Preservation-ready: 771 Busti
If the Wilkeson-Storms House at 771 Busti disappears from the West Side streetscape, a big chunk of Buffalo history will disappear along with it. Owned by the Public Bridge Authority and declared a local landmark by the Common Council in 2009, this property—along with several others nearby—faces almost certain demolition.
Though its ultimate fate may be sealed, 771 Busti’s architectural and historic provenance is well-documented. It was built circa 1863 for Charles Storms, whose manufacturing company specialized in grain elevator buckets. Although the architect is unknown, the style is distinctively recognizable as Tuscan Villa, an Italianate variant. Tuscan Villa proponents Andrew Downing and Calvert Vaux felt that the charm of structures such as this could be found in their “well-balanced irregularity.” Like many of the brick Italianate structures seen throughout Allentown and the West Village, the house is notable for its tall, narrow arched windows (sadly, the bottom three were replaced by a single wide window), its stone lintels, its low-pitched roof, and its wide, decorative eaves. A narrower wing extends back from the rear, with a two-story el at the side. A cupola was removed at some point; if present, it would complete the tally of Italianate elements most beloved by American architects.
As handsome as this stately structure is, its lifelong historic significance carries equal weight with the architecture. After the Storm family left, Colonel Samuel Wilkeson moved into the house in 1885. He was the grandson of the Samuel Wilkeson known as the “Father of Buffalo.” The elder Wilkeson secured the Erie Canal terminus for Buffalo and was mayor in 1836. His grandson was no less distinguished: having enlisted in the New York Volunteer regiment in 1862, he saw action at Harper’s Ferry, in the Blue Ridge campaign, and at Gettysburg, contributing greatly to Lee’s defeat at Gettysburg. After the Wilkeson family’s Niagara Square mansion in 1903 was replaced by a gas station, the Busti structure became the only building connected with the Wilkesons left in Buffalo.
Although city of Buffalo structural engineers have called for the demolition of the Wilkeson home, that does not necessarily mean that it is beyond rehabilitation. What is clear is that the space it occupies may still be used for the scaled-down expansion of the U.S. customs plaza. According to PBA general manager Ron Rienas, preservation is also part of the PBA’s plan: “We want to save the Episcopal Home’s Hutchinson Chapel [also located on Busti]. If we don’t move soon, it will fall down.” Currently an environmental review must be completed before any further work can be done on the plaza, including demolitions.
Architect, preservation advocate, and Chicago-based ex-pat David Steele rejects the engineers’ report, citing other renovated buildings that were in far worse shape, and adds,”We can’t keep picking off individual historic buildings one at a time claiming that each by itself is unimportant. Each is an important part of the urban puzzle, which adds up to a greater whole.”
Ultimately, whatever drastic scenarios are posited on either side, one question will always remain: Will whatever replaces the Wilkeson-Storms House justify the demolition of this unique structure, in the larger perspective of history?
Elizabeth Licata is editor of Buffalo Spree. Sources for this article include the landmark application submitted by the Buffalo Preservation Board on 8/18/09. Thanks also to David Steele and Joseph Cascio.