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On Preserving Buffalo – J L White Remarks at Red Jacket Dinner

The following remarks were made by Jonathan L. White (advocate for historic preservation), upon receiving the Red Jacket award at the Buffalo History Museum this past Thursday, October 4. White was honored, along with three other recipients:

Holly Augspurger Donaldson, The Red Jacket Award
Jonathan L. White, The Red Jacket Award
Martin Wachadlo, The Owen B. Augspurger Award
Niagara Frontier Council for the Social Studies (NFCSS), The Daniel B. Niederlander Award

White’s heartfelt speech is a tribute to Buffalo’s architectural heritage, and those who fight to preserve it.


I would first like to thank the Trustees of the Buffalo History Museum for selecting me to receive this remarkable honor and my friends who nominated me, much to my great surprise, I must add. It is a humbling accolade but far more, it is humbling to be in the company of those who precede me as recipients individuals that I both admire and respect greatly for their many civic contributions. They have collectively set the bar incredibly high in their example of community service and service to the preservation of our collective history.

Collective is a bit of a theme with my remarks this evening. It is a word that I will use often. Nothing that I may have achieved that was looked upon favorably when I was selected to receive this honor was achieved by me alone. Rather, such achievements are the result of the collective efforts of many other people who collectively bring their disparate skill sets together to work toward a common goal. Often times they are people who may have little else in common, but they come together for the common good. Those of us who have been blessed with greater fortune than others have a duty to use our talents and our resources for the public benefit. The several contributions of many individuals with diverse competencies and diverse points of view lead to greater achievements than a single individual could ever accomplish alone.

It is my experience that there are two imperatives for remarks when accepting an award such as this. You must include a quotation from a illustrious personage and, if at all possible, that person should be Oscar Wilde.

Oscar Wilde once said, “One’s past is what one is. It is the only way by which people should be judged.”

With such judgment in mind, we make better collective decisions when we look to, learn from, and respect our past. Learning the lessons of our past informs the patterns we set for our future.

Someone in this room tonight once told me that I like old buildings more than I like people because the buildings don’t talk back. That’s not entirely true. The buildings in this city have been speaking to us for well over one hundred years and they have a lot more to say if we choose to listen.

The buildings in this city have been speaking to us for well over one hundred years and they have a lot more to say if we choose to listen.

It is a special privilege to share this evening with Holly Donaldson. Thanks to the effort of Holly and those who worked with her, the people of Western New York can visit the Wilcox Mansion to see where a President was inaugurated and to learn about the social and economic forces that forged the beginning of the Twentieth Century they can learn this not by reading a textbook or from a dry lecture but from a tactile, physical presence in the very location where events took place that shaped our city and our nation. This building speaks to thousands of people every year. Imagine Buffalo today without it.

Imagine Buffalo without the Allendale Theatre, Shea’s Performing Arts Center, the Birge Mansion, over half of the buildings on Main Street between Virginia and Allen Streets, All of Genesee Street between Oak and Ellicott Streets, the Old Post Office, the Guarantee Building and many other structures that not long ago were considered outdated and disposable. All have today been restored and refurbished and continue to contribute in a meaningful way to the fabric of our city.

Such structures create a sense of place, a sense not only of who we were but of who we are and who we aspire to be. Like the Wilcox home, each building has a story and is the repository of events both great and mundane that collectively shaped the lives that we lead today.

It is not just these great buildings that are important, the fundamental works or the works of famous architects. The vernacular architecture in our neighborhoods is equally important. The homes that immigrant craftsman spent hours upon hours imbuing with detail. The homes where generations of families raised their children. We can visit these homes and buildings in our neighborhoods and see how history repeats itself today.

Oscar Wilde said that “Memory…is the diary that we all carry about with us.”

To that I would add the codicil that our historic architecture is a diary we leave behind for others.

Our historic architectural legacy is not disposable. We must begin to think differently about the buildings that shaped our society. Each one is a limb or a digit or an organ of our civic body. Each time we allow one to be lost for a parking lot or a speculative venture or because it is easier to build new than to restore, we lose a part of our collective selves.

Just as we recognize importance of historic architecture in telling our story, the past that we leave behind must also be judged by the society that we bequeath to the next generation.

A century ago, throughout the East and West sides of Buffalo, Polish and Italian and German immigrant families had chicken coops and vegetable gardens in their back yards and they brought unique food styles and cultural traditions that once were confined to those ethnic enclaves but are now part of the collective fabric of our city. They also brought their skills and their craftsmanship and their traditions and their desire to create a better life for their children. Their cultures shaped the city that we know today as they learned English and became integrated into the community with the help of churches and settlement houses. These were followed by Spanish and African American families who brought yet more new traditions and new ideas.

Today, we have entirely new enclaves of immigrants and refugees who come from countries that would seem exotic, alien and other-worldly to our ethnic ancestors just as surely as those earlier immigrants did to those who preceded them.

Our society has a collective duty to ensure that opportunities exist for our newest residents just as it did for earlier ones.

Our society has a collective duty to ensure that opportunities exist for our newest residents just as it did for earlier ones. Certainly the types of opportunity are different in 2018 than they were in 1901 when Theodore Roosevelt took the presidential oath of office in the Wilcox Mansion. Regardless, we still must welcome others and help them to find a place in our society. Theodore Roosevelt told us that

People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care”. This, as much as our historic buildings, is what we will leave behind in our collective past and it is how we will be judged.

We must recognize and create opportunities that welcome all and allow all to succeed on the merits of their work. We must create pathways to success that integrate the unique contributions and skills that new cultures bring with them and we must do this in ways that celebrate rather disparage our differences.

Oscar Wilde also once said, “A red rose is not selfish because it wants to be a red rose. It would be horribly selfish if it wanted all the other flowers in the garden to be both red and roses.”

Let us celebrate all of the flowers in our garden in the preservation of our historic architecture and in the diverse populations that live and work in these structures and bring them to life.

There is much chatter these days that we live in uncertain times, but the fact is, all times are uncertain.

There is much chatter these days that we live in uncertain times, but the fact is, all times are uncertain. Not one of us knows what tomorrow will bring. The best that we can do is look to our past, learn from our history and use the benefit of our collective experience to make decisions that will improve the lives of those to whom we bestow the riches of our city.

Thank you.

–  J L White

Written by Buffalo Rising

Buffalo Rising

Sometimes the authors at Buffalo Rising work on collaborative efforts in order to cover various events and stories. These posts can not be attributed to one single author, as it is a combined effort. Often times a formation of a post gets started by one writer and passed along to one or more writers before completion. At times there are author attributions at the end of one of these posts. Other times, “Buffalo Rising” is simply offered up as the creator of the article. In either case, the writing is original to Buffalo Rising.

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