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First Ward House Update: Exploring “Witkowski Castle”

“Hurry up and take the picture–it’s freezing!” she snapped, candidly, with a shudder.

How could I resist a photographic Tom Swifty, after venturing out in the company of a great Buffalo photographer and a couple of friends on a chilly Saturday to get some up-close pictures of this great Old First Ward house recently featured here?

We met photographer Gene Witkowski at Gene McCarthy’s, which is just a couple of blocks from this house.  Heading north on Katherine Street (away from the grain elevators that Gene is well known for photographing), the house was visible in the distance, and was just as charming in person as in the photos I’d seen.

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If you followed the previous article and updates, you know that there was some preliminary good news from the recent Preservation Board meeting about this house.  They did not act on the demolition request, and in fact, recommended writing a landmark application for the building.

The original article got the attention of ArtVoice’s Lucy Yau, who alerted us that Buffalo photographer extraordinaire Gene Witkowski –a protoge of Milton Rogovin–grew up in this house, as did his father and his siblings.

As Lucy wrote in ArtVoice last year:

“As a child Gene Witkowski would hide in the attic of his home in Buffalo’s First Ward.  He would gaze out at the tops of the grain elevators dominating the skyline, wondering what they held.”  In her article, Lucy describes Gene’s work depicting Buffalo’s grain elevators and other remnants of former industrial glory that he found all around him in the Old First Ward.  Lucy also told us that at one time the house had been dubbed by the neighborhood “Witkowski Castle.”

Although that “castle” moniker may have been tongue-in-cheek, one thing that was clear is that we did the house a disservice in the original article by calling it a “cottage,” a general term for a one-and-a-half story house.  Although this house appears from South Park to be a classic one-and-a-half story Italianate cottage, appearances are definitely deceiving.  The house is, in fact, a full two-and-a-half stories.  According to Gene, it had enough room that at one time it included two rental units in addition to the space his family occupied.

The detailing on the front façade (stone belt course, and some of the brickwork) seems to have been added after the street embankment was built–perhaps to give a stylistic integrity to the upper one and a half stories visible from the street.  In fact, although the house was updated to Italianate style in the front, the sides show signs of an earlier style and date for the house.  We also found traces on the back of the house of the single-story rear addition, shown clearly in the 1893 atlas.

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Gene told us that the house had been in his family since 1931, when it was purchased by his father’s parents.  Word in the family is that it was a tavern at the time, which his grandfather may have operated for a while–about the time Mazurek’s opened their bakery a block away.  Indeed, the 1893 atlas shows the front part of the house (with an address at the time of 534 Elk Street) as a business.  Another clue that hinted at earlier commercial use was the “tunnel” Gene showed us–an old passageway, with doors, across the front of the house at ground level–possibly the remnant of an original storefront entrance at what was street level before the embankment was built.

At various times, portions of the house were occupied by relatives, and even non-family tenants.  Gene’s father worked for a time at the Beals, McCarthy & Rogers plant across the street, which, although now idled, still dominates the view from the front windows of the house.  Gene’s widowed mother sold the house in the 1980’s, and subsequent owners did not show the house the same TLC as the Witkowskis.  At some point, they walked away from the house.

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Checking out the interior, while we found many of the usual features of abandoned houses (some broken windows–mostly boarded up–some doors off hinges, and debris from squatters), we didn’t identify any major structural issues.  In fact, we found signs that the house had been well sealed up at one point, both inside and out.  Overhead photos had shown signs of potential roof damage (most likely a tree branch, since removed, scraping some of the shingles away), but inside the attic there were no signs of significant water infiltration.  In fact, we even found newspapers on the floor from 1959, and a collage created by Gene’s brother in the 1960’s.  It was almost spooky, especially after Gene told us a story of him and his brother hearing ghostly footsteps one night–despite that no one was there!

In the attic, we were able to look out the windows to see the same views of the grain elevators which fascinated Gene as a kid growing up in the house.  Gene also gave us a flavor of what the neighborhood was like when he was growing up, and showed us his graduation photo from the parish school at St. Valentine’s.  This was Buffalo’s original walkable neighborhood, with people living in close proximity to their jobs, churches, and numerous shops and taverns–with shops and homes commonly in the same building.

There is still something of that flavor hanging on in the neighborhood, which would add to the value of investing in this home.  There are taverns, shops, restaurants, and churches within walking distance.  Gene McCarthy’s is just a couple of blocks away.  Downtown and South Buffalo are round-the-corner drives (or hops on the bus).

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Which 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 the Buffalo Preservation Board (contact below) and let them know of your interest in this charming bit of Buffalo’s Old First Ward.

Image Credits:
Grain Elevator with Gene Witkowski: Michael Calanan
House close-ups: LadyFlash

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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