designs
In January of 1912, Edward Kent, a frequent traveler across the Atlantic, embarked upon a two month vacation that took him to Egypt and France. He also spent some time in England while delaying his return to the states in order to ‘sail’ aboard the Titanic.
He boarded as a first class passenger, enjoying all the comforts that came with that. He met frequently with a group of friends, among who were Helen Churchill Candee and Archibald Gracie, and mingled with other members of society on board. It is unclear whether Kent was asleep when the ship hit the iceberg, or whether he was with some others of his group in the smoking room. I’ve read accounts stating both.
But what is well documented are these two things: First, Kent encountered Helen Churchill Candee and helped her into lifeboat #6, but not until after she gave him an ivory and gold miniature of her mother, for safekeeping. And second, Kent helped to load many women and children into lifeboats before the ship listed heavily, and he was swept into the sea.
Edward Austin Kent’s body was recovered (body #258) and was returned to Buffalo. Incredibly, the miniature given to him by Helen Churchill Candee was still in his pocket and was eventually returned to her. Kent is buried in Forest Lawn Cemetery here in Buffalo.
As I’ve spent time reading about Edward Kent it occurs to me that outside his body of work, and a few scant details of the Titanic disaster, we don’t really know much about him personally. He was from a family of both wealth and stature here in Buffalo, and his family was active in the Unitarian Church (as it was called back then). It is likely that when John Albright donated the land for the church in 1906, that Kent was chosen to design it partially because of that connection. To my eye, it’s his greatest work here in Buffalo.
Make one of your quarantine walks down Elmwood Avenue to the corner of West Ferry and check out that church. It’s beautiful from the outside. But when the quarantine ends, go inside. Like so many other churches in Buffalo, it’s true beauty lies within. Take a moment to search out the plaque to Edward Austin Kent, and think about the man who helped so many find safety that fateful night in April of 1912.
A couple of days ago, I had a quick conversation with our son, Matt, about what to write about next on the blog. He mentioned that I might want to write about the Titanic disaster since the anniversary (April 14-15) was coming up. We laughed and that was the end of it.
Until today. I got to thinking.
Roughly 30 years ago, while visiting his grandparents, our then 4 year old son Matt, picked up a picture book about the greatest disasters of the 20th century. He was particularly enamored with the story of the Titanic. Ever since that day, everything pertaining to the Titanic has been of particular interest to him. And whenever any family member sees anything about the Titanic, we send it on to Matt.
One subject I don’t remember ever discussing though, was whether there were any Buffalonians on the Titanic when it sank. I had heard that there was a Buffalo architect on board, but that’s pretty much it.
That’s what we’re going to explore today.
So Were there any Buffalonians on Board the Titanic?
As a matter of fact there were two. Well, technically one resident of the city of Buffalo, and one resident of Kenmore, a Buffalo suburb. But really, we’re all Buffalonians, aren’t we? Both have interesting background stories. And both of those stories have the same ending.
The two couldn’t have been more different. But they both ended up in Southhampton, England, at the same time, and both boarded the Titanic bound for Buffalo, where they both called home.
Here are their stories.
Edward Austin Kent
Edward Kent was born in Maine in 1854. His parents, Henry Sr. and Harriet Kent, moved to Buffalo in the late 1860’s, where Henry was co-owner of Flint & Kent, an upscale department store, located in the 500 block of Main Street. The Kents were a very wealthy family, and were prominent members of Buffalo society. Which at the time, was substantial.
Edward graduated from Yale University and studied architecture in Paris. He worked in Syracuse until 1884 when he returned to Buffalo to live and work. He designed such notable buildings here as Temple Beth Zion on Delaware Avenue, later lost to a fire, the Unitarian Universalist Church of Buffalo on the northeast corner of Elmwood and West Ferry, and, one of my personal favorites, Chemical No. 5 Firehouse at 166 Cleveland Avenue in Buffalo.
Aboard the Ship
Kent was a confirmed bachelor, and lived at the elite Buffalo Club on Delaware Avenue. He traveled to France and Egypt as part of a two month vacation in the winter of 1912. He actually extended the trip in order to return home aboard the Titanic on it’s maiden voyage. Kent was known to have mingled with other first class passengers aboard the ship, in particular Helen Churchill Candee and Archibald Gracie, both survivors of the disaster.
