This is another in our occasional series of decoding Buffalo postcards. Today, in honor of the Independence Day holiday, a detail of a colorized postcard c. 1906 showing Buffalo on the eve of, likely, July 4th, and at its peak in the hierarchy of American cities. It is one of our favorite views of the city. The artist Childe Hassam made his living painting similar scenes of New York City 10 years later. Based on a photograph, the image is unusual for its elevated perspective in the middle of a busy street, and rich in information. To wit:
- Ellicott Square, in the left foreground (Daniel Burnham & Co., 1895-6) has its cornice intact and awnings shading store windows and office windows
- There is a line of streetcars headed up Main Street. The number 8 Main Street line itself had departures every two minutes during working hours. Many other lines shared this track, and others crossed it just behind the photographer at Shelton Square. It was the public transit hub of Buffalo, which explains why Ellicott Square was built there.
- Mobility is free-range; there are sidewalks, but pedestrians are crossing at will and standing at various points, as are horses and carriages, and bicycles—at least six of them in this scene. There are no automobiles, moving or parked, although there were a good number already registered in the city. Soon, to benefit cars, pedestrians would be confined to certain crossing points, and drivers would simply leave their cars willy-nilly at the curb for hours at a time.
- The second White Building, on the right, has just opened. The first burned down in 1904. This one advertises that it is fireproof (non-combustible supports, floors, and walls), like Ellicott Square and the nearby Guaranty Building. A great fear, as buildings began be built taller, was to be caught on an upper floor when fire broke out below.
- Next to the White Building to the south is the Weed Block, which housed a hardware emporium on the ground floor and offices and living quarters above, among them those of Grover Cleveland. He conducted most of his life quite efficiently, happily, and consequentially, within three blocks of his Main & Swan base.
- Across Swan Street, south of the Weed Block is a small brick structure that was home to what was to become M&T Bank.
- Looming over the corner bank is the Barnes, Bancroft & Hengerer Department Store. Soon, following the migration of retail northward along Main Street, successor Hengerer's would build a giant store north of Lafayette Square. The 1888 Barnes & Bancroft building still stands.
- The same cannot be said for the stout and varied brick building directly opposite, on the east side of Main, south of Swan. They were, save one, acquired by Marine Midland Bank in the mid-1960's and demolished for a new headquarters. The only survivor was the building housing Bernstone's Cigar Store, which was decapitated that decade and stood in rump form until several years ago. It survived only became Marine, in mid-project, was persuaded by Mayor Frank Sedita's administration to abandon that site, already cleared, for a Buffalo Urban Renewal Agency project that would become the Marine Midland Center. The site remains a parking lot today.
- This entire section of Main Street (disappearing into the mists of the engraver's airbrush), a vital commercial corridor, was separated from the rest of Main Street to the south by the Marine Midland Center and directly to the north by the construction of a mammoth automobile processional—the Church Street Extension Mall— which destroyed Shelton Square, as well as four blocks of buildings extending eastward to the Elm-Oak arterial. This is why the modern preservation movement came into being. The Campaign for Greater Buffalo exists to preserve buildings like these, and to restore environments like this.
The Campaign for Greater Buffalo is in the midst of a project to document all the Green Book sites in the city of Buffalo. The Green Book is the most well-known of various directories published during the Jim Crow era to assist citizen-travelers of color find services and accommodations that welcomed them. Simple intercity travel was a the Green Books between 1947 and 1967, only a dozen have extant buildings. The rest fell victim directly or indirectly, to the federal and state bulldozers of the Urban Renewal era, funding clearance plans drawn up in City Hall. Ostensibly, the work was being done to benefit the very residents whose homes were being destroyed and their lives upended. Now, building on the work of Fredonia State intern Cameron Flynn, The Campaign hopes to mark every site with long-lasting sidewalk stickers or other markers, and to encourage rehabilitation of the extant structures.
Lorna Peterson, Gail Wells, and Tim Tielman are on the Campaign's Green Code committee, with an assist from Chris Hawley at City Hall, who helps coordinate interns' research in city records. Fredonia State's news service published a nice piece on the Green Book and Cameron Flynn's work earlier this year.
The past months have seen two outstanding books published on the Green Book: Driving While Black, African American Travel and the Road to Civil Rights by Gretchen Sorin, and Overground Railroad, The Green Book and the Roots of Black Travel in America by Candace Taylor. The two books compliment each other in many ways, and those interested will want to read both, as well as any of several facsimile editions of The Green Book. All have helped inform the Campaign's Green Book Project.
This is written while demonstrations are occurring in Buffalo and across America—and the world— almost daily since a Minneapolis police officer killed George Floyd through asphyxiation by kneeing him in the neck for almost nine minutes while the victim lay unresisting on the ground. One can't help but look back at the state-sponsored destabilization and dislocation of thousands of Ellicott District residents in Buffalo in the 1950's and 1960's and the demonstrations and riots they helped unleash and wonder how much society and the city would have been better served if those thousands of homes and businesses could have been preserved and rehabilitated. We cannot let the remaining Green Book buildings—symbols of struggle, survival, and triumph—be lost.
The Campaign is seeking donations and grants to complete its Green Book project. Donations can be made online on the Campaign's blog homepage sidebar, Greater Buffalo, or by mail at 403 Main Street, Suite 705, Buffalo, NY 14203.
Buffalo, like so many American cities, still has wounds and physical defects dating from the Urban Renewal era. Massive demolition programs claimed thousands of irreplaceable buildings. Many sites are vacant to this day (camouflaged, if you will, by parking lots). When new structures were built, they were often built with ignorance and disregard for how humans behaved and cities succeed. Thus, in Buffalo, we erected buildings with long stretches of blank walls, which suppressed sidewalk activity and destroyed the contiguity which made walking useful and pleasant. Jane Jacobs, in Death and Life of Great American Cities (1961) pointed this out. That did not stop us from constructing the Central Library (1962) with solid walls on Clinton, Oak, William and Broadway; Main Place Mall (1969) with a 900-foot blank wall on Pearl Street, the convention center (1978) which killed everything around it on Franklin, Genesee, and Mohawk streets with hundreds of feet of implacable brutality, and just about every parking garage you want to mention. That is a lot of dead zone to overcome.
