Gay Places with Dr. Jeff – 69 Johnson Park

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Welcome to Gay Places with Dr. Jeffry Iovannone. PBN’s newest blog series is dedicated to celebrating and learning more about the historic LGBTQ landmarks of Western New York. With this space we will highlight the work of Dr. Iovannone and other guest writers to provide insight to the LGBTQ history associated with our existing historic built environment- narratives which are frequently forgotten, ignored, or purposely left out.

 

69 Johnson Park, Buffalo NY
By Dr. Jeffry Iovannone

 

69 Johnson Park, built c.1855, listed on the National Register of Historic Places as part of the West Village Historic District.

69 Johnson Park is an exquisite Victorian house located in downtown Buffalo just south of the historic Allentown neighborhood. A fine example of Second Empire architecture, it is significant to Buffalo history as a contributing resource of the West Village National Register Historic District. The house, however, is noteworthy for more than its Victorian-era authenticity. It is also one of the many places in Western New York that is significant to the LGBTQ history of the Buffalo-Niagara region.

69 Johnson Park is a two-and-one-half story Second Empire style brick residence. Representative of the style, it features round arch windows topped with decorative keystones, a richly dentilled and bracketed wide overhanging eaves, molded cornices, and is topped by a Mansard roof with round arched dormer and porthole windows. The main entry is accented by a one-story, wrap around porch supported by square columns and an open rail of square balusters. 

Second Empire style was popular in the United States from 1855-1885, contemporaneous to the equally popular Italianate and Gothic Revival styles. While the latter styles were part of the Picturesque movement, which looked to the romantic past of architecture for inspiration, Second Empire style was considered very modern, as it drew from new and fashionable French architecture. The name Second Empire actually refers to the reign of Napoleon III (1852-1870), which was known as the Second French Empire. While Italianate and Second Empire drew from different influences, they share many character defining features, including wide overhanging eaves, tall narrow round arched windows, and molded cornices. The major difference between these styles is the use of the mansard roof. Italianate buildings usually have hipped or gabled roof forms, but Second Empire style buildings are defined by their mansard roofs, essentially a dual-pitched hipped roof. Or more whimsically, an overly large ornamental top hat. 

Built circa 1855, likely by Alonzo Tanner, a prominent lawyer and real estate investor who once had a law partnership with President Grover Cleveland, the residence was originally known as 17 Park Place. The longest owner/occupant of 69 Johnson Park was the Chamot family when they assumed residence in 1866. Patriarch Christopher P. Chamot was a cobbler who manufactured, according to an ad from the Buffalo City Directory, “ladies’ and men’s theatrical boots and shoes” at 269 Washington Street. Chamot and his wife, Eugenie Monin Chamot, immigrated to Buffalo from their native France. 

The Chamot’s daughter, Lydia, taught at the Buffalo State Normal School (now SUNY Buffalo State) and lived at 69 Johnson Park until her death in 1936. Her sister, Eugenie L. Chamot, who for many years was head of the French department at Masten Park High School (now City Honors), also lived at the house until her death in 1948 at age 92. The sisters were survived by their brother, Dr. Emile M. Chamot, a professor of chemical microscopy and sanitary chemistry at Cornell University. 

The Chamot sisters may have taken on borders at 69 Johnson Park, but after their death the property was fully converted into a rooming house. It functioned as such until the 1970s when it was rehabbed back into a single-family home, likely by then owner, Donald G. Lee. In December of 1983, Lee sold the property to Dr. James D. Haynes who, along with his partner Donald A. Licht, returned the house to its nineteenth-century splendor, both outside and in. Haynes and Licht were not only self-taught preservationists—they were two of Buffalo’s most prominent gay rights activists.

Haynes, who was originally from Poplar Bluff, Missouri, and completed a doctorate in Biology from Iowa State University, came to Buffalo in 1967 when he was hired as an associate professor at Buffalo State College. That same year, he met Licht, an Anthropology student at the University at Buffalo, at T&T’s Western Paradise, a short-lived gay bar located at 1239 Niagara Street. 

James Haynes with friends. Photo courtsey of The Dr. Madeline Davis LGBTQ Archive of Western New York, Archives & Special Collections Department, E.H. Butler Library, SUNY Buffalo State.

In the late 1960s, the pair helped found the Mattachine Society of the Niagara Frontier (MSNF), Buffalo’s first gay and lesbian civil rights organization. The original Mattachine Society was founded in Los Angeles in 1950, and the name became synonymous with early gay rights groups. The Mattachine were an underground medieval French fraternity who gave public performances that challenged social customs. Early gay rights pioneer Harry Hay chose the name because Mattachine troupes conveyed vital information to the oppressed in the French countryside. The modern Mattachine Society, similarly, sought to bring knowledge to oppressed American homosexuals. The Mattachine Society was the first gay organization of its kind to have longevity, and during the 1950s and ‘60s chapters proliferated throughout the country.

