Kate Flynn is an editorial intern at Preservation magazine. Her work has appeared online at the Washington Post and in Consequence of Sound, a music and culture blog.
A small group of activists are using the internet to get residents to buy and restore homes from the city's golden age.
Matthew Newton first laid eyes on his dream house while browsing a list of buildings that the city government of Buffalo, New York, was selling for $1.
Lyth Cottage was in grave disrepair, but Newton was able to look past the boarded-up windows and broken front steps to the structure’s former glory, when it served as a home for the servants of a terra cotta tile maven, Alfred Lyth, in the late 1800s.
"This was obviously a unique house, far different from all of the other ones," Newton says. "I didn’t know where it was located really, and then I just decided I had to have it right away."
Newton acquired the house in 2011 for $1, plus a few hundred dollars in closing fees, under the city of Buffalo’s Urban Homestead Program. Under the program’s requirements, the house must be up to code within 18 months of the purchase date, and Newton must remain the owner-occupant of the house for at least three additional years.
While Newton, a former barista and, more recently, a carpenter, likes the idea that he is taking place in a larger revitalization of abandoned buildings in the city of Buffalo, what was most appealing to him about the project was the lifestyle that went hand-in-hand with bringing an old, decrepit house back to life.
"This is just what it’s all about, me getting a house and some property and doing what I want, working with my hands," says Newton, who has put around $40,000 so far into restoring the house, getting electrical service and installing water and sewer lines. He’s done most of the work himself, with help from friends and his parents. "I like the idea of the craftsman lifestyle, so I just kind of went for it."
Before he purchased Lyth Cottage, Newton was also an avid reader of fixBuffalo, a blog written by fellow Buffalo resident and preservationist David Torke. The blog aims to draw attention to the "poverty of riches" in the city -- that is, the fact that there are more buildings than people to live in them, some of them historic landmarks that date back to Buffalo’s industrial heyday.
Torke has been blogging about Lyth Cottage since 2006, scouting for potential buyers, documenting the house’s history and showing people around the property. He eventually put a padlock on the back door to discourage potential squatters and vandals. He estimates that there are about eight people who have seen houses on his blog and contacted him to help them navigate the maze of city hall paperwork and requirements to acquire the house in question, and that all eight houses would have otherwise probably ended up in the landfill.
According to Newton, the process of acquiring a house owned by the City of Buffalo would have been even more difficult without Torke’s guidance. “He really walked me through the whole process of getting a house,” Newton says. “He kind of knew the process, knew what had to be done when. I don’t know anything about purchasing real estate.”
Torke offers context for the new phenomenon of young people like Newton moving in from the suburbs and breathing new life into the city. “It points to a really interesting sort of reversal of history, where suburban folks are becoming increasingly more interested in urbanism and historic structures that Buffalo has to offer,” he says.
Lyth Cottage is located in Buffalo’s Hamlin Park neighborhood, a local historic district that some local preservationists are hoping will be considered for the National Register. According to Torke’s blog, the cottage is estimated to have been built around 1872, and some of the architectural elements incorporated into the building’s original structure were produced a stone’s throw away at J. Lyth & Sons, the country’s first industrial tile factory. Newton has taken special care to preserve the outside of the building, while altering the interior to make way for a hospitable living space.
Jason Wilson, the director of operations at Preservation Buffalo-Niagara, is hopeful that the residents of Buffalo will continue to take an interest in the city’s historic structures.
"A big developer might not have preservation at his heart," Wilson says. "These individual homeowners are investing in the neighborhood."
Newton is still a little in awe of his good fortune. “Buffalo is an incredibly unique place,” he says. “You can buy things for absolutely nothing. A dollar. I like to pretend I’m taking part in some movement, but really, I just wanted this house."
This post originally appeared on the National Trust for Historic Preservation's Preservation Nation blog, an Atlantic partner site.