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Buffalo's prophet of ballparks and architecture: Gone, without farewell

Dr. Joe Nowak faced a difficult choice. His brother, Buffalo architect Peter Nowak, died on an August night 18 months ago from diabetes, alone, at the Stuyvesant Apartments on Elmwood Avenue. Joe, a California dentist, traveled here with his wife, Shalan, to settle Nowak’s affairs.

They found few possessions in the apartment, Shalan said, only Nowak’s “drawing board and his tools.” Nowak, a Buffalo guy who influenced a national movement for downtown ballparks, lived like a monk. He slept on a futon. He owned little clothing, only a few pairs of khakis and some blue shirts. Joe and his wife chose to have Nowak cremated, and their hardest decision involved where to scatter his ashes.

“Peter was so much in love with Buffalo,” Shalan said. “He loved every inch of Buffalo. He walked every inch of Buffalo. He could not leave Buffalo. He wanted everything restored to the glory he remembered.”

They settled on a spot where that glory still exists.

Nowak died, at 69, without an obituary in the newspaper, without a funeral service. Even today, his friends struggle to locate any photographs of him. Yet he is remembered as a fiery legend within the Buffalo planning community. He had a lasting impact on a generation of young architects. He was lyrical about the city’s radial street grid even while it was being recklessly torn part, long before it turned into a linchpin of revival.

The only photo of Peter Nowak (right) that is known to exist: He is with his mother Florence (left); his sister-in-law Shalan (second from left); and Shalan's mother, Mary Lee. Nowak wears the blue shirt, dark jacket and khakis that essentially became his uniform. (Family photograph)

In the early 1980s, the hot idea in Buffalo was for a mile-long, car-free pedestrian mall along Main Street. But Nowak would show up at public meetings and warn that it was a monumental mistake.

“When they built it, Peter implored them to do it in a way that could be easily reversed,” said Brian Brady, a fellow architect.

Old clippings bear out that account. Nowak was like John the Baptist, a  bearded prophet dressed in a blue jacket, khakis and dark shirts, telling expert planners that they were completely wrong.

The pedestrian mall was a failure. Today, at a cost of millions, cars are returning to Main Street.

Nowak’s greatest legacy may involve his love of baseball. He grew up watching the Buffalo Bisons at the  quirky and ultimately razed Offermann Stadium. He studied architecture at the University of Detroit, where he often attended Detroit Tigers games at the old Tiger Stadium.

“He had a great belief in scale,” said Paul Battaglia, another Buffalo architect who remembers Nowak with both awe and sadness. “He understood the ‘big idea’ wasn’t what needed to work in order for Buffalo to be reborn.”

In other words: As Buffalo has learned, it is a cascade of small and insightful accomplishments, done well, that can elevate a city. Nowak saw that early. He and fellow architect and childhood friend, then-named Ed Kowalewski, began saying in the 1980s that Buffalo didn’t need an enormous baseball stadium, as Mayor Jimmy Griffin and others originally dreamed: It needed a small, throwback ballpark, built to the dimensions of the city around it, that would cause spectators to walk downtown streets.

Kowalewski recalls making that pitch to Nowak, who considered the idea – then embraced it. They were not alone in that belief, but their voices were clear and prominent. When Nowak served on the mayor’s downtown stadium design committee, Joe Spear was lead architect on the project for the old HOK Sports Facilities Group of Kansas City. Spear, now the internationally known founder and principal of Populous architectural design, remembers how the city's first raw concept was for a 40,000-seat stadium, a project that would have hit the delicate downtown fabric like a missile.

 

Retired ironworker Bill Murphy had part of his house at 144 Columbus Park West in Buffalo designed by longtime friend Peter Nowak, a legendary - yet often solitary - architect. (John Hickey/Buffalo News)

Many preservationists and planners were alarmed – including Kowalewski and Nowak. When a state agency ruled the stadium should be half that size, the dimensions and design went up for civic discussion. Spear distinctly remembers a meeting where Nowak displayed a slide of the old Connie Mack Stadium in Philadelphia, then used that classic ballpark to make his point:

This is what works in a city.

“He was there at the right moment,” Spear said, “and we absolutely agreed.”