Haynes was the first chair of MSNF’s Health Committee and worked, alongside Licht, to develop a peer-counselor training program and hotline that was adopted by gay and lesbian organizations beyond Buffalo. Richard McGinnis, a MSNF member during the early 1970s, refers to Jim Haynes as “The Whampanator.” He uses this expression to describe how Haynes was the beating heart of Buffalo’s gay community—a leader with compassion, drive, and determination who motivated others and got things done. 

Licht assisted MSNF in several capacities over the organization’s lifetime (1970-1984), serving as its vice president, treasurer, and chair of social planning. Haynes and Licht were joint members of MSNF’s Speakers Bureau and spoke to audiences throughout Western New York on gay and lesbian civil rights and liberation. 

MSNF reunion October 12, 1991. (Front left to right) Bruce Greenberg, Don Licht, Jim Haynes, Eileen Katz, Bobbie Prebis, Madeline Davis, Rchard Roeller; (Back left to right) Unknown, Unknown, Don Cichaels, Richard McGinnis, John Yanson, Peggie Ames, Bob Brosius. Photo courtsey of Bruce Greenberg and Richard McGinnis.

During the 1980s, Haynes, who began studying the HIV/AIDS pandemic, helped co-found the Western New York AIDS Program (today Evergreen Health Services) and, with Licht, Mark Boser, Tom Hammond, and Robert Uplinger, Gay & Lesbian Youth of Buffalo (now Gay & Lesbian Youth Services of Western New York). In 1986, Haynes was appointed by New York State Governor Mario Cuomo to the Governor’s Task Force on Gay Issues. After MSNF folded, the couple became active members of the Buffalo Gay and Lesbian Community Network, co-founded by Carol Speser and Larry Peck. In addition to their activism, Haynes and Licht were known for hosting period-authentic Victorian holiday parties at their recently purchased Johnson Park home that featured an evergreen tree decorated with real candles lit in a meticulous and ceremonial fashion.


Not only did the pair work tirelessly to preserve 69 Johnson Park, but LGBTQ history in Buffalo. In 2001, they helped found the Madeline Davis GLBT Archives of Western New York, now housed in SUNY Buffalo State’s E.H. Butler Library. Haynes passed away on November 9th of 2008. Licht, who remains in Buffalo, sold their home of nearly four decades in 2019. This stunning Victorian-era residence remains as a reminder of Buffalo’s former glory and, often unacknowledged, LGBTQ history.

 

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Dr. Jeff Iovannone is an historian, writer, educator, and third-generation Buffalonian who holds a Ph.D. in American Studies, specializing in gender and LGBTQ studies. He is currently at work on a book about Buffalo’s gay liberation movement from the late 1960s to the early 1980s and is an avid collector of LGBTQ historical materials. He is the coordinator of the Women’s and Gender Studies Program at SUNY Fredonia and a board member of the Buffalo-Niagara LGBTQ History Project. You can find more of his writing on Medium at medium.com/@jeffry.iovannone

 

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69 Johnson Park Bibliography

Atlas of Greater Buffalo. Philadelphia: Century Atlas Company, 1915.

Atlas of the City of Buffalo. Buffalo: Hopkins Publishing, 1872, 1884, 1891.

“C.M. Chamot Named Exchange Professor.” Buffalo Evening News (Buffalo, NY), May 7, 1924.

James Haynes and Donald Licht Papers, Dr. Madeline Davis LGBTQ Archive of Western New York, Archives & Special Collections Department, E. H. Butler Library, SUNY Buffalo State.

Ross, Claire L. “West Village Historic District,” National Register of Historic Places Nomination Form. Washington, DC: US. Department of the Interior, National Park Service, 1980.

“Miss Chamot is Dead at 92; Was Teacher.” Buffalo Courier-Express (Buffalo, NY), Mar. 9, 1948.

Roscoe, Will. “The Radicalism of Harry Hay.” Gay & Lesbian Review Worldwide Vol. 20 Issue 6 (Nov/Dec 2013): 11-14.

Steele, David. “69 Johnson Park, WOW!!!!” Buffalo Rising, October 4, 2018. https://www.buffalorising.com/2018/10/69-johnson-park-wow/.

 

Interviews

Bruce Greenberg and Richard McGinnis with author, January 8, 2020.

