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Karpeles adds new museum for rare documents

The Karpeles Manuscript Library Museum is as unorthodox as its California owner and the West Side space it occupies.

The museum resides at 453 Porter Ave., near the corner of Elmwood Avenue, in a stately Romanesque revival cathedral that once housed the Plymouth Avenue Methodist Church. David Karpeles of Santa Barbara, Calif., bought the building for $1 in 1995, and opened it three years later after a $2 million restoration.

It's one of eight museums opened by the 69-year-old mathematician and his wife, Marsha. After working as a high school and college teacher, and at a General Electric think tank, he has used a fortune amassed in local real estate to become the nation's largest private collector of manuscripts.

Now, Karpeles is about to open a ninth museum -- and in the process make Buffalo the first city to contain two of his museums. He spent $250,000 to buy a neo-classical structure built in 1911 as the First Church of Christ Scientist at 220 North St. and is dropping another $200,000 to renovate the building, last occupied by the Fellowship Christian Center.

"We're of the mind-set that a free manuscript museum is more valuable to a community the size of Buffalo than cities like New York or Chicago," said Chris Kelly, the museum's director. "The second building will allow us to have additional display space for manuscripts, including more Buffalo-related displays."

Ted Pietrzak, director of the Burchfield-Penney Art Center, said he attended a Karpeles exhibit featuring letters from great composers, and left impressed.

"They were beautifully displayed, translated so someone could read them and terribly interesting," Pietrzak said.

Most of Karpeles' efforts are geared toward bringing documents and manuscripts into schools.

There are active educational programs in 55 schools in Western New York and Southern Ontario, where display cases with reproductions of documents, along with description cards, are rotated five times a year. Teachers can also request manuscripts.

The museum, which has a staff of six, collaborates with Buffalo State College's museum studies department. Students design exhibits in spaces above the lobby in the current museum, and will do so in the new location.

"We think we're helping Buffalo State train future museum professionals," said Kelly, a former art history student at Buffalo State College.

> Pursued for years

Joel Bechtel, a cello player in the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra, met Karpeles in the mid-1990s in his Santa Barbara museum. He convinced him to open a museum in Buffalo.

"The building was vacant for 12 years, and was perhaps the most significant crack house in Buffalo," Kelly said of the Porter Avenue building.

Karpeles missed out on purchasing the North Street building several years ago, so when it became available last year he jumped at the chance to buy it.

Still, it's hard to see a demand for a second Karpeles museum. Attendance last year was about 16,000, which translates to 50 visitors for each day it's open.

Because David Karpeles eschews advertising, each museum is forced to rely on word of mouth for exhibits that turn over every 90 days.

"Some days we can hardly get anybody," conceded Kelly. "Other days we get a lot."

"We can't really afford advertising, because we don't charge admission or for any of the services," Karpeles said from his Santa Barbera home. "I really hate to ask people for money."

Karpeles dismisses the idea of selling even one of his more than 1 million manuscripts to fund advertising for each of his museums. He also declined to discuss their worth, or his own.

The varied manuscripts include Alfred Lord Tennyson's "Charge of the Light Brigade"; the first confessions of Leon Czolgosz, President William McKinley's assassin; a page from Webster's first dictionary; a surgeon's 1880 account of meeting "Elephant Man" John Merrick; President Richard Nixon's resignation letter; Babe Ruth's last contract with the Boston Red Sox and the Treaty of Allegiance, signed by more than 900 Indian chiefs.

Karpeles also owns the piece of paper on which President Abraham Lincoln signed the 13th Amendment in the presence of the House of Representatives.

"We own the 13th amendment. Somebody has to," Kelly said.

Some of the manuscripts are in large collections, with the archive of the Spanish Armada stretching to 40,000 documents alone.

Karpeles' personal favorites are a document from the Vatican proclaiming the sacred duties for the Knights of the Holy Crusades, and the first draft of the Bill of Rights.

Other possessions include a white zucchetto worn by Pope John Paul II, which 2.400 visitors -- a record crowd for the Karpeles -- saw in July.

> Collected stamps

Karpeles journey began with collecting stamps as a child, which graduated to coins in his early 20s. He became drawn to manuscripts in his 30s, and developed into a collector after watching his children become captivated by documents in a library's manuscript room.

"It was the first time they ever looked at anything in a museum. We had to wait 45 minutes while they checked every single exhibit," Karpeles said.

"I went back to the curator and said, 'This is unbelievable, I've never seen our kids look this way.' He said, 'These are the originals. Thomas Jefferson touched that piece of paper; that's what made it special.' "

Karpeles said he was also surprised to learn there was no national repository for the nation's historic documents prior to the opening of the National Archives in 1933. That has resulted in numerous documents being retained in private hands.

The first Karpeles museum opened in Santa Barbara in 1983. Museums were later added in Tacoma, Wash., Jacksonville, Fla., Duluth, Minn., Charleston, S.C., Wichita, Kan., Newburgh and Buffalo.

Karpeles said one of his biggest thrills came when the Jacksonville museum attracted 5,000 viewers on the first day the original draft of the Bill of Rights went on exhibit.

Karpeles does the research and writes the text panels for the small, standardized displays.

He curates each to fit into 25 similarly-sized display cases. With shelves that slide out, museum workers are able to take an exhibit down and ship it after closing in the afternoon, then receive and open a new exhibition the following day.

The museum on North Street is being outfitted with smoke and fire detectors and other improvements, which are expected to be completed in the near future. Then, the ninth Karpeles Museum will open with free admission Tuesdays through Sundays, 11 a.m. to 4 p.m., Kelly said.

The site, which has a 1913 Moller organ, is also planned to be a venue for lectures, art exhibits, poetry readings and concerts, Kelly said.

"For a tenth of the cost we could put the museum in a strip mall in Amherst, but that would be missing the point," Kelly said.

"You want it in a grand historical space that lends to this air of history."

e-mail: msommer@buffnews.com

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