Restoring the Coburn Block

HISTORY

The Coburn Block (127-133 Central Avenue) in Dunkirk stands alone as a last and remaining intact tribute to the class and refinement reflected in the business community of Dunkirk of the past century.

Built in 1868 the block was, according to Daniel Reiff, emeritus professor of architectural history at SUNY Fredonia, “designed to give a unified overall impressiveness to what is really six adjacent stores. Twenty banks of rounded windows provide a unifying, Italianate motif to the facade, popular in the 1850s.”

Reiff also described the cast iron posts treated as Corinthian piers. The base of each pier is embossed with the name “Dunkirk Iron Works 1868.” The building on the corner of Second Street and Central Avenue (135 Central Ave.) was built in 1870 and mirrors the expression of the Coburn block with added Italianate flourishes .

There is a rich history associated with this place. A commercial center in this spot predates the Civil War. Doug Shepherd, professor emeritus at SUNY Fredonia wrote about the fire on Feb 22, 1868 which destroyed 38 commercial buildings on the west side of Center Street (now Central Avenue) from Second Street north. Within weeks the city decreed no more wooden buildings would be allowed in this section of town.

Enoch Coburn from Fredonia who had been buying and selling properties since 1825 committed to rebuild in Dunkirk. The Fredonia Censor reported that the grand sum of $30,000 was invested in this three-story high block in 1886. Many businesses flourished in the location: selling groceries, tiles and grates, crockery and tin ware. Here was a tailor, a carpenter, a blacksmith, two newspapers, a plumber, The Staph Jewelry store, the Mayer building where unique wooden mantels, hardwood paneling and parquet flooring could be ordered (many still to be seen in our area’s historic homes) a music store, a dance studio, notions and a fashion store, Ehlers furniture, a drug store, a saloon and White’s restaurant. The original stone steps are worn with the foot traffic of a previously thriving business block.

A CALL FOR RESTORATION

Reiff stated it clearly: “The Coburn Block is thus a building of great visual charm, the more important to Dunkirk because almost all of this type have been destroyed (mainly since 1970) and it adds an important historic note to the city with very few of its older commercial buildings left. Preservation and restoration of lost details of the Coburn Block is very important.”

Since this opinion from Reiff, Dunkirk has lost the Masonic Block, just down Central Avenue, sitting now as another empty lot in the heart of the city. In my opinion, we must stop the unraveling of a valuable city structure and spruce up Central Avenue. Now is the time to reclaim this architectural treasure. The well-being of the city’s future depends upon it.

Wait, you may say. This block has already become so shabby and depreciated that it is not recognized as a city treasure. Some worry it is a fire hazard. In fact, there has been a recent apartment fire there. How can we ever afford to fix it? Most of the block is owned and occupied by Rural Ministry, an organization serving the needy of our community. How can they afford to restore and maintain this set of buildings?

A MEANS TO RESTORE

An answer to restoring the block may be the Main Street Grant. The efforts of architect, Donald Harrington, Executive Director of Rural Ministry, Kathy Peterson and Tom Whitney, Director of Southern Tier Living Environments, putting together a scope of work and streetscape elevation for the application are credited with bringing this $250,000 grant opportunity to a realistic decision point.

Steve Neratko and Nichole Waite of the Dunkirk Office of Development have also worked to make this opportunity a reality. The grant targets only the first two blocks of Central Avenue off Lake Shore Drive in part because of its great potential, “good bones” and gateway to the rest of the commercial district. The Main Street Grant is a 75/25 matching grant, with 75 percent of the investment repaid by New York State after completion of the work. The monies can then be reinvested in further facade work, even interior work, or returned to investors. This means Rural Ministry must make a 25 percent match of the total funds awarded. The money must be raised upfront. This last requirement has presented a barrier to the Chautauqua County Rural Ministry Board but very recently it did agree to move ahead with the project.

Once these renovations are complete, more historic preservation grants are available as demonstrated by the happy business folk of the Village of Hamburg who have already been repaid for their facade work and have seen significant increase in profits and a readiness to move on to even more projects. Paul Becker, representing the Village of Hamburg attended the March Revitalize Dunkirk meeting to share that village’s successful experience with complete streets and The Main Street Grant.

“In kind” effort (actual materials and donation of professional skills) cannot be counted for the matching grant, but volunteer skills of local masons, painters, carpenters, laborers can be part of a broader rehabilitation plan. There are many gifted contractors in this city. Most people have heard the laments about urban renewal in the 1970s with nothing ever developing in the empty spaces left behind.

The Coburn block is a surviving city block. In my opinion, now is the time for local people to step up to the plate and save these six buildings. $15,000 of the grant will be focused on streetscape improvements like tree plantings, “Complete Streets” amenities such as pedestrian crossings, improved walkways, benches, handicapped accessibility, bike lanes and urban art.