Carol Speser with author, October 5, 2018.

Donald Licht with author, October 9, 2018.

The Historical Development of the Gay Community in Buffalo, NY, interview by Justin Azzarella, April 11, 2002, Dr. Madeline Davis LGBTQ Archive of Western New York, Archives & Special Collections Department, E. H. Butler Library, SUNY Buffalo State.

Jim Haynes and Don Licht, interview by Keith Gemerek, 2004, Dr. Madeline Davis LGBTQ Archive of Western New York, Archives & Special Collections Department, E. H. Butler Library, SUNY Buffalo State.

 

Online Resources

Buffalo as an Architectural Museum. http://www.buffaloah.com/a/bamname.html

Buffalo City Directories https://nyheritage.org/collections/buffalo-city-directories

BuffaloResearch.com. http://www.buffaloresearch.com/index.html

Preservation Buffalo Niagara. www.preservationbuffaloniagara.org

 

Expand the Michigan Sycamore Historic District

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Preservation Buffalo Niagara (PBN) submitted an application to the City of Buffalo Preservation Board to expand the Local Historic District centered around Michigan and Sycamore Streets downtown.

The current district includes properties at 68, 72, and 82 Sycamore Street as well as at 608 Michigan Avenue. The proposed expansion will include properties at 63, 67, & 77 Sycamore Street and 578, 582, & 588 Michigan Avenue.

These properties were built in a time period spanning from 1847 – 1929 and as a collection show the evolution of Buffalo from a raucous canal town to an industrial City, especially depicting the role of immigrants (both from abroad as well as from the American South) in building Buffalo. Help us expand the district:

 

Social Housing and Historic Preservation

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Essay adapted from Jessie Fisher’s presentation at El Museo’s Shoreline Symposium.

 

When the decision was made to clear the land that would become the site of the Shoreline Apartments, it was as part of a larger urban renewal effort unveiled in the late 1950s encompassing 17 projects designed to “eliminate the principle sore spots in the City” and projected to induce more than $400 million in private investment.  Indeed, Mayor Frank Sedita declared at the time that “urban renewal is a matter of survival.”

The shoreline neighborhood shown here prior to redevelopment was considered to be contributing to economic deterioration in surrounding areas, in addition to being “sub-standard” itself.  It was determined that major redevelopment was the best path forward, and hundreds of homes, dozens of businesses, and a school were sent to a landfill to make way for the future.

Only forty years after its completion, the same argument – almost verbatim – was made to justify the removal of the Shoreline project.  Hundreds of units of housing have been torn down, and the rest are slated to be sent to a landfill, to make way for the future.  So what went wrong, and what is the role of preservation in these types of places?  To begin to answer these questions, we have to understand a little more about the history of social housing in the United States, and think about the traditional and potential roles of historic preservation in our community.

Shoreline did not, of course, mark the beginning of urban renewal or of large scale public housing in Buffalo.  Indeed, Buffalo was an early adopter of public housing, completing its first four projects:  Kenfield, Lakeview, Perry, and Willert Park within five years of the creation of the Federal Housing Authority by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

The creation of the FHA itself was the result of decades of work by activists and reformers to solve what was a substantial and growing housing availability and affordability problem.  Urban housing conditions had been a growing source of concern since the dawn of the industrial revolution, but by the turn of the 19th century the issue had reached a fever pitch, which was only exacerbated by two world wars and the Great Depression.  Studies at the time showed that across Europe and America, the private marketplace was only able to provide housing for the top third of income levels, leaving a growing urban population to crowd into tight quarters and poorly maintained structures.  It became clear that some sort of bold public intervention in funding and building would be necessary.

Following World War 1, many European nations seized the opportunity to create large scale social housing programs aimed at increasing availability and affordability, as well as increasing the architectural quality of new housing. The architects working on social housing projects were the top in their field, and were focused on building the best possible product for people.  Far from viewing social housing as shameful or unworthy of high standards, these projects were seen as exciting and as critical parts of building stronger, healthier, more successful citizens and communities.

Early American housing reformers were overall successful in bringing new European design ideas about housing and public space to this country, and many of our most prominent and important modernist architecture examples are in the form of public housing or municipal buildings from this era.  However, two uniquely American factors would make social housing provision very different in the US versus Europe.

The first was racism, and how segregation would come to be codified in housing finance and housing provision practices.  Of the first four projects built in Buffalo, 1700 units of housing were erected to serve white residents, while 170 were erected to serve black residents.  These projects were situated carefully to either create or reinforce existing patterns of segregation.