Spear recalls all the effort that went into making sure the project fit gracefully into that district, how he added distinctive cupolas that served as "an exclamation point." The eventual ballpark, then called Pilot Field, became a commercial and spiritual success once it opened in 1988. While it was not on the site near the Electric Tower that Kowalewski and Nowak preferred, it still meshed gently with the city around it.

Planners from Baltimore came to study the ballpark while they worked with HOK on the design for the Oriole Park at Camden Yards, a jewel that provided a national model for throwback ballparks. Major cities around the nation were influenced by a notion, an aesthetic, that began in Buffalo.

Peter Nowak was at the heart of it.

When he died not quite two years ago, his death almost went unnoticed.

“Here’s a guy who was so much a part of our community, so much a part of our profession, and he dies and we don’t say a prayer or have a Mass or do anything?” said Tommaso Briatico, an architect who worked with Nowak years ago at Cannon Design. That connection forged a friendship that lasted for decades.

The younger architects who admired Nowak, who often learned from him, recall his distinctive architectural style: It was “both traditional …. but pretty wild and angular,” as Brady puts it, akin to art deco meeting the look of The Beatles’ “Yellow Submarine.” One great example is a project Nowak did for himself on Days Park, where he put a thrusting, almost  nautical addition on a house that erupts from a gentle string of 19th century facades.

Home on Days Park designed and for a time owned by the late Peter Nowak, a legendary Buffalo architect: The style has been described as art deco meets the "Yellow Submarine." (John Hickey/Buffalo News)

“He had a sense of poetry,” Briatico said. “He understood the way a city works, the way it was organized, what made some cities beautiful.” Nowak, sometimes working with Kowalewski, handled countless projects: City storefronts in his beloved Broadway-Fillmore district, elegant summer homes in Canada, everyday home restorations for friends.

He took those jobs in order to survive, and once he saved enough, he would travel. His friends remember he chose not to own a car. He rented one if he had to leave the city. Don Gilbert, his longtime landlord on Pearl Street, recalls how Nowak quickly went to Manhattan after the terrorist attacks of 2001, simply to grieve at the deep wounds in the greatest of American cities.

“Peter was a minimalist,” said Gilbert, who hired Nowak to help restore five different buildings. “He didn’t spend money on himself."

Gilbert said Nowak always wore the same old baseball cap and a tattered jacket. He owned a radio, Gilbert said, but not a television. His brother said Nowak loved to wander the Albright-Knox Art Gallery, centerpiece of Delaware Park, the green oasis designed by  landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted.

It was a spiritual time capsule of Buffalo, at peak potential.

Nowak was passionate, often consumed, by decades' worth of postwar blunders in civic planning, by what he saw as the dissolution of a community he revered – even if it was a community from which he chose to stay apart.

Many of those who loved him say their friendships invariably ended with some kind of “falling out.” Nowak could be harsh, blunt, impatient. To get things done in a city, Briatico said, you need to be able to “tell people they did the wrong thing in a diplomatic manner. Peter was bloody honest. He was not diplomatic.”

You didn’t converse with Nowak, his friends say: You listened to his fevered, knowledgeable declarations.

“When you were around him, you felt like you had to walk on eggshells,” said his brother, Joe.

Bill Murphy, for decades, was Nowak's closest friend. It was a classic Buffalo bond: They were classmates at Canisius High School, along with Kowalewski. Nowak became an architect, Murphy an ironworker. They went to Bills games at the old War Memorial Stadium, brought in a case of beer and sat on cement steps to drink it.

Canisius yearbook photo of the late Peter Nowak, a legendary and mysterious Buffalo architect, courtesy Bill Murphy. (John Hickey/The Buffalo News)

In the early days, Nowak was intrigued by the culture and diversity in the heart of Northern cities.

“When he was younger, he had more optimism,” Briatico said. But he grew angrier with age. His friendship with Murphy – and with many others - blew apart, later in life, because of his growing racial and cultural intolerance. When Nowak died, his brother found conspiracy literature about secret plans for a one-world government in his brother’s apartment.

“Peter  did not like to be around the same people for too long,” Kowalewski said.