Cities the world over are tearing out expressways, replacing Brutalist compounds with engaging structures opening onto public sidewalks, even "daylighting" lost rivers and canals. Buffalo's first big opportunity to correct the mistakes of 1960s urbanism in Buffalo is the old Marine Midland Center (1972). We are on the verge of blowing it.
The Buffalo Planning Department, the Planning Board, and the Zoning Board of Appeals all approved a massive wall of concrete panels that is 12 feet high on the corner of Seneca and Pearl streets, and over 20 feet high on Washington Street. The wall, and related structures at Main and Seneca streets, are almost finished. And it is a horror to behold. Should we let this mistake last for the next 50 years?
Trigger warning: this article contains soul-crushing depictions of the American City.
Look at images of street scenes any American City around 1900.
Look at that city today, and you are likely to see a selection of glorious masonry architecture intermixed with glammy office buildings (in larger cities) and gray crusted-over wounds inflicted 60 years ago, during the Urban Renewal era of the late 1950s and 1960s. Swaths of open-air automobile storage, wide, smooth roads with speeding cars, narrowed unkempt sidewalks, scattered blank-walled drugstores and drive-thru fast food joints (here's looking at you, Tonawanda, Newark (NY), and Rome), and plain-old infertile precincts where the bomb craters have been filled in and ill-conceived Brutalist replacement retail and concrete nooses of loop roads render suicide redundant (sorry, Ogdensburg, Amsterdam, and um...)
How could something so bad, that seems to us so pre-destined to failure and infertility have happened? Did our leaders lose their minds? Where was the resistance? Why didn't Jane Jacobs (Death and Life of Great American Cities, 1961) prevail?
Some answers can be found in The Skyscraper, a forgotten children's book published in 1958. To come across it 60 years after it made its way through the bookstores, school libraries, and the minds of "children of all ages (Saturday Review)," is to understand what it is to be led, with certitude and conviction, by blinded acolytes of the urban-industrial complex. Consider the case of Yen Liang (1908-2000) architect, author/illustrator. Ivy League education (Penn, Cornell, MIT, and Harvard) . One of the original six Taleisin Fellows of Frank Lloyd Wright. Employed by Harrison and Abramowitz, masters of Corporate Modernism, from 1946 through retirement a quarter-century later. Liang gulped down the Kool-Aid by the galvanized tubload.
The Skyscraper is evidence of the dangers of public intoxication with Corbu’s Ville Radieuse, Wright’s Broadacre City, and Wallace Harrison’s UN and X-City proposal of 1946 (years later served up refried as Albany's South Mall, which author Yen Liang worked on). To achieve the proper setting for the simple sculptural masses of the modern office tower and residential tower, whole sections of cities were torn down. A reporter in 1960's Buffalo writing about the transformation was so overwhelmed by the number of buildings coming down that he could not enumerate them—everywhere he turned downtown, blocks were coming down, were down, or were being condemned. Between them, the Ellicott and Waterfront urban renewal areas alone ground down the homes of almost 10,000 people. In their place, towers and highways and parking lots. It is a legacy which hobbles Buffalo still.
The Buffalo Common Council withstood many attempts to landmark Frank Lloyd Wright's Heath House and Davidson House over the last 20 years, but on March 17, 2020, faced with a court order won by The Campaign for Greater Buffalo History, Architecture & Culture, it quietly approved designating both prairie-style houses as City of Buffalo landmarks. They had long been on the National Register of Historic Places—as long as their lack of local recognition was a civic embarrassment.
The Campaign mounted several attempts to get them landmarked, but each was thwarted by the evident political power of one of the owners, a host and donor to political and non-profit fundraisers. In the meantime, the houses suffered from uninformed "improvements," including, at the Davidson, hammering textured asphalt shingles through the original slate roof, and discoloring Wright's iconic white stucco walls, first with a "Harvest Gold" color last seen on 1970's refrigerators and now with a gray-brown tone popular at strip malls and investment properties. The Campaign has noted before that these erosions of character are particularly felt due to the northern orientation of both houses, which requires architectural detailing to overcome shadowing and silhouetting effects against a brighter sky.
The Campaign's latest effort began early in 2019, when it took action against the Council for yet again attempting to kill the landmark nominations by receiving and filing them. State Supreme Court Judge Paul Wojtaszek found for The Campaign in July, and handed down the decision and order voiding the Council's action to receive and file the applications on October 11. The Buffalo Corporation Council simply sat on the information and did not forward it to the Council. Finally, on March 3, 2020, Campaign Vice President Dan Sack formally requested that the City Clerk place the matter on the next Council meeting agenda, which was on March 17.
The Council approved both nominations at its March 17th meeting. A brass band was not hired to spread the news. Sack found out about it, amidst the tsunami of Coronavirus news and the discontinuation of City Hall public meetings, through a follow-up email request.
"I am glad the anti-social distancing from landmark designation on these spectacular Buffalo cultural inheritances is over," said Campaign Executive Director Tim Tielman. "Now we have to get the Brown Administration to see the light: Remember the Franks House!," referencing the Administration's end-run around the Preservation Board and Common Council to demolish a rare Flemish Revival house on West Utica Street in February.
Richard Lippes, a Campaign board member, filed the lawsuit on behalf of The Campaign in January. "It is good to see our lawsuit come to fruition," said Lippes. "It removes a significant impediment to preserving deserving buildings and giving citizens the protections they thought they had all along."
The Ernest Franks House, a piece of Buffalo's cultural patrimony, was willfully destroyed on Thursday, February 27, 2020, less than 36 hours after the Buffalo Preservation Board voted unanimously to designate it as a local landmark—which would have made demolition much more difficult—and send it to the Buffalo Common Council for final approval. A full description of the house is available on a previous post, and a pdf version is also available.
