Hidden secrets of Fredonia hall

Architecture is part of transformation for Central Avenue structure

This image from the Barker Museum shows the earlier Gothic style of the home and its twin, as they both appeared during the 19th century.

In the history of an antebellum structure, there are mysteries that slowly reveal themselves. Some are eventually resolved. The former Buttrick Hall at today’s 221 Central Ave. in Fredonia is a pre-Civil War building that uncovers some bittersweet chapters of its own past as well as the village’s.

In the 1950s, one century after the home was built, Rev. David G. Buttrick lived and worked with Fredonia’s Presbyterians. Under his direction, the building became a center for community involvement and education, and in his honor, the structure bore his name for the second half of the 20th century. His obituary was featured in the OBSERVER on April 16, 2017.

The first twist to the home’s history is the fact that it was not originally an Elizabethan Revival house, as it became in 1915 and as it exists today. Instead, when it was built in the 1850s, it was a Gothic Revival home, as was its twin at today’s 231 Central Avenue.

They were both built by the wealthy businessman Hascal Taylor. His wife Louisa was a local Baptist. Hascal, originally from nearby Stockton, was a co-owner of the carriage factory that once stood on the site of Fredonia’s doctor offices on Center Street. Taylor was also an entrepreneur, who invested in banking and real estate, and who also made a great deal of money in the oil fields around Titusville, Pa.

Taylor’s daughter Kate lived in one of the Central Avenue homes for much of her life. A second daughter Jesse, who was probably to have inherited the other house, often lived elsewhere. On East Main Street, the Taylors also built and occupied a mansion, which was probably to have been inherited by Taylor’s son Emory.

However, in the next twist to the saga, a diary entry dated Feb. 27, 1871 by a family friend stated that Emory had just “had a baby with a Dutch girl.” Emory was only 16 at the time, and the phrase “Dutch girl” most likely meant “Deutsche,” a young German woman. Five years later, Emory did indeed marry a young German woman from Titusville, but it is not known at this writing if she was the same “Dutch girl.” She died only five years after the marriage, the same year that Emory’s mother died of cancer.

Following the death of their wives in 1880, Hascal and Emory lived in and around Buffalo and Batavia. It was in Buffalo that Hascal later commissioned the design of the skyscraper that became known as the Guaranty Building, but Hascal died just before construction was to begin.

Meanwhile, another twist in Fredonia’s history is that about half of the village had developed an intense scorn toward “non-natives,” an animosity that had arisen before the Civil War, just as the Titusville oil fields were getting underway. A Fredonia newspaper, which was called the Advertiser, sponsored weekly editorials railing against anyone who had been born outside America.

The Advertiser claimed that foreigners, including Germans, Irish, and Catholics, were disproportionately represented on public welfare.

The newspaper also implied that “non-natives” could dangerously dilute the “true” American gene pool. Many Protestant church-goers practiced discrimination in Fredonia for several decades, and their prejudice was reflected in property deeds.

Until it became illegal in the mid-twentieth century, deeds in some parts of Fredonia, Dunkirk, Van Buren, and other nearby communities specifically forbade property ownership not only by German and Irish Americans, but also any Americans of African, Polish, Italian, “Slavic,” and Jewish descent. Some deeds even went so far as to say, “or any other undesirable person.”

The prevailing sentiment was expressed in the often quoted phrase, “If I live next door to such people, my son might want to marry one.” Into the story arrived Rev. Buttrick, who did not fall for such rhetoric. According to his obituary, he adhered to “policies of inclusion and diversity.”

An article in the Fredonia Censor newspaper of 21 November 1955 explained that Buttrick raised a committee of his parishioners, including village luminaries such as George Weaver, Don Brandt, and Murdoch Dawley. They and Rev. Buttrick guided the Fredonia Presbyterians in the purchase of 221 Central from Otto Hakes, whose wife Zella had just passed away.

Otto and Zella were the couple who had conducted the exquisite remodeling of the home forty years earlier. The Censor reported that their residence was to be used by the Presbyterians as a church school and social hall until a fellowship wing could be added to the church building itself.

In the next lovely twist to Fredonia’s legend, Buttrick Hall began to dispel many of the village’s past discriminatory myths. The hall was a haven for vacation church school, where the community’s Protestant baby boomers of several denominations learned to shed their prejudices.

For example, field trips were taken by the school’s children to visit Dunkirk’s Temple Beth El as well as Fredonia’s two Catholic churches. In another example of the outreach of Buttrick Hall, visitors who had become successful in the community in spite of various disabilities were invited to speak to the children about overcoming an obstacle.

In a third example, Rev. Buttrick encouraged his parishioners to welcome African American children into their homes through the nationally recognized Fresh Air Program for inner cities. Furthermore, women’s issues and the modern wave of feminism were discussed openly by young people at Buttrick Hall.

In a final twist to its own rich history, the building relinquished its Buttrick appellation in the 21st century, when it quite appropriately became the law office and home of John Gullo and his family, who are active in the Catholic congregation of the St. Anthony Parish. It was within St. Anthony’s first building in 1906 that Fredonia’s earliest Italian Americans could worship in the language of their birth.

As a fitting epilogue, it should be noted that the Taylor mansion on East Main Street became the rectory for the St. Joseph Parish, another Catholic congregation in Fredonia. Likewise, during Rev. Buttrick’s time in Fredonia, the village entered a long succession of Italian American mayors.

Acknowledgements for historical information in this article are extended to Lois Barris, Jim Boltz, Marsi Painter, Dan Reiff, Doug Shepard, and the Barker Museum.