436 Amherst Street has many stories to tell, so it’s fitting its rehab will debut with an exhibit telling the story of its neighborhood. After a decade of being covered by boards or murals or – more recently – scaffolding, the building that a certain generation knows as “the place where Spolka’s used to be” will wear, on its refreshed face, an exhibit of historic photos and exhibit panels telling the story of Black Rock (details at the end).
History buffs will recognize the panels from an exhibit mounted at the Buffalo History Museum in 2014 along with photos from the Black Rock Historic Photo Project. This time around, instead of going into the museum, you can experience it by going into the neighborhood, outside, surrounded by the very history you’re learning.
This is fitting, as perhaps no place in Buffalo better exemplifies Faulkner’s famous line, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” For decades in Black Rock, a dedicated group of volunteers have served to keep alive the flame of a place that still retains the feel of what it once was: a village in its own right. Through projects such as historic markers, murals, collecting historic photos, this now-traveling exhibit, and the Black Rock Historical Society, those who have lived Black Rock’s history work to preserve it and pass it along to the rest of us. And the rest of us seem to be paying attention: when much of this work was published recently in book form it sold out immediately and had to be reprinted.
It takes a village to preserve an urban village – and its heritage.
In much the same way, the renewal of 436 Amherst represents a collective village effort. Building owners, Mark Kubiniec and his sister Judy, have deep roots in Black Rock and owns one of the busiest businesses in the urban village, Joe’s Service Center. Mark is not only an advocate for the community, but also for the blue thread that stitches it together: Scajaquada Creek. 436 faces the creek, at the foot of Peter Street nearby, visible from the roof.
It also faces Assumption Church, and the two buildings share more than a visual connection. 436 Amherst Street includes bricks that were left over from construction of the church’s interior. As Spolka’s, the building also served generations of Polish-American families whose lives revolved around the church across the street – a bit of Buffalo’s Polonia transplanted lock, stock, and parish several miles northwest on the Belt Line.
As Mark showed me the view of the church from the roof, and toured me around the interior, he also told me about all the other community connections to the project. The general contractor is Carl Russo’s CFR Construction & Restoration (also the contractor for Buckminster’s Cat Café on Niagara Street). The building number on the front was painted by “the sign guy down the street,” meaning Jake Moslow of JM Signs. Also just down the street is the leasing agent, Bob Biniszkiewicz (an always-insightful Buffalo Rising commenter). And the replacement bricks in the front facade came from a stash of salvaged construction materials kept by Rob Niemiec, a founder of the Black Rock Historical Society. Swiatek Studios, which did astounding restoration work on the church across the street, was also involved in the project.
All the custom craftsmanship shows in the retained historic features inside and out. Steve Swiatek of Swiatek Studios told Mark he had never seen the kind of center-pivoting windows on the second floor street side, but restored them to working order regardless. Triglyphs on the capital of the corner column were reproduced from a literal back-of-the-envelope design. Mark refinished and re-hung a massive steel fire door in the basement himself. In the finished storefront and the unfinished units upstairs, there are plenty of examples of historic construction techniques and materials: speed tile, arched brick lintels, foundation walls of Onondaga limestone full of the dark flint that gave Black Rock its name. Some of these details can be seen in the photo gallery below.
Architects on the project were Brad Wales, with whom Mark created an exhibit about Scajaquada Creek that was shown at Betty’s in the 1990s, and Dave Deboy of eco_logic STUDIO. The storefront design followed the outline created by Mark’s son, an architect, that once graced the boarded up storefront, based on historic photos of the original.
Earlier this year, Mark told Buffalo Rising,
CFR Contracting is the general contractor performing this spectacular work as designed by eco_logic STUDIO. Brad Wales, Architect designed the residential phase. Design of the work has been inspired by the memory of Dave McMahon, general contractor.
At the end of our tour, summing up so much work done by so many, Mark described the project as “Not me. We.”
Even the project funding has a local component, beyond Mark’s own investment. The New York Main Street Program grant through the Better Buffalo Fund was awarded to the Grant-Amherst Business Association and overseen by the successor to Black Rock NHS, Neighborworks.
Additionally, an economic development grant was approved by National Grid that will “offset electrical upgrades at two separate mixed-use renovation projects at longtime vacant buildings” – 436 Amherst Street and 516 Amherst Street. The latter is owned by Mark Kubiniec – a 954-square-foot storefront and two housing units. Each of the grants was $50,000.
436 Amherst and the church that towers over it are built of the same fabric, and some of the same hands may have built both. Day in and day out, year in and year out, 436 Amherst has echoed back the ringing of the bells and the footfalls of the faithful. We may never know the number of Masses celebrated on the block, but we do know that the midpoint of each is the “bringing of the gifts,” a ritual dating back to the early Christian church when, according to the Book of Acts, believers “held all things in common.” In this ritual bread and wine are brought forward, symbolic of the fruits of the labors of human hands in the world and also symbolic of the elements of the Eucharist. In the Mass, these Eucharistic elements fortify the people to go out and mend a broken world and prepare the way for a better day to come.
Across the street, at 436 Amherst, people have also brought their offerings and the fruits of their labors, helping to mend a broken village and taking another step toward a better day. The ongoing revival of Black Rock reflects generations working thus together. Collectively they have a lot on their plate, with not only an urban fabric to revive, but a landscape, an ecology, and hydrology in the Scajaquada corridor that have suffered the depredations of urban highway construction, industrial environmental legacies, and sewage overflows. The preparation and display of this exhibit suggest they will undertake those missions in the same spirit: with a deep respect for their collective heritage, and using their history as a guide to their future.
SCAJAQUADA CREEK: Black Rock Historic Photo Project display unveiled on Amherst Street!
The award winning Black Rock Historic Photo Project is re-installed in the 436 Amherst St. storefront. This show opens Friday September 25, 2020 and continues into the month of October. It is free and open to the public, and completely viewable from the street in the restored historic facade. The exhibit storefront will be lit day and night and can be seen 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
This exhibit focuses on photos of Scajaquada Creek at a critical time of awareness and concern for pollution, recreation, park and water access, highway infrastructure, brownfield redevelopment, local transportation, and other related environmental issues that are the topic of much discourse among local scholars, concerned citizens and our government.
The exhibit is being put on display by Jackal Holdings, in conjunction with the Buffalo History Museum who created it in 2014 from the photographs collected by the Grant Amherst Business Association’s Photo Project.
This is presented in conjunction with the Scajaquada Canoe Club and Buffalo-Niagara Waterkeeper’s Scajaquada September 2020.