The second was an emphasis on “clearing slum and blight.”  While in Europe, cities were rebuilding after World War 1, in the U.S. it was seen as necessary to clear away existing “substandard” neighborhoods in order to build newer, more modern neighborhoods in their place.  The emphasis came to be twisted to emphasis the clearance, while actual provision of housing seemed to take a back seat, and these early attempts at housing reform actually displaced as many people as they housed.  For instance, in the Ellicott District of Buffalo alone, urban renewal housing provision actually left at least 1,900 primarily African American residents displaced when not enough new housing units were built to make up for the number demolished.  Strict controls on family size permitted in the new housing projects also exacerbated this displacement issue.

If Shoreline was built as an integrated housing project, our earliest projects most decidedly were not.  At the direction of the FHA, housing projects were mostly mandated (with a few exceptions) to be segregated by color, and the first three projects that were planned in Buffalo were to house exclusively white families.  The Buffalo Urban League and other African American leaders fought hard to get a project that would house Black families in Buffalo.  Segregationist housing policies and racist lending practices meant that most of Buffalo’s black families in the 1920s and 1930s were confined to an increasingly over crowded Ellicott district, and the construction of public housing was seen by many as a way to get better, more modern housing.  In fact, the major organized opposition to Willert Park within the Black community at the time came over concerns that the project site selected was not big enough, and that more units would be needed.

Many of Buffalo’s most prominent black leaders at the time were involved in the siting and design of Willert Park, and the complex was heralded upon its completion by the New York Times art and architecture critic Ada Louise Huxtable, in particular for the cast sculptures depicting every day African American life that adorn the buildings, including the door way to each apartment.  It was also included in the Museum of Modern Art’s 1940 Guide to Modern Architecture in the Northeast States, as one of eight significant Buffalo buildings, featured alongside such beloved tourism destinations as the Darwin Martin House and Kleinhan’s music hall.  Eleanor Roosevelt visited the project to see first-hand the living embodiment of the ideals of the Federal Housing Authority.

In addition to the praise heaped upon its design and construction, Willert Park became an important social force in the community.  Home to the original Buffalo Garden Walk, competitions were held annually by complex manager and resident Alfred D. Price for the best gardens, and the communal courtyards and intimate setting gave rise to a generation of Buffalo’s black middle class who went on to become the doctors, teachers, politicians, and business owners who shaped so much of our City.  If there is a place in Buffalo that deserves listing on the National Register that touches multiple listing criteria spanning architecture, history, and associations with prominent people, surely it is Willert Park.

And now, eighty years later, virtually the same argument that was invoked to build Willert Park, is being brought forth again to justify its demolition.

Willert Park and Shoreline share many qualities:  celebrated architects, architecture that was widely recognized and lauded at the time, and now, the same arguments that willed them into existence are being used as arguments to why they should go:

  • They are sub-standard;
  • They are unhealthy for people;
  • They simply do not fit the way we live today.

And of course, these arguments are the same ones that are made every time housing for people, whether subsidized or not, stands in the way of other priorities – these were the arguments made by civic leaders in promoting the destruction of Allentown for a west side highway connector, or the destruction of Prospect Hill for a new Peace Bridge Plaza and Duty Free Shop to name a more recent example.

What if anything are preservationists supposed to learn from this?

The main thing we must understand before taking any steps forward is that our issues with public housing have nothing to do with architecture, and everything to do:

  • With our attitudes toward poverty;
  • With our assumptions about who lives in social housing complexes;
  • With who is making decisions about the worth and quality our neighborhoods;
  • With who benefits from the constant churn of large scale publicly funded projects;
  • And maybe, most importantly, with how we see (or don’t) the living, breathing people who call these places home.

Does that feel uncomfortable?  Too political?  Outside of the usual preservation mandate?  Welcome to why saving even the most architecturally and historically important public housing projects is so difficult for the preservation community.

As a field, we simply do not know how to have these conversations, and in so many instances, lack the deep relationships with those who can help us learn.

As a profession, we are trained to do the research, tell the story, determine whether and how to save the physical fabric.  If we talk about people, it is people of the past whose story we tell, it is rarely the story of our fellow contemporary citizens, and it almost never draws a vision for the future.  If we save the building, it doesn’t necessarily matter who does it or what the future use might be so long as it is architecturally sensitive.  After all, we’ve built an entire practice around adaptive re-use.

Preservation of public housing reveals the inadequacy of those approaches to meeting this challenge.