The spectacle of Mayor Byron Brown and his executive branch submitting to the boorish dictates of developer Nick Sinatra to demolish the building was nakedly visible to anyone who did not shield their eyes. It is an image that will linger in the public memory, just as the similar destruction of the Harbor Inn by Carl Paladino in 2003 lives on to this day. The Department of Permit and Inspection Services issued Paladino a demolition permit on a Friday afternoon, enabling a Saturday morning demo of the beloved First Ward landmark.
Niagara District Councilmember David Rivera, whose district includes West Utica Street, had announced his support of landmarking the Franks House at a rally held by the Campaign for Greater Buffalo on February 22. By Tuesday, February 25, the day of the Preservation Board hearing, Rivera said he had sufficient support from Common Council colleagues to ensure designation and protection of the building. TheCouncil makes final determinations on landmark designations.
That was all apparently too much for Sinatra. He wanted the building down and marched to City Hall that day to announce that he fully expected to receive "his" demolition permit—as if by right. He ended up getting Brown and permits chief James Comerford leading an end run around the legislative branch.
Fear of legal exposure was the line parroted by the mayor and his Commissioner for Permit and Inspection Services James Comerford in issuing a demolition permit for the house. It was a fig leaf so transparent as to be pornographic. The city charter grants the Commissioner up to 60 days to act on a permit application, and that he can approve or reject it. End of case. And what about the lawsuit that the Corporation Council's office knew The Campaign for Greater Buffalo was preparing in case the demo permit would not be revoked?
No, the Administration was quaking before Nick Sinatra—and, by extension, Carl Paladino, whose Ellicott Development is partnering in the controversial townhouse project on West Utica that is the nominal reason for the demolition.
Endangered Buffalo Buildings Not Protected by Brown Administration
Yet, here was Sinatra throwing his girth around City Hall the day of the Preservation Board hearing a month after registering for a demo permit. Why that day, and not at the 60-day limit? Mr. Comerford or someone in his office must have told Sinatra that the permit was his for the asking after 30 days. The Administration insists, all evidence to the contrary, that it must—by right— issue a permit within 30 days.
Under that interpretation, there is no statutory way a building under threat of demolition can be protected. None. The Brown Administration policy is that review by the Preservation Board is futile. It had just advertised that to the world.
The Campaign and neighborhood activists alerted the media on Wednesday morning, when Comerford confirmed that he had issued the demo permit. Campaign executive director Tim Tielman expressed outrage on a live interview on WBEN just before 9:00AM, and also did an interview with WBFO. After many calls and emails from citizens and media to the Mayor, spokesman Mike DeGeorge messaged that the demo would be put on hold until the Council could act. Media, including the Buffalo News, quickly put that up on websites. That spin quickly collapsed.
Campaign for Greater Buffalo Attorney Richard Berger, speaking with an Administration attorney, confirmed before 2:00 in the afternoon that Comerford had not, in fact, withdrawn the permit, and that Brown now endorsed the decision. The Campaign relayed the information to its network, while continuing work on its attempt to get a Temporary Restraining Order.
The flip-flopping was so seat-of-the-pants that Councilmember Riviera says he left City Hall at 3:00pm believing that the demo had been held. He told a 6:00pm Fargo Estate block club meeting that, thanks to his efforts and those of the Campaign and the Atlantic-West Utica Block Club, the Franks House had been saved.
Mayor: "Is that house really that special?"
WKBW-TV caught the Mayor in City Hall and asked about the demo permit. The mayor reiterated that he was fearful of a potential lawsuit by Sinatra and Paladino, and sought to shift blame to citizens and preservationists, asking where they were "10 years ago," when the building was bought by Kaleida Health to expand a parking lot. The Preservation Board rejected the idea then.
Early that evening the mayor showed up at an urban planning event and was questioned by GreenCode Alliance member Linda Gellman about his support of demolition. According to Gellman, Brown responded, ”Is the house really that special?” Gellman enumerated some of the things that made the Franks House special and unique. Mayor Brown: “Well, we have many of those houses.”
Riviera would learn the only from social media that the demo was on. Neither the Mayor's office nor Permit and Inspections had bothered to notify him, causing him humiliation before constituents. He had to call the Fargo Estate Block Club and inform them was telling them what he thought was the truth.
The Department of Permit and Inspection Services went above and beyond to service developers.An employee of the Permits department certified that the site would be rodent free 4 days before the required 6-day waiting period after baiting because the rats and mice would scurry over to another vacated house owned by the developer, rather than the two occupied houses one property over. There is no evidence that the proper paperwork was even on file for the issuance of a demolition permit.
Planning Board Strips Protection from Franks House
Ignominy is reserved not only for Sinatra, the mayor, and his commissioner, but for the Buffalo Planning Board. Its brain lock or willful ignorance stripped the Franks House of its only protection against demolition. The charter prohibits demolition of any property that is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, by itself or as a contributing element in a National Register Historic District. The Franks House is, or was, within the Elmwood East National Historic District.
The Planning Board met on February 10 and refused to consider the gusher of information that was being uncovered about the historic and architectural significance of the Franks House, and the pursuit of a landmark designation by the Preservation Board. It was encouraged not to pay attention to that by Planning Director Nadine Marrero, who was literally sitting at the right hand of the Planning Board chairman at the board meeting.
The motion to approve the Sinatra-Paladino site plan and thereby strip the Franks House of its only official protection, was made by longtime Planning Board member Martha Lamparelli, who was serving at that moment with friends Nick Sinatra and Ellicott Development CEO William Paladino, Carl's son, on the host committee for Chris Jacobs's congressional campaign kick-off party. The motion was seconded by Cynthia Schwartz. The vote was unanimous.
UP NEXT: How the Common Council can regain control over landmarking and demolitions.
