Published April 27, 2017
Behind the iconic Wurlitzer Building in North Tonawanda lies a weathered, three-story, all-but-forgotten factory. But a clue to the long-abandoned building’s former occupants can be read in the weather-stained placard embedded high among its 70-plus arched windows: “Erected 1892, Enlarged 1902, Eug. de Kleist.”
About seven years ago, that clue set Dennis Reed Jr. off on an adventure that would take him from studying local history privately to interpreting that history and sharing it with others through art.
“When I was growing up here, I really couldn’t think of anything more boring than ‘local history,’” says Reed, a designer and web developer for Information Technology Policy and Communications who was born in North Tonawanda. “I didn’t want to hear about longhouses, towpaths, packet boats, lumberjacks, any of it,” he says.
“But one day I was kind of rooting around the Wurlitzer campus and instead of the flashy tower, I noticed for the first time this huge, mysterious factory sort of slumping in its shadow. And it was the first time I really wanted to know more about North Tonawanda’s history.”
The abandoned structure was the North Tonawanda Barrel Organ Factory. Led by German-born musician and inventor Eugene de Kleist, it supplied organs to accompany the world-famous Armitage-Herschell carousels made in North Tonawanda. Although today it is principally identified with the Wurlitzer name, de Kleist did business on the site for 13 years before being bought out by Wurlitzer.
“Much of this history is comprised of facts the public is generally unaware of — it is not common knowledge,” says Reed, who holds a master’s degree in English literature.
“I was reading works by various authors, which said some people believe this, others something different. So the facts were hard to come by.”
As Reed uncovered more information about the companies, he compared his findings with a few people interested in the subject, and formed relationships with organ collectors and habitués of local museums.
At the same time, he also maintained a casual, lifelong interest in art and illustration, creating paintings with watercolors every couple of years. Things might have gone on that way, Reed suspects, until a major health event stopped him in his tracks.
“Yeah, I had a mild heart attack in May, 2016,” he says. “So I ended up with some time off work — through all of which, by the way, my department, UBIT, and HR were just unbelievably understanding and patient. But that time off gave me the space to think more carefully about what I wanted out of my research and my art.”
Reed learned about the modern style of “urban sketching” at an Urban Sketchers Buffalo meet-up (or “sketch-up,” as the group calls it). He began reading all he could about the subject and watching YouTube videos.
“The ‘urban sketching’ approach to art is so liberating,” Reed says. “It’s all about observation and storytelling. You go on-site and draw what you see. You bring a very basic set of watercolors that can travel well.
“I didn’t have to make these careful, careful watercolor washes, and sit and glaze layer after layer all day,” he says. “And I didn’t have to just sketch. I could do both.”
Reed’s research into the band organ companies led to other facets of North Tonawanda history; it wasn’t long before he brought his “urban sketch” approach to North Tonawanda history as a whole. He felt like he had started to find an artistic point of view.
“I have painted and sketched more in the last year, by multiples, than I have done in my entire life,” he says. “It’s a great way to share history and to start conversations with people. If you have something visual — a painting, a photograph, even a video — … that’s something more people are likely to pay attention to.”
Reed describes how he selects his subjects: “I like humble things, worn things. Factories, bridges ... there’s one sketch of a corner store and another of a dead-simple house, which sits back on the avenues in North Tonawanda (17th Avenue Home, ink and watercolor, 2016). And it’s, like, a chimney and one wall away from being a lean-to.
“There’s a badly bowed plywood wheelchair ramp leading up to the front door, a rumpled folding chair on the front lawn and a succession of abandoned TV antennae sticking out of the roof,” he says.
“That one really resonates with me because I grew up on the Avenues, and many of our houses were just very slight elaborations of that pattern.”
One specific project would demand a greater time investment than any other that summer: a long-held idea of creating an artistic map of the historic neighborhoods of North Tonawanda.
“I knew about the ‘Ironton,’ ‘Gratwick’ and ‘Martinsville’ neighborhoods,” Reed says. “But what were their dividing lines? What other neighborhood names were there?
“I didn’t have enough information to make this map on my own, and I wanted it to reflect the community’s idea of itself. So I turned to social media for help.”
The first draft of Reed’s “North Tonawanda Neighborhood Map” was posted to a then-popular North Tonawanda Facebook group in June 2016. It reached 6,809 people and had 430 “reactions.”
After three months of community collaboration — and some surprisingly heated debate — the final version (North Tonawanda Neighborhood Map, ink and Photoshop, 2016) was completed. Prints of the map proved to be popular items among city residents and sold out during a holiday event last December. The map also was shown along with interpretive materials at the Project 308 Gallery’s “Process” exhibition in February 2017.
A key to some of the interest in the map, Reed feels, is that this local history is being discovered by many North Tonawandans for the first time. “It’s not like Buffalo or New York City in that there are a lot of things that haven’t been told before,” he notes.
“It is an occasion to share what I know about our past, too. Some of these sketches are of places or buildings that don’t exist anymore, like the Tonawanda Iron and Steel Works.”
Reed, who is also a part-time photographer and web designer, says he loves doing the images. “Because it’s so simple, so lived-in — it’s the kind of thing we usually don’t turn our cameras on, and we don’t paint pictures of.
“I try to celebrate the common place and the common culture. And that kind of goes back to my own life, my own consciousness,” he says.
Reed’s art and photography — much of it North Tonawanda-related — can be found on his website.
Reed also runs the website We Are Lumberjacks, and We’re OK: NThistory.com.
The site includes collections of vintage postcards, photos, illustrations, maps, letterhead and business signage from the past century of North Tonawanda history.
Know someone who would make an interesting profile? Forward suggestions to Mike Andrei.