New York has no shortage of fascinating museums, but many of them are a bit lesser known and don’t get the attention they truly deserve. If you’ve been following my journey across the state from the beginning, you already know that the history, art and architecture that many houses of worship possess are endlessly intriguing for me. So, if you take an outstanding religious structure with cool history and then place a spellbinding little museum inside, I’ll be there. The Karpeles Manuscript Museum in Buffalo has been calling to me for a long time and I finally made it!
The Karpeles story first began in 1983 when California real estate moguls David and Marsha Karpeles founded the museum in hopes of promoting education and learning. Today, there actually are twelve Karpeles Manuscript Museum locations scattered around the U.S., but New York state is privileged enough to have three. Buffalo is even more privileged enough to be the only city that has two, and they’re right up the street from each other. With all of the locations housing numerous historical documents, the Karpeles library collectively is the world’s largest private collection of original manuscripts. What’s more, is that entrance to each of the Karpeles museums around the U.S. is free!
The former First Church of Christ, Scientist of Buffalo that towers over North Street now houses one of the two Karpeles locations in Western New York. The congregation of Christian Scientists that once worshipped in the space has a long, complex and intriguing history. The structure was built with funds raised by two different Christian Science churches in Buffalo that joined forces after they each found fault with a restructuring of the bylaws at the mother church located in Boston, Massachusetts. After a year of construction, the first service to be held in their new building was on September 28, 1912. The $175,000 price tag that came with an outstanding design created by Chicago based architect S.S. Beman did leave the group feeling a bit financially troubled, but they persevered and paid off the debt in only four years. Much later, in November 1992, the group departed their building one last time and moved to a smaller home that was easier and less expensive to maintain.
The Greek Revival architecture of the facade features magnificent fluted columns with terra cotta decor that tower over the sidewalk. Roman-style lattice windows and bronze light fixtures help give the building a stately, classic feel. All of the architectural stature of the museum commands respect. Signs around the portico remind passersby that they can stop right in at no cost.
Just inside the exterior doors is a really cool terrazzo tile floor lining an expansive room that is actually mostly empty. A table here and there with some pamphlets, an employee desk and a couple smaller exhibits only make up a tiny percentage of the cavernous room. But, the space itself serves as a display, so be sure to pay attention to the small details of the architecture and design.
Just beyond and up a couple steps is what used to be the former sanctuary and now holds some of the country’s rarest original documents. The rear of the room has been modified a bit to allow for stands to display the manuscripts, but the rest of the space continues to be preserved with great care. Within the stands you’ll find things like a letter from Abraham Jacobi, considered to be the Father of Modern Pediatrics, a Prohibition era prescription for alcohol, and a handwritten document from Clara Barton of Dansville, who founded the American Red Cross. You’ll also find the original notes that became the popular wedding song “Here Comes the Bride”!
While it might be tough for the average person to spend any extended amount of time exploring the Karpeles Museum, I’d strongly recommend popping in and checking out an exquisite piece of Buffalo’s religious architectural history and view a few original papers that the western New York region is lucky to have.
By the way, the other Buffalo branch of the Karpeles Museum (which I’m yet to visit) is right up the street within walking distance!
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Chris Clemens is the Founder/Publisher of Exploring Upstate. From his hometown in Rochester, he spends as much time as possible connecting with the history, culture, and places that make Upstate New York a land of discovery. Follow him on Twitter at @cpclemens