If we save the physical fabric of Willert Park or Shoreline but they become privately owned upscale housing or office complexes, which there is a market for, is this okay?  If they were saved and in continued use as social housing, are we unfairly limiting the housing choices of BMHA and other low income residents based on an historic but impractical ideal, as the Executive Director of BMHA has suggested to me?  What is our role in this dialogue as preservation professionals who may not live in the affected neighborhoods?  What tools do we have, and what tools do we need to ensure that our profession is sharing and contributing our knowledge, while ensuring that other voices are also heard?

To meet this moment in time, and to work to create answers to these questions, preservationists are going to have to open up

our tool kit and take a different approach, and we will need to build new relationships across a broader range of communities and movements.  We must not look simply to find allies in fights we have pre-determined are worth fighting, we must strive to BE allies for those who have been displaced continuously, and denied, through both action and inaction in our sector, the benefits of historic preservation.

In Buffalo today, about 5% of our fabric is protected through our local preservation ordinance.  If you were to read the city’s cultural heritage through the lens of what we have saved, you would come away with a sense of a place built almost exclusively by and for wealthy white men.  But this is not the story of our City.  If you believe the studies, as I do, as many of us in this room do, that protecting the tangible evidence of our shared history and culture strengthens community cohesion and brings stability and pride to people’s lives, than the narrow way we currently practice this profession is not just limiting, it is in complicity with forces that are denying certain people the right to stable, culturally rich homes and neighborhoods.

If we want to develop a field that is relevant to the present and future, and not just as a branch of real estate development or tourism, then we must be willing to fight for everyone’s home, and everyone’s history, and we must be willing as professionals to work with other fields to ensure that we are not just conserving the physical fabric of places, but are deeply respectful of their cultural significance, and uplifting the agency of the people most embedded in the places we serve.

This is Viola Hill, the last tenant to leave Willert Park.  She wanted to stay in the place that she called home.  She wanted to have neighbors again and watch children play in the grassy courtyard in front of her apartment.  If preservation is to be relevant, we can’t simply understand architectural styles and historical development patterns.  We must understand and support what it means to be home.

Preservation Buffalo Niagara Acquires 72 Sycamore

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On Thursday December 19th, Preservation Buffalo Niagara acquired 72 Sycamore Street from local developer Rocco Termini with plans to protect the landmark and bring new life to this part of Sycamore Street.

The previous owner of 72 Sycamore proposed demolition of the former boarding house in 2017. In addition to opposing the demolition, PBN worked to acquire landmark status for the building and local developer Rocco Termini stepped in, agreed to purchase it and hold the property for PBN until initial funding could be acquired by the local non-profit.

“I am proud to have provided the stepping stone for PBN to acquire 72 Sycamore,” said Rocco Termini. “Their work to protect historic buildings has been important to revitalizing Buffalo and Western New York and its exciting to see them take this next step in their own evolution as an organization.”

Preservation Buffalo Niagara intends to rehabilitate the building into three units of affordable housing, office space for local non-profit affordable housing specialist Heart of the City Neighborhoods, and a Preservation Resource Center space for PBN where they can hold preservation workshops and provide educational experiences.

“In addition to being an important remaining part of the Sycamore Street landscape,” said Jessie Fisher, Executive Director of Preservation Buffalo Niagara, “This building has a unique and fascinating history and we are looking forward to ensuring that this building remain a part of our city-scape for another 170 years.”

“Heart of the City has been working with historic Buffalo neighborhoods for over twenty years to build and maintain high quality affordable housing options,” said Stephanie Simeon, Executive Director of Heart of the City Neighborhoods. “By partnering with Preservation Buffalo Niagara on this project, we will not only be assisting in the development of more quality affordable housing on Sycamore Street, but we will also finally have a long-term home for our day to day operations.”

The Eliza Quirk Boarding House (72 Sycamore), located on the edge of downtown and the East Side of Buffalo in Erie County, is a pre-Civil War boarding house designed and constructed circa 1848 for its original owner, Eliza Quirk, a well-known courtesan, who occupied the building until her death in 1868.  The structure is a simple, red brick vernacular townhouse style that represents a typical pre-Civil War design signifying its residential use. While the architect (if any) is unknown, the boarding house appears to have been built as both Ms. Quirk’s primary residence and a boarding house with likely additional use as a brothel throughout this period. It is one of the few remaining intact boarding houses and pre-Civil War buildings in downtown.

It is within the Impact Zone of the Michigan Street African American Heritage Corridor, and its preservation is seen as an important component of continuing revitalization efforts in this area.

PBN will be working on securing additional funds through the winter and spring, and hopes for a summer 2021 occupancy.  Preservation workshops will be held throughout 2020 on the site, to help the community better understand the technical aspects of preservation projects.