Saturday, after a cleanup at Linear Park and North Buffalo Rails-to-Trails organized by the University Heights Collaborative and The Tool Library, I spent some time exploring the neighborhoods west of University Heights. Exiting the rail-trail onto Shoshone Street, a cluster of stylish buildings at the corner of Parkside caught my eye.
The five buildings were multi-family housing, with beautiful, picturesque, yet simple architectural styling and details that set them apart from other multi-family buildings nearby with more of the inner-ring-suburb, post-war apartment complex vibe that leaves me cold. Eclectic but predominantly Tudor, the buildings were clearly the product of the same architect or developer yet each was distinct from the others.
Some appeared to be frame construction, while others were brick (or, more likely, brick-over-frame). Different Tudor half-timbering patterns were used in different ways. The roofs of each were different, from gabled to various hip-roof schemes including one with half-hips. Immediately south on Shoshone were more traditionally configured houses, yet with architectural details suggesting they could be the product of the same architect or builder.
The apartment buildings, based on a count of mailboxes and gas meters, appeared to house four or five families per building. The houses initially appeared to be single-family, but a walk-by revealed they were actually doubles, with the doorway for one family in the front, and the second on the side, next to the driveway. Each had a two-car garage in back, at the end of the driveway. These homes were almost certainly pre-war, but the presence of driveways and garages suggested they were constructed in the late 1920s or early 1930s.
The 1920s and 1930s were decades of experimentation with housing in the United States. One group of urban thinkers in particular, the Regional Planning Association of America, developed housing ideas inspired by the Garden City movement in England. To test their ideas, they formed a development arm and built two model communities: Sunnyside Gardens in Queens and Radburn, NJ., featuring mostly low-rise, multi-family dwelling units set amid lush greenery, designed by landscape architect Marjorie Sewell Cautley. Only the lack of rich landscaping at Parkside and Shoshone keeps it from resembling such a place.
When the Depression hit, the ideas of the Regional Planning Association of America informed early public housing developments – a sharp contrast to post-war, modernist, towers-in-a-park projects. Buffalo’s earliest public housing developments, Kenfield Homes and Willert Park (now A. D. Price) Courts, appear to be among those informed by those ideas, and recently I’ve been interested in determining whether and to what degree that may be the case. At the same time, I’m interested in how the architects of early Buffalo housing projects such as Kenfield were able to use a limited palette of materials and design variations-on-a-theme to add interest and minimize monotony in building a number of nearly identical structures. That the creators of the structures around Parkside and Shoshone – although never public housing – had done this so well was what caught my eye and intrigued me enough to want to learn more about them.
So, who could have designed and built this little cluster of Merry Old England, almost a little Elizabethan village? While I haven’t been able to determine the architect, finding the identity of the builder took me on an interesting historical detour through the Great Depression and the development of North Buffalo. All the buildings that had caught my eye were indeed constructed by the same builder, Patrick C. Dwyer, in 1931.
Patrick C. Dwyer was born in Montreal and started his career as a builder in Canada, but moved along with his wife Annie to Buffalo to grow his business. They lived in a relatively modest house at 500 Crescent Avenue. Buffalo newspapers from the 1920s to 1950s have many references to his property transactions, building permits, and mortgages.
Dwyer’s later developments seem to follow the same pattern seen at Parkside and Shoshone: apartment houses anchoring the corner properties, then houses farther in along the streets. Nowhere can that be seen more readily than Kenmore Avenue, for example at Kenmore and Parker Boulevard, where one of the apartment houses on the corner even includes storefront retail space. In fact, Dwyer may have established a template of sorts for development on Kenmore which you can see driving the street: large, Tudor-style apartment buildings. In days of limited auto ownership, and a zone-based transit fare structure that often charged more for travel outside the city line – where such service was even available – Kenmore Avenue was the northernmost transit line with a city fare. Dwyer touted that in a 1938 ad for his Kenmore Avenue homes and apartments.
Building through the depression
In researching Dwyer Building Corporation projects, I was surprised to find projects underway in North Buffalo in 1931 and on Kenmore Avenue in 1938. These years were in the heart of the Great Depression, which I’d assumed were difficult for builders. Yet Dwyer was very active during that decade, seeming to take advantage of opportunities to make the numbers work – in that respect perhaps not unlike Buffalo developers today who find ways to make things work in what is now a weak-market city. In the later Depression years, for example, he advertised that his properties were eligible for federally backed mortgages, which began as a New Deal program.
And before the New Deal, Dwyer seems to have been part of an effort, local and national, for businessmen to lead the nation out of the Depression by taking it almost as an article of faith that the nation had “turned the corner” on the Depression. Businessmen like Roger Ward Babson of Massachusetts, an early economic forecaster who gained renown by declaring the market would crash the month before it happened, seemed to suggest that by saying and believing that the worst of the Depression was already past, and continuing to hire and produce, businessmen could somehow make that so.
In May, 1931 – the same month that Dwyer was obtaining building permits for the buildings at Parkside and Shoshone – Babson made his notorious “turned the corner” declaration on film…
Statistics show clearly that business reached its low point in December of last year. Since then there has been a steady but constant improvement. Everything indicates that general business has turned the corner. I go further and say that 1931 should offer the greatest opportunities of any year for generations.
He bolstered this effort with op-ed pieces appearing in newspapers, including a “Special to the News” piece in the Buffalo Evening News (business-friendly then as now). In the piece, he focused on home building, making the case that home building not only presents an opportunity for builders to make money even in trying times – citing continued demand for low-cost housing amid depressed material and labor costs – but that they have a kind of civic obligation to do so, to help lead the nation out of the Depression.
Babson went further, calling for the entire business and civic infrastructure of communities – builders, suppliers, contractors, lenders, civic leaders – to get behind the housing sector to lead the economy forward. There seems to have been some heeding of this call – later that year the Buffalo Evening News and the Electrical League of the Niagara Frontier would sponsor a couple of model home projects demonstrating affordable but quality housing, with every room fully wired for convenience. One of those, 156 Shoshone, just south of Parkside, was built by Dwyer.
So while there may be no evidence to show that Dwyer was directly influenced by Babson or his ideas, he seems to have been solidly with Babson’s program of the nation building its way out of the Depression – or at least not letting the tight economy hold him back.
Dwyer also attempted to promote his housing during the Depression by advertising quality and amenities, engaging in what we would now call branding. An ad for a new development on Klauder Road (off Kenmore Avenue) from July, 1938, lists amenities including “rock wool insulation,” air conditioning, tiled baths and kitchens while proclaiming, “Dwyer builds a good house.” A 1931 ad for the “new brick apartments” at the corner of Parkside and Shoshone touts “bright, cheerful living room, with open fireplace,” shower, electric range, electric refrigerator, hot-water heat, and a garage.
Active in building and the church
Dwyer may have been as active in church affairs as he was in building. He played a variety of leadership roles in his parish, St. Mark’s, served as an adviser to the Diocese on buildings, and donated his services on a number of major construction projects around the Diocese. He received two of the highest awards that can be given to a layman in the Catholic Church: the Maltese Cross and made a Knight of St. Gregory the Great.
His reputation as a hard-nosed businessman doesn’t seem to have been softened by his many church activities, however. Mid-century Buffalo newspapers reported on several instances of Dwyer playing hardball with tenants, the City of Buffalo, and neighborhood groups. In 1947, when WWII rent control policies were still in effect, a group of tenants from the Tonawanda side of one of his Kenmore Avenue projects appealed a rent increase of 26%. In 1952, he wanted a high price for land the City of Buffalo needed to expand a school, causing the City to begin condemnation proceedings to take the land for fair market value. In another case, to get land for a project, the City gave Dwyer one of the most notable properties it has ever owned: the Darwin Martin House, which was seized for back taxes in 1946.
Intriguingly, Dwyer then played a role in the history of the Darwin Martin House which I’ve never seen mentioned elsewhere. After losing money trying to maintain and rent the then dilapidated property, he proposed dividing it into seventeen separate units. That divided the neighborhood, creating the kind of preservation and development issue we might recognize today. His proposed project did not come about, and a couple of years later the house was acquired by architect Sebastian Tauriello.
Patrick C. Dwyer passed away in 1958. With no heirs, he left behind a large estate that made annual donations to the annual Catholic Charities appeal for some years after.
He also left behind a legacy of charming, quality housing that continues to intrigue.
As for Parkside and Shoshone – Dwyer’s Corners? – it has nearly everything: charming architecture, nearby access to Shoshone Park and North Buffalo Rails-to-Trails, walking distance to both Hertel and Main Street retail districts. It might even qualify for a small historic district, which might allow owners to tap into preservation tax credits for major repairs to the nearly eight-decade-old properties. If anything is missing, it’s landscaping. Like much of North Buffalo, inexplicably, these properties and streets are tree-poor, with primarily lawn-and-shrub landscaping. That may seem normal, but a look at the picture from Sunnyside Gardens shows the lacking element.
But that could change. Neighbors and community organizations could partner to hire a landscape architect and develop a planting plan they could implement on their own, over time. That would not only provide a quality-of-life boost in their little corner of the world, planting and tending would also build social capital – something else often lacking in areas of multi-unit dwellings. The University Heights Collaborative and The Tool Library are showing the way on this: Saturday’s cleanup brought together people from various blocks who might have otherwise never met, and also town-gown. I met someone going on seventy, and college freshmen. Because it takes everyone to tend to things and make things better.
“Dwyer’s Corners” is an intriguing place to come across. But it could rank among Buffalo’s loveliest places. Why not make it so?