Historic Haven: Former Refugee Recalls Role of Piarist Fathers in Preserving Graycliff

By Tom Buckham
Buffalo News
February 3, 1999

To 17-year-old Eugene Hegedus, fresh from the Hungarian revolution, the stucco and stone building at the end of the long driveway off Lake Shore Road was a sight to behold. He had learned carpentry and masonry before joining the uprising that Soviet tanks quickly crushed. Now, having narrowly escaped the purge that followed, he found himself admiring the finest work of architecture he had ever seen or imagined.

It was December 23, 1956, five years after the Order of the Piarist Fathers - themselves refugees from communist Eastern Europe - had converted the rambling cottage overlooking Lake Erie into their American motherhouse. The young freedom fighter, who had grown up in a relative hovel and weeks earlier had helped liberate political prisoners from a Hungarian jail, stood in the driveway after a long train ride from New York City.

"Oh, my God," he thought. "Should I kiss the floor or something?"

From that moment, he, said, "I was in awe of this building."

What the world of architecture knows as Graycliff, designed in 1926 by Frank Lloyd Wright, these unassuming priests - and those who followed them here in search of freedom - knew simply as "the Derby house."

Hegedus took the last available bed in a boarding house the priests and volunteers had erected next door, joining 47 other young Hungarians. Two days later, while his housemates spent the holiday with area families, he celebrated his first American Christmas with five Piarists, singing carols in Hungarian and Polish around a fire in the massive hearth.

Forty-two Chrismases later, this obscure chapter in the story of the summer home Wright created for Darwin C. and Isabelle Martin is coming to a close. Graycliff, which recently was added to the National Register of Historic Places, will be taken over this winter by an all-volunteer group intent on restoring it to Wright's specifications. The last three aging Piarists have moved to Ascencion Catholic Church in Lackawanna, the religious center of Western New York's Hungarian community.

By the 1950's, Graycliff's place in architectural annals had been all but forgotten. The Martin family fell on hard times and left years earlier, and the cottage was uninhabited when the Catholic brotherhood bought it in 1951 for $50,000. Decades would pass before America's greatest architect came back into vogue, inspiring efforts in Buffalo and elsewhere to save the remaining Wright-designed homes and artifacts. Thus, Wright was unfamiliar to the newly arrived Piarists, whose order was founded in Rome 350 years ago by St. Joseph Calasanctius, the father of public education.

One Piarist who knew about Wright was the Reverend Stephen Gerencser, who founded Buffalo's Calasanctius school for gifted children in 1957. One day, young Hegedus asked the educator about the cliffside house with the wonderful view of the lake and the Buffalo skyline.

"Whoever built this must be famous," Hegedus said.

"He is," Father Gerencser answered.

Wright's name came up.

"But it didn't mean anything to us at the time," Hegedus said.

Through the years, Graycliff has remained a spiritual haven for Hegedus, who will turn 60 in April. The nonhierarchical Piarists became his best friends, his mentors and his family - surrogates for the loved ones he had left behind and would lose touch with until after the Iron Curtain fell in 1989. Hegedus was eventually given a spacious, sunlit corner on the first floor of the main house. In return, he corrected papers for the children of immigrant families and the young refugees living in the boarding house, and taught them the Hungarian language. He also helped build the caretaker's cottage and a small chapel on what had once been Graycliff's front porch.

"After three months, I was doing as much work as the priests," he said.

At the same time, he was attending St. Francis High School in nearby Athol Springs, where his only difficulty was learning English. After graduating, he commuted by bus to Erie Community College, earning a degree in construction technology. After Army service, Hegedus went to work as a draftsman for a Buffalo survey company. But when Father Gerencser asked him to teach math at Calasanctius, he answered the call. He was a member of the Calasanctius faculty for 20 years before moving to broadcast sales, as was his wife, the former Maria Josa, a native of Hungary whom Hegedus met here. They married in 1965.

After the Piarists' headquarters in Devon, Pennsylvania, put Graycliff on the market in early 1997, Hegedus, who is now station manager of WHLD-AM, offered to help the Graycliff Conservancy work out a purchase. The deal was secured in November [1998] when the Baird Foundation agreed to guarantee a $450,000 mortgage loan and provide $200,000 toward restoration. A consultant's report recommending how the property should be used is expected any day. A museum, inn or conference center are among the possibilities that have been raised.

"I'm delighted it's going from one good family to another," said Hegedus, who returned December 13 to celebrate one last Christmas with the remaining priests, the Reverends Kalman Miskolczy, Nicholas Fodor and Lenny Genderalik. Although the dozens of mostly Hungarian and Polish Piarists who lived there over the years cared little about Wright or his handiwork, they treated Graycliff respectfully, Hegedus said.

Every cent they earned teaching at Calasanctius and celebrating Mass in area churches came back to the motherhouse, he noted during an emotional tour of the vacant house this week.

"Give them credit. They took nothing for themselves, but they took care of the property.They knew they lived in a classy home," he said.

For his part, Hegedus makes no attempt to hide his sentimental attachment to Graycliff.

"I don't think I can ever repay what this place has given me," he said. "If I shed a tear, it's for the memories."