Walking into the lyceum of St. John Kanty Parish is like walking into a bygone era. The tiles on the wall look like something out of Gatsby. The wooden pocket doors, the ambient lighting, the bar neatly tucked backstage that once sold beer for 35 cents brings smiles to those who remember and awe to those too young to know.
Then there is the auditorium. Measuring 102 by 78 feet of open space, with a balcony wrapping around three walls, the aud seats 2,000 people and was used for concerts, lectures, plays, operas, dances and movies. A good sweeping of the stage and it will look at good as it did in its heyday. A hand-painted backdrop used for "The Sound of Music" is still as bright and vibrant as it was when used over a decade ago. The piano is still in tune.
Built in 1930, St. John's lyceum was known as the center of activity for East Buffalo's Polonia district. "The largest of Polish affairs are held in this auditorium," claimed the Catholic Union and Echo. Photos show boxing matches. Jimmy Dorsey's Band is rumored to have played there, although no one is sure if Dorsey himself came or if it was just his band. The acoustics of the room are still impressive. A simple conversation among three people reverberates throughout the room.
Lyceums date back to the days of Aristotle who used large rooms for lecture halls. During the time of the Civil War, traveling speakers would use them. The buildings were later used as entertainment venues and for public speeches, as well as schools primarily for improving social, intellectual and moral fabric of society.
Back in the 1920s, Father Andrew S. Gartska, pastor of St. John's, had that same goal. It was a time when 15 gangs roamed the city, robbing boxcars. Appalled by moral and spiritual state of the neighborhood, Father Gartska set out to accomplish two things, lower the parish debt and raise the morals of the people.
The lyceum was originally meant to be a recreational center. Father Gartska used the building as a beauty school and started a baseball league to keep kids off the street. When auto thefts became popular, he bought some old clunkers for the kids to tinker with. Then he started journalism classes to give the kids training and skills, opening a new world full of potential instead of leaving them in a place of depression and crime. The police praised Father Gartska's efforts.
After a fire in the main church in the 1950s, parishioners filled the lyceum for Mass. It was used as a school after the parish school was torn down. When the school closed in 1993, the Buffalo Board of Education leased the building for the Broadway Village School. Scout troops and Holy Name Society used the meeting rooms through the years. Now St. Luke's Mission of Mercy uses the classrooms. It's been years since anyone has used the stage.
A small committee has been formed to explore options for the lyceum's reuse.
"It was the heartbeat of the neighborhood at the time," said Judith Felski, one of the committee members.
The lyceum itself, despite debris and dust, still displays the grand beauty and style of the 1930s. The Tennessee pink marble tiles are still intact. Very little has been removed since then, but several updates have been made. Ambient lighting and a new heating system have been added, but could be easily removed to bring the auditorium back in time. The Terrazzo floors are fireproof.
Many of the classrooms would be useable for studio apartments. They already have windows and closet space. Bathrooms would have to be installed. The large rooms offers a views of downtown Buffalo and the Central Terminal. The building could also serve as office space or once again serve the community interest. There are many empty lots adjacent to the lyceum, which could aid in the process of reuse.
One classroom still has a painting made by St. John Kanty CYO with images of Niagara Fall Convention, CN Tower and Father Robert Golombeck's haunted house. The projector room, state of the art at the time, still has carbon rod projectors that needed exhaust tubes because instead of using lightbulbs, the films were illuminated by the arc between two carbon rods.
There are two working kitchens and a lounge area complete with flagstone floors, a bar and a foosball game where the billiards table once sat.
The parish hopes to see the building repurposed as part of ongoing efforts to revitalize Buffalo's East Side.
The committee is in the early stages of planning. Anyone interested in redevelopment possibilities is invited to contact Father Michael H. Burzynski, Ph.D., administrator of St. John Kanty Parish at 716-893-0412.