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July 2012

The WAR OF 2012: What We Risk Losing with Peace Bridge Plaza Expansion

Wilkeson Row

The Prospect Hill Historic District, atop the bluff that overlooks the confluence of Lake Erie and the Niagara River, is under attack. The neighborhood is active and vibrant, with a collection of eclectic and unique homes, covering about ten blocks from Front Park to Prospect Avenue. Surrounding the historic Busti Row of houses, beween Vermont and Rhode Island Street, bulldozers have already begun tearing up the sewers and gas lines. Meanwhile, contractors have been ripping off shingles and hammering into chimneys for "asbestos abatement" (despite a Temporary Restraining Order issued by the State Supreme Court against the Public Bridge Authority). 

Not only is the PBA's egregious activity disappointing, it is a CALCULATED dismantlement of the neighborhood, brick by brick, so as to render the houses meaningless, and without context. Despite their efforts, the PBA could never dismantle the connections these structures have to one another, through their well-respected residents over the years.

We will meet to RALLY this Saturday, June 30th at 637 Busti Avenue, 10:00am. We're fighting Peace Bridge injustices, and we demand the PBA be held accountable as a property owner and a large "public benefit" corporation. It is on behalf of the modern-day residents that we fight, as well as the people who founded the neighborhood:

James and Mary Storms had their grand Italianate mansion on Sixth Street (now Busti) built on this bluff because it denoted their wealth, taste, and desire to take in the best views in the city of Buffalo. James and his father Charles' simple "tinsmith" job title on the census understated their role in creating grain scooping buckets for the burgeoning Elevator Alley on the waterfront. Samuel H. Wilkeson, who owned the house years later, inherited his father John's interest in the Wilkeson Elevator, and he surely was familiar with the Storms from the Buffalo Board of Trade, many sons of whom joined the "Board of Trade Regiment", the 100th NY during the Civil War, raised in part by John Wilkeson. 

Wayland Woodworth and his wife, Emma, built 777 Busti around 1882. Woodworth's obituary mentioned that he worked for the firm of Box and Perkins upon his arrival in Buffalo. Henry Box was a well-known property owner in Prospect Hill before it was fully developed. He had a house built at the corner of Seventh and Vermont Streets (present day Columbus Parkway). Woodworth likely visited the Box family at their home for a meeting or party, and liked the area so much, he was pursuaded to settle there himself.  In 1894, they took in Emma's niece, Miriam Hubbard. She was the child of Elbert Hubbard and his mistress, Alice Moore (Emma's sister). The scandal which broke when Woodworth (a prominent lawyer) sued Hubbard in 1901 for promised child support must have been quite the talk of the town. 

Just next door resided William A. Bird, Jr., son of the William Bird for whom Bird Avenue was named. He also was a Civil War veteran, who served in the 27th NY Light Artillery. The Birds were nephews to Peter Porter, the founder of Black Rock and competitor against Judge Samuel Wilkeson (Samuel H. Wilkeson's grandfather) for terminus of the Erie Canal. Perhaps there was still some family rivalry that the younger generation discussed when William and Samuel lived three doors apart on Sixth Street in the 1880s!

At 791 Busti lived a most unique woman, Abbey Janet Seymour. She obtained her medical training at Hahnemann Medical School in Chicago in 1873 at the age of 20, returning to Buffalo to practice homeopathy. Listed as a gynecologist in medical journals, she was prominent enough that her untimely death on the West Side Railroad tracks at the age of 42 was recorded the very next day in the New York Times. As far as connection to others on the street, her father, Erastus B. Seymour, was a member of the Buffalo Fine Arts Academy (predecessor to the Albright-Knox), along with Samuel H. Wilkeson's uncle, William. They probably traveled in many of the same elite social circles, of educated and well-connected Buffalonians.

Jacob Davis owned the land on which 787, 791, and 793 Busti were built. He was a plumber by trade who created a successful business with his friend John Irlbacher. They bought these three lots from Matthew McComb, an Irish-American developer, and homes sprang up on them in the late 1870s and early 1880s. Davis still owned the properties as late as 1891, likely acting as landlord.   

Finally, the Episcopal Church Home at the corner of Busti and Rhode Island is threatened. The PBA is interested in purchasing part of Busti Ave, along with this lot, on which two historic landmarks stand. The Hutchinson Memorial Chapel, designed by W.A. Archer, was built of Medina sandstone in 1895. The Thornton Memorial Building, at 24 Rhode Island Street, was designed by Henry Osgood Holland and built in 1905. Both were landmarked by the City of Buffalo in 1980 due to their architectural and social importance. We can not afford to lose the Thornton to an ugly new Duty-Free store, and allow off ramps that will choke off the Chapel from its context on the street. 

Read more about the background of the neighborhood in this week's Artvoice guest column, written by Tim Tielman, Executive Director of the Campaign for Greater Buffalo.