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Buffalo's Endangered Polish Cottages: A Plan for Preservation
124 Coit Street: Typical of the thousands of wood framed dwellings built by German developer Joseph Bork. It was Bork who donated the land for St. Stanislaus Parish. This picture was take in the early 1940s. In addition to Bork, ownership of the property can be traced back to Charles Townsend (Townsend St.), Guilford Wilson (Wilson St.) and George Coit for whom the street is named after. The lot size is 30 feet (Front) by 108 feet (Deep). The barn in the rear of the picture was built by the Broadway Brewing & Malting Company and still stands today (2006).
Buffalo has been called one of the finest architecture museums in North America. With masterpieces by Wright, Richardson and Sullivan dominating our landscape, the city has begun to realize the value of our unique architectural assets. Additionally, historic districts surrounding a park system designed by Frederick Law Olmsted continues to be a source of pride just as they were when city fathers commissioned the projects over a century ago.
Progress has been made to preserve and promote large scale projects designed by well noted names in the architectural world. While the future of the GuarantyBuilding and the Darwin Martin House are stable at the moment, an architectural genocide is currently taking place in Buffalo historic Polonia. By the hundreds a unique form of dwelling, built to house the area's immigrant population, is silently being bulldozed into oblivion.
Housing the Masses
Immigration of Poles to Buffalo began in earnest in the mid 1870s as hundreds of thousands escaped German controlled areas of Poland. Railroad lines and lake transportation made Buffalo an important stop on westerly travel. Many Poles passed through Buffalo as they made their way to areas near Chicago, Detroit and Milwaukee.
Joseph Bork, a former City Treasurer and prominent land developer, understood the economic value of the Polish immigrants. Bork owned a large track of land from Smith Street east to the Belt Line (New York Central Railroad tracks near present Curtis Street) and from Howard Street north to Broadway. At this time land east of the city was mostly undeveloped farmland. Out of generosity, and in an effort to quickly develop his property, Bork donated the property on which St. Stanislaus was founded. It was his hope that with a church of their own Poles would settle in Buffalo instead of continuing to points west including Illinois, Michigan and Wisconsin.
In 1873, Bork began to build little one-story wooden dwellings in the shadow of St. Stanislaus Church. Over 400 homes were erected in less than three months which were sold to Poles on the basis of twenty-five or fifty dollars down and the rest payable under mortgage. The original settlement bordered Smith Street to the west, William Street to the south, Fillmore Avenue to the east and Broadway to the north.
Bork built homes became the foundation of Buffalo's Polonia. Three common styles of dwellings emerged to house the thousands of Poles who looked at Buffalo as their new home. The first style constructed were one-story buildings, containing eight rooms and an attic. As a rule, four bedrooms measured seven by seven feet. Three families usually occupy a house of this style, one family having two rooms at the front, another two rooms behind these and the owner used the four rooms in the rear. The second style of home was a two-story building with eight rooms on each floor. As most of these building were constructed after the passage of the tenement house law of 1901, the bedrooms in them were a little larger, as a rule seven by ten feet but the other rooms were the same. Six families commonly lived in a house of this style. A third type featured two stories at the front and one at the rear containing twelve rooms and accommodated four to five families.
Deborah Anders Silverman's book Polish American Folklore describes homes as "simple story-and-a-half wooden cottages set in narrow gardens enclosed by wooden fences. The long uniform rows were broken at intersections by two-and-a-half story buildings which housed a grocery store, a saloon or sometimes a drug store. One or two streets were given over to business places, combined homes and offices of professional men and homes of more prosperous citizens."
The cottages were, in reality, crowded multiple dwellings for two or three families. The interiors evoked the Old World, with many holy pictures framed in gilt or polished wood, some forming the center of an altar with an eternal lamp, the Easter palm, and a herb bouquet blessed on Assumption Day. Homes also featured a small font for holy water inside the door; the inscription K+M+B over the doorway; beds piled high with pierzyny (feather-filled comforters); potted plants in windows; a garden with sunflowers, hollyhocks, lilac, sweet jasmine, and such vegetables as carrots, cucumbers, parsley, dill, and chives; a henhouse; and a woodshed.
