The Baird Foundation has joined with the Buffalo & Erie County Public Library and the Theodore Roosevelt Inaugural Site to support a pair of exhibits this year. When these three organizations partner, the community can be sure something historic and significant is happening. The dual exhibits will showcase the history behind “Building Buffalo” in the hopes of expanding on our long and innovative history.
The first exhibit located at the Buffalo & Erie County Public Library (Central/Downtown location) showcases books published over four centuries on architecture and landscape selected from the extraordinary collection owned by the Library.
Quoting from the catalogue written by Nicholas Adams, Frank Kowsky and Amy Pickard, these “books were generously given or carefully purchased to help Buffalo grow into a great metropolitan center…” and comprise only a portion of the collection “which is one of the oldest and most extensive in an American public library. They are as much a part of western New York’s cultural heritage as its museums, parks, concert halls, theaters, and historic buildings. These enduring chronicles of the world’s greatest architectural ideas supplemented the imaginations of the architects who shaped Buffalo. The ideas and images in these often beautiful volumes helped build the buildings and landscapes that transformed Buffalo from a frontier village to a national metropolis.”
Included as part of this exhibit is a tribute to Bill Shelgren, an architect who helped protect, maintain, and update dozens of historic buildings as a working professional in our region. In addition to his technical work, he gave this community an enormous gift of heart, head, and hand, over several pivotal decades, writing the first preservation code for the City of Buffalo, serving as the first chair of the Buffalo Preservation Board, befriending key preservationists all over the country to discuss and bring best practices to his home town, and importantly setting standards and procedures for how to protect our great architecture as well as historic neighborhoods at a time when cities where nearly clear-cutting everything that was old. We all owe Bill Shelgren an enormous debt of gratitude and appreciation for putting a legal structure in place that would guide preservation efforts for many decades.
Working quietly behind the scenes, and likely often buried in piles of paper, legal documents, and architecture plans, Bill Shelgren – along with his father Olaf and other key advocates and preservation champions worked diligently over decades to preserve and protect our community. For the first time, Bill Shelgren and his father Olaf take center stage in the exhibit at the Theodore Roosevelt Inaugural Site. Which is historically significant as Shelgren moved his architectural office to what is now known as the TR site – formerly, the Wilcox mansion. Occupying space that is now the Kitchen, Shelgren moved his office and paid rent as his first step in the plan to stabilize the building.
How the Wilcox Mansion became a National Historic Landmark and a National Park Site is worthy of an entire article, but in summary, it could not have happened without the critical support of Buffalonians – from school children donating nickels and dimes, to the leadership gift of $50,000 and thousands of hours of volunteer time from the Junior League, capped by the efforts of Les Foschio and Congressman Henry Nowak. This very human story is an example of Buffalo at its finest – giving from the heart, organized to accomplish a goal much bigger than any one group or person, and sustained commitment for many years to see this place achieve the national recognition it deserved.
Catherine Schweitzer, Executive Director of The Baird Foundation, “Bill Shelgren was at the beginning of that story. His books and work tools are back on site. The range of projects undertaken by his firm is showcased. The neighborhoods now known as historic districts are mapped, illustrating the legacy of his investment of both heart and establishing order for preservation practices that led to an ongoing effort to protect more and more places in our city.
“Bill Shelgren is quoted as saying, “friends are the best mortar.”
At the exhibit unveiling, Stanton Hudson Executive Director of the Theordoe Roosevelt Site said, “We learned first-hand during the rescue of this building – and the establishment of a national historic landmark – that it does indeed take a village to build a movement and sustain its energy and momentum.” Following with,
[Bill Shelgren’s] leadership in an early and pivotal period for historic preservation was essential. Imagine a building as a metaphor for Bill’s gift to this community. Just like a blueprint gives the outline to form and substance of a design for a building, his work dug the foundation, laid the cornerstone for the preservation code, setting standards and procedures that literally formed the foundation to protect unique buildings and neighborhoods well into the future.
That structure allowed ordinary citizens to help lay many courses of brick on top of that foundation, with additional guidance from professionals, that slowly and deliberately built community throughout our city while caring for and reinvesting in our historic fabric.
Indeed, much of Buffalo would not stand today were it not for the efforts of Bill and Olaf Shelgren. It’s time that we learn about their legacy. Below is the exhibit information:
The Theodore Roosevelt Inaugural Site
641 Delaware Avenue, Buffalo, NY 14202 (between North and Allen Streets).
Free off-street parking is available behind the TR Site and is accessible from Delaware Avenue or Franklin Street.
The Theodore Roosevelt Inaugural Site is open year-round and visits (now including the Bill and Olaf Shelgren exhibit) are by guided tour only. Click here for more information or to book a tour.
The Buffalo and Erie County Public Library
1 Lafayette Square, Buffalo , NY 14203 Map
Click here for a PDF of the exhibit flyer.
Lead image: (Left to Right), Stanton Hudson, Catherine Schweitzer, Richard Shelgren, Lois Shelgren, and Hon. Henry Nowak