Ed Kowalewski is now Eve Kowalewski. After leaving Buffalo years ago to work in Pennsylvania, Kowalewski eventually had sex reassignment surgery. As Ed Kowalewski, he and Nowak had been childhood friends. They both saw something beautiful in old-school baseball. They shared a belief that modern ballparks ignored and diminished the wonders of the cities around them.

Phil Langdon, a former Buffalo News reporter who now writes from Connecticut on national planning, architectural, social and cultural trends, has described Nowak and Kowalewski as visionaries who joined with preservationists in pushing for what’s now Coca-Cola Field to be built in the right way.

“Pete was always one of the people willing to say what no one else would say,” Langdon said.

Nowak also could be a volatile guy who drank too much, who alienated those who loved him most.  Kowalewski, anticipating Nowak's reaction, first told Murphy about the sex reassignment surgery. Kowalewski asked Murphy to share the news with Nowak, to find out if their friendship could be sustained.

“He initially said he could be supportive,” Murphy said.

But Nowak called back a short time later, shaken, and told Murphy: “I can’t do this. I never want to see Ed again.”

As Nowak did with so many others, he cut Kowalewski from his life. The same thing happened with Murphy, years later, when Nowak made some raw and hateful comments at his house. To Murphy, the change in his old friend in his 50s and 60s was a tragedy. Murphy would sometimes hear him on radio sports talk shows, identifying himself as “Pete from the West Side,” berating the Bills ownership from his stark, empty apartment.

In 2015, on a summer's night, Nowak died alone.

Easy then, to write Nowak off as a crackpot with a drinking problem, to say his solitary death was exactly what he chose. But his friends prefer to think of someone else: They remember a guy with a lacerating, dead-on sense of civic humor. They remember a visionary who mourned over what Buffalo could be even amid the planning debacles of the 1960s and 1970s, a guy who understood the city’s innate potential.

They speak of how Nowak never drove because he didn’t want the burden of a car. Instead, he lived what Briatico calls “a monastic kind of life” in order to save his money. He would disappear for months while he traveled to the great cities of the world, walking their streets, seeing what worked and what didn’t, then bringing those ideas back to Buffalo ….

Long before anyone here was ready to accept them.

In the late 1970s, he  took those visions to raucous, noisy gatherings of architects at such local taverns as Thurston's, Founding Fathers and later at Gabriel’s Gate. Langdon recalls that some of the regulars called those meetings “Talking Glum,” as opposed to the city’s “Talking Proud” campaign, because so often they involved laments about municipal mistakes.

Main Street in Buffalo, almost devoid of people: Peter Nowak feared this would happen with a pedestrian mall. (File image/The Buffalo News)

For all Nowak’s bluster, for all his anger, the younger architects understood:

“He was a great and imaginative person,” Battaglia said. “He listened to his own drummer. He was in favor of doing things the right way, often in opposition to the politicians.”

Most important: In so many ways, years before a revival finally began, he was right.

“We all miss the way he was,” said Murphy, remembering the Nowak he knew as a young man.

In 2015, a maintenance man found Nowak dead in his apartment, Murphy said. Nowak's health had been in swift decline. He had lost half of his foot to diabetes, which prevented him from taking his long walks around his city. As it had gone with so many others, even his relationship with his brother Joe became distant.

Their father was an East Side dentist whose family ran a liquor store. There was a big age difference between the boys, and Joe was always a little in awe of his younger brother’s simmering intellect. Still, Joe and Shalan came here from California to clean out his apartment. They decided to have Peter cremated, and they thought hard about what to do with his ashes, about a place that seemed to fit all he believed.

“If I tell you where they are,” Joe Nowak said, “I’m afraid I’d get arrested.”

He will say this much. He knows his brother saw Delaware Park as a symbol of beauty in this city, as a place that knit together Olmsted’s vision with the pillared glory of the art gallery. If you walk that park, and you happen to take exactly the right path, you might come upon a solitary weeping willow.

In Buffalo, it is the last statement of Peter Nowak.

Sean Kirst is a contributing columnist with The Buffalo News. Email your thoughts to him at seanpeterkirst@gmail.com or leave a comment below. You can read more of Kirst's work in this archive.

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