Great Buildings: Coit House
Coit House, as seen in its current location on Virginia Street.
As it approaches its two hundredth anniversary, the Coit House is reputed to be the oldest standing structure in the city of Buffalo. Despite the turbulence and demolitions suffered by many of the city’s other architectural treasures, the humble Coit House—even though it’s been moved from one site to another, enlarged, remodeled, neglected, converted into apartments, and then changed back again to single family residential—has managed to survive for two centuries.
A classic example of early Federal style architecture/pioneer housing, this was the home of George Coit, a powerful figure in Buffalo’s history. Arriving in Buffalo prior to the War of 1812, Coit built the house shortly after the British burned the village of Buffalo. He would become one of the city’s principal and most influential patriarchs. Among other achievements, he was instrumental in having Buffalo designated as the terminus of New York State’s Erie Canal—in fact, he constructed the last section of the canal, including the Commercial Slip.
Much of the knowledge about the Coit House must be attributed to research by respected architectural historian, Christopher Brown. Brown is a longtime enthusiast, resident, and proponent for the Allentown community. The fact that Allentown in its entirety is a recognized national historic district can be directly attributed to Brown’s efforts. His treatise, The Coit House Mystique, is still the definitive reference documenting the house’s physical condition. Brown documents the cultural and historic significance of the house and its inhabitants, as well as the physical structure. He tells a story of a place where plans were laid and deals were made, highlighting the house’s integral place in Buffalo’s architectural, social, and political history.
During the past fifty years of its life, the Coit House has also been a rallying point and icon for Buffalo’s fledgling historic preservation movement. In fact, efforts focused on saving the Coit House were factors in having the Allentown Preservation District named and listed on the National Register of Historic Places, and one of the reasons the Landmark Society was founded.
The home’s current residents are Sue-Jolie Rioux and Tim Boyland, partners in life as well as in profession. The two designers are using the historic structure as headquarters for their decorating business as well as for their family. In choosing her business name, Tres Jolie Maison, Rioux liked the play of her surname with the literal translation from the French, very pretty house. Fresh from decorating the living room of the Edward Webster House, this year’s Junior League Decorators’ Show House, the team works in a variety of styles, but tends to focus on historic preservation. Therefore, it makes perfect sense for this couple to be the current owners and custodians of the Coit House, a structure steeped in history.
The living room’s elegant and timeless furniture eclectically mixes with the vintage architecture. Cream linen neutrals combine with dark woods and the house’s historic woodwork. Woodwork ranges from original fabric to wood that’s been inserted in a series of remodelings. The living room functions as a place to meet and greet clients as well as to entertain.
Today, the house is zoned to accommodate the decorators’ professional as well as family needs. The first floor is dedicated to the business, with the living room serving as a place to greet and meet clients. The east side of the house has been repurposed as a studio, workshop library, and office. The kitchen, at the rear of the floorplan, is the only space used daily for its intended function.
Last winter’s frigid cold was an eye-opener to the couple, who are accustomed to living in warmer climates, and they spent much of their time and resources dealing with it. They quickly discovered that their attic insulation was comprised of mostly newspaper and horsehair, so sealing cracks and installing insulation became priorities. The need for basic comfort also drove decisions towards investing in heating and plumbing systems upgrades.
The house dates to a period spanning the years 1814 to 1815. It was constructed on the southwest corner of Pearl and Swan Streets, on part of the original parcel of land bought by Coit and his dear friend, Charles Townsend, who were among the fewer than five hundred of Buffalo’s original residents who returned after it was razed by the British in 1813.
The two-hundred-year-old home combines beautiful original woodwork, like the stairway’s newel post, with mid-century mantels and assorted Greek Revival updates. The house’s most charming features, however, are the floors. The vintage wooden planks are of varying widths (from two to twenty inches) and of several different species of wood, which were mismatched as the house grew. If a visitor could only speak the language of floor, he or she would be able to read the house’s history. Extra-wide door arches on a hallway’s interior wall give evidence where changes were made, as elements were added to the home.
Another voice of history is expressed through the incredible original doors. They’re simple and hand-planed, covered with layers of paint and putty and caulking, with some original hardware. Boylan, currently in the process of stripping and peeling layers, notes, “Owning an historic home kicks OCD into high gear. It’s a labor of love that takes both time and patience. ”
Boylan and Rioux, who have been together long enough to finish each other’s sentences, are keenly aware of what it means to live in such a historic space.
Boylan: “The goal is to preserve the state of as much of the original material as we can, not aiming to restore to any particular period. ”
Rioux: “I’ve become close with Susie Coit, (great-great granddaughter) who reached out to me. She described Hannah and George being in the home, so I now feel the energy more profoundly. Now I have an emotional connection with the family, not just a spiritual one.”
Barry A. Muskat is an architectural historian, longtime Martin House docent, and businessman living in Buffalo.