The Campaign for Greater Buffalo is holding a rally to save the threatened Ernest Franks House at 284 West Utica St., Buffalo on Saturday, February 22 at 9:00am. We'll have information on the house, explain the demolition request for a too-big Sinatra-Paladino townhouse development, and what citizens can do.
You can download the flyer and our newsletter on the Franks House: Download Save Franks House
The Campaign for Greater Buffalo has filed a City of Buffalo landmark application to protect a rare Flemish Revival style house at 184 West Utica Street in the Elmwood West National Historic District. Sinatra Development, which owns the house and an adjoining parking lot, has applied for a demolition permit for an 18-unit townhouse development that it is partnering on with Carl Paladino's Ellicott Development.
Neighbors and concerned citizens opposed to the demolition showed up in force at a January 23 Preservation Board hearing on the demo request. Tim Tielman, executive director of the Campaign, noted the stylistic rarity of the house, and its architectural quality and high level of craftsmanship. Qualitatively, it stuck out. Speaker after speaker agreed, as did the Preservation Board itself, which voted to deny a demo permit. In the Buffalo context, that means the building is still on Death Row.
That is why The Campaign sprinted to deliver a landmark application before the Preservation Board's next meeting. In the process, Tielman was pleasantly stunned to discover that the urban oddment was designed by Albert Schallmo, who later, with Oakley & Schallmo, would design the four most exquisite brick buildings ever erected in Buffalo.
At its February 6 meeting, the Preservation Board accepted the application as complete and scheduled a public hearing for February 25 at 4:00pm in room 901 City Hall.
Download Greater Buffalo #28.1.02131515 The Campaign's newsletter, a full architectural description, photos, and the story of the architect, the bricklayer, the saddler, and the artist whose lives intersected at 184 West Utica.
The Preservation Board has been ineffectual in preserving buildings in the Elmwood East and West National Historic Districts. As was pointed out in a demo hearing directly prior to that of 184 West Utica, since the creation of the historic districts, 23 buildings have been brought before the board for demolition, and 23 buildings have been demolished.
The Brown Administration routinely ignores the Preservation Board and hands out demo permits on a misguided as-of-right policy for all buildings not that are not designated City of Buffalo landmarks. It is open season on National Register properties and everyone knows it.
National and state-level designation is meaningless in terms of protecting a building from demolition. The Green Code offers better conditional protection for such properties. That is why the Campaign decided to immediately undertake an effort to designate the small brick house as a City of Buffalo landmark.
To help support The Campaign for Greater Buffalo's preservation work, please donate today by clicking on the donation buttons in the sidebar.
A lot of things and people go into a successful campaign to save a building. This is Tim Tielman's eyewitness account, based on notes, legal documents, and media stories, of the saving of one landmark, Buffalo's Squier Mansion. It had been a concern of preservationists for over a decade, and came to a head in one day, December 21, 2001. Between 10:00am and 4:50 pm, building on the work and hard-earned reputation of an organization of dedicated citizens with many other victories to its credit, and with the unhesitating aid of others, an attempt to demolish a building and preservation law was thwarted. You can download a printable version of the story here: Download Greater Buffalo #27 Squier
It is one of the most notorious and brazen demolition attempts in Buffalo history. The cast: A leading businessman that wanted a parking lot, an Administration that demolished 2,600 buildings, a “secret’ auction, a Housing Court Judge that issued a demolition order, an outlaw demolition contractor that made millions off city contracts. Now—on the Friday before Christmas, 2001— I was getting a call that the Squier Mansion, a city landmark, was being demolished. It had to be stopped.
On the morning of Friday December 21, 2001, Mary Ruth Haberman, a volunteer at the Little Portion Friary at 1305 Main Street, called me at my office at The Preservation Coalition of Erie County. Mary and her husband, Art, were longtime members, and were charter members of The Campaign for Greater Buffalo in 2002. There was demolition equipment tearing into the Squire Mansion and two other buildings next door. The buildings were part of the St. Vincent’s Female Orphan Asylum, which we had landmarked and was on our watch list. We had been pressuring the City of Buffalo to compel the owner to do repairs to one of the buildings. Finally, the owner had been brought into housing court, after eight years of not fixing a hole in the roof caused by a suspicious fire.
We’d seen this before, but we were not supposed to see it again. Not after a Inspections
Department employee was caught red-handed engineering the “emergency demolition” of another city landmark, the original Pierce Arrow Showroom, four years before, to make way for a housing development proposed by the his future employer.
Now we had the added sweetener of a “Holiday Special,” a demolition or fire designed to take place when no one is watching. It was happening almost 15 years to the day of a five-alarm, never-investigated fire that destroyed St. Mary’s church on Broadway and Pine, on the last Friday before Christmas in 1986. (I happened to call in that fire from a pay phone on Broadway).
Thirteen-thirteen Main includes most of the designated landmark site known as the St. Vincent’s Female Orphan Asylum. The original house was built by banker Alanson Robinson around 1860 but inhabited by him for only a short time before he sold it to George Squire, who lived in it for over 20 years. It is one of the largest Italianate houses in Buffalo, and a particularly well detailed one. The house and its expansive grounds were bought by the Sisters of Charity in 1885 to construct the orphanage.
The Sisters added a cruciform 3-story orphanage in 1886, connecting it to the Squier House with a two-story wing with a dormered roof. An elegant free-standing building was added in 1898, facing Ellicott Street, designed by Green & Wicks, at the height of their powers. An Art Deco gym/auditorium (with a cooking school and dining room in the basement) by George Dietel, built in 1935 to replace an earlier gym destroyed by fire.
With the Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal, orphanages became a thing of the past. The property remained in the hands of the Diocese of Buffalo for some time after WWII, serving as Bishop O’Hearn High School and Erie Community College City Campus.
