Herbert Hewitt didn’t plan it this way. He couldn’t know that the mansion he built would be revived a century later by a couple with the same entrepreneurial spirit. There was no way the industrialist, who founded Buffalo Brass Co., could have envisioned that the house he erected while helping to build Buffalo would several lifetimes later become part of the city’s revival.
Hewitt, who owned a horse that won the Kentucky Derby, died 93 years ago. He could not foresee that the home whose A-list guests included Buffalo-born President Grover Cleveland would again open its doors to the world. Call it serendipity; call it fate. Just don’t call it folly. Not anymore. Not in this city.
Joe and Ellen Lettieri bought the once-grand Hewitt mansion at the city auction three years ago, the last ones standing when the bid hit $183,000.
It sounds like a bargain for an 18-room edifice on Lafayette Avenue. Built in 1898 of quarter-sawn white oak, it boasts 11 fireplaces and servants’ quarters that put most folks’ master bedrooms to shame. But standing between the grandeur of seashell-embossed bathroom tiles, blond mahogany bedroom suites and common areas adorned with murals and bacchanalian tapestries were decades of wear, tear and neglect during its run as a flophouse.
“It scared me,” Ellen Lettieri told me during a house tour last week, “when someone at the auction said, ‘You’ll have to put a million dollars into that place.’ Well, we did.”
The public gets to see March 1 what Herbert Hewitt built and what a hefty rehab loan – and priceless, preservation-sensitive TLC – can buy. The Lettieris will open the three-story Inn Buffalo as a nine-suite boutique hotel, steps from Elmwood Avenue.
Its bedrooms are guest-ready, while its mostly restored common areas – lobby, dining room, parlor – will give visitors a rare look at a preservation-in-progress.
The rejuvenation of parts of Buffalo – notably downtown and the West Side – has common themes: Adding fresh flesh to the “good bones” of our century-old housing stock. Mushrooming property values driven by a growing pro-urban sensibility. Lastly, a desire by Buffalo-loving investors to not just make money, but to help fuel the city’s rejuvenation.
“Being a part of the city’s rebirth in this way is beyond my wildest dreams,” Joe Lettieri said. “We’re in deep, but it’s a legacy project.”
Lettieri was born in the shadow of the Connecticut Street Armory and grew up working class on Bidwell Parkway. Longshoreman-large, with coal black hair, he dresses like maitre d’ and possesses the chat skills of a concierge – a key attribute for an innkeeper.
Proceeds from a cleaning business and, later, a county job funded buy-and-rehab projects on the West Side long before it became fashionable. He built a handyman network along the way.
“It’s like I’ve been in training to rehab this house for the last 30 years,” said Lettieri, who wears his community heart on his finger – a ring fashioned from a Buffalo nickel.
Ellen is a Jamestown native with an artist’s eye, a teenager’s eagerness, Scandinavian features and an appreciation for craft and value that comes with a Realtor’s license. The couple share a sense of adventure, a respect for history, devotion to the city and the weight of responsibility for resurrecting an iconic structure – they applied for National Historic Register status – as part of a mission larger than themselves.
“It’s a big thing for us to be able to revive this house,” Ellen told me, “then open the doors and share it with people, the way it once was.”
The big-ticket stuff was obvious: A half-dozen chimneys to repoint, walls to demo, bathrooms to place inside suites, a new roof. The challenge was drawing the line between meticulous and obsessive.
A pair of workmen spent two months restoring every brass knob, handle and fixture.
Anything missing or unsalvageable was replicated. Other than the flat-screen TV in every suite, there isn’t much Herbert Hewitt wouldn’t recognize.
First-floor murals will be uncovered, tapestries restored and rugs laid when guest-revenue flows.
“We had to open to keep going,” said Ellen, “but I love that visitors will be able to see and share in the restoration.”
Once again, a grand old building will help to build a New Buffalo. Herbert Hewitt wouldn’t just be proud. He’d be impressed.