Why The Wilkeson House Is Historic
by Geoff Kelly - posted 10:55 am, June 4, 2009
I’m not going to refute all the arguments with which I disagree in this Buffalo News editorial, which says that it’s dumb to force the Public Bridge Authority to maintain the houses it owns on Busti, and to prevent the PBA from demolishing them until they’re finished with the environmental review process—which is required by law, as the Federal Highway Authority reminded the PBA in this letter to general manager Ron Rienas.
But I will contend that this statement is dead wrong:
None of the houses involved rises to the level of historic or aesthetic value that would make this worth a preservationist crusade.
That’s complete hogwash. The Samuel H. Wilkeson house at 771 Busti is, in addition to being beautiful, a direct link to one of the most celebrated members of one of Buffalo’s founding families. It is precisely the sort of structure that spurs preservationist crusades, and I imagine that any effort to demolish the house—last week, next week, two years from now—will encounter opposition.
Consider its history, as researched by the Campaign for Greater Buffalo:
The three-story mansion was built around 1864 by Charles Storms, whose company—Storms & Dorer, located on Lloyd Street in the Canal District—specialized in the manufacture of buckets for grain elevators. At the time, the street was named Sixth, and the Storms lived there until 1882; in 1884 the street was renamed Front Avenue, in reference to Frederick Law Olmsted’s the Front, the park which the house overlooked. Olmsted considered the Front to be the jewel of the park and parkway system he’d designed for Buffalo in 1868, the first of its kind in the country. In 1894, Front Avenue was designated a parkway, and the city’s park commissioners remodeled it with Olmsted’s vision in mind. In 1929, Front Avenue was renamed again, this time after Paul Busti, who had worked with surveyor Joseph Ellicott to lay out Buffalo’s street grid in 1804.
Colonel Samuel H. Wilkeson moved into the house in 1885, and lived there for 18 years. He was the grandson of Samuel Wilkeson, whose gravestone at Forest Lawn reads “He built the city by building its harbor.” The elder Wilkeson is credited with securing the terminus of the Erie Canal for Buffalo, and was mayor of the city in 1836, when his grandson and namesake was born.
Samuel H. Wilkeson enlisted in the army in May 1861, as first lieutenant in Company H, 21st New York Volunteer Regiment. He was 24. Twelve of his siblings and cousins answered Abraham Lincoln’s call for volunteers. Two—his brother John and his cousin Bayard—would be killed in action. None distinguished himself in service as Samuel did.
In February 1862, Wilkeson was made captain of Company C, Scott’s 900, officially listed as the Eleventh New York Cavalry. Four months later he was promoted to major; in December 1862, in recognition of daring raids in and around Harpers Ferry, he was made lieutenant colonel and joined Lincoln’s cavalry escort. In the following year, he was dispatched to Mississippi, Louisiana, and West Tennessee, where his reputation continued to grow. In charge after charge, Wilkeson’s men harried the celebrated Confederate cavalry of Jeb Stuart, 900 men versus 10,000, preventing Stuart’s timely arrival at Gettysburg, to which Robert E. Lee attributed his defeat there. Promoted to full colonel, Wilkeson was stationed in Memphis when the war ended.
On returning to Buffalo, Wilkeson joined his father in managing the Wilkeson grain elevator, built in 1858, one of the first of its kind. (It burned down in 1911.) When his sister, Louise, died in 1904, Wilkeson moved into the family mansion on Niagara Square, which was torn down after Wilkeson’s death in 1915 to make room, eventually, for City Hall.
The house at 771 Busti is the city’s only remaining structure tied to the Wilkeson family. I’d say that “rises to the level of historic or aesthetic value that would make this worth a preservationist crusade.” More to the point, I think the preservation community feels that it does.