Starting from scratch
Creating a home above Raclettes restaurant
Photos by kc kratt
When the Wilkinses say their residence above Raclettes restaurant on the 500 block of Main was empty when they closed on it the last day of 2011, they mean completely—save for an outlet hanging from a wire. Three years later, when they moved in, it was a 5,000-square-foot home so well appointed that they lack for nothing they had in their former Grand Island house of roughly the same size. Except maybe the pool and a garden, though the latter is in the works for the rooftop.
But it was an adventure.
In 2011, when Sandra Wilkins went searching for a space at the behest of her sister, who lived in Charlotte and wanted to return to Buffalo to open a restaurant, she found the vacant building at 537 Main and fell in love. Her husband, Paul—who she says was “literally laying the last tile in the bathroom we were adding for when the grandkids came out of the pool when I came home and said, ‘we’re moving’”— fell in love with it, too. The building, which, circa 1920, held a thriving drugstore/salon/furrier, was now “an empty shell, but these windows,” she says. “Are you kidding?”
Where to begin? Though the couple worked with architect Benjamin Siegel, Sandra largely credits her husband with the open floor design of the two-level apartment. Beginning from a practical premise of “We entertain, we eat, and we watch movies,” Paul began laying down duct tape to figure out what areas would serve which functions.
“The thing about starting with wide open space is you can plan anything you want,” Paul says. “You’re not restrained by walls. Every day I’d walk in and say, ‘this is awesome, I can’t wait,’ and the next day I’d walk in and say, ‘what have we done?’”
The entertainment and eating mandate gave way to large formal dining and living areas; much of the furniture came from the Grand Island house, including a large, antique carved sideboard. “We kind of loved everything we had,” Sandra says. “I don’t like to change things. I bought the dining room chairs in 1994 and just recovered them.” The living room chairs have also been recovered.
The kitchen section is, of course, giant, and anchored by a sixteen-foot island with a granite top that had to be brought up in three sections by six men. The Viking stoves came from the Grand Island house as well, and the bright yellow walls are also strikingly similar to the old décor. On top of the black wood cabinets are “3,000 corks from our life together,” says Sandra. “Every time we drink a glass of wine, we throw the cork up there.” (Downstairs in the restaurant bar, the bartenders do the same.)
“Paul wanted to keep the brick,” Sandra says, “but I’m Italian and make a lot of sauce, so he just left cut-outs to see the original brick.”
Not that the home lacks for original brick; it’s everywhere, and Sandra scraped, sanded, and washed all of it herself over three weeks’ time working at night. “I can literally say I’ve touched every brick in this building,” she says, noting that the restoration work saved them $15,000 and lost her seven pounds.
That wasn’t the only work they did themselves. Paul laid floors and Sandra stained them. Paul used found beams to build a bench, “people-watching table,” and fireplace mantel; a carpenter used them to fashion a railing. He replaced stairs at three hours per, and designed kitchen lighting to match the Edison-style living room sconces and dining room chandelier. Paul even created for Sandra an office under the stairs that, when not in use, is hidden by hinged found door, painted bright blue. When a carpenter built the stair banisters from found pipes, Paul mimicked them in the kitchen’s pot rack. The ceilings are left beamed and bare, because “they’re so uneven, it wasn’t even worth trying to do anything with them.”
“We like to do this stuff together,” Sandra says. “We worked all day and he’d start building something and I’d paint something. We worked together all the time.”
Guest space for five grandchildren and visiting relatives was also a necessity, but not something they wanted to give dedicated space. Instead, Paul designed the movie screening room—which features an enormous sectional to match the enormous full-wall screen that measures 164 inches across—to be easily sectioned off to include a full bath. When there are no guests, the movable partition is an artsy part of the décor. The efficient use of space means they’ve actually gained living square footage; “even though it’s gigantic, everything is used,” Sandra points out.
The Wilkinses’ own “bedroom” is a suite that occupies the building’s entire third floor. All open, it features a bed area so big that the couple bought their first king-sized bed after sleeping on a full for twenty-five years; cozy sitting area with a second fireplace and a beverage station that allows them to conveniently enjoy coffee in the morning and wine in the evenings without going downstairs; bathroom area with dual open rain showers next to an oversized jet tub and two sinks; makeup room; supersized walk-in closet (yet half of the one in the Grand Island house) with a separate hat closet and shoe wall; laundry room; and a gym with treadmill and weights set-up. A small courtyard for dining has access from the gym and hallway, which also features the half “sky bath.”
At the time of purchase, the 500 block of Main was a lot of boarded up buildings—“there was nobody,” Sandra says. “We’d watch people walk out of the Hyatt, look around, and then walk back in. Now there are people all around us. We have neighbors”—and banks were reluctant to grant a mortgage, especially one that included an intended restaurant. It wasn’t until the Wilkinses sold their former home, luxury car, and vacation property in the Southtowns; took a personal loan; moved into the Sidway; and completed nearly all of the residence renovations—which totaled more than double the cost of the building—that they finally got a mortgage. The bank advised not mentioning the restaurant.
When it was all done, the couple gave up their apartment and prepared to move into their new home—and then the city told them it needed new electric downstairs. They moved into the Hyatt across the street for an intended six weeks; that became six months after the city started tearing up Main Street to reopen to cars.
While they waited, the Wilkinses satisfied themselves with finishing touches like hanging artwork. “We collect art everywhere we go. We usually buy direct from the artists and then bring it home and frame it,” says Sandra, pointing to a wall of fish-themed art. “We have all these fish paintings and we never knew, because in our old house, they weren’t all together.” One Paris drawing has been replicated as a mural in the restaurant downstairs; the couple also has a great deal of local art.
Finally, in December 2014, they moved in. The restaurant took another year and a half to open, and by the time it was ready to go, Sandra’s sister had decided Buffalo wasn’t the place for her after all. But with the staff already hired, a now booming 500 block to encourage them, and an attitude of “we’re not the kind of people who say, ‘let’s just stop’,” they went into the restaurant business to great success. Sandra essentially runs it, while Paul still works full-time as co-founder and COO of credimac. They have never looked back.
“When we moved into the Sidway, that’s when we knew,” Sandra says. “We were living in an apartment smaller than [our former] kitchen and we didn’t miss it for one minute. From Grand Island, we stopped going out because we didn’t want to drive, so we hardly went anywhere. We loved living in Buffalo and wondered why we didn’t do this twenty years ago. We wanted to move downtown, but if we hadn’t done this, we would never have left our house. The city has so much to offer, especially now.”