Published August 17, 2016
Molly Poremski embodies the adage “do what you love and love what you do.” The digital collections librarian has combined her professional skills — and some 21st-century technology — with an appreciation for Buffalo’s history to create a digital collection that showcases Buffalo’s architectural grandeur of the early 1900s in a new way.
The endeavor began earlier this year when Rose Orcutt, architecture and planning librarian, gave Poremski a list of books that she though Poremski might want to add to UB’s digital collections. Among the books was “Beautiful Homes of Buffalo” by Mark Hubbell.
The book, published in 1915, features more than 100 photographs of architecturally significant buildings and homes in Buffalo. Out of copyright, the book already had been scanned into the UB system. But Poremski thought of Historypin, an interactive website designed to share the history of communities through photos and stories. The site allows visitors to compare images “of then and now.”
She set to work digitally mapping the homes featured in the book on the Historypin platform, completing the project earlier this summer. The interactive Historypin collection, “Beautiful Buffalo Homes,” features 117 images. The original photographs overlap the present Google street view of the home, and a slider at the top of the image allows viewers to fade the past photograph and compare the before and after shots.
“I have always been fascinated with the history of Buffalo, just to see where it was, being one of the wealthiest cities in the country and going on to be one of the poorest cities in the country,” Poremski says.
“Trying to tell that story is something that appeals to a lot of people, so that’s another reason why I wanted to do this digital collection.”
“Beautiful Buffalo Homes” includes the addresses of the homes and the names of the owners at the time the photograph was taken. Many of the homes are still standing but have undergone minor changes. In other cases, the grand homes have been torn down, replaced by parking lots or office buildings.
Poremski credits the more drastic changes to a “history of poor urban planning and poor decision-making,” combined with the urban renewal movement of the 1950s.
“I think with digital collections it’s easy to tell people what happened,” Poremski says. “Sometimes, you don’t want to just talk at people. Having people be able to look at the pictures to see before and after, I think, is pretty powerful.”
The Historypin project serves as a window to the past for the current residents of the featured homes, Poremski says, and several have contacted her for more information on their historically significant houses.
The 149 original photos from “Beautiful Homes of Buffalo” also can be viewed as a digital collection in the UB Libraries, alongside images of museums, parks and other local historical sites.
Poremski hopes to expand the current collection by digitizing a second book of antique Buffalo homes published by the same author. One day, she would like to launch her own interactive website displaying the houses. Users would be able to choose an area on a map, select a home and view its address, as well as a short biography of the owners at the time and a present-day view.
As for Poremski’s favorite historical Buffalo home, a stately red brick mansion featuring menacing gargoyles at 267 North St. in Allentown fascinates her. The house — now home to a law firm — once belonged to Melodia Jones, who inherited the estate after her husband’s death in 1916.
Jones donated $125,000 to UB in 1929 to establish a professorship in French. Fifty-four professors and lecturers have held the Melodia E. Jones Chair at UB since its endowment.
These striking connections between past and present are what intrigue Poremski, whose work allows her to visually connect Buffalo’s complex history to the city’s current renaissance.
“It’s awesome,” Poremski says. “I get to do this every day. I can’t believe this is my job.”