What We Risk Losing

Originally appeared in Artvoice on June 28th, 2012.

The W. W. Woodworth house (left) and the Storms-Wilkeson house (right) are two houses the Public Bridge Authority has neglected and plans to demolish.

To make way for an expanded Duty-Free shop, parking spaces, and a new on-ramp, the Public Bridge Authority wants to knock down a row of houses on Busti Avenue. Here’s why four of those houses are historic.

The Storms-Wilkeson House at 771 Busti Avenue, built circa 1863 for manufacturer Charles Storms, is the only Italianate-style house in present-day Prospect Hill and for some distance beyond. It was occupied after Storms by Colonel Samuel Wilkeson, Civil War hero, grain elevator owner, and grandson of Buffalo founding father Samuel Wilkeson.

Storms made his fortune in constructing the steel scoops, or buckets, that lifted wheat from ships into grain elevators. The naval blockade of New Orleans during the Civil War allowed Buffalo to process almost all US grain meant for Northern states and export, leading to tremendous profit and growth for anyone involved in the grain trade in Buffalo. This resulted in not only a grain elevator arms race, but a mansion arms race. Storms was one of the first out of the blocks, with an imposing Italianate mansion overlooking Fort Porter, Front Park, and Lake Erie.

Topographically and socially prestigious, this shining house upon a hill would have afforded, by means of a spyglass, views of incoming grain ships on the lake. Outgoing grain barges could be seen by walking across Front Park or up the street to the “Bank,” an often overlooked part of Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux’s Buffalo parks and parkways system.

Much of the Bank, incredibly, still survives, though views from it have been affected by the Peace Bridge, and could be further degraded by the proposed plaza expansion.

Not only is the mansion the only Italianate house in Prospect Hill, it is also one of the last such built in all of Buffalo—the style would soon lose out among Buffalo’s rich, in favor of the French Second Empire.

Despite years of neglect by the Peace Bridge Authority, its thickly built-up brick walls stand straight and true. All in all, a perfect architectural expression in the perfect location for someone of Storms’s standing and business.

Matching Storms in wealth and exceeding him in fame and pedigree was Wilkeson, who lived in the house for two decades after the Storms’s left. Wilkeson returned from the Civil War a hero (a Grand Army of the Republic post was named after him), and went right into his father John’s grain elevator business. The mansion at 771 Busti would have had even more appeal to him than to Storms, for the house was across the street from Fort Porter. One imagines him reviewing the troops from his front porch and dining often in the officer’s quarters.

Wilkeson only moved out of the house when his sister, who occupied the ancestral manse on Niagara Square, died in 1903. Wilkeson died in 1915, after which the Niagara Square house was demolished. A gas station rose on the site, later replaced by City Hall. The Storms-Wilkeson House is the sole remaining physical link to Buffalo’s founding family.

The W. W. Woodworth House at 777 Busti was built for prominent attorney Wayland W. Woodworth and his wife, Emma Moore Woodworth. The Stick-Style house, built circa 1881, is unusually chaste for the type, perhaps reflecting an outward probity on the attorney’s part; at the same time it shows that era’s trend toward simplifying surfaces, being much less showy than Buffalo Caulkin’s House on Franklin Street, for example.

Emma’s sister Alice was Roycroft founder Elbert Hubbard’s mistress. The coupling produced a daughter, Miriam, whom Alice gave birth to in Massachusetts. Miriam was brought to Buffalo to live with the Woodworths at 777 Busti. Miriam was told that her mother Alice was her aunt. Scandal erupted in 1901, when the Woodworths sued Hubbard for child support, producing newspaper headlines. That ended Hubbard’s marriage with his first wife, Bertha.

The Bird House at 783 Busti was built in the early 1880s for Civil War veteran William A. Bird. His father, Colonel William A. Bird, was a Revolutionary War veteran, for whom Bird Avenue in Buffalo is named. As would be expected for someone building a house on Busti Row, Bird had lineage second perhaps only to Colonel Samuel Wilkeson. Bird’s great-uncle was Peter Porter, shipper, trader, Congressman, and founder of Black Rock.

The Seymour House at 791 Busti first shows up in records in 1881. By 1882 physician Abbey Janet Seymour owned it. Seymour was a rarity: a woman of considerable reknown in what was largely a male preserve. Her death—she was struck by a train at the bottom of Front Park’s bluff in 1895—was reported in the next day’s New York Times and subsequently by medical journals across the country. Talented beyond medicine, she was a singer and artist before receiving her medical degree, and was part of the “Literary Club of the Hill.” The house has a low-pitched gable typical of the Greek Revival, which may indicate an earlier construction date and movement to the site.