Why would we not stop the deterioration, save a treasure and revive our business core? This is not a time to stand helplessly by and complain or wait for an outside miracle. The area is still reeling from the announcement of local massive job cuts and facility closings of ConAgra in both Fredonia and Dunkirk. There is a need to transition to more competitive, natural resource focused tourist and tech industries. The new SUNY Tech Incubator is just up the street, also within this revitalization district. Here is a chance to work together for one goal. Here is a ripe opportunity to make a difference in the city of Dunkirk. Contact Chautauqua County Rural Ministry if you can donate some time and talent to this effort. If the citizens of Fredonia could do it for the ornate Opera House, Dunkirk can do it for the Coburn Block.

SUPPORT FOR THE PROJECT

OBSERVER columnist Margaret Valone in conjunction with Chautauqua County Rural Ministry, has taken on the challenge of setting up a designated fund to help Chautauqua County Rural Ministry raise upfront funding. Without it, nothing will budge.

Rural Ministry is stretching to meet the everyday needs of people and has no money set aside for renovations, but it is willing to be partners in the grant and anxious to see the work go forward. CCRM Executive Director Kathy Peterson is poised to submit other grant requests, as well as short term loan applications. Valone is reaching out to private clubs, individuals, businesses, and others – a “coalition of the willing” – to raise $50,000, in cash and “in kind” donations, to start this project. The Rev. Helen Sam of Dunkirk’s St? John the Baptist Episcopal Church is reaching out to local church groups.

Rural Ministry is thinking creatively about other possibilities as well. They are willing to enter into social entrepreneurship arrangements with private businesses to create competitive rental commercial space which would contribute to the vitality and diversity of the block, plus help support their activities.

Rich Goodman, designer of social entrepreneurship enterprises in the city, has offered his expertise for this effort.

Development of the upper floors offers even more possibilities for commercial or housing spaces. It might even offer space for the new SUNY Art Incubator with loft space for working artists. Concentration of services and housing is considered “smart growth” and good for businesses. We can all start to think “out of the box” to save this historic, handsome block.

Rural Ministry has kept some of these storefronts occupied since 1984 when the Friendly Kitchen first opened. Some may not be happy with such a large, not for profit occupancy of a central commercial block but few can dispute that the needs of many are met in these spaces with the Garment Gallery, the food pantry, the Friendly Kitchen, the countywide food warehouse, a used furniture outlet and office space as well as 19 apartments upstairs. Over one million dollars has already been invested in upgrading the building with an elevator, sprinkler system, fire escape and energy efficient, mixed use spaces. A statement from Kathleen Peterson, Executive Director of CCRM indicates that there are approximately 19,000 sq ft. of space in the five buildings.

She wrote, “After the initial rehab in 1986 when the first tenants moved in, CCRM has not had the funding in hand to renovate the facade of the Coburn Block which has fallen into disrepair With this funding, CCRM plans to restore the facade to its original luster. The timing is fortuitous, as the area around the corner of Lake Shore Drive and Central Avenue is the subject of a “Complete Streets” Grant which will further beautify the area. This grant could be the once in a lifetime opportunity for facade improvements.”

Rural Ministry is a United Way Community Partner and NYS Dept. of Health Division of Nutrition contractor. In 2002, 123 Central Ave. was purchased to help consolidate its services in one space. Michael Roberts, former owner of J & M Plumbing at 123 Central Ave., made significant contributions at that time and helped restore the second floor windows which had been boarded up. John Gullo II, a member of the Rural Ministries Board, donated legal services for the purchase; Dave Bryant directed volunteers to reconfigure the inner space designed by volunteer architect, Rick Peebles. State Senator Jess Present helped arrange for VISTA volunteers to help operate the kitchen. Members of the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Northern Chautauqua planted trees and installed window boxes along Second Street.

CCRM is credited with being a good steward of funding, accomplishing all services on a .03 percent fund raising and management cost.

A statement from its annual report reads “Local churches, individuals, NCCF, businesses, agencies and others bless our organization annually with their time, talent and treasures. We are deeply grateful to everyone for all that they contribute.”

These are valued services in our communities which have touched many lives. We can not only preserve and cherish the services of this agency but bring class, beauty and economic vitality back to the Coburn Block.

Historic preservation is known to draw people and increase property values. The Crocker Sprague building renovations is an example of the difference preserving our history can make. Let’s avoid the dreariness of cookie cutter buildings to fill up our empty urban spaces. Let’s be proactive to save and restore this quality commercial center and fill it with mixed use vital shops and services. Just as Dunkirk can never afford to replace the classic Masonic building, we could never replace this series of buildings with comparable construction, but we can restore, revitalize and beautify it now with the Main Street Grant.

To make a tax deductible cash donation to meet the matching grant, contact the Northern Chautauqua Community Foundation (212 Lake Shore Drive West, 366-4892) where a special fund named “Coburn Block Renovation” has been established. According to Steve Neratko of the Dunkirk Department of Development, $17,000 per unit needs to be raised up front to get started. Let’s get started!

Skeeter Tower writes monthly for the OBSERVER. Direct comments to lifestyles@observertoday.com