Dana Saylor-Furman's career as a house genealogist began with dusty neighborhood records she found in the basement of the comfortable old house she moved into with arched brick windows and rounded soapstone mantels.
Built after the Civil War, she figured there had to be a story in how 102 Prospect Avenue, with its garden and wide porch, got its share of the beauty and history that she was noticing everywhere in her new city.
“It was just kind of a test,” she said. “A challenge to myself.
“People didn't exist in a vacuum and neither did buildings.”
She walked a few blocks to City Hall to track down records of previous owners. For five months, she talked to neighbors and descendants of former residents, and sifted through city directories, census records and newspapers. She mined archives at the library, wills at surrogate court and city atlases at the Historical Society.
In two years since she made a sidewalk display of her discoveries for Garden Walk – it included a century-old photo of the founder of Oliver's Restaurant as a young man – she launched Old Time Roots, a business of house-history sleuthing.
Word spread and her clients, and discoveries, piled up. She found blueprint proof that an unregistered E.B. Green house was genuine. Long-gone stained glass windows of Robin Hood still inspires a priest now making stained glass himself at Our Lady of Fatima shrine.
And, the snapshot, clearly taken in the backyard where Saylor-Furman now grows kale and carrots, shows a beaming Frank Oliver sitting on his brother's shoulders.
Oliver's father was a furniture store manager and the family rented the house, built in 1869 by a publisher, in the years before World War I, when the neighborhood shifted from upper class families of business owners to the mix of renters and owners that still exists.
In 1936, Oliver would open Buffalo's iconic, elegant eatery that still bears his name, on Delaware Avenue.
“Those things are like, 'How cool,' ” said Komani Lundquist, who bought No. 102 in 2005 and rents some of its nine bedrooms to six roommates. “It was sort of like learning the life of a good friend. It kind of just made me love it all the more.”
It costs $800 to hire Saylor-Furman to do research on a house; it is compiled by her graphic designer husband, Jonathan Furman, into a finished book with photos and a house story that she writes.
Saylor-Furman, 33, with a fall of bangs that can slip over one eye, has an independent look that fits her make-your-own-way ambition. The couple, who met while studying art at the State University at Oswego, moved here from Utica in 2008 because Buffalo, with its cosmopolitan arts and culture, and inexpensive downtown living, seemed like a place where they could afford to live and work as artists.
The papers that started her original search were from a 1970s effort by a previous owner of the Prospect house to chronicle the history of the West Village neighborhood so it could be listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
She's had 10 clients so far and business is “going much better than I could have imagined,” Saylor-Furman said. “It's not incredibly lucrative work, but it's enough to sustain me.”
She also helped found ELAB (for Emerging Leaders in the Arts), an artists networking group, and planned the art party last month at the Silo City grain elevators. Her preservation consulting work for the Campaign for Greater Buffalo includes work on the Busti Avenue houses threatened with demolition for the expanded Peace Bridge plaza.
She was so taken with one former Busti resident, she drew his portrait on an antique cupboard door: Samuel Wilkeson, a Civil War colonel and escort to President Lincoln, now stares into her cheerfully cluttered dining room.
“I just had to draw him,” she said. “He was haunting me.”
E.B., or not E.B.?
Mark Judd fell in love with 168 North St. in 2004, soon after he saw the “for sale” sign, pulled over for a tour and put in a bid. The house has high ceilings, big windows and an entryway with Italian marble tile and a sweeping staircase, its banister tipped with a cut-glass knob that shoots out rainbows when the sun hits.
The longer Judd lived in and worked on the house, the more its mysteries intrigued: From the marks in the kitchen floor's white marble tiles, he could tell there was once another wall and doorway. In the basement, he found darkened rafters. From a fire?
He heard his 1880 Georgian Colonial, between Elmwood and Delaware, was designed by E.B. Green, the architect famous for some of the city's classical, century-old icons, like the gold-domed Buffalo Savings Bank and Albright-Knox Art Gallery. But the house wasn't on any registry.
