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Some would like to see Calvert Vaux building returned to MLK Park

The two-story barn, a block and a half south of Martin Luther King Jr. Park, is easy to overlook.

The timbers are worn, the yellow paint faded and its days as a working barn long past.

But despite the neglect, the building at 350 Mills St. – its Stick style architecture still structurally sound despite some rot at the base – has historic value beyond its 19th-century birth.

And some park aficionados say it’s time to move the building to its original home in the park, while restoring it for contemporary use.

“It’s not just a barn, it’s part of the park system’s grand past,” said Tony James, an architect with the Buffalo Olmsted Parks Conservancy. “It’s the earliest park building surviving in the city, and unfortunately it’s not in one of the parks, and we want to get it back in the parks.

“The barn’s also significant architecturally, because it’s the only Calvert Vaux building left in Buffalo,” James said.

Vaux was an English-born architect who teamed with landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted in 1869 to create the Buffalo park system of parkways and traffic circles. The men earlier designed Central Park and Brooklyn’s Prospect Park, and during Vaux’s 40-year career in New York City, he designed two of that metropolis’ most visited attractions – the American Museum of Natural History and the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Among the Buffalo park buildings Vaux designed was the decorative Parade House, completed in 1876 in the Parade, MLK Park’s original name, where the Greenhouse and brick Shelter House are today.

The wooden Parade House burned down the following year, but was rebuilt in similar fashion by architect Cyrus Porter.

The barn was part of the complex, and it was moved to Mills Street in 1897, several years before the Parade House was torn down following the park’s redesign. The Parade House was seen at the time as being too expensive and time-consuming to maintain, James said.

“The Parade House was the most elaborate structure Vaux ever designed for any park. It was made of pine, which is why it burned, was elaborately carved and decorated, and painted very bright colors,” said scholar Francis R. Kowsky, author of two books about Vaux.

The Parade House was designed for everyone, reflecting Olmsted’s and Vaux’s view of parks as a place for socializing without regard to social class despite the Gilded Age they were in, Kowsky said. The building, which included a boisterous beer hall with music and dancing, came to be especially popular with the German community, while frowned on by the Anglo-Saxon Protestants on the West Side.

“Returning the barn to the park would be a nice reminder of that great building that was here,” Kowsky said.

The barn was identified by Martin Wachadlo, a local historian who came upon it while working on a historic survey of the Broadway-Fillmore neighborhood about 10 years ago.

“When I saw that building, I thought this doesn’t belong here,” Wachadlo said.

He speculated the barn could have been in the park as part of the Parade House complex, and it was confirmed when a building with the same dimensions was found there using an old map of the city.

The map also showed a horse shed attached to the barn. Wachadlo, upon further inspection, found a post on the barn’s right side where the shed would have been attached.

Researcher Monica Rzepka eventually discovered the city permit that recorded when the barn was moved out of the park in 1897, at a time when the large circular basin – now a splash pad – was installed and the park’s name was changed to Humboldt Park.

Wachadlo said he hopes the chance for the park to reclaim the building won’t be missed.

“We talk about the parks system being so important. Well, this is the only opportunity for the people of Buffalo to have an original parks structure in our parks system. It would be a shame for it to be lost, especially now when there is such a greater appreciation for our architectural heritage,” Wachadlo said.

“This is one of those valuable historic resources we can’t afford to be losing.”

The barn, 25 feet deep and 36 feet long, is being used for storage by a landlord who has agreed to sell it for a reasonable amount, James said. But there are a number of additional costs that make bringing the barn home an expensive proposition.

The Conservancy received an estimate in 2012 of $160,000 to buy and move the barn to the park. The cost rose to $617,000 to also restore the structure and build a replica of the former horse shed, James said. A garage door apparatus installed a few decades ago must also be removed.

The long-term plan would be to use the barn for employee training in the summers, provide office space for the park superintendent that currently doesn’t exist and to rent it to the community, James said.

Tim Tielman, executive director of Campaign for Greater Buffalo, suggests buying the barn and nearby land, and converting it into park use at a fraction of the cost. That would speed up the process of saving the barn and putting it into the Buffalo Olmsted Parks Conservancy’s fold, without precluding the move at a later time.

But Stephanie Crockatt, the Conservancy’s interim executive director, said acquiring the barn is not a priority because of the cost and the many pressing needs the parks system is confronted with. She said the Conservancy could envision working with historical and preservation groups to acquire and move the barn, but someone other than the Conservancy would need to lead the charge.

“It’s a really worthwhile project, but it’s just a bit outside of our reach,” Crockatt said.

email: msommer@buffnews.com