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What would painter of primeval Goat Island say about grand lodge?

Joseph Kutlina never bought into one of the oldest arguments in Western New York. He was born and raised in Niagara Falls, a self-taught artist who learned his skills through sheer will and perseverance. He survived grief and bloodshed during World War II to return home to a city that he loved, and he never wavered from a fierce belief shaped in his childhood:

He had no patience with those who argued the Canadian side of Niagara Falls was more beautiful than the Niagara Reservation, the historic heart of the Niagara Falls State Park. Sure, he understood the obvious point about the struggles of the commercial district, on the American side.

But Kutlina loved the wild nature of Goat Island, the splinter of land that touches the brink of both the Horseshoe and American falls. As a child, he learned its trails and hidden places, and he intuitively embraced the 19th century vision of famed landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted:

Goat Island, Kutlina once told me, ought to always remain in “a primeval state.”

Kutlina is gone now, lost to prostate cancer 10 years ago this month. His widow, Frida, died in 2015. Kutlina met her in Germany in the aftermath of the war. Yet their daughter Mary still owns the Welch Avenue house that Joe and Frida built about 63 years ago. Many of Kutlina’s paintings and drawings decorate the walls. Dozens upon dozens of others have been distributed to his seven other children, or to his nieces and nephews.

[Gallery: A Look Back: 300 years of Niagara Falls]

I first spoke with Kutlina in the 1980s, when I was writing for the Niagara Gazette, amid another burst of philosophical debate about the direction of Goat Island. At the time, the state touched off a furor when it cut down 60 trees to open up the view from a restaurant. Kutlina was among those who saw that decision as both heartbreaking and shortsighted: To him, nothing compared to the moment when you left a trail in the woods to come upon the full glory of the falls.

Frida Kutlina, who came to Niagara Falls from Germany after World War II, with her husband, Joseph W. Kutlina, in a family picture. (Courtesy Kutlina family; copy by Mark Mulville/Buffalo News)

He was a soulful guy, a factory worker with a deep appreciation for the singular miracle of Niagara. I've often thought of him, and his probable reaction, amid the ongoing storm triggered in January by this Goat Island reflection from Gov. Andew Cuomo, during his regional State of the State speech in Amherst:

"When you look across the river, you see Canada has more activities," Cuomo said. "We need to correct that, and we’re going to do it in Niagara Falls. On Goat Island we will create a year-round destination for tourism and build a world-class lodge with sweeping views of the Niagara River."

A grand lodge on Goat Island? Park advocates say 'no'

Joseph W. Kutlina’s painting, “American Falls as seen from Prospect Point” in Niagara Falls Wednesday, March 1, 2017. (Mark Mulville/Buffalo News)

The fundamental argument is that an upscale lodge would help create the kind of energy the Canadian side routinely generates. The speech touched off an immediate back-and-forth among civic officials, preservationists and Olmsted scholars about whether a lodge – built on what’s now a Goat Island parking lot – would violate the 19th century vision of Olmsted, the great architect and planner who also designed Central Park in Manhattan and Buffalo's Delaware Park.

In an email last week, Sam Hoyt – regional president of the Empire State Development Corp. – said the request for proposals “will specify that such a lodge can be in any of the four state parks at Niagara (Niagara Falls State Park - including Goat Island and Prospect Point, De Veaux Woods, Whirlpool and Devil’s Hole.)  The RFP will also emphasize that there will be a robust community input period and that the community’s opinion will play a critical role in determining where a lodge may be located.

“In short,” Hoyt wrote, “it was never the state’s intent to emphasize the Goat Island location.”

State considers other parks for lodge, not just Goat Island

Reading that, I could almost hear Kutlina saying:

Thank God.

Joseph W. Kutlina’s painting, “Three Sisters Bridge on Goat Island” in Niagara Falls. (Mark Mulville/Buffalo News)

Even a decade after his death, his voice matters. His life and work captured a kind of core spirit of Niagara Falls. The son of a railroad worker, Kutlina attended the old Trott Vocational High School. He never had the opportunity to go to college. For a brief period, he took some classes at an art school in Buffalo.

Whether on the job or with his art, Kutlina learned through diligence. Another one of his daughters, Doris Lucas, remembers him as “a visionary, a man who was ahead of his time.” He always held "two or three jobs" to better care for his family, she said. He spent much of his career at the Olin Corp., working second shift or midnights as a stationary engineer in charge of the boilers. His daughters recall how he'd find books at the library, then spend hours studying in order to learn the chemistry demanded by the job.

Niagara County officials to Cuomo: No lodge on Goat Island

Outside of work, he always was drawn back to Niagara. Doris and Mary say their dad never grew weary of the great wonder in his hometown. He often took his family to Goat Island. While his children rode their bicycles on the trails, Kutlina would snap Polaroid photographs and go home to capture those images in charcoal or oil.

He loved the haunting, almost mystical sense of isolation when he'd stand on rocks amid the surging river, on Three Sisters Island. He loved the violent drama of the Niagara rapids, just before they careened over the brink. He loved the Bridal Veil, the solitary cascade of foam and rushing water that plummets toward the Cave of the Winds.

Kutlina embraced Niagara, in its entirety. He appreciated the beauty and discipline of the Canadian side, with its manicured lawns and gardens. His daughters say it was another frequent stop. But he preferred the wild nature of the American side, within the park he'd often wandered as a child. He shared a perspective that I once heard expressed beautifully by an educator in Niagara County, an educator who believed both sides had distinct appeal:

From Canada, he'd say, when you admire the falls, you’re looking across the river at a beautiful picture.

On Goat Island, near green trees and boiling rapids, you become part of that picture.

To Kutlina, that exquisite truth is exactly what the state ought to nurture, celebrate - and lift up.

He had seen loss and cruelty in the war, which only reinforced his reverence for the falls. Kutlina earned a Bronze Star in combat at the Battle of the Bulge, his daughters said. He came home to serve as a witness to some of the worst years of pollution and commercialization along the Niagara River. He was there when parts of his city were often covered by a stinking haze. He watched as developers built sightseeing towers and tall hotels that climbed even higher than the mist.

“He couldn’t stand them,” Mary said of the towers. He felt they only detracted from the majesty of the falls.

Mary and Doris recall how Kutlina had a deep reverence for nature, how he would pause to study a leaf on a tree, how he would ask his children to avoid stepping on caterpillars on the sidewalk.

"My father was always sensitive to life," Mary said.

Above all else, he believed in the essence of Niagara Falls, in that almost hypnotic communion between an onlooker and the raw force of a Great Lake, as it plunged over a cliff.

“He used to tell us,” Mary said, “they were God’s gift to man.”

Certainly, Kutlina wanted his hometown to prosper. But he did not believe we would get there by diminishing the natural beauty of Goat Island, a piece of land that he felt was utterly unique on Earth.

He once told me he had a favorite location where he would paint or draw, a precise spot on Prospect Point that looked out upon Goat Island. If he stood there, at exactly the right angle, the trees blocked every tower and hotel from his view. Kutlina could see and feel only the falls, only the mist and the rumbling free fall of the water.

It was primeval. To Kutlina, that was the best side of Niagara.

Sean Kirst is a contributing columnist with The Buffalo News. If you have thoughts on the future of Goat Island, you leave them below as a comment or send an email to seanpeterkirst@gmail.com. You can read more of Kirst's work in this archive.

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