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Unique benches for Buffalo’s Old First Ward

Street benches crafted from driftwood, one from rail spikes and another made from oars will be installed throughout the Old First Ward this summer.

They were designed and built by architecture students from the University at Buffalo who incorporated the historical and cultural significance of the neighborhood into their work.

The Old First Ward’s intricate rail system inspired one student to design a similarly intricate bench crafted from 438 rail spikes. It weighs nearly 500 pounds.

“The trains were such a dominant element of the Old First Ward that railroad tracks actually bisect the community,” said Dylan Burns, a senior in UB’s School of Architecture and Planning.

It took Burns a few hours to map out the design of his rail spike bench, and an additional 60 to 70 hours to put it together.

“I like using modular units for architectural design,” he said. “The spikes that can be welded together allow you to create a curved form. I tried to accommodate different body positions and body forms in one bench so anyone can find a comfortable spot.”

As he built his bench, Burns learned to weld. He envisioned his heavy-duty seat in the shadow of Our Lady of Perpetual Help Catholic Church at O’Connell and Vandalia streets.

“The heaviness of the bench fits with the heaviness of the church building,” he said.

Almost two dozen benches – all incorporating materials particular to the neighborhood – are expected to be placed at “gateways” to the Old First Ward, a neighborhood settled in the mid-1800s by mostly Irish immigrants. The benches are ergonomically correct, assured Sara L. Heidinger, president of the Old First Ward Community Center, 62 Republic St., where a project presentation will be held from 7 to 9 p.m. Wednesday.

“We like the idea of creating community spaces so people can stop, take a break and talk to their neighbors,” Heidinger said. “The benches are unique and fun, and they are being installed in the community we have nurtured. What we are doing is adding a fresh coat of paint.”

One bench is constructed from steel and barrel staves, an homage to Old First Ward cooperages. Driftwood salvaged from the Buffalo River was used to build three more benches.

“We take students through the entire process, from research, design, fabrication, project approval and placement,” said Bradley A. Wales, clinical assistant professor at UB and a registered architect.

Proposed installation locations were determined by need, Wales said. Conway Park offered spectacular views of the Buffalo River and the grain elevators. Host to numerous softball games, the park lacks adequate seating. At least four benches will find a home in the park.

Christopher M. Kameck, 34, was born on Vandalia Street. After studying photography at Art Institute of Pittsburgh and SUNY Buffalo State, he returned to his roots and opened a studio. For the last three years, he has worked with Small Built Works, the university program that sponsored the Buffalo Benches Project. “The influx of people into our neighborhood has grown,” Kameck said. “More people are hanging out at the water, going to rugby tournaments in the park or kayaking. The benches will benefit everyone using the neighborhood.”

Kameck, who recalled as a child catching the bus with his grandmother at South Park Avenue and Hamburg Street, said the Old First Ward really could use benches at bus stops.

“There is one seated bus shelter on South Park,” he said. “All of the others offer standing room only. It reminds me of my grandmother. She would have liked to take a seat while we waited for the bus.”

Kameck and his family have pooled their funds to sponsor a bench to be dedicated to his grandmother. He hopes it will be located at one of the five proposed bus stops, many along South Park.

Emily Lowrey, who bought a house on Vandalia with her husband, Tim, is spearheading a fundraising effort for the project. An estimated $15,000 is needed to ensure lifetime care for the benches, fund insurance, pay for concrete pads and for basic materials the students purchase.

“Elementary school students in the neighborhood had a fundraiser and came up with $54,” Lowrey said. “Because the neighborhood is in transition now, we do have to find funding from outside.”

Deborah E. Simonick, 57, spent most of her years living in the Old First Ward. She and her husband, Michael, currently live on Vandalia.

“A lot of people left the neighborhood; we stayed and raised our kids here,” said Simonick, who has noticed a change in her neighborhood. “It is unbelievable the last couple of years. You feel like you’re at Artpark or something. These benches will really make a difference.”

The Buffalo Benches Project is the latest in a series of community art efforts sponsored by Small Built Works. More than 400 students have participated in the project, which started in 2001. Wales, who joined UB’s faculty in 1997, established the design-build program committed to sustainable urban architecture.

Small Built Works installations include: “Cycles 2,” the steel-paneled slim towers in the front yard of Burchfield Penney Art Center; the 18th Street pocket park, formerly a concrete jungle and drug user hangout; and the bus stops of Allentown.

A Buffalo Benches Project presentation will feature bench designs and a few of the finished benches. A question and comment session will follow the PowerPoint presentations by the students. Opportunities to sponsor the bench projects will be available.