Share this article

print logo

RISING FROM THE RUBBLE THE HISTORIC METCALFE HOUSE WAS RAZED 10 YEARS AGO, BUT PARTS OF IT CAN BE REVISITED.

When Delaware North Cos. Inc. decided to tear down the Metcalfe House for a parking lot behind its new headquarters at Delaware Avenue and North Street, it looked like that was the last we'd ever see of the historic 1884 residence designed by Stanford White.

But the shingle-style home at 125 North wasn't entirely lost to history.

The solid-cherry interiors of the dining room and library were dismantled and stored in boxes before the building was demolished in February 1980. Now the pieces have been reassembled on the first floor of Rockwell Hall at Buffalo State College, where the Metcalfe rooms will open in the spring.

"I've never worked on a project as exciting as this," says Dr. Judith G. Wolf, development coordinator for the arts at the college.

"Its memory will live on at Rockwell Hall," she says. "It's amazing -- when we first started this, we had boxes and boxes of tiny pieces and no idea of how we'd put them all together. In one case, in order to form the arch molding around the doorway we had to glue together seven fragments."

Besides being open permanently to the public, the Metcalfe rooms will serve the college as a reception area, says Wolf, who inherited the project four years ago and raised the money by twisting the arms of foundations and contractors. The $220,000 reconstruction was financed through private donations, spurred by Delaware North's original pledge of $40,000.

Buffalo State wasn't the only institution interested in preserving parts of the interior after preservationists lost their battle to save the Metcalfe House. The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City received the entrance hall and main staircase.

What made the Metcalfe House so difficult to lose was its peculiar place in the early history of Stanford White's renowned firm -- McKim, Mead & White -- which went on to design Madison Square Garden.

Two other White structures still stand near the Metcalfe parking lot -- the Butler mansion (formerly the George L. Williams mansion) at 672 Delaware, now home of Delaware North, and the Charles H. Williams mansion at 690 Delaware, now the headquarters of the Snyder Corp.

Many experts wish that the march of progress had toppled the two mansions and left the modest Metcalfe House standing as a tribute to Stanford White and late 19th century neo-colonial architecture.

"Of all houses, you don't encourage the unusual and exemplary house to go by the wayside," says Dr. Mosette Broderick, a teacher of architectural history at New York University. "You take down the big, repetitive houses."

A scholar who specializes in White's firm, Broderick can't drive past the Butler and Williams mansions without feeling galled that they are still standing.

"The last time I was in Buffalo I noticed them," she says. "And they're just such a banal type. I regret to say it happened just before I came on the scene."

But what was it about the Metcalfe House that was so special?

"Here you had a very rare early McKim, Mead & White house," she explains. "They're almost non-existent; you lost that. The wrong house went down by a long shot. It's very depressing.

"It was a very, very valuable house," Broderick says. "It was a rare example of an urban-suburban home. North Street was the edge of town at the time, and the firm was still at the height of its creative powers. It's pretty singular in their work, in that it had that mixture of wood shingles and boulderlike stone, and it was an experiment in the creation of a house for a well-to-do family at the edge of a city."
One man who lived there in 1960 wasn't too impressed with the structure, which by then had become a boarding house. Randall Marks, co-founder and retired chairman and chief executive officer of Computer Task Group, remembers living in the Metcalfe House for several weeks after he arrived in Buffalo.

"I recall it as a hovel," Marks says. "I stayed there several weeks while training with IBM. I had a room up on the third floor, and when my alarm clock went off I'd smack my head on the ceiling. It was run-down, almost a flophouse."

Did he admire the shingle-style architecture?

"I didn't think there was anything notable about it," Marks confesses. "It was a mixture of shingles and stones and clapboard. We worked so hard at IBM, I think I only slept there."

What about the solid cherry dining room and library?

"I'm not even sure that part of the house was open to boarders," he says.

Nonetheless, Marks donated $1,000 to Wolf and intends to take a look at the restored rooms.

Perhaps no one fought more strenuously to save the Metcalfe House than Dr. Francis R. Kowsky, professor of fine arts at Buffalo State. He once rated it "a building of national importance" and described its architecture as midway between that of H.H. Richardson and early Frank Lloyd Wright.

"It wasn't in bad shape," Kowsky insists. "It was in remarkably good condition, considering it had been a boarding house. If the Metropolitan Museum wanted the interior for its collection, it wasn't a piece of junk. At the time, I said it was certainly -- architecturally and historically -- the most important of the McKim, Mead & White houses in Buffalo."

He pauses before volunteering his personal judgment.

"They should have torn the Butler House down and put a parking lot there," he says, "because this one was far more original."

Kowsky remembers how the Metropolitan Museum got involved.

"As I recall, there was a curator in town to give a talk at Buffalo State," he says. "We had some time to kill, and the house was already empty, so I just went down and showed it to him. He became very excited. And they said, well, they weren't going to take any stand while there was still a preservation fight going on. But if it appeared that all was lost, then, yes, they were interested in those front portions. And that's what happened."

The museum has kept the entrance room, hall and staircase in storage for the past 10 years.

"We are hoping to go ahead with the material that we have from the Metcalfe House," says Morrison Heckscher, curator of American decorative art at the museum. "We are optimistic that we can do something with the entrance hall and staircase section in the near future."

