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