Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Hoist a Piece of History: Louis Greenstein and the Buffalo Flag

By Joey Duggan, Associate Historian at Preservation Studios

Last December, I was at a loss for want of a great gift for my father. What to get the man who, as they say, has everything? After all, he can only use so many fountain pens before his fingers cramp up, and I didn’t want to be on the opposite end of his vindictive grin as he ripped the wrapping paper from a book and said, “too bad, I’ve already read this.” I challenge anyone to try the New York Times Bestseller List when picking out a gift for Jim Duggan. Go ahead, see what happens.

The Buffalo Flag from
After some anxiety and some failed attempts at purveying his bookshelf, I acquiesced to window shopping. Trudging along Elmwood, I resigned to getting him another old hat trinket. Yet what I found hanging in the window of a postershop piqued a recent infatuation of mine. My search ended right then, on the corner of Elmwood and Bird, where I put two and two together and bagged the Buffalo Flag for my father. I came across the design for the banner for the first time a few years ago, and I was enamored with it from the start: an instance of good design ordained with the sole purpose of representing the place where I grew up. As soon as I saw it, with a cog of thirteen white lightning bolts arranged around an image of the harbor, I knew it would look proud hanging from our flagpole at home. The holidays provided the excuse I needed to turn my own armchair historical fascination into an appreciated gift. When I handed it off to my father, I received no snarky remarks. He hung it up that afternoon.

Preservation Studios has given me the opportunity to rise from the armchair, and recently we’ve been working alongside the Faith Missionary Baptist congregation to nominate their church building on Humboldt Parkway to the National Register of Historic Places. The Beaux-Arts building testifies to the cohesive spirit of the congregation, which has thrived throughout the years of uncertainty surrounding the Parkway. It’s a monument to their society’s faith and integrity, and a mainstay in the Hamlin Park community. The building dates back to 1924, when the Temple Beth David congregation solicited a design from architect Louis Greenstein for a house of worship in the neighborhood which they then called home. After the demographics of the East Side shifted around the middle of the century, they sold the building to the Faith Missionary Baptist congregation.

Faith Missionary Church on Humboldt Parkway
Photo courtesy of the Black Churches Network
While researching the building’s history, the compelling details of the architect’s biography caught my attention. Louis Greenstein was one of the first Jewish architects in the city of Buffalo. He spent most of his life in here in Western New York, designing buildings and working to preserve the architectural legacy of the city through rehabilitation projects. He studied Beaux-Arts architecture and applied his livelihood to designing buildings such as the Bryant & Stratton building at 40 North Street and the Coplon Mansion on the Daemen College Campus. Greenstein participated in major municipal projects with other architectsas well, notably the Memorial Auditorium. The Beth David congregation solicited Greenstein's designs for multiple synagogues, including the former synagogue that the Faith Missionary Baptist congregation now calls home. He also worked as an educator, training architecture students who couldn’t afford to leave Western New York at the Buffalo Rectagon Atelier. We may have lost the old Aud, but Greenstein left his lasting imprimatur on Buffalo. The informed eye notices his legacy hiding all around the city: the Buffalo Flag, a reclaimed semiotic nod to our hometown, owes its composition to Greenstein.

The Buffalo Flag flying on West Delavan Avenue
The blue and white banner flies in front of some municipal buildings downtown, and recently I’ve stumbled across my vexillological muse in so many new and exciting places: adorning black t-shirts, hanging from flagpoles across the neighborhoods, and of course, tucked onto the label of Lockhouse and the Public’s Revolution Espresso Liqueur (mix one part with two parts chocolate cashew milk over ice: perfect for when you’re snowed in). Maybe it’s an alternative to the complications of overt nationalism, maybe it’s the result of pride for the Queen City’s recent revival, and maybe it’s the answer to an appetite for evocative locally-sourced design. Quite possibly, it’s a response to all of these urges. By brandishing Greenstein’s flag, Buffalonians clarify their belief in a powerful local tradition. Our city is thick with a history of aesthetic innovation and a legacy of local actors bent on making our corner of the world look good while building it from the ground up.

The Buffalo Flag looks good on a flagpole, for sure. But when Greenstein beat out seventy two other submissions in the 1924 competition to design the new Buffalo flag, he didn’t simply win a beauty contest. He laced his design with signifiers of Buffalo’s enterprise, from the lightning bolts, pointing to the early distribution of electricity in the city, to the image of the city harbor, representative of Buffalo’s near-forgotten office as the “gateway to the West.” The design offers onlookers a condensed mythology of the city, a mythology that now bolsters the local identity after years of flux.

A designer striving to shape our city of today from his office in the Guaranty Building gave us a banner to rally around as we carry Buffalo into the future. His legacy lives across the pages of history books and the wares of new businesses, along streets in Amherst and streets Downtown, and on cornerstones and flagpoles all across the city.

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