It was sold in 1983 to a Buffalo cardiologist, Kenneth Gayles, who had dreams of turning it into a medical complex. Gayles’s desires exceeded his grasp, and nothing came of his plans. The Preservation Coalition of Erie County, under the Susan McCartney and Scott Field, and researcher Hilary Sternberg, led a campaign to have the complex designated a city landmark in 1989, when it had been vacant for six years.
In 1993, an arson fire was set in the top floor of the 1886 building. By 2001, the roof had been open for eight years. Moisture damage was significant. The Coalition kept the complex in the public eye, urging inspections, holding meetings, featuring it in a series of holiday cards.
Finally, after almost two decades of neglect and public pressure, Gayles was written up for Housing Court by the Department of Inspections. He appeared in Housing Court over and these violations on April 2, September 26, and —in a non-jury trial before Judge Diane Devlin—October 24. (Despite being a city landmark, the Preservation Board was not informed of the prosecution of the violations.
A whiff of fish
On Tuesday, December 11, Gayles pleaded guilty to the violations, with sentencing to occur in January. Word reached me that Gayles would put the property up for auction as a result, and that he was going to try to get a demolition permit. Cunningham, a neighboring property owner, I was told, had been in court expressing interest in the property for use as a parking lot.
Whether the grapevine had all the details right was immaterial: the substance was enough to put the building on the front burner. We thought a deal had been arranged for Gayles to demolish the site, and sell it to Cunningham. A similar deal was made just that summer by the Benderson Development Corporation, one block south on Main St., where the owner of the MidCity Building would demolish it and turn the site over to Benderson for a huge Delta Sonic gas station-car wash-drive-through fast food complex. (That plan was carried out, despite prolonged citizen efforts to thwart it, largely because MidCity was not a designated landmark and its fate rested ultimately with the Planning Board, which rolled over for Benderson like a trained dog)
Things smelled fishy.
On Wednesday, December 19 I photographed the site, looking for any violations which I thought could be spun into a demolition request. What I found was what had existed there for some time: an imposing Italianate mansion on its purpose-made hill, an orphanage with a hole in its roof, and a connecting passage with moisture problems on its west wall. A hardship requiring demolition? Nothing that wasn’t self-imposed by pocketing of insurance proceeds, and deferred maintenance and repair.
I also noticed an inconspicuous sign announcing a Friday, December 7 auction. The auction I had heard about had already been held, before Gayles’s guilty plea in court. I called the number on the sign. Bronstein Auctioneers would only confirm that the property had sold. Very shortly, it became known that Cash Cunningham, in court the day of Gayles’s plea, was already the winning bidder on the 5-building complex, for $1000.
Lastly, a large piece of asbestos-removal equipment that looked like a shipping container was sitting on Riley Street, under the windows of Cash Cunningham’s offices in the Packard Building. That was not a good sign; removing asbestos from a building can be done in such a way as to inflict maximum damage.
Nonetheless, faith in institutions springs eternal. As a designated landmark, the Preservation Board would have to consider any demolition request. We would have ample time for public comment and preparation of options. No imminent danger to the building or the public was apparent.
The city, the judge, the former owner, and the new owner had, it soon seemed evident, had agreed on a different plan: declare an emergency — an imminent threat to the public — to bypass public review for the sake of public safety.
December 21: Demolition of a landmark begins, without public hearing or permit
On the morning of Friday, December 21, 2001, I got a call from Coalition member Mary Ruth Haberman that the Squier house was being demolished. Was it perhaps just asbestos removal? No, there was an excavator clawing at the building.
I called the City of Buffalo Department of Inspections and Permits. Was there an emergency demolition order? No demolition permit had been issued, I was told, but an asbestos removal permit had.
I had to run over to the site. Literally. I had been dropped off at work that morning by my wife. In the office with me was intern Jason Haremza, a University of Toronto graduate student who went on to become a planner in the Finger Lakes and Rochester. I had Jason hold down the fort while I went to the site on foot from our offices at Lafayette and Elmwood.
When I got there I saw a demolition contractor’s excavator sitting next to what, two days before, had been the solid walls of three buildings. Each building, the Squier Mansion, the 1886 orphanage, and the “connector” between them, had several layers of brick ripped off and windows punched in. The Squier house had a gaping hole clear through to the interior, where splintered joists were visible. An illegal demolition was afoot. To render any last-minute attempt to intervene futile, damage had been inflicted to key parts of the complex.
I called Inspections again. Now I was told an “emergency” demolition order had been issued by Judge Devlin the afternoon before, December 20. I knew that could not be accurate.
First, housing court judges don’t order emergency demolitions; public officials, empowered to make such judgements of imminent public danger, do. Second, city housing court judges do not have the power to issue demolition orders on designated landmarks. (Also, as we came to find out, the order was dated the 19th, the very date, that Cash Cunningham received title to the property.)
Even an emergency demolition order requires an asbestos removal permit—a federal certification that all asbestos had been removed— and a general demolition permit. Or, the entire structure is to be hazardous material, is demolished with safeguards against airborne asbestos, and is disposed of much more expensively.
Again, according to the city, no demolition permit was in hand, and wouldn’t be, until an asbestos certification was issued.
What was the emergency? Imminent danger to the public safety was absent. The buildings that
seemed to be the target the pre-emptive demolition safely removed from the public right-of-way. Were a building to crumble, no person on the Main Street or Riley Street sidewalks could possibly be harmed.
Even had a structural emergency existed, the goal of the law is to lessen or eliminate a hazard to the public, which can be done without resorting to demolition, often by simply erecting a fence.
I had caused previous emergency demolition orders for two designated landmarks, the former Asbury-Delaware United Methodist Church at Delaware Avenue and Tupper Street and the Pierce Arrow Showroom and Schmidt’s buildings in the 700 block of Main Street, to be blocked in court for just that reason. In both cases, any risk to the public was eliminated by installing barriers and fencing.
The scramble to save the mansion
I set off back to the office—there would be a lot of work to do, quickly. I called Mayor Masiello’s office, leaving a message. I got a call back before I arrived from Deputy Mayor Vincent Lovallo. “You have until 2:00 o’clock.”
