Olaf William Shelgren Jr.

 tribute composed by architectural historian Frank Kowsky

Olaf William Shelgren Jr., “Bill” to his family and friends, was born in Buffalo on
August 13, 1925. The elder of three sons of Olaf William Shelgren and Doris O. Potter
Shelgren, he received his education at Bennett High School after which he studied architecture at
Cornell University where he earned his degree in 1949. After graduation, he entered the office
of his father, a respected architect in Buffalo. In 1961, Bill inherited his father’s practice and
continued to work as an architect for over thirty years, for many of them in partnership with Fred
Marzec. (Father and son’s office records–the firm names included North & Shelgren; North,
Shelgren & Swift, Shelgren; Whitman & Patterson, Shelgren; Patterson & Marzec; and Shelgren
& Marzec–are now at the Buffalo & Erie County Historical Society.)

An avid student of the historic architecture of Western New York, Bill focused on
restoring historic structures and designing additions to older structures that respected the
building’s original character. Among his best known works are the restorations of the Lancaster
Opera House, Lancaster, New York; the Old Allegany County Courthouse in Angelica, New
York; the Wilcox House, the present Theodore Roosevelt National Historic Site; and the Coit
House, one of the Buffalo’s oldest residences. The “Great Room” he added to his own home
was a space of which he was justifiably proud as were the projects he undertook for his friend
James Prise in East Aurora and Hammondsport.

In 1961, when the Coit House was threatened with demolition, Bill, in association, with
several other people, formed the Landmark Society of the Niagara Frontier, the pioneer
preservation organization in Buffalo. Linda Levine in her 2003 book Beautiful Buffalo:
Preserving the City (Canisius College Press, 2003; the first chapter contains an extended profile
of Bill) rightly called Bill “Buffalo’s First Preservationist.” Indeed, he interpreted and promoted
historic preservation to a rising generation of Buffalonians who were troubled by the wholesale
destruction of the city’s great heritage of historic properties, many with national reputations. At
the time, Buffalo, like most other American cities, saw the flight of the affluent middle class and
center-city commerce to the suburbs and the migration of industry to foreign lands with the
resultant abandonment of many fine buildings. Bill was to Buffalo what Antoinette Downing
was to Newport, Arthur Ziegler Jr. to Pittsburgh, and Carolyn Pitts to Cape May. Indeed, he
enjoyed close friendship with Pitts, senior historian with the National Park Service, and Helen
Bullock, one of the founders of the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

When President Lyndon Johnson signed into law the 1966 Historic Preservation Act that
established the National Register of Historic Places, Bill saw it as a useful tool to promote
preservation locally. As president of the Landmark Society (a post he held for a number of
years), he campaigned vigorously for local preservation legislation. He virtually wrote the
legislation that the common council approved in 1975 establishing Buffalo’s Landmark and
Preservation Board. He served for many years as the board’s first president.

Inclusive in his allegiance to the cause of preservation in Buffalo, Bill gave moral support
to the Preservation Coalition of Erie County when it was formed in 1980, even though he never
abandoned his loyalty to the Landmark Society of the Niagara Frontier. (These two
organizations recently merged to form Preservation Buffalo Niagara.)

From childhood ramblings with his architect father, Bill acquired an abiding interest in
and knowledge of the rural architecture of Western New York, especially its distinctive
cobblestone buildings. Over many summers, in the company of family friend Gerda Peterich, an
excellent architectural photographer, Bill traveled the byways of Orleans, Monroe, and other
nearby counties recording this special regional heritage. Today, many of these dwellings are
listed in the National Register.

In the early 1960s, Bill was active in forming the Cobblestone Society, whose
headquarters, the 1830s cobblestone church in Childs, New York, Bill and his father were
responsible for restoring. He also gave many books from his extensive architectural library–
one of the best ever assembled in Western New York–to the Society’s resource center. Bill’s
own book, Cobblestone Landmarks of New York State (Syracuse University Press, 1978), which
he authored with Cary Lattin and Robert Frasch and which was illustrated with photographs by
Gerda Peterich, was the first serious study of Upstate New York’s legacy of cobblestone
architecture. It remains today a valuable source of information on the subject.

Architecture for Bill was more than bricks and mortar. He took lively interest in the
people who had constructed the houses and buildings he admired and he had many stories to tell
about bygone families and individuals. His cheery sense of humor often flavored the telling of
these tales. He especially possessed a great deal of knowledge about architects who worked in
Buffalo in the early decades of the twentieth century.

Endowed with a spirit of life that valued art, beauty, human contact, and interest in the
wider world, Bill was a well-read individual, an excellent cook, a sterling host, and a generous
friend. In private life, he enjoyed entertaining at his house on Crescent Avenue in Parkside.
That gracious home, where he lived all of his life until recently, and its delightful garden, where
Bill loved to tend a well-chosen variety of plants and flowers, was a personal expression of his
exceptional good taste. It was also the setting of many happy evenings that those who were
privileged to call him friend will surely treasure. In addition to a wide circle of friends, Bill had
many relatives who reside out-of-state, including his brother Richard and his devoted nephew
Richard “Sven” Shelgren. Bill’s youngest brother, Fritz, was killed in the Korean War.

In passing from the scene, Bill Shelgren will take his place among such earlier
distinguished Buffalonians as David Gray, J. N. Larned, and Frank Severance. Like them, Bill
made an enduring contribution to the enhancement of life in this city and to the preservation of
its history and sense of place.

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