When a plasterer told him about Saylor-Furman, he called. She was skeptical about the Green claim. Lots of people yearned for that news.
But, in a vault in City Hall, she found a 1912 index card that led to drawings by E.B. Green's firm. “When I opened the blueprints, I was like, 'Phew!' ” Saylor-Furman said.
They detailed an addition to Judd's house – perhaps it burned – complete with the drawing of the crystal knob at the end of the banister. It was almost like a house on top of a house, with the back part and kitchen as an old wing.
No. 168 is home to Mark, his wife, Amy, and their two boys. It has gardens in front and back, six fireplaces, a new slate roof, a small pool behind the porch, a heated driveway in herringbone brick and an espresso-coffee maker station on the second-floor landing.
Judd has been delighted by the news of previous residents. An 1881 city directory listed No. 168 as the address of Robert Dunbar, an engineer who, with Joseph Dart, developed the first steam-powered grain elevator.
Saylor-Furman found Dunbar's 1890 obituary that said he died at the North Street house. (This could explain why Judd and his wife sometimes feel a ghostly presence pushing them out of the basement. “You can go at any given time and be made uncomfortable,” he said. “You get a creepy feeling once in a while.”)
As the founder and CEO of BIDCO Marine Group, Judd and his underwater-construction crew have worked on Buffalo's old and modern selves, excavating the foundations of Erie Canal buildings by the waterfront and installing the pedestrian bridge at Erie Canal Harbor. He likes knowing his house was home to others who shaped the city.
“It just puts it all in context,” Judd said of Saylor-Furman's work. “She has the keys to unlock the doors where the history is.”
Robin Hood & rock
Realtor Mark Pagano of Nothnagle Realtors hired Saylor-Furman to research his brick French Tudor mansion, with its storybook look, stained-glass castle window and celebrity mystique.
His 1918 house at 40 Aggasiz Circle was designed by a Roycroft architect and had a backyard pool where Cher and Gregg Allman allegedly swam. Saylor-Furman tracked down psychologist Marc Lipton, now in Baltimore, who hosted the couple at his house at No. 54, when Allman came to Buffalo for drug treatment.
She couldn't find out where they took a dip – Lipton had a pool, too – but she did find a news account of the 1976 “science assembly” at Canisius High School, a surprise concert arranged after a student wrote to Allman at the Liptons.
“Without these services,” Pagano said, “nobody really knows anything about their house, except what they hear in the neighborhood.”
There is still a pane – a castle on a hill – from the Robin Hood series installed by the wealthy first owners, Richard Gavin and his wife, Jennie. From her research, Saylor-Furman imagines Gavin identified with the folk hero outlaw. The son of an Irish immigrant, he started work as a railroad messenger at 13. His eventual wealth was one way of outsmarting the British, a la Robin Hood.
A president of local companies, including Buffalo Addressing Machine Co., Gavin also founded a firm that made stained glass for churches, including Lackawanna's Our Lady of Victory Basilica.
In the 1960s, the house was a residence for the Barnabite fathers, based at Lewiston's Fatima Shrine. A priest who visited told Saylor-Furman he found the romantic, turn-of-the-century windows so lovely, he began making stained glass.
Subsequent owners took out most of the windows, but Pagano's sunny back room with a view of the pool and fountain is brighter for it. “I'm glad they're not here,” he said.
Lately, Saylor-Furman has been working on the history of a house once on Elmwood, between Allen and North streets, where there is now a parking lot. A man born there in the 1940s says he spent some of his happiest days in his family's small apartment at No. 132.
He has only one black and white photo of it with a sliver of a porch, a column and a window in a gable roof. He said he longs for a full picture of the house, where he recalls stoking the coal furnace in a basement hung with gear his father, a commercial painter, used for scaling grain-elevators.
Saylor-Furman doesn't know what her research will turn up, but she's aiming for a photo that could bring more memories back to him. “I'm his only link to this place of his past,” she said, “and I take that responsibility really seriously.”