I appreciated the sporting chance to stop illegal activity.
Still walking, I immediately punched in the number of attorney Robert Kresse, Coalition member, Wendt Foundation trustee, and longtime preservation supporter. We needed a lawyer to seek a Temporary Restraining Order (TRO) to prevent further demolition until things could be sorted out.
This was not an easy task, coming on the Friday before Christmas. And, financial circumstances being what they are for an activist organization, the legal work had to be free—pro bono. Bob thought a moment and hit on Brian Melber of Ricotta and Personious. He would call him.
In short order, I got a call from Melber. He could represent us, but I had to get together everything for the TRO (legal boilerplate, architectural, historical, and geographical context etc.) and get it to him.
Back at the office, I determined we needed to have news conference right in front of the Squire House, and exactly at the deadline the Masiello adminstration had set. I called the news desks at three tv stations, three radio stations, and the city desk at Buffalo News, outlining the threat and our legal remedy. I had no idea whether that legal remedy to stop demolition would be in place at the deadline indicated by Vinnie Lovallo, but I wanted witnesses.
Jason and I then turned to documenting our case for a TRO and emailing and faxing everything to Brian Melber.
To bolster our case, I called Bob Kuhn, Assistant Director of the New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation, to see if, based on information at hand, the Squier house could be declared eligible for the National Register of Historic Places. This would underline the site’s significance for a judge, and also prevent state and federal funds or powers to be used to aid demolition, plus make it eligible for tax credits.
Kuhn got right on it, and I had his determination letter faxed to me in time to include in our legal packet.
That done, I commandeered the family car and drove downtown, where I met Brian for the first time, and signed court papers. He would track down a judge, argue the case for a TRO, and hopefully get an order signed.
Finding a judge in a courthouse on a late Friday afternoon is tough at anytime. The last Friday before Christmas was only going to be harder.
A sidewalk scrum and Trenchcoat Man
Just before 2:00, I went to back to the site for the press conference, with handouts on the history of the property and the news release. Television and print cameramen, and radio-, print-, and tv reporters were assembling on the Main Street sidewalk. A city inspector and manager and excavator operator, William “Wild Bill” Denton of Topor Contracting could be seen talking in the central hall of the mansion through its open door. We had given Denton the nickname due to his evident joy in saddling up and whacking buildings, no questions asked.
The inspector was there to certify that all the asbestos cited in the removal permit—reportedly floor tiles and basement pipe wrap—had been removed. If so, the general demolition permit would be handed over and the building whacked immediately.
The inspector could see the media phalanx on the sidewalk as well. He walked out, and stated he could not go into the basement because it seemed dangerous to do so. Therefore, he could not certify that the asbestos had been removed. Cunningham would have to find an independent state certified inspector willing to go in the basement. I was certain the inspector had a demolition permit in his jacket pocket, and would have handed it to Wild Bill were it not for the witnesses arrayed before him.
Wild Bill The Demo Guy left immediately after the 20-minute news conference. As I was finishing up with the last interviews, I noticed a trench-coated man waiting around. After everyone else had left, he approached. He introduced himself and handed me his card. He was a Special Agent working for the Environmental Protection Agency’s Office of the Inspector General. He told me to call him if we saw any further suspicious activity on the site. We weren’t the only ones who suspected foul play.
Round One was over. It was about 2:30 in the afternoon.
Back at the office, our lawyer Brian called. He had a TRO from County Court Judge Sheila DiTullio. I ran back downtown, thanked Brian effusively, and set off to serve it to the owner (who we thought at the time was still Kenneth Gayles), and to whomever might be engaged to actually take the building down, probably Wild Bill. At 4:50pm, at sundown on the shortest day of the year, I returned to the site, not really expecting to find anyone. Within a minute, a Channel 7 cameraman showed up.
The cameraman said the station had been called by Cash Cunningham and told to get to the site for an interior tour of the “dilapidated” complex. I showed the cameraman the TRO and told him I would serve it on any Toper personnel if they showed up. No sooner were the words out of my mouth than Wild Bill pulled up in his pickup, got out, and walked over to his excavator.
I tried to serve him the TRO while the cameraman quickly set up his camera. Wild Bill refused to take the TRO and started walking away. Pursued by me, he finally took the papers when he realized the camera was on and his resistance was being filmed. He and the cameramen left. I imagine Cunningham was watching this from his office window overlooking the seen.
I stuck around to tell any other media that might come that the demo was off. Shortly, another car drove up in the darkness. It was Bob Kresse. I thanked him and got him up to the minute with events.
The day was over. Merry Christmas. Building saved until after the holidays. Or so we thought.
Architectural stripping by contract
The very next day, Saturday Dec. 22, we started getting calls offering information on the Asylum and the demolition episode. One neighborhood resident reported that both his mother and his aunt were orphans raised there. On Thursday December 20, he said, he saw demolition equipment on the site and was told the complex was coming down. He told personnel his story and asked for a souvenir, even a doorknob. He was given the business card of a notorious antiques dealer specializing in architectural salvage, cocaine dealing, and utility theft.
Great. Salvage rights had been given to a felon. This thing was getting yuckier by the minute.
Indeed, architectural stripping had begun. Brackets from the porch wing eaves had been removed and placed neatly in the interior hallway, next to interior moldings that had similarly survived for 140 years intact. This methodical stripping belied the need for emergency demolition: not only is there no danger to the public from imminent collapse, there is evidently no danger to private parties working on and inside the structure. This would be helpful in court.
It turned out the I had assumed wrong on the ownership of the complex. An unusually speedy process had delivered it into the hands of Cash Cunningham, by way of a corporation, Bailey Robinson, whose sole asset was the complex. This much was given by Cunningham’s attorney, David Jay, on Christmas Eve, when he arranged for a day-before-Christmas hearing in an attempt to get the whole matter dismissed and the TRO lifted.
