By Jeff Z. Klein
We revere famous architects. Frank Gehry, Zaha Hadid, Frank Lloyd Wright, Louis Sullivan – all greats, all household names. But what of the vast majority of architects, the ones who design the everyday streetscapes that surround us?
My father, Irwin Klein, was one of them. For more than 50 years he designed houses, apartment blocks, schools, restaurants, industrial facilities, sports and health clubs, places of worship – a full range of useful buildings that dot Western New York, like so many other skilled architects whose work helps define the way we live.
Irv came to Buffalo from his native Brooklyn in 1952. He worked until shortly before he passed away in 2008 at age 91. I’m writing this on what would have been his 100th birthday.
For almost all his years here, he was self-employed – a hard task made even harder by the economic doldrums the region was mired in for most of his career. And yet he made it work, through late nights over the drawing board and endless wrangling with clients, contractors and municipal building departments. Somehow he always earned a steady run of new commissions.
A few of his buildings had their moment in the spotlight. When Soviet Premier Alexei Kosygin visited Niagara Falls, he ate at John’s Flaming Hearth, an elegant steakhouse my father designed. Irv also converted part of the old Bell Aircraft plant into the Buffalo Tennis Center, something of an indoor marvel at the time; its newfangled Astroturf once drew the likes of John Newcombe and Cliff Drysdale for a tournament.
But most of my father’s buildings were of the standard, reliable variety – suburban residences, inner-city slaughterhouses, strip-mall pancake houses – the kind of structures that are just there, yet still take a daunting measure of skill to execute.
“You’ve got to make sure the thing is structurally sound – that’s the first rule,” he told me. He was dedicated to that idea; he founded the local chapter of the Construction Specifications Institute, and nurtured young architects and draftsmen throughout his career.
Irv managed to carve out a solid middle-class upbringing for my mother, sister and me. He saved scrupulously, encouraged us to get a good education and even, once, faced down a mob thug who tried to shake him down with vague threats about our family.
To accomplish all of that is achievement enough for anyone. But to have done so without the security of a regular salary, for more than half a century, borders on the incredible. Salary or no, Irv was like countless other working men and women with families to support – all of them everyday heroes whose labor we rarely notice, but whose contribution to society is essential. They make things work.
Something else about Irv, a Jewish guy and an FDR Democrat through and through. Never in my life did I hear him say a single bad word about any ethnic, religious or racial group – pretty unusual for a man of his generation.
So I wasn’t at all surprised when he took his last job – converting an old East Side church into a mosque. My father took some heat from certain quarters, but it didn’t faze him. Already into his 80s, he set about learning all he could about mosque architecture and Muslim tradition. He completed the job, a fine capstone to a fine career.
After Irv passed away, some of the most comforting words I heard were spoken by the imam of that mosque. “Your father was proud of you,” he said.
And so can I say that I’m proud of my father. To be reminded of him, all I have to do is look at the streets that surround me. His buildings stand there.
Jeff Z. Klein, a former New York Times editor, is writer and producer of the Niagara Frontier Heritage Moments series on WBFO.