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Sean Kirst: Buffalo's Pilot Field, an urban ballpark vision that swept nation

For this anniversary, Gabriel's Gate was the right place to talk baseball.

On a quiet Tuesday, Paul Battaglia showed up at the same Allen Street restaurant where he and an informal group of young architects and dreamers used to gather in Buffalo 40 years ago.

Battaglia was joined by fellow architects Brian Brady and Peter Flynn, and by Tim Tielman, a longtime preservationist. The Buffalo Bisons play their first home game of the season Thursday at Coca-Cola Field, 30 years to the week after the doors opened there for the first time. Battaglia and his old friends remember where they heard the first visions of how that throwback downtown ballpark ought to look.

The guy who shared them was the fiery and bearded Peter Nowak, a Buffalo architect and an unforgettable civic character who died almost three years ago.

"He said ballparks should fit their setting, that they should nestle into the city around them," Battaglia said.

A rare photo of Peter Nowak. (Image courtesy Bill Murphy)

Three decades later, a dream that began here has been embraced by many cities throughout the nation.

Buffalo's version of downtown baseball had many early champions. Mayor Jimmy Griffin, whose statue greets visitors to the ballpark, worked tirelessly to bring the game back to Buffalo, and wanted it to be downtown.

Bob Rich Jr., chairman of Rich Products, purchased the 1980s version of the Bisons, and breathed life, hope and passion back into the franchise. And the ribbon-cutting at the ballpark was handled by Rich, Griffin, Erie County Executive Dennis Gorski and Gov. Mario Cuomo, whose administration provided more than half the construction cost of $42 million.

That was all part of the buildup to what was first known as Pilot Field, a ballpark whose design carries rippling significance. It went up in an era when many new stadiums resembled assembly line "spaceships," as Tielman puts it, structures lacking charm or intimacy.

In Buffalo, Nowak envisioned something more personal. His high school friend and fellow architect, Eve Kowalewski, often spoke wistfully of the ambiance of Offermann Stadium, a quirky ballpark at Michigan Avenue and East Ferry Street demolished almost 60 years ago.

The construction of Buffalo's downtown ballpark: It was built to complement such nearby landmarks as the Ellicott Square Building. (News file photo)

Kowalewski and Nowak were well-versed in the city's baseball history. The Bisons played at Offermann until they left in 1960 for War Memorial Stadium, a cavernous place that was not meant for baseball. Professional baseball in Buffalo went into a tailspin and temporarily disappeared in the 1970s, all too symbolic of the fortunes of the city.

Those spiritual blows fueled the grim humor of the young dreamers who gathered late in that decade. Phil Langdon, a Buffalo Evening News reporter of the era, now writes nationally about planning, architectural and cultural trends from Connecticut. He was among the regulars who often spoke of their dreams for a greater city at Gabriel's Gate and a few other spots.

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

They called themselves "Talkin' Glum," Langdon recalls, a darkly humorous twist on the "Talkin' Proud" campaign of the time in Buffalo.

"There had just been so many bad decisions, going back into the 1950s," Battaglia said. The city was bleeding population, and a cloud of pessimism hung over the region. The young architects bought rounds of beer and spent hours lamenting planning blunders and needless demolition.

To them, Nowak – brash and confrontational, his focus on building sensibly, on a scale that fit the city – was a kind of fierce antihero. Never one to hold back, he served as a prophet when the city closed off much of Main Street to traffic in favor of a mile-long pedestrian mall.

Nowak warned publicly that the idea would fail, that the only thing it would create was a sense of desolation, and that someday it would demand barrels of money to undo.

Today? At a cost of tens of millions, cars are finally returning to Main Street.

The throwback design of Buffalo's downtown ballpark attracted national attention, and helped touch off a trend. (News file photo)

Bringing wisdom to the ballpark process, then, had larger symbolic meaning. Kowalewski said early civic proposals called for building the ballpark south of Interstate 190, not far from today's Canalside site. Spectators would have driven in and out, without bringing any pedestrian energy to downtown streets.

After Kowalewski moved to New Jersey,  Nowak – named to a mayor's stadium advisory committee – kept pushing a throwback approach. That position was also accepted by preservationists after some push-and-shove about the eventual Washington Street location, in a more densely built section of downtown near the Ellicott Square Building.

Renowned designer Joe Spear of HOK Sport in Kansas City, which evolved into the firm known today as Populous, remembers Nowak showing up at a meeting with a slide of Philadelphia's old Connie Mack Stadium. Noting how ballparks of the early 20th century typically meshed with the idiosyncrasies of cities around them, Nowak pushed for Buffalo to revive that kind of model.

"The idea they had, not to do a ballpark as a concrete doughnut but to bring it up to the street, this was really the first one done like that," Langdon said of Nowak and Kowalewski. "The one in Baltimore, Camden Yards, was inspired by it, and the idea has worked well many times across the country. In that sense, Buffalo's ballpark was an important development."

Nowak's inspiration began with Offermann, the lost Buffalo ballpark, according to Bill Murphy, a retired ironworker and a close friend who often showed up at the "Talkin' Glum" sessions. "Peter was always saying that it had to be downtown," Murphy said, "and that it had to blend in with the existing neighborhood."

In the end, after some give-and-take, that is how it happened. HOK designed a graceful old-school ballpark at Washington and Swan, a ballpark where spectators enjoyed the scent of newly cut grass, a place where the deep voice of the PA system bounced off nearby towers.

"It felt right," Brady said, three words that at the time were a rarity in Buffalo.

Today, with graying hair and the perspective of another 30 years, the same architects who once mourned the city's relentless descent speak of an energy they hardly dared to dream of in that era.

Certainly, they are realistic about Buffalo's many challenges, particularly the struggles of those in poverty. But they also agreed there is motion and investment in 2018 that would have seemed impossible three decades ago.

In that way, they see the making of the ballpark as one of many civic turning points.

"It's thrilling," Brady said, "just to see so many historic buildings, and so much of the housing stock, returning to full glory."

Unique style: A house on Days Park, designed by Peter Nowak. (John Hickey/Buffalo News)

As for Nowak, his memory evokes sadness in his friends. They recall him as a singular and enigmatic character, an architect with a distinctive style of design. Few photographs of Nowak exist. He chose not to own a car, preferring to save his money and travel to the great cities of the world, always looking for ideas that might succeed in Buffalo.

Yet Battaglia, Brady and others say Nowak's mercurial personality, and an angry intolerance that seemed to consume him as he grew older, left him increasingly alone. His death in 2015 was linked to complications from diabetes. A pioneer in a national movement for downtown ballparks died almost without notice in his own community.

While Nowak won't be there today for opening day, 30 years past the week when the ballpark was unveiled, the ambiance that he and Kowalewski dreamed might happen still exists. Speaking to the impact of that legacy, Tielman said the place "helped people appreciate the urban context," which is a fancy way of saying:

It makes them glad for baseball, and to be part of downtown.

Sean Kirst is a columnist with The Buffalo News. Email him at skirst@buffnews.com or read more of his work in this archive.

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