Probably, Cunningham had walked from the County Clerk’s office with his freshly minted title, across Delaware Avenue to the Judge Devlin’s chambers in the City Court building, where by prior arrangement, she issued a demolition order for all of 1313 Main Street—five structures in all.
Judge DiTullio, given the new information that the demo permit was for five buildings, rather than one, and a blinding snow squall that was forcing snow through the cracks of her courtroom window sashes and shutting down the city, refused to lift the stay. What was the rush? Let’s wait out the storm. Buffalo went from bare ground to seven feet of snow from Christmas eve through December 28th, a record-setting amount.
[At this point, you’re thinking, “I wonder if there is any relationship between a quickie auction, Kevin Gayles’s plea before Judge Devlin, Cunningham showing up in court and offering to by the building, an architectural salvager being contracted, an demolition order being secured, and an asbestos certificate about to change hands?”]
On New Year’s eve, after doing further research at the Central Library, I thought to drive by the site on my way home to see how the buildings had held up.
The snow hadn’t done any damage to the buildings. But the excavator had been dusted off, moved about, and used to inflict more damage. There now was a gaping hole clear into one of the structures. Exposed joists showed mechanical damage. The TRO had been violated, apparently after the snows had ended, and perhaps to “prove” that the complex had suffered storm-related damage, and, if it was not in danger of falling down before December 19th, it certainly was now.
I alerted Brian Melber and Judge DiTullio. On January 2nd, DiTullio extended the TRO to Monday January 11, to, among other things, allow the City of Buffalo to be brought into the matter through its Preservation Board, and admonished all parties against further hijinks.
All kinds of hurdles have to be overcome in the course of racing to save a building. Sometimes they come from your own side. Cash Cunningham offered to meet me and Coalition President Susan McCartney, then my wife, at the site for an inspection. We agreed, and thought the meeting could be constructive. The three of us were standing outside at the appointed time when there pulled up a Coalition boardmember. He lived nearby and was driving by. In short order, he had engaged Cunningham in a shouting match that culminated in him sweeping his arm in the direction of Cunningham head, catching the brim of his hat and knocking it off.
That ended that meeting. Subsequently, any discussion between the Coalition and Cunningham occurred with me, Sue, or Brian Melber and David Jay, Cunningham’s attorney.
On Friday January 4, David Jay called Brain to see if we would entertain an “offer.”
Almost from the first day in court, Cunningham was making statements to the effect that he was willing to “give” the house to anyone who could demonstrate, to his unspecified satisfaction, that they had the means to restore the building.
On Monday, January 7, the scheduled hearing was cancelled. Instead an afternoon meeting in City Hall was arranged. It was chaotic, with lawyers, staff, and interested parties filling the meeting room and an adjacent hall.
Threats and “offers”
Cunningham made two separate verbal offers. Included were threats to sue the Coalition and individual members and repeated statements that he had no intention ever of “spending a penny” to repair the any part of the Squier House. The Hat Incident must have been playing in his mind.
One of the offers was to allow the us to market the Squier House and a five-foot band around it for one year, at a price to be determined by Cunningham, and without pursuing National Register status, which could have major tax benefits for a buyer, without Cunningham’s express permission. Cunningham would be given full access to the front lawn for parking or some other use. If we were unsuccessful in finding a buyer for a mansion with a gaping hole in the wall, no property rights, and no tax benefits, we would consent to have the house torn down. Unless, of course, we wished then to buy the building at a price to be determined.
The Coalition, at a subsequent board meeting, rejected the offers as untenable. This much was conveyed to the city’s Preservation Board on January 10. On January 16, members of the Preservation Board and their invitees (your correspondent expressly excluded) toured the Squire House interior and looked into the adjacent “connector” which was inaccessible because its floor had collapsed due to the eight-year-old roof leak. Reports of an engineer and architectural historian were delivered to the Preservation Board on January 24. The mansion was deemed to be in sound condition, save for the hole knocked into it on December 21. The orphanage and connector, with the old fire damage and roof leaks, were deemed to be in poor condition.
It will never be irrefutable whether Judge Devlin, Kenneth Gayles, Cash Cunningham, Inspections Department employee and liason to Housing Court Frank DeJames, and the Inspections commissioner had an understanding of how things could work. If a scheme existed, we had blown it up.
Cunningham said the Inspections Department recommended the emergency demolition and said he would never have bought the property without the understanding that it could be demolished. The Inspections Department states that it merely reported on the condition of the property. DeJames, quoted by Donn Esmonde in the Buffalo News, blamed “soft” judges for the situation.
Devlin, in sentencing Gayles for his building code violations on January 14, went out of her way, as reported in the Buffalo News, to say both that she issued the demolition order of 1313 Main at the city’s request, and that she had “been led to believe local preservationists agreed with the demolition.”
Devlin and Cunningham’s statements aligned: this whole thing had been cooked up in City Hall. But the house was in DiTullio’s court now, execution stayed, and would remain there until a method was worked out that would restore it.
In August of 2002 an agreement was reached between us, Cunningham, and the Masiello Administration. The city offered to pay half the repair and construction costs. Take that for kind-heartedness or a hush payment. The 1886 additions were demolished in exchange for restoration of the Squier house and maintenance work on the 1898 Green & Wicks building. Later, this was renovated to house a charter school.
On March 14, 2002, in the midst of ongoing discussions on the Squier case, I got a call that two buildings were being demolished next to the landmark Michigan Street Baptist Church. Public notice never went out (as it must), nor did asbestos abatement or proper hazardous material handling and disposal. This became apparent when Channel 2 reporter Rich Kellman and crew had filmed me stepping in front of Wild Bill and his excavator to stop the demo, and Kellman, seeing a tattered asbestos wrapping on a pipe behind my head, asked, “Is that asbestos?” As a police officer was persuading me to allow Wild Bill to do his permitted work, a city official arrived on the scene. He was shocked, shocked, by the events, and ordered work stopped.
