‘Positive’ vision, ethic energized downtowns
David C. Bryant had a knack for looking ahead while reflecting on the past. It was a part of his love for life and passion for this community.
You could see it in his brilliant smile — and in the relationships he built that led to a renovation of many historic structures that dot the downtowns of Dunkirk-Fredonia. As someone who came to the State University of New York at Fredonia to take a position in the philosophy department in 1970, Bryant’s path took a fairly swift turn away from education to aesthetics.
It led him to becoming a master in taking on suffering structures that today are considered local landmarks, many of which can be found within the close proximity of Central Avenue of the two municipalities.
His work, though not completely celebrated at the time, was overshadowed by a dark and confusing economic time in the north county. For city residents, they were still facing the shell-shock and repercussions of a flawed urban development plan that killed the character of neighborhoods and business districts. Blocks filled with history were demolished as major factories and manufacturers began to go into shut-down mode.
For Dunkirk-Fredonia, it was an uneasy transformation.
Bryant, who died at 83 on Feb. 5 at his home in Brocton, was somewhat of a quiet trailblazer during this era of worry and uncertainty. After his contract ran out with the college, his life became dedicated to purchasing and renovating a number of structures that became neglected, but meant so much to these communities and their history.
“He was an unsung champion for our community,” said Sam Bryant, his son. “Really from 1970 till his death. He just never stopped and he was a delight … who was genuinely interested in everything around him.”
Both his son and a longtime partner in development, John Bankosh, referred to Bryant in his early years as a “workaholic.” Every project was a personal investment — in time, sweat and money.
Bryant’s venture into this extraordinary effort of real estate got a helping hand from SUNY in David Palmer, who also was a colleague in the philosophy department. In what Sam Bryant referred to as a “side gig,” the two purchased a pair of duplexes in Dunkirk, renovated and rented them for some side income while teaching.
It turned out to be a new beginning — and a foundation of things to come.
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Shortly after leaving the college, the younger Bryant said, his dad’s life took on a different tenor. He was able to secure a job as an engineer at Newbrook Machine Corp. in Silver Creek, which took on critical and consequential military and industrial projects.
At a meeting with the plant owner, Bryant displayed a “pistol that he had built from scratch,” his son said. That craft, and the case his dad created, won him the job on the spot that led to impressive opportunities that included outer space and nuclear fusion.
“Dad went through a really sudden transformation when he became an engineer. … He became a very different man in a lot of ways,” Bryant said.
Despite the success, however, further promotions at the company were unlikely. “He had advanced, but everyone above him were family members,” his son said.
This led to the purchase that changed a life for Bryant and an outlook for the rival municipalities. He and Palmer — upon selling their Dunkirk duplexes — bought the Middlesex Garden Apartments at 343 Central Ave., Fredonia around 1978. Bankosh termed the complex as “just a disaster.”
“It was really in pretty tough shape when they picked it up,” Bankosh noted of the apartments. “They did a lot of renovation and preservation work on it. … It was all sweat equity that went into it.”
As his son noted, Bryant played the “swing the hammer” role while also focusing on design. Palmer took care of the money. Soon after, the duo would purchase the Fenner Building at 33 Church St. in the village.
Their biggest splash, however, came within the next three years. Their efforts at the other two locations were being noticed and The White Inn, similar today, was near rock-bottom.
“It was a dungeon,” Bankosh said.
Bankers called on Palmer & Bryant to take over the site in the early 1980s, that led to a renaissance for what many still consider a Fredonia gem. “The rebuilding … was very important,” Bankosh said. “They had very high standards with respect to that.”
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While impressing in Fredonia, another nearby thoroughfare continued to suffer. “The situation in downtown Dunkirk … when Palmer & Bryant decided to make investments in that area was pretty bad,” Bankosh said.
Significant structures in the mid 1980s, such as the Stearns Building next to City Hall, were boarded up. Stearns Court at 334-336 Central was condemned.
Even the structures that had tenants were suffering. The Odd Fellows site at 314 Central was using kerosene to heat storefronts within the structure while the storied and elegant Masonic Temple across the street was occupied on only one of the four floors by the Masons.
“David Palmer and David Bryant, through their investment, I think were responsible for turning Dunkirk around,” Bankosh said.
Besides taking on the properties, the two also did something that began to bring new businesses and tenants to those buildings — elevators. With occupancy growing, as the Masonic Temple became 100% full, traffic — in terms of cars and pedestrians — came back to the city
“They deserve a lot of credit … and David Bryant had his hand in every one of those buildings,” Bankosh said.
Besides those six structures on the 300 block, other city projects were taken on at 15 W. Sixth Street for a pediatric office and the 609 Central Ave. Medical Office Building. Palmer & Bryant, through their work and reputation, had become a full-time family and work affair. Bryant’s first wife, Kathleen, and Palmer’s wife, Nancy, were closely connected to the business. “They were the unsung heroes,” Sam Bryant said.
Together, they were a team of landlords who were very close — and connected — to their properties.
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Bryant, a dedicated member of the Fredonia Rotary Club, also gave back to the community by supporting a number of nonprofits and helping others. He also was one of the key players in the renovations and refurbishment of the Fredonia Village Hall and Opera House, which around the early 1990s was slated for possible demolition. He and architect Carol Case Siracuse, who later moved to Buffalo, put together the plan to restore the majestic structure to what it is today, including the elevator.
Just as quietly, he helped in the restoration of the Forest Hill Gatehouse & Chapel at the cemetery in the village. Through all these efforts, Bryant remained humble while at the same time embracing the wonders of the region with his second wife, Lucille. He treasured the outdoors and exploration — right here at home while being more apt to listen to others for knowledge than to offer his wisdom.
Even with all the accomplishments, Bryant had a sense of civic responsibility — and after the February 2010 fire of that Masonic Temple he had revitalized, he considered options to bring back something to the devastated block. Even today, the scars of that fiery evening haunt Dunkirk.
Bankosh recalls conversations with Bryant shortly after the inferno to again invest where that historic site stood. “We tried to come up with some kind of project … but golly, we just could not come up with anything that would make any financial sense at all,” he said.
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Some of Palmer & Bryant’s greatest work of three decades ago is again suffering. Dunkirk’s 300 block, those owned by out-of-town investors, has seen a number of setbacks since the big blaze of 11 years ago. Even the White Inn, which is still being actively marketed, is full of question marks.
That being said, there was a spirit and legacy of Bryant this region must embrace.
“He absolutely was the most positive guy I have ever met in my life,” said Bankosh, who was a partner with Bryant since 1982. “He’s the kind of guy I tried to emulate the best I could. … I think the community owes him a lot.”
John D’Agostino is the regional editor for the OBSERVER, The Post-Journal and the Times Observer in Warren, Pa. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org or call 366-3000, ext. 253.