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100-Plus Things: Porter Hall, Buffalo's original Karpeles Museum

The Karpeles Manuscript Library Museum Porter Hall sounds magical, like a setting in a Victorian novel. And occasionally when he is working there, caretaker Thomas Stocklosa thinks it is haunted.

"I was downstairs, and I heard footsteps up above," he said, his words at odds with the bright Monday morning. "And nobody was up there." He shook his head. "I'm sure I heard footsteps."

Who could it have been? The possibilities were dazzling.

Maybe it was Admiral Nelson, revisiting his victory at Trafalgar. Nelson sketched out, in impressively graceful script, what turned out to be his winning strategies for that important battle. His memo can be viewed under glass near the museum's entrance.

Building superintendent Thomas Stocklosa cleans one of the cases. (Sharon Cantillon/Buffalo News)

Or it could have been Giacomo Puccini, with another revision to "Madame Butterfly." A page from that opera, covered in cross-outs, can be seen around the corner from Admiral Nelson's jottings.

It could even have been Queen Isabella of Spain, wanting to renegotiate a clause with her and her husband's contract with explorer Ferdinand Magellan. That contract is there, too, in the unchanging exhibit at Porter Hall.

All intriguing possibilities, those.

But David Karpeles, the California manuscript collector who gave us two museums, would prefer that the footsteps be yours.

In 1991, he and his wife, Marsha, opened a museum in New York City, on Central Park West. Admission was free. They began by exhibiting -- wait for it -- the original draft of the Bill of Rights.

Just 68 people showed up.

Disappointed, the Karpeleses decided to locate their museums in towns where people would appreciate their treasures.

"We looked for places where there were very intelligent people who didn't have the opportunity to be in a big city, and Buffalo was one of them," Karpeles told me a few years ago.

Not all of the manuscripts are originals. Some are reproductions for security reasons. This is a map depicting the Viking Age which lasted from 793-1066. (Sharon Cantillon/Buffalo News)

The Karpeles Manuscript Library is one of two Karpeles buildings close to each other. Featured in this gallery is the one at 453 Porter Ave., a former church.

He was easy to reach. He came off as a salt-of-the-earth guy. And he locates his museums in mid-sized cities, including Jacksonville, Fla.; Charleston, S.C.; Duluth, Minn.; and Karpeles' hometown of Santa Barbara, Calif.

To have a Karpeles museum in your town is to have a touch of magic.

The Karpeles collection is the greatest in the world. It includes Wagner's "Wedding March"; the first draft of Roget's Thesaurus; Webster's original dictionary; George Washington's Thanksgiving proclamation; the Gutenberg Bible; and the two actual stone tablets God gave Moses, bearing the Ten Commandments. (OK, we're not sure about that last one. The website simply says, "The Ten Commandments," and the link to the explanation is broken. But you have to assume, you know?)

Buffalo is unique in that it has not one Karpeles Museum, but two.

The Karpeles Manuscript Library at 453 Porter Ave. in Buffalo is one of two in the City of Buffalo. The museum is in former Plymouth Methodist Church, a beautiful piece of architecture. (Sharon Cantillon/Buffalo News)

North Hall, at the high-traffic corner of Elmwood Avenue and North Street, is the more visible, with its wide steps and Greek columns. But today we head to Porter Hall, our other Karpeles museum, and the first one he opened here. This hall, down the street at 453 Porter Ave., is a different sort of marvel.

Your first impression is of acres of gleaming wood floor, spaciousness, and sacred silence. On a blue October morning, sunshine poured through the vivid stained glass windows -- one depicting the young Jesus preaching in the temple, the other showing the Good Shepherd. The work of a Rochester art glass studio, they are in the Tiffany style, with turquoise skies and vivid green leaves.

The hall fans out into countless smaller halls. It also boasts what has to be the world's largest pocket door. A gigantic arch, it vanishes into the ceiling.

This is the old Plymouth Methodist Church -- once so prominent that it gave its name to Plymouth Avenue, not the other way around. When it was dedicated, on Nov. 10, 1912, The Buffalo Evening News marveled at its enormity and praised its Romanesque architecture, marble halls, quartered oak woodwork. Its windows, The News said, were among the finest in Western New York.

Times change, and, like most of Buffalo's masterpieces, this one eventually faced the wrecking ball. By 1995, when Karpeles bought it for a buck, it had been abandoned for six years, and open to the elements.

Renovations cost more than $2 million.

Detail from the Christ in the Temple window by Hastings Art Glass Company from Rochester. (Sharon Cantillon/Buffalo News)

"The pigeon droppings were six inches deep," said Thomas Stocklosa, the building's longtime caretaker. "We spent weeks wearing masks, cleaning it up. The pigeons hissed and hissed at us. They didn't want to leave. This was their house."

Now, it's our house. And it's free.

Porter Hall is a popular wedding venue, because it makes you feel as if you're in a church. Unlike North Hall, the manuscripts are here and there, not everywhere. Some are reproductions, not technically the real thing. Still, they're thrilling.

David Karpeles' vision calls to mind a previous 100-Plus Things adventure, the Griffis Sculpture Park. Sculptor Larry Griffis noticed his children, bored in galleries, came to life when faced with art they could touch. Karpeles had a similar Eureka moment. When he took his kids to a glorious library, they yawned -- until they saw a letter signed by Thomas Jefferson. The discovery made them light up.

By sharing his collection, Karpeles hoped, he could pass on the pride and sense of purpose he felt when he was a boy.

"I believe that we learned those feelings by our exposure to the accomplishments of our predecessors," he once told the Los Angeles Times. "We studied history; we studied literature, we studied government, science, philosophy, art and music. Our children have not. They do not know who is Simon Bolivar, Rudyard Kipling, Immanuel Kant, Franklin Pierce, Sir Walter Raleigh, Virginia Dare or Queen Isabella."

We know a few of those folks now. They live here.

Come visit.

*Read last week's 100-Plus Things entry:

100-Plus Things: Carve out time for the Great Pumpkin Farm





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