The sun still hangs low on the horizon on this crisp, Saturday morning on Buffum Street in South Buffalo and the two-story house at No. 49 is already buzzing with activity. A circular saw slices through a plank, releasing into the air a fine mist of sawdust — woodsy and pungent. Hammers, drills and even a rototiller whirl and clank a merry rhapsody as NYSUT members work.
"There is a lot of history in this house," says Andy Sako, who leads today's session, which gives Ken- Ton SEA members career credits as they learn new skills, and bring a bit of Buffalo history back to life. Sako, a NYSUT Board member representing community colleges, is president of the Faculty Federation of Erie Community College. He is a professor of building management and maintenance at ECC.
The Buffum Street project is a mix of community service, hands-on learning and a history lesson rolled into one.
The home was built in 1854. A fire in 2008 earmarked it for demolition, but Assemblyman Michael "Mickey" Kearns, D-South Buffalo, then a city council member, wanted to save the house and use its restoration to revitalize this community.
The lawmaker beams as he walks through the front door and into the whirlwind of activity. "This couldn't be possible without the hard work and dedication of the members of the Kenmore-Tonawanda SEA. And Andy Sako and the members of the Faculty Federation of ECC. This was all possible through donations," Kearns says. Sako's higher ed members participated in a "Day of Caring" clean-up project, which kick-started the renovations.
Kearns unfolds the rich and multi-racial history of the area, which had been settled by the Seneca Nation of Indians in the 1700s. In the 1800s, Humphrey Toliver, an African-American man, and his white wife built a cabin, settled among the Seneca Nation community and raised their family. In 1854, Horace Buffum, a white settler, built the house at 49 Buffum St.
One of Sako's building management practicum students, Kyle Kreutz, is working on a window nearby. Kreutz says she and fellow students have been able to do everything from demolition to finish work on the house. "It's a great way to give back to the community and to preserve history," she says.
Sako's students have been researching building styles to stay true to the time period. For instance, unlike the 21st century style of a sweeping open floor plan, with one room spilling seamlessly into the next, the Buffum house restoration is maintaining the many distinct rooms and delicate archways and doorways that separate them.
"Students in my building trades program are actually going through and doing research on what the mantles would look like, what some of the moldings would look like. The doors, the stairs. Because a lot of those things were destroyed in the fire. So we're trying to recreate what was once here," says Sako.
The house was built in three different time periods, and three different construction styles — the 1850s; the early 1900s and an add-on in the 1920s.
In addition to the research, about 18 of Sako's building and trades students gained vital, hands-on experience working on site over two semesters this past year.
It is important to the community, the workers say, to rescue this house with its long, and some say palpable history. According to local lore, the spirit of Seneca Nation Chief Sagoyewatha (aka Red Jacket) has been sighted near the old Seneca Nation burial ground. The Buffum house cellars have tunnels underneath that, many believe, were a stop on the Underground Railroad. (History scholars point out that the presence of tunnels alone does not mean a site was a stop on the Underground Railroad since, to date, no accounts of escaping slavery included the use of tunnels.)
Ken-Ton SEA member Bob Phillips is a maintenance A mechanic. "We put in 15 hours of career credits. Today there are four different projects going on. The basement, landscaping outside, gutting the kitchen and cleanup." Seemingly on cue, another KTSEA member slams a sledgehammer into the kitchen wall with a thud.
"The project started out pretty rough," says Sako. "We had a lot of structural work, electrical work, plumbing work. We started out small and then I approached Elaine Altman from the Kenmore Staff Development Center."
Altman, a member of the Kenmore Teachers Association and staff development director at the Ken-Ton school district, worked with Sako to develop a workshop that allows School-Related Professionals to earn career credits while also learning skills.
"Andy brought this workshop to the center where, instead of just teaching buildings and grounds staff in a lecture or lab setting, (members could) work on this home that's going to immediately benefit the community. Meanwhile, they earn career credits and get that skillset. So they wire, do electrical work, they plaster. They do the whole nine yards," Altman says.
"This is the ultimate example of quality professional learning because it is linked to the community," says Altman. "(The SRP members') dedication and attention to detail is amazing."
Ken-Ton SEA member Gary Mannix, a custodian, agrees: "Seeing this project start to finish gives us a sense of pride."
Assemblyman Kearns has finished making rounds and is about to leave to pick up lunch for the workers. "This house will be a community asset," he says with a smile. In fact, this project seems to involve much of the South Buffalo community. The homes that surround 49 Buffum have tidy, well-maintained lawns, and neighbors wave as they walk down the street.
Future plans for the property include a tribute room to honor the first settlers here, the Seneca Nation of Indians; a community center; and working in partnership with the nonprofit Grace Guest House, Inc., several of the upstairs rooms will be used as a respite house of temporary affordable housing for families whose loved ones have to travel long distances to Mercy Hospital in Buffalo.