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.
9500 Clarence Center Road, Clarence, New York
By Dr. Jeffry Iovannone
9500 Clarence Center Road is located in Clarence Center, a hamlet of the town of Clarence, New York. Established on March 11th of 1808, Clarence was the first township in Erie County and progressed from a heavily-forested rural town to the suburb it is today. The land upon which Clarence was established was originally inhabited by Indigenous peoples. By the early nineteenth century, white settlements became part of the town’s development. 9500 Clarence Center Road, built circa 1835, is a classic and well-preserved example of Greek Revival architecture. It also, perhaps surprisingly, holds a prominent place in Western New York’s transgender history.
The property is located on the northeast corner of Clarence Center Road and Railroad Street and is a two-story, cross-gabled Greek Revival style residence. It features a cut-stone foundation, wood clapboard siding and shingles, a frieze band, frieze band windows, corner pilasters, and a wood shingle roof. The residence is divided into three building campaigns. The main block is front-gabled facing Railroad Street and features the residence’s primary entry and prominent gable wall chimney. The secondary block is a rear wing to the main block that features a one-story full width porch that faces Clarence Center Road. The third block is a one-story rear addition to the secondary block. An original large board and batten barn remains at the back of the property.
Greek Revival style was popular in the United States from 1825 to 1860. So dominant was Greek Revival, particularly in states that between 1820 to 1860 experienced significant population growth, that it was called the National Style. The style originated in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, with buildings such as the Bank of the United States before, beginning around the 1830s, gaining prominence within domestic architecture. The character defining features of Greek Revival include gabled or hipped low-pitched roofs, cornices emphasized with wide bands of trim, and porches (either entry or full-width) supported by prominent columns that typically reference the Doric style of classic Greek architecture. Additionally, Greek Revival houses may have frieze band windows, which are windows set within the band of trim set beneath the cornices.
On October 19th of 1954, 9500 Clarence Center Road was purchased by Peggie Ames and her then wife, Gladys L. Dietterich, from Roy W. Wilson, a local Clarence accident and health insurance agent, and his wife Betty. Peggie and Gladys, however, were not a lesbian couple, and Peggie was not publicly out as her true self. Born in 1921 in Buffalo, New York, Ames was identified as male at birth. Beginning around the age of 12, she sensed she was “different.” She dressed in her mother’s and sister’s clothes and borrowed their cosmetics when alone. She enrolled in Westminster College in New Wilmington, Pennsylvania, and joined a fraternity in an attempt to fit in with her male peers. It was also at Westminster where she met Gladys. The pair married and had a child, David, before Ames was drafted into the Air Force during World War II. Honorably discharged a year later, she completed dual degrees in Business and Psychology at the University at Buffalo, opened, with Gladys, an insurance business, and had three more children: Cynthia, Marsha, and Daryll.
In notes for her unpublished autobiography, written on March 28th of 1979 under the subheading “Where I’ve Lived,” Ames described the purchase and history of 9500 Clarence Center Road:
One night as we glanced at advertisements in the sales portion of the daily newspaper want ads, one read most fascinatingly. Nothing would do but a phone call be made so I could stop to see it if possible, the very next morning when I would be passing through the community of its location, on a business trip. Perhaps only in a few instances of a special garment, or a carefully selected concert have I ever experienced such excitement, immediacy of knowing this is exactly what I and we the family, want. I could not stop thinking about it all day long and so that evening we made another drive out and past the ‘new old house.’ Yes, it was to be our ‘new house’ but in truth, in reality, our old house for it was what I matured into wanting, a larger, interesting, historic if possible old house. This one was at one time an inn served by its inn keeper for 17 years, and one resident had lived there for 70 years. At the time of this writing and my continued residency in it, it is 158 years old. We’ve traced it through deeds, town historical records and with one of the former town historians.*
The Dietterich family enjoyed an excellent reputation in Clarence due to their involvement in a wide variety of community activities. In 1973, their insurance agency was selected for membership in the Kemper Insurance President’s Club, the highest accolade by the Chicago-based Kemper organization for outstanding sales and service. Life carried on at 9500 Clarence Center Road, but secrets lay hidden beneath the house’s historic facade.
Ames lived a dual existence. When she traveled for business trips, she presented herself as the man everyone assumed she was for professional commitments, but was Peggie the remainder of the time. She followed the story of Christine Jorgensen, the first trans celebrity who brought the concept of “sex change” to the forefront of American consciousness, in the media. Ames observed that, although the well-dressed and witty Jorgensen was celebrated by some, many saw her as little more than a freak. Her suspicion that the attitudes of the general public in Cold War America were not conducive to a public declaration of her identity was confirmed.
It was not until 1973 that Ames learned the word “transsexual,” and the feelings she described as “incessant, continual, obsessional, and always intensifying” fell into place. That same year, on a day when she was at 9500 Clarence Center Road alone, Ames fell asleep, and her wife returned home to find Peggie, not the husband she thought she knew. In her personal writings, Ames recounted the discovery of Peggie and the subsequent fallout:
This occurred on a Friday evening when I had arranged to be home all afternoon and lived as Peggie most of that entire day. She came home about 1:30 am Saturday and found me, unconscious due to carburetor inhalation, all dressed. Sending me to bed, I arose later that morning and we started a talk that went for some 3 ½ hours, the most meaningful communication of our entire marriage. Decided she would seek divorce, we would live together as two women. We were to see each set of married children, our friends and I was to talk with neighbors as I would be living in same community where we had been for some 18 years. Well known, active in community affairs so this seemed best way to handle it all. This lasted about 4 months when she advised she could not handle my lesbianism—it was apparently a threat to her own femininity and her Presbyterian, Scotch descent background—so violate that she was under psychological counseling and medication… It was when my father’s death occurred and that threat also removed, that we finally separated. Friends, relatives and some neighbors totally rejected me and with intense harassment, ridicule, property damage, personal injury etc… This all started when she left our home to me, during property settlement of divorce. Family was of no support all during this terrible three year period just nor terminating to almost non-existence of troubles. Those that persist are still most annoying, hurt deeply emotionally—I do not know any of the harassers, etc.
The deed for 9500 Clarence Center Road was transferred into Peggie’s legal name on September 11th of 1973 when the couple divorced. Gladys, in turn, became the sole owner of the Dietterich Insurance Agency. She remarried Stanley M. Stone of Corfu, New York, and the couple took up residence at 10545 Cedar Road in Clarence Center. Stone, unfortunately, died on December 1st of 1977 at age 49 after suffering a lengthy illness. As a result of losing the family business and being rejected by her community, Ames struggled financially for the remainder of her life. To support herself, she opened a furniture refinishing and antique restoration business, Pyne Crafts, that she operated out of the barn located at the back of her property, and taught adult education courses on woodworking.
Yet, Ames pressed forward with her transition. After consulting with doctors at the Harry Benjamin Foundation in
New York City, she underwent sex reassignment surgery in 1974, which at the time cost around $8,000. She saw the same doctors as tennis player Renée Richards, one of the first out trans athletes. In her writing, she noted that while she admired Jorgensen and Richards, she had to forge her own path because, living in a rural community, her life was different from theirs in significant ways. Whereas Richards became a reluctant spokesperson after being outed by the press, Ames realized that staying quiet or closeted would do little to advance acceptance in Western New York.
Ames joined the Mattachine Society of the Niagara Frontier (MSNF), Buffalo’s first gay and lesbian civil rights organization. She was elected secretary of MSNF in 1973 and 1974 and was praised for the efficiency and skill with which she performed her duties. Ames also participated in MSNF’s peer counselor training program, organized panels on transsexualism for Buffalo’s annual Gay Pride Week, and joined MSNF’s Speakers Bureau. In a 1978 profile of Ames written for the Buffalo Courier-Express, she estimated that she had lectured to around 12,000 people on the topic of transsexualism, primarily medical, nursing, and Psychology students at the University at Buffalo and other area campuses. She often began her lectures by throwing a bag of rocks on the table to get the audience’s attention and illustrate the type of harassment she faced. Broken glass was a frequent occurrence at 9500 Clarence Center Road. Boys from Clarence Center often ran by the house screaming obscenities and further expressed their intolerance by hurling rocks through the windows.
Ames’s advocacy also had national reach. She was an established contact person for the Erickson Educational Foundation (EEF) and later, when the EEF folded in 1977, the Janus Information Facility, based out of the University of Texas. Established in 1964 by the independently wealthy trans man Reed Erickson, the EEF became the leading organization to fund research into transsexualism and to provide information and support to trans people in need of guidance. Trans people, particularly those from the Western New York area, who called the EEF for support were often referred to Ames for peer counseling or transition-related guidance. Ames, in fact, ran an EEF-registered informal counseling service out of her house and provided shelter for trans women in need of temporary living accommodations.
In a letter to real estate agent Alvin Miller, written on April 22nd of 1975, Ames noted that “the home and my crafts shop is one of extreme psychological and economic value to me.” 9500 Clarence Center Road allowed Ames to both continue her advocacy and to support herself financially. By the late 1970s, Ames estimated she knew around 100 other transsexuals in the Western New York area, but she was one of few willing to be out in public. Though she faced great harassment for doing so, her work helped to dispel common prejudices towards trans women and provide guidance and support to her fellow trans sisters.
Despite Ames’s advocacy, she was rejected by many members of Buffalo’s gay and lesbian community. Some lesbians, particularly younger, more radical women, saw her as a threat to the local progress of women’s liberation. Ames was expelled from two lesbian organizations. Gay Rights for Older Women (GROW) wrote her a letter stating they feared her presence would would compromise the organization as a whole. The women of GROW had trouble relating to Ames’s transsexual history and regarded her enthusiasm and outspokenness as evidence of her “maleness.” Many of these women, however, had few experiences interacting with transsexual women and little knowledge of trans issues in general. As Buffalo women came into their own and found their voices, they may have been influenced by the perspectives of prominent feminists such as Robin Morgan. In 1973, Morgan, for example, famously described Beth Elliott, a transsexual lesbian feminist and singer, as “an opportunist, an infiltrator, and a destroyer — with the mentality of a rapist.”
Though Ames mostly withdrew from public advocacy after the early 1980s, she continued to educate and provide support via her peer counseling and correspondence, which allowed her to remain engaged while minimizing discrimination. The networks Ames, and other trans activists, created in the 1970s and ‘80s laid the foundation for the national and international communities trans people formed with the popularization of the internet in the 1990s and contributed to a new wave of transgender activism. Ames’s belief that trans women should be included within feminist organizations also anticipated the development of a unique trans-feminist perspective in the late ‘90s and early aughts.
The deed to 9500 Clarence Center Road was put under the name “Peggie Ames” in 1984 when, due to continued financial troubles, Ames refinanced her mortgage. Though she contemplated selling many times, Ames never did leave her historic Greek Revival house despite the pervasive mistreatment she faced. In refusing to be cast out, she turned the rocks first used to shatter her windows into tools of education and change. She built herself, and her house, up stronger than before. 9500 Clarence Center Road became her passion, her place of refuge, and a confirmation of herself—of Peggie:
Anyone who has lived in an old house, desired so intensely to restore it, will both revel and sympathize with me at all of the challenge and the heartache coupled with the costs and problems that go into such an effort. Nevertheless that was exactly what we started out to do. Pick up from the folks from whom we purchased had stopped when they had to move due to business transfer, and finish a dream.
Now this home represents an extension of me, my personality and my work. Folks who visit near immediately react to these forces. They often exclaim how warm, hospitable and much like me, my interests and the comfortableness the entire house projects. It loses its houselike character and becomes a part of the occupant.
Peggie Ames passed away in 2000 at the age of 79. She left her estate to longtime friends Jim Haynes and Don Licht, who sold the property to its current owner in 2001. Ames dealt with many hardships, but was never solely a victim. Through her stubborn persistence, she paved the way for future generations of trans and gender-nonconforming people in Western New York and beyond.
*In quoting from Ames’s personal writings, I have corrected spelling errors for purposes of readability. All idiosyncrasies in grammar and punctuation are Peggie’s.
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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 and other platforms at https://linktr.ee/drjeffgenderprof.
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“About Our Town: Town of Clarence.” https://www2.erie.gov/clarence/index.php?q=about-our-town
Erickson Educational Foundation Publications, Digital Transgender Archive. https://www.digitaltransgenderarchive.net/col/x059c745c.
Geiger, Jack. “Christine, Ex-G.I., Returns to U.S. As a Sleek Woman.” Times Union (Albany, NY), Feb. 13, 1953.
“Honors Given Corfu Agency.” The Batavia Daily News (Batavia, NY), Jan. 3, 1973.
Iovannone, Jeffry J. “The Life and Legacy of Trans Activist Peggie Ames.” The Establishment, Nov. 12, 2018. https://theestablishment.co/the-life-and-legacy-of-trans-activist-peggie-ames/index.html.
Leiker, Louise. “A Transsexual’s Anguish: Alone, Assaulted and Harassed.” Buffalo Courier-Express (Buffalo, NY), May 14, 1978.
Morgan, Robin. “Lesbianism and Feminism: Synonyms or Contradictions?” The Lesbian Tide, Jun. 1973, 30-34.
Peggie Ames Papers, Dr. Madeline Davis LGBTQ Archive of Western New York, Archives & Special Collections Department, E. H. Butler Library, SUNY Buffalo State.
“Reed Erickson.” Making Gay History: The Podcast. https://makinggayhistory.com/podcast/reed-erickson/
“Stanley M. Stone.” The Batavia Daily News (Batavia, NY), Dec. 3, 1977.
“Town of Clarence Intensive Level Survey of Historic Resources,” New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation, Jan. 2009.
Carole Hayes with author, August 6, 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.