Urban Exercises: A Portrait of Little
By Mark Goldman
Reprinted with permission from the author and Buffalo Spree, March/April 2000
Illustrations Beneath Text
Of all aspects of Buffalo's rich history and heritage, nothing appeals to me more than the city's neighborhoods -- the streets, the houses. For over thirty years of countless drives through all the city's nooks and crannies, I have derived a deep sense of pleasure and contentment from slow, peaceful drives around this fascinating urban landscape.
Perhaps it started when my son Charlie, a restless baby, insisted on rising daily at the crack of dawn. Living then on Summer Street, in a large third floor apartment atop a great Victorian home, I piled him in the car, strapped him in his baby seat, and took off on yet another urban adventure. As he slept, lulled by the rhythm of the car, I explored a city I was slowly beginning to call my own. Wherever we went, I sensed a certain stillness, a sense of quiet unlike anything I had known in New York City, where I'd grown up. History lingered, languored really, as places and people often seemed somehow stopped in time. I could feel and touch the city's history In the Old First Ward, where the empty, Sphinxlike grain elevators loomed over tiny, wood-frame homes. At the Ohio Street bridge, where the sights and sounds of that incredible span evoked gentle remnants of a previous century. On Trinity Place, a tiny, breathtakingly still and wondrous street, tightly packed with 19th century brick and frame homes. In Hamlin Park and Allentown, where dedicated neighbors and community groups lavished love and attention on their historic neighborhoods. On the West Side -- Norwood, Ashland, Highland, Lexington -- where arches of trees had somehow managed to survive the ravages of disease, and houses were embellished with wrap-around porches, filigreed woodwork, and glowing stained glass windows.
Where I've lived
While I deeply appreciated the value that these historically rich homes and neighborhoods offered, I've never lived in one until this year. Our first dwelling in Buffalo was a flat on Rand Avenue, a pleasant but rather uninteresting street. We then moved to Summer Street, and while the building and our apartment were richly detailed, fascinating spaces, the street was busy and noisy, with none of the village-like appeal of the places I was discovering with my children.
Middlesex and Lincoln, our next addresses, were Buffalo's first suburbs. Their large lots and deeply set-back homes had a different beauty. Most socializing was done indoors or in backyards. There are no front porches and pedestrian life is limited to the jogger or powerwalker. Yes, the Pan-American had been held there. Indeed, McKinley was shot just down the street from where I lived. But its history was captured on markers and monuments, not embedded into the fabric of the place. Cars whizzed by to and from Route 198, and the traffic on Delaware drowned out the breezes in the trees and the birds in the bushes. Often, the pleasant sounds of summer were overwhelmed by the noise of swimming pool filters and gas-powered lawnmowers.
So this summer, when I sold my house, I began to look for a place that was richer in its past and therefore, I thought, warmer in its present. I was led, serendipitously, to "Little" Summer Street on Buffalo's West Side. Like one of the three Persian princes of Serindip who are always making discoveries on their travels, sometimes by accident and sometimes by wisdom, I found Cottage #3 at 388 Summer Street.
Located just north of the original city boundary at North Street, Summer Street did not begin to develop until well into the 19th century. Like so many of Buffalo's streets, it is still redolent of its origins; one foot remains in the past and the other is in the present. Summer Street proper begins at Main Street with 19th and 20th century commercial buildings, and features stolid High Victorianism private homes and expensive apartments between Delaware and Elmwood, and -- after a rude intrusion of drive-in bank and convenient store at Elmwood -- resumes its turn-of-the-century comfort between Elmwood and Richmond.
"Little" Summer Street
But here it stops, and what Summer Street becomes west of Richmond is really something wonderful. First, some history. Until 1854, the west side of Buffalo north of Porter and west of Richmond was part of the Village of Black Rock. Indeed, the corner of Jersey (originally "New Jersey") and Rogers (later Richmond) was the site of the Black Rock Burial Ground. The land between Porter and Rogers/Richmond was first bought by the Ketchum family in 1829 (hence, Ketchum Place). While West Summer and Union were surveyed sometime shortly thereafter, it was not until the early 1870's that Lydia Cox, whose family had bought the property from the Ketchums, subdivided it and had built on it a complex warren of identically laid-out brick cottages. The area became known as "Coxtown."
The Coxes were English immigrants and it is clear that they intended their development on West Summer Street and Union to resemble the towns and villages of their home country. What remarkable is that the world Lydia Cox created in the 1870's is still completely intact today. What's still more remark able is that now I live here.
