A house reborn

By SKEETER TOWER

Special to the OBSERVER

In the aftermath of another county property auction, there is a bright and encouraging story to tell. This is the kind of story which we like to shout from the rooftops. A once empty and long-neglected and deteriorating house in a highly visible location has been renovated and is now, once again, proudly occupied, cared for and back on the tax rolls in Dunkirk.

The little shingled house at 84 W. Sixth St., built more than 100 years ago, had been shuttered for years. It sat sadly across from the front entrance to the Dunkirk High School. It was not obvious to everyone but the piece of property had great appeal because it was a deep lot running down to the edge of Crooked Brook. The lot is 67 x 300 feet, very unusual for a Dunkirk city lot. It is adjacent to Bicentennial Park, city school district property, which has been through some recent renovation with interest from volunteers in the Academy Heights Neighborhood and support from school authorities and an NCCF community pride grant for perennial gardens, new trees, benches and lighting.

This 1128-square-foot house had the good fortune to be purchased at auction three years ago by Joseph and Patty Brown of Fredonia. As is true for most auction houses, the Browns did not have an opportunity to inspect inside the premises before making a bid. Once in their possession they discovered the little house had been chopped into two small apartments with little rhyme or reason to the layout.

“The smell was horrific,” Patty says.

Raccoons had left their mark. There was evidence of past squatters, drug paraphernalia, old clothes, trash, broken appliances and filth everywhere. The building had been stripped of copper wires and pipes. A stubborn groundhog resisted relocation. It took days to empty the garbage into dumpsters before being able to continue the discovery of any true value of the investment.

The house stood square and solid on a firm and strong foundation. The basement was dry and functional. Hardwood floors could be saved and restored as well as the staircase to the second floor. The land stretched out down to the little brook with large trees and lots of underbrush. Patty states that they were attracted to the large lot in the solid residential community of Academy Heights.

This is where the Browns started. Clearing the land sent messages to the neighborhood that work was under way. Neighbors have cheered the steady transformation of the long neglected and boarded up house.

Joe Brown Sr. is the man behind the project. He is retired as the business manager from Boiler Maker Local 7 in Buffalo. Patty describes him as meticulous in his restoration work.

“He pays great attention to detail and won’t let the level bubble be even a hair off center,” she says.

If he does not have a solution to fix a problem, he will think about it for a while and then get it done. As Patty says, there is “obvious pride” in her husband’s renovation work.

This has been a family project. Patty works three days a week at Lawley Insurance and would come over during her lunch hour to look in on the work. Their son David was in the market for a house, but did not find this house appealing until well into the renovations. With the redesign and layout, and their hard work gutting and installing new electric and plumbing service, he soon became interested in living in the house with his fiancee. The Browns’ daughter Amanda, who is a nurse at St. Columban’s, and Joe Jr., whose engagement photo recently appeared in the OBSERVER with his fiance Christen Gillson, all have helped on this house project over the past three years.

The floors shine once again. Insulation and new windows make it energy efficient. New kitchen cabinetry and appliances sparkle. Walls have been moved, closets built in, two new bathrooms and two bedrooms offer more spacious living space. Freshly painted walls with appealing neutral colors flow throughout the house. A new roof, one of the few jobs contracted out, was one of the last steps. Even the in-laws are getting involved. David’s fiancee’s father is ready to start the landscaping, working on a much cleaner slate now that the land is cleared.

The red umbrella is up on the new back deck, a rose garden is envisioned for the front corner by the entrance. A family of ducks made a nest down by the creek and charmed the children of the family, just as these wondrous things might have happened years ago when other families loved and cared for this house and property.

One has to wonder about the family who once built and loved this little house. The Browns quick deed had the house dating back to 1915. Assessment records gave clues only back to June 6, 1956 when the house was purchased by Francesca Jankowski. On a hunch I gave a call to Nancy Jankowski-Kubera to see if she might know this person and this house.

“That was my ‘busia’ (grandmother),” responded the surprised voice on the other end of the phone.

When I met with the family, I learned that Francesca Kysocka had come to Dunkirk from Poland in 1902 at age 19, married Wircenty Jankowski in 1907. They had seven children. He was killed in a railroad accident in Irving in 1944 so Francesca worked to support herself and the children. (The railroad paid each child $100 to compensate for the death of their father). Francesca bought the house when she was 70 years old, walked to work at Brooks Memorial Hospital, masking her true age so she could continue working as a cleaning lady. She never drove but walked all over town. Yes, there were once two porches on the house and she was proud of the porch glider she bought at Ehlers furniture store.

There was always a pot on the stove at 84 W. Sixth St. and one could expect rye bread and butter when visiting. She planted many flowers and shrubs and at 89 was still outside with a shovel planting and in the winter clearing the walk. She taught Nancy how to drink a shot “in one gulp without making a face” and to set the glass down firmly with a hearty “Na zdrowie!” (“To your health!”).

Nancy ate lunch with her Busia during lunch hours from the new high school across the street. It was Nancy’s Class of 1970, the first to graduate from the new school, who built the gazebo in Bicentennial Park nearby. As Francesca aged, two of her children, Virginia and Stanley, who had never married, moved in with her. The house was left to all the children when she died in 1988 and remained in the family’s possession another four years before being sold to Todd Jenks in 1992. Nancy Jankowski-Kubera reports great sadness as she watched the house fall into disrepair in later years. She hopes to meet the Browns who have brought the house back to life.

A trip to the Dunkirk Historic Museum, with the guidance of volunteer Denise Griggs, provided a treasure trove of information to help illuminate the history of the house. It seems the house dates back as far as 1896, with the first owner of record being John Runkowski (laborer). By 1907 John Lucas (boilermaker) lived there and after him in 1913 Charles Schultz (drayman). Frank Will (pharmacist/ticket broker) was living there in 1915 and operating a business at 309 Lion Street. Surtina Thompson made it her home in 1923, married Daniel Irish and they were still there in 1945. Andrew Passenger (carpenter) and wife Catherine, lived at 84 W. Sixth St. in 1951 and it was perhaps he who made it into two apartments because by 1954 David Briggs, a plater at ALCO is also listed at this address. It is in 1956 when Franchesca purchased the house for her family for the next 36 years. Jenks, the most recent previous owner, came from Buffalo, bought the building and is described as a loner. Neighbors barely knew him and at some point he merely walked away from the building; a story left untold. I’m sure the Browns and the Historic Museum would love to hear any additional history of this property still to be uncovered.

The Brown family is astounded to experience how friendly and encouraging the neighbors have been, so many stopping in to tell them how much they appreciate the transformation of the house. Even the high school students have marveled at the once dumpy- looking house now sitting quite perky and happy across the street. This is not the end of the story. The Browns have acquired two new auction houses; one in Silver Creek and one in Forestville. If 84 W. Sixth St. is an example of their work and end product, those communities have a treat in store.

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