Heckscher says the museum might even send a representative to Buffalo State to view the restoration of the dining room and library interiors.
Metcalfe Street on Buffalo's East Side is named for the prominent Buffalo family that built the cozy brick and Medina sandstone structure. The widow of James H. Metcalfe, a banker and city parks commissioner, wanted a special home built for herself and her eldest son, James Stetson Metcalfe.

During the mid-1800s, Erselia Stetson Metcalfe "would read aloud to her children all the novels of Dickens and Thackeray as they came from the press," according to one account of the family when it was living in the Aaron Rumsey house, which once stood at Delaware and North.

The Metcalfes' daughter, Frances, was the widow of prominent attorney Lyman K. Bass and later married Sen. Edward Oliver Wolcott of Colorado. At home in cultural circles, Frances was probably the one who introduced her brother James to Stanford White.

James Metcalfe, who ran for the State Assembly, was the most colorful of the five Metcalfe children and apparently the only one to ever live at 125 North with his mother. In 1878 -- the same year the partnership McKim, Mead & White was formed -- Metcalfe interrupted his junior year at Yale to take up newspaper work. After his father died the following year, Metcalfe and his mother commissioned White's firm to design a house with money from the estate.

It was completed in 1884 at a heady cost of $23,464 -- more than one-third of it for the fancy interior finish.

Plunging into journalism, Metcalfe wrote editorials for the Buffalo Express, and three years later he left to begin a 31-year career as drama critic with a New York magazine called Life.

Metcalfe was no ordinary drama critic. His poison pen often provoked lawsuits from irate actors and producers.

"He belonged to that old school of personal journalism, the representatives of which call names and speak their minds as individuals," the New York Times wrote when he died in 1927. More to the point, his Buffalo Evening News obituary noted that Metcalfe "was for many years one of the most conspicuous and forceful figures in the literary and critical world of the metropolis, notably when he was debarred in 1905 from nearly all of its theaters because of his criticisms."

The Theatrical Managers Association of Greater New York voted to exclude Metcalfe from member theaters because of his "malicious and unjustifiable attacks upon the Jewish faith." Metcalfe sued 24 managers for conspiracy to prevent him from practicing his profession.

The Court of Appeals ruled against him.

Yet Metcalfe rebounded in the theatrical world. After Life folded in 1920, he continued writing as a "theatrical crusader" with the Wall Street Journal. In 1925 he founded the First Nighters, an organization of drama critics and editors -- and a year later he was its guest of honor on the eve of his departure for Europe.
At the time of the great battle to save the Metcalfe House, Appleton Fryer of the Buffalo Landmark and Preservation Board said the building was in "terrible shape." It had been a boarding house for half a century until its purchase in 1979 by Delaware North, the $1.6 billion-a-year conglomerate that owns the Boston Bruins and Boston Garden and operates sports stadium concessions and race tracks in several states.

"As preservationists you don't just save things because they are old," Fryer told the board. "That building has been a public disgrace since 1921."

Fryer is a distant relative of the Metcalfes. Unfortunately, he had no childhood memories of the Metcalfe House, which he toured for the first time shortly before its demolition.

Delaware North said it couldn't move its headquarters into the Butler mansion unless it could create 38 parking spaces next door on the Metcalfe site.

"I think it would be a sad thing to demolish the Metcalfe House before every other possibility of alternate parking has been reached to the fullest extent possible," said Austin M. Fox, then president of the Landmark Society of the Niagara Frontier.

In fact, Delaware North had bought the Metcalfe House before it bought the Butler mansion. The corporation said it would have cost $500,000 to rehabilitate the Metcalfe House -- the same amount it paid for the much larger Butler mansion. As for moving the Metcalfe House, which weighed 500 tons, it would cost $82,000 -- if there were somewhere it could be moved.

And so they tore it down. But first they broke apart the fancy wood interior and packed the pieces in crates. Nearly a decade later, it took a master carpenter four months to paste it back together inside Rockwell Hall.

Carpenter Bernie Sekera describes what it's like to assemble a room-sized jigsaw puzzle.

"You're basically an anthropologist when you start out," said Sekera, who began fitting the pieces last April. "I had to measure and build everything in reverse."

A carpenter for 35 years, Sekera remembers the days when he custom made cabinets for the homes he built. But nothing could have prepared him for putting the Metcalfe rooms back together.

For one thing, Sekera wasn't given many dimensions. He went by pictures taken just before the building was demolished. He was left with boxes of tiny fragments that had cracked and splintered in odd places as the solid cherry molding, bone dry after a century, was torn from the plaster.

The bay window in the library presented a special challenge. The curved glass, sashes and sills were intact. Unfortunately, the window was once part of a wall that was curved around a tighter radius than modern-day wallboard can be bent without cracking, even when soaking wet. To reconstruct such a wall, Sekera cut a curved template out of plywood and used it as a trowel for smoothing a consistent curve of plaster from ceiling to floor.

"As you get more of it together, the pieces pretty well fall into place," Sekera says. "But I've got little baggies of moldings left over. . ."

That's all right. It happens to the best Tinker Toy assemblers.

There are no comments - be the first to comment