Federal and State investigators had been building a case against Topor and others while the attempt on the Squier Mansion was made. The Michigan Street action, caught on film, sealed Topor’s and Wild Bill’s fates.
State and federal authorities arrested and punished four people in connection to the case. No one in City Hall faced any consequences.
Upon reading the news, I called the Special Agent to congratulate him. He told me, had I not stopped the demolition out on the sidewalk on December 21, he would have had Cash Cunningham arrested, too.
The Topor business accounts were assumed by employee Albert Steele, whose Hannah Demolition has since grossed millions of dollars in city contracts.
Electric scooters: A boost to urbanism or a danger? Governor Andrew Cuomo has just vetoed a bill that would have legalized electric bikes and scooters for use on public roadways and paths in New York State. The governor claims he vetoed the bill because there was no requirement that riders wear helmets, but there are other reasons for concern. The E.U. has a top speed of 20km/hr (12mph) for e-bikes, which is sound, while the U.S. federal limit is 20mph, which is too fast for most riders and conditions for safe operation. The New York bill did nothing to address e-bike speed danger. As for scooters, there is a whole list of concerns, centering on balance, control, and signaling of intent. These are basic to protecting riders, bystanders, and drivers.
Dedicated preservationists and urbanists are big supporters of mass mobility as a way to preserve and enhance pre-automobile neighborhoods and build vibrant new ones. Car-dependency can't do it. So, I was excited to follow the development of electric scooters and scooter-sharing systems. So excited, I shelled out $500 for my own scooter, made by the same company which supplies Bird. Big mistake. Find out why in the video.
The Campaign for Greater Buffalo History, Architecture & Culture recognized three board members for their long-time service to preservation and the City of Buffalo at its 2019 Solstice Party, held at the Herbert Hewitt house on Lafayette Avenue. The inaugural President's Award, was presented by Campaign President Paul McDonnell to Campaign board members emeritus Beth Kauffman and Meg Robinson Albers, who both recently ascended to emeritus status. Over 100 people attended, enjoying not only the food, drink, and preservationist plotting, but the magnificent house itself, and the hospitality of Joe and Ellen Letteri, owner-operators of InnBuffalo.
McDonnell cited Kauffman—a founding Campaign board member—for her decades of work on preservation activities ranging from attending Common Council hearings, to stuffing envelopes, writing letters, and dragooning friends to Campaign events, in addition to board work of almost two decades. Beyond preservation, Beth was a tireless contributor to her Allentown neighborhood, Shea's Performing Arts Center, and the Buffalo Philharmonic. Campaign Executive Director Tim Tielman called her the "type of citizen that is the foundation of any community, and that any organization needs."
Robinson Albers—also a founding board member—was similarly cited for her decades of work on the barricades and boardroom (that sounds fancier than it is—the Campaign board meetings tend to be around dining room tables and living rooms). Meg also was a matchless event organizer: she cut her teeth in her kite business, where she organized dozens of international kite events, including one locally spanning the Lower Niagara River which the Times of London called one of its Top Ten international festivals. It takes a lot to carry off public events at sometimes challenging venues (no electric, no bathrooms, but great architecture!), and Meg was a charismatic leader.
In over 20 years in the preservation trenches, Beth and Meg never refused a request, no matter how small or how big. They inspired others to do the same. Much of the success of Buffalo' preservation movement, and The Campaign in particular, is due to them.
In a less formal vein, Campaign Vice President Dan Sack was recognized for his lifelong inability to be satisfied with the status quo, the default way of doing things, rank incompetence, everyday villainy, and the local sport of end-running zoning, preservation, and planning. Dan, in November, won a significant lawsuit against the City of Buffalo, which was attempting bail out a development of Gates Circle by declaring the pavement of Delaware Avenue and the Circle, and a public parking ramp, part of a "blighted" Urban Development Action Area, to qualify the project for tax abatements.
Dan is a regular attendee at Planing Board, Zoning Board of Appeals, and Preservation Board hearings, and puts up with the indignities and calumny often visited upon citizens wishing to speak at such meetings. Occasionally, board members elect to follow the letter and spirit of the law and proclaim to agree with what Dan has just elucidated for them. To illustrate the point, Tim Tielman asked Sack to participate in an ad hoc skit of a planning board meeting; Tielman played the chair of the Planning Board making the case for a drive-thru donut shop in a historic neighborhood. Sack interjected—as if scripted—causing the "board chair" to relent and state, "I agree with what Dan said." Tielman then whipped out a sign saying just that, as did, by pre-arrangement, 30 others in the crowd.
Also getting a shout-out was attorney Fran Amendola, who 20 years ago in October filed the federal lawsuit that led to the reconstruction of the Commercial Slip, Central Wharf, and the early street network of the Canal District. Fran, there is a bottle of Piper-Heidsieck awaiting you.
Campaign for Greater Buffalo board member and attorney Richard Lippes also received a tip o' the hat for his victorious lawsuit, on behalf of The Campaign, that ended the receiving and filing of landmark applications by the Buffalo Common Council.
InnBuffalo also offered a free night at the inn for a lucky attendee. That lucky person was Dana Saylor, long-time preservationist, researcher, and artist.
The Campaign for Greater Buffalo History, Architecture & Culture has won a significant court decision to protect two houses designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. The William Heath House, on Soldiers' Circle, and the Walter Davidson House, on Tillinghast Place, must be voted on for local landmark designation by the Buffalo Common Council, rather than thrown in a legislative waste bin—received and filed—and never to be heard from again.
State Supreme Court Judge Paul Wojtaszek handed down the decision and order voiding the Council's action to receive and file the applications on October 11, and them to the council to approve or deny, based on the provisions of the city's Historic Preservation Ordinance. The deadline for filing a notice of appeal expired just before Thanksgiving.
The court agreed with The Campaign that the Council had failed to comply with the ordinance. The provisions for designation center on whether a building or place meets any one of nine criteria of architectural or historical significance. The Preservation Board argued in its latest applications that both houses