Published November 11, 2019
UB architecture professor Dennis Maher knew he had a rare find when he happened upon a bucket of aged architect’s drawings at a Buffalo estate sale two years ago.
Set among rakes, shovels and cans of motor oil, the unassuming bucket in fact contained the archive of A.E. Minks, a little-known but prolific Buffalo architect active during the city’s emergence at the turn of the 19th century.
Any architect would be taken by the possibilities of such a discovery. But Maher, whose teaching and research explore the creation of built environments through assemblages of urban artifacts, was particularly intrigued.
Over the past year, Maher’s A.E. Minks Archive Project has brought the architect — his buildings, their stories and the narrative of a city becoming — out of the recesses of history.
Maher has gifted the Minks collection to Assembly House 150, the nonprofit organization he founded as an experiential learning center and community space for teaching and research in the construction arts. The A.E. Minks Archive will soon be a public resource at Assembly House, the former Immaculate Conception church in downtown Buffalo.
Engaging dozens of UB architecture students through two studios, the project has unearthed an archive of approximately 40 buildings designed by Minks between his arrival in Buffalo in 1896 and his death in 1910.
Assuming the role of architectural detective, students have poured over drawings, dug through city property records, and traced the history of owners and occupants. As one thread leads to another, the project has woven an interconnected narrative of people, buildings, neighborhoods and city.
“The story of Minks is at its roots a story of the fluid nature of the city — with its incessant changes, exchanges and reflections,” Maher says. “The A.E. Minks Archive provides a lens through which to view the itinerant nature of Minks, a man who was also always moving, and the many moving pieces of the developing city of Buffalo.”
German-born architect and patent engineer August Mende left his career in Hungary in 1896 to embark upon a new life in the United States. After arriving in Buffalo, he reassumed his original German name — August Minks — and set up an office with his son, Richard, as draftsman.
Minks embedded himself in Buffalo, a rapidly growing city pulsing with new Americans. His connections to Buffalo’s German, Jewish, Hungarian and French communities resulted in commissions for religious buildings, shops, warehouses and private residences.
Among the most notable religious landmarks by A.E. Minks and Son Architects is the oldest Jewish synagogue (Ahavas Sholem, built in 1903, demolished in 2014), the French church Our Lady of Lourdes (built in 1898 and now a mixed-use development), and Calvary English Evangelical Lutheran Church (1901). More than half of his built works still stand.
The students’ historical research is manifested as a cabinet of found and speculative traces of Minks and his vision for Buffalo. Actual artifacts, displayed drawings and found objects conjure memories of the architect and the city he imagined. Student models and fabricated building fragments recreate the city through the eyes of Minks.
The project has created an unforgettable experience for students. Graduate architecture student Michael Gac, who also holds a bachelor’s degree in history, was instrumental to uncovering key parts of the story, including the histories of Minks’ clients, through extensive mining of marriage, birth, death and immigration records.
“The whole project has been like a neo-noir detective story,” says Gac.
It was through his research that Gac realized the architect who produced the drawings was a mystery not only to him and his fellow students, but to the world at large.
“Each drawing had clues contained within it; sometimes an address, other times a client name. As more clues were discovered, the nine students in our studio tracked leads all over the city. We got to experience the city through the lens of Buffalo circa 1900,”he says.
Architecture student Lukas Fetzko was similarly transported. He reflects on the memories contained within the Minks matrix, to which each student contributed a built interpretation of the architect and his city: “How do you house a memory? Is it an artifact, a moment, a feeling? Is it a place? What if that place is gone? How do you represent what you have never seen yourself and can never recreate again?”
The students’ enthusiasm inspired one professional archivist who assisted them in their research along the way.
“Encountering the UB architecture students on their research forays to the Buffalo History Museum, I found their curiosity for the unfolding story contagious,” says Melissa Brown, executive director of the museum where students spent a great deal of time.
“A physical manifestation of investigative adventures, their discoveries and vision remind me of the many shapes archives can take. Whether it is a bucket or a cabinet of curiosities, energy radiates from the safekeeping of things,” Brown adds.
As the students gathered information from the city, they met with people connected to Minks’ buildings, including a preservationist who protested the demolition of the Minks-designed synagogue and an art dealer from East Aurora whose grandfather commissioned Minks to build his shop on Connecticut Street in Buffalo. Maher surprised her with Minks’ original architectural drawings of the shop.
Reverberating into the present moment, the project has led Maher and his students to other holders of Minks’ artifacts, and new threads to investigate. Recently, Maher and his students met a local antique buyer who holds two watercolor paintings of churches designed by Minks — both of which were not represented in Maher’s original discovery of drawings. The connection also led to the only known photograph of Minks.
Now, Maher will take the Minks archive out to the community through a series of educational workshops at Assembly House. Engaging participants in his construction arts program and working with area educators, Maher will invite new interpretations of the city and its fragments through the lens of Buffalo’s current immigrant and refugee communities.
Maher expects the Minks collection and exhibition to be open to the public at Assembly House in spring 2020.