Through various ownership changes, the Bork built Polish cottages housed Buffalo's Polonia for over 125 years before economic factors lead to the migration of many Polish-Americans to city suburbs. Today, the few surviving homes located in Bork's initial development area are in extremely poor condition. The future fate of many is that of the bulldozer.
This home on Wilson Street is one of the best-preserved “Bork Cottages” in Polonia. Having had some remodeling in the 20s, it still retains much of its original architectural integrity. The home has been in the same for over 125 years.
Today's Need to Preserve
While traditional preservation is focus on large-scale projects located in mainstream areas of the city, the architectural transformation of Polonia has been drastic. Without notice, hundreds of unique wood framed homes and businesses have been torn down only to leave vast blocks of open fields. Crime, poverty, post-war flight and the high costs associated with maintaining wood framed structures in Western New York's climate are all contributing factors to the area's demise. Time is running out to preserve a "typical" home of Polonia to that could help tell the story of the neighborhood and the immigrant population who built the "Great Eastside."
A LivingMuseum: Dom Polski
The story of the thousands of Poles to immigrated to Buffalo from the 1870s to the 1920s is not just important to Polonia but to the social, economic and historic fabric of Western New York. To teach future generations about the environment that fostered a thousand American success stories, I propose the building of a PolishHomeMuseum and EducationalCenter. The center would be located in historic Polonia and housed in a restored Bork cottage. For many the name “dom Polski” or Polish home, refers to the Buffalo organization established in 1905 to assist Polish immigrants adapt to their new country. The Polish Home of 2006 would act as a primary destination to capture the growing cultural tourism market. The concept of telling the story of American immigration has proven to be successful for cities around the country. From Ellis Island to recreated “living museums” like the GeneseeCountyMuseum in Rochester, people are fascinated by authentic exhibits that immerse the visitor in a long-gone experience.
The Lower East SideTenementMuseum in New York City is an example of a museum focused on the immigrant story. Founded in 1988, the building that houses a museum and preserved tenement house, was called home by some 7,000 people from more than 20 nations--from Turkish and German Jews to Sicilian Catholics and Poles--over the course of 72 years (between 1863 and 1935).
In Pittsburgh, the JohnHeinzHistoryCenter hosts a popular exhibit that allows visitors to walk through a home of a 1910 Polish steelworker. The exhibit features a poorly lit kitchen with simple furniture, religious icons and a large cast iron stove. Visiting the exhibit you truly feel part of the immigrant experience.
In Pittsburgh, the John Heinz History Center hosts a popular exhibit that allows visitors to walk through a home of a 1910 Polish steelworker. The exhibit features a poorly lit kitchen with simple furniture, religious icons and a large cast iron stove. Visiting the exhibit you truly feel part of the immigrant experience.
Recently restored Nash House located at 36 Nash Street between William and Broadway is an example of how a dilapidated structure has been brought to life to tell a story. The structure holds a special place in the 20th century history of Buffalo's African-American community as the Rev. J. Edward Nash was involved in social efforts that eventually evolved into the NAACP.
Can this happen in Buffalo? The recently restored Nash House located at 36 Nash Street between William and Broadway is an example of how a dilapidated structure has been brought to life to tell a story. The structure holds a special place in the 20th century history of Buffalo's African-American community as the Rev. J. Edward Nash was involved in social efforts that eventually evolved into the NAACP.
The PolishHomeMuseum and Education Center of Buffalo would act as a stage for hands on demonstrations including cooking and folk art, a setting for authentic holiday traditions and house artifacts related to the founding of Buffalo's Polish colony. Genealogical records could be stored on site as Polish-Americans look to recover their past.
The targeted property would be located in the unofficial Polonia Historic District in close proximity to St. Stan's, the Broadway Market, Central Terminal, the Adam Mickiewicz Library and Corpus Christi. An additional cultural attraction would add to the "critical" mass of unique institutions already in place.
Wilson Street, looking north to Peckham St. and St. Stans.
GOING, GOING, GONE....A DRIVE AROUND POLONIA 2/25/2006