Kent was likely asleep in one of the first class cabins when the ship hit the iceberg. Shortly after, he was on deck, and by all accounts Kent assisted in the loading of the lifeboats. Helen Churchill Candee encountered him here as she was getting into one. She handed him a miniature portrait of her mother and a silver flask, and asked him to keep them safe.
Sadly Kent went down with the ship. His body was one of those recovered. He was eventually laid to rest in Forest Lawn Cemetery, here in Buffalo.
Henry Sutehall Jr.
Henry Sutehall Jr. was born in 1886 in Middlesex, England. His family moved to Buffalo in 1895, via the ship Paris out of Southampton. So, 1912 wasn’t the first time Henry headed to New York City from Southampton. The family settled in Kenmore, on Lasalle Avenue. Henry Sutehall Sr. was a decorative plasterer by trade and worked on many of Buffalo’s finer buildings, including the Unitarian Universalist Church, designed by none other than Mr. Edward Kent. I guess there have never been more than three degrees of separation here in Buffalo.
Sutehall’s mother ran a store at the corner of Delaware and Mang Avenues. She sold everything from cigars to confections, to school supplies, to ice cream. Unusual at the time for a woman to run this type of business when her husband had a separate career. Interesting.
Henry Jr. worked at E. E. Denniston’s in Buffalo as a ‘trimmer’, installing and repairing upholstery in carriages and automobiles. Remember that the Pierce Arrow and the Thomas Flyer were being manufactured here in Buffalo at that time. It was at this job that Henry met Howard Irwin and the two became close friends.
The Trip of a Lifetime
The two young men left Buffalo in January of 1910 to embark upon a trip around the world. According to letters, they spent the first year making their way across the U.S., working as trimmers, and sometimes musicians. Sutehall played the violin and Irwin was learning the clarinet. When they reached San Francisco, they left for Australia. It was here that Henry wrote to family members that he had fallen in love with a girl, had gotten engaged, and planned to return to Australia when the trip was over, to marry her.
Irwin too had found love along the way in the form of a traveling musician named Pearl.
The trip continued with Sutehall and Irwin splitting up and coming back together at least twice before meeting up again in England. Sutehall reportedly arrived in England first in order to spend a bit of time visiting with extended family who still lived in England, while waiting for the Titanic to depart Southampton.
Aboard the Ship
It is thought that Irwin left in a hurry on an earlier voyage home, having received word that Pearl had become ill. (She passed away from pneumonia in October, 1911.) Sutehall was left to gather Irwin’s steamer trunk, as well as his own belongings and bring everything back to Buffalo.
Henry held a third class ticket aboard Titanic. His accommodations would have been quite different than Kent’s. He would have shared a bunk cabin with three other men. When the ship hit the iceberg at 11:40pm on April 14, Sutehall was likely awakened by the sound of it. Even if he had understood the gravity of the situation, he had no chance of getting into one of the lifeboats. He may have made it out of third class when the gates to steerage were finally unlocked at 2am on April 15, but by then all the boats were gone.
Henry Sutehall Jr. perished that night in the sinking. If his body was among those found, it was never identified.
I should mention that Howard Irwin’s steamer trunk was found in the 1990’s during salvage trips to the Titanic, which was located in 1985. There were letters and a diary in his trunk which Henry carried with him onto the ship. They were recovered and restored. Those letters and diary are how we know part of Henry’s story. Those belongings are also among some of the Titanic displays that have traveled the world. They are, in a way, another Buffalo connection.
What began as an offhand remark by my son Matt, has turned into a day of interesting research about two very different Buffalonians. One born to money and privilege, a creator of some of Buffalo’s great architecture, and a first class passenger on the ill fated Titanic. The other born to working class parents, a musician and tradesman, worked his way around the world, and a third class passenger on the same ship.
Both suffered the same fate in the end.
Today, take a moment to remember the lives lost on the Titanic, and the lives saved. How about that girl in Australia, who may or may not have ever heard that her fiancé was among the lost that day? And finally, think about the laws that were changed because of the way the Titanic disaster was dealt with that day.