Coit House - LINKS
A Vision for the Future of the
By Edward Bickford, descendent of George Coit
The address below was given to the Allentown Association Board of Directors, Feb. 15, 2005, at the Coit House
At some time here in the first half of the last century, the final remnants of the Erie Canal and its Buffalo Harbor were buried under landfill to make room for progress, which, then as now, is often another word for mindlessness. As the so-called progress moved blindly forward, with a cruel predictability the city entered into a long period of disintegration and decline.
One of my most vivid memories of the 1950s is being in my parents car on Rt. 5 and looking across the lake at the shoreline and the miles of smokestacks at the steel plant, which constantly filled the sky with dirty, orange, billowing clouds. In various spots along the waterline a fiery stream of molten slag poured down a sluice and disappeared in the waters of Lake Erie. With a child's despair I thought to myself, "Why are they doing this to our city and our world? Don't they know how wrong it is? They're killing everything." I recall feeling desperate to say something to somebody, anybody who would share my feeling of outrage.
Now in a later scene from the same urban drama, the steel plant has closed and the Erie Canal Harbor and the foundations of the Coit Townsend Warehouse have re-emerged from their long internment to remind us of wiser choices made earlier in our history, at a time when there was a saner and grander vision of what Buffalo could be.
Over the decades that these two Coit legacies were absent there was another corresponding story taking place at 414 Virginia Street. As the smoke stacks spewed their poison into our air, as the lake died and the waterfront became a wasteland, as the whites took flight to the suburbs and as the city's ignorant politicians did nothing to halt what could no longer be called progress by anyone, like an organ in a diseased body, the Coit House became ill and moribund, too. One could almost believe the house felt the city's pain and suffered with it. At one point it was nearly demolished, just as so much it had stood for and been associated with had been swept from the visible urban landscape or had lost value.
However, thanks to the noble efforts of Jonathan White and the Allentown Association, the house was saved. Now it faces another juncture in its long life as it goes up for sale. What happens next may well determine the fate of this house for decades to come.
I'm here tonight as a direct descendant of George Coit to remind you of his vision for this city and the monumental work he accomplished to that end. This house remembers so that we will never forget. The idea of Buffalo and its tiny population becoming a great city took shape within these very walls. Discussions undoubtedly took place here with Townsend, Wilkenson and Forward about the boldest and most momentous decision of all, to transform Buffalo Creek into a harbor for the new canal. I have even heard recently that George Coit may have taken out a mortgage on this house to raise the capital for the venture that would cause little Buffalo to leap overnight into the ranks of prominent American cities.
Speaking for a moment as a life long Buffalonian and not as a Coit descendent, I ask you to consider the nature of the space we occupy here and to reflect on the spirit of this place. What is it that defines the character of this house and, for as long as it stands, will continue to do so?
When I was in Williamsburg Virginia some years ago on one of Andre's many soccer trips, I took some time to visit the campus of William and Mary to see the oldest academic building in America, which is called the Wren Building. I had wandered to the back portico, and I happened to look up at the wall behind me. Carved in the masonry beside the entrance were these words. "In this building George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin all lived and studied."
I was awed as the realization came over me that I was in the place where the young minds were formed which would give birth to the United States of America. If America is an idea the Wren Building is its Bethlehem. It was my actually being right there that made it such a meaningful and moving personal experience. The phenomenon of the Wren Building, itself, and the overpowering significance of who lived there, what took place there and how all that would eventually change the
world forever entered me at every level of understanding. There is nothing that compares with a first hand experience of historical places. Few things are as moving and as laden with meaning.
In a similar way what took place here changed Buffalo forever, too. This is the home of the earliest vision of Buffalo as a city. Much like the Wren Building it endures because it enshrines that dream and the ideas which were conceived here nearly 200 years ago to make it a reality. That more than anything else describes the importance of this house, it contains the soul of the city.
Again I ask you, is it really so hard to imagine that as the city fell apart and deteriorated over the last 50 or 60 years the dilapidated condition of this house expressed the sorrow which its first owner would have felt at the city's demise? Now, as the city resolutely works at its recovery, the Coit house is poised to follow or, may I suggest, to lead the way with the best it has to offer from its storied past. I believe it has a vital role to play as the city rediscovers its identity.
In order for this to happen it must be restored as closely as possible to its original condition, both inside and out. That would include furnishing all the rooms with period furniture, which could be comfortably used, if such a thing is at all possible with the furniture of those days. To do anything less such as to turn the house into a place of business for a commercial enterprise would be to desecrate the memory of my ancestor and to rob the house of its real meaning.
This is a residence. It was George Coit's only home in Buffalo. Because of who lived here, what was accomplished here by him and others and what this place represents as the actual heart of the community, it must belong to the people of Buffalo if they are ever to fully understand who they are and what is the nature of the proud civic image they deserve to bear.
As I see it, the best way to maintain its integrity as a home and to make it accessible to the public is to turn it into a bed and breakfast/museum steeped in the history of George Coit and his fellow architects of Buffalo. Its doors would always be open to anyone who wants to visit or stay here to learn more about Buffalo and to discover what makes us unique.
Is there anything else which could make known the true character of this city as well as this house? A museum is forever a museum where people look and learn completely detached and at a proper, respectful distance. It's no wonder the legs grow weary so quickly. This is a house with a history, which should once again become a home, welcoming guests, where the special history of the Coit House is kept alive for all to enjoy in the most personal, genial way possible.
With that thought in mind I ask you to relax your critical thinking for just a minute. Leave the ramparts of the ego and all its methods for testing reality behind. Take a refreshing breath and enter the world of imagination. It is not at all difficult to imagine that there is an unseen presence in this house, which is listening closely to what is being said. I've used the term a number of times already, so call it the spirit of place, if you will, a feeling, which is unique to this one location and to nowhere else.
With what's in the air tonight -- talk of restoring the Coit House, making it a place where people who love Buffalo can visit and be the guests of George Coit, where memories of Townsend, Wilkenson, Forward, Buffalo Harbor, the Erie Canal, and the city of Buffalo, proud, dignified and prosperous once again -- with all these familiar words and images around us, can you not see that presence smiling with satisfaction again, after many years of sadness and abandonment?
In your final decision how this house will be transferred to a new owner I ask that, whatever you do, be true to the spirit of this place. It contains the soul of the city. There is nothing more valuable to Buffalo's future than that. As citizens of this city, George Coit is your forefather as much as he is mine.