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First Ward House III: A Former Storefront Building?

Or separated at birth?

Hopefully BRO readers will grant an indulgence regarding the First Ward house on South Park Avenue, the former family home of Gene Witkowski, photographer extraordinaire noted for photographing Buffalo’s grain elevators.

As mentioned in the second article, there are some tantalizing clues hinting that this building may have originally been a commercial storefront building–with the 1913 construction of the bridge leaving the ground-level storefront hidden behind an embankment.

Well, over the weekend I found some additional evidence to support that, in an unexpected place over a mile away.  On my way out William Street to look at the public art at Willert Court, I came across a storefront building near William and Cedar Streets, the upper portion of which looks like a twin of the First Ward house (see entry image).  Although the gable brackets on the William Street building have long since disappeared, it sports the same dual-arched attic windows, semicircular brick arches over the second-floor windows, and a thin stone belt course under the second-floor windows.

So could the First Ward house have had a storefront like the one on the William Street building–possibly long-since bricked up?  Alternatively, might it have once had an even more open storefront, like another similar building just a block or two east on William Street (pictured below), with display windows that wrap around the corners?  This may be more likely, as Gene Witkowski told us about a “tunnel” across the front of the house on the ground level, with doors on each side–perhaps created from replacing storefront windows like these with doors.

Also, some evidence from close-up photos we took a week ago shows a tantalizing glimpse of a horizontal iron beam–perhaps the top of a cast-iron storefront, now bricked-in and hidden by the bridge embankment.

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As mentioned in the last article, the evidence for the house having been a storefront building is strengthened by the 1894 atlas, which shows the building as commercial (shaded pink), with a residential structure attached to the back.

This was a very common arrangement in the Old First Ward, as described by Dr. John Feather in Buffalo’s Waterfront, A Guidebook (Edited by Tim Tielman, published by the Preservation Coalition of Erie County in 1990):

Before streetcars and automobiles, laborers had to live within walking distance of their jobs, and nowhere in the city is this more apparent than in the First Ward.  Huge grain elevators and industrial sites lie next to modest single-family houses and corner grocery stores.  This mixture of residential and industrial buildings, so uncharacteristic of the suburbanizing city, was typical of many urban areas in the nineteenth century.  The corner of South and Vandalia Streets [near Gene McCarthy’s, and only a few blocks from this house] is an excellent vantage point to view both the elevators and the neighborhood that was spawned by them.

One more clue to this house’s commercial origins is right across the street: the building that housed the former Danny Boy’s Bar and Grill.  In the same way that the former Witkowski House sits squarely opposite the northern end of Katherine Street, the former Danny Boy’s sits squarely opposite the southern end of Red Jacket Street.  It is a storefront building, and is also shown as commercial (shaded pink) in the 1894 atlas–although it almost certainly had a family (probably the proprietor’s) living above.  I don’t think it’s just happenstance that, in the middle of otherwise residential blocks, that these commercial buildings were built directly opposite the ends of significant local streets–Katherine Street for the former Witkowski House, and Red Jacket for the former Danny Boy’s (whatever establishment it was originally).

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Red Jacket Street originally extended all the way north to Seneca Street, where it was just fifty feet east of the south end of Jefferson Avenue–then as now a major thoroughfare.  So Red Jacket would have been a heavily-used street when the building was built–as was Katherine Street at that time.  Both of these establishments would have been prominent landmarks–highly visible, for long distances, to large numbers of people using these major streets.  With most folks at the time traveling by foot, on unpaved roads, they would have been hungry, thirsty, and dusty after a long walk or long day at labor.  What better location to advertise a place to grab a pint (or pail, in those days), or a bite to eat?  It’s no wonder that these strategic intersections were irresistible locations for businesses, even on otherwise residential blocks.

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It all goes to show that you never know what you’re going to find when you delve into Buffalo architecture and history.  And also, clearly, that this is a house with an interesting story to tell–whatever the details might be (I’d love to know what the name of the original establishment was).  And that brings us back to the bottom line: unless someone steps forward, the clock will run out on this unique First Ward gem.  But if you–or someone you know–may have an interest in this building, PLEASE contact–without delay–the Buffalo Preservation Board (contact below) and let them know of your interest in this charming bit of Buffalo’s Old First Ward.

Get Connected:
Buffalo Preservation Board
Michelle Brozek
Senior Planner – Historic Preservation
Office of Strategic Planning
City of Buffalo
901 City Hall
Buffalo, New York  14202
p (716) 851-5029
f (716) 851-4388

Written by David Steele

David Steele

Architect ( a real one, not just the armchair type), author of "Buffalo, Architecture in the American Forgotten Land" ( www.blurb.com ), lover of great spaces, hater of sprawl and waste,
advocate for a better way of doing things.

View All Articles by David Steele
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