Little Summer is a world unto it own. It is a small street, curved in the middle like an elbow, that joins York (originally "New" York) and Richmond. Because it is one way, it is accessible only from York. The street therefore has no through traffic on it, and remains quiet day and night. West Summer, as it was called until the 1890's, Summer as it is called now, or Little Summer as I like to call it, is still lined with the fifteen brick cottages built by Lydia Cox in the 1870's. Interspersed with a handful of turn-of-the-century frame houses, Little Summer has the otherworldly look and feel of a dream. To drive here from any other part of the city is to pass into a place so different it feels surreal. Here is the quiet of the woods and the warmth of a village. To come home to Little Summer is to be embraced by place.
My house is more removed, still more rooted in the past than the rest of the street. More of an authentic cottage, it is the third of three identical one and a half story buildings joined closely, like pearls on a chain. All are on a tiny lane that runs off Little Summer. To get home, I walk down a narrow, secluded path, pass through a creaky wooden gate, admire the sun-mottled brick walls of my neighbor's homes, and pass through another gate, under an arbor of ancient branches, into my new home. The house itself is much like it was when it was built one hundred and twenty-odd years ago The floors are six inch tongue and groove, and the view outside my bedroom window is the leaf-covered brick wall of White's Livery Stable on Jersey Street. I hear no street noises, ever.
What I like most about living at 388 Summer Street is that, now, more than ever before, I have a sense of connection to the unfolding story of this city, its future as well as its past. Despite its age -- my house was already close to thirty years old at the end of the last century -- there is something about this house and this neighborhood that feels very contemporary, as if there are lessons of value in these historic stones. We can learn from Little Summer; we can also learn from Richmond Avenue, a stone's throw away.
By the end of the 19th century, Richmond had become one of Buffalo's choice neighborhoods, a broad, tree-filled street, lined with the large homes of Buffalo's new rich. It was here, when Richmond was simply known as "The Avenue," that horse-drawn sleds raced at annual winter festivals held throughout the early 1900's. More significantly, it was here that the great Frederick Law Olmsted, driven by a vision as broad as the avenue itself, created his notion of a series of grand parkways that would organically link his park system. For Olmsted, Richmond was the main artery that would pump the fresh lake air from Front Park down Porter to Symphony Circle. From here, it gathers force and energy, wrapping itself around the Circle, like some great combine at work, and then moves down Richmond to Ferry (where the circle was lost long ago). At that point, the feeling of great open space that Olmsted knew was so essential to urban life continues down Richmond to Colonial Circle. At that point, Bidwell Parkway takes over, renewing and restoring the city through space, light, and parkland.
Lydia Cox's vision for Little Summer Street and Frederick Olmsted's vision for Richmond Avenue both have relevance for those of us who care about the future of Buffalo. Little Summer offers living proof that small is in fact beautiful; that careful, tasteful, and sensitive use of existing spaces, with great attention paid to detail, works. Little Summer, a regular prize winner in the Buffalo in Bloom contest, is a street residents love. They nurture it, knowing that new residents, like me, will continue to discover its delights. Richmond Avenue, on the other hand, supports the value of thinking large. Richmond is an integral part of a much larger whole. Like Olmsted's entire Buffalo park system, from Front to Delaware to Martin Luther King, it is a living, working model of how planning can and should work for the public work. Just as Little Summer is a living, working model of what a small urban community should be. As we move on and ponder the future, we need to think at both levels.
Mark Goldman is a Buffalo businessman, activist, and author of "City on the Lake: The Challenges of Change in Buffalo, NY."
NOTE: The illustrations below are NOT part of the reprinted Spree article above.
Cottage #2 at 388 Summer Street. Nominally Italianate style because of front gable and squat rounded windows and door. The porch and railings are an addition.
Cottage #1 at left. The brick on Cottage #2 has been cleaned.
Cottage #3 at right has second story dormers added.
Left side of Cottage #2
Right side of Cottage #2. Note the change of brick which indicates an original window and door were removed - probably after the rear addition and probably to increase the usable space in the kitchen.
Cottage #2: the rear addition
Cottage #2: Front door
Cottage #2: original Greek Revival style corner block in the window surround
Cottage #2: original floor
#405. Note rounded window sashes. Most first floor windows in these photos do not have original rounded windows. Square sashes in round-headed windows are always replacement windows and are more likely a convenience issue rather than a cost issue. Shutters not original.
Note transom window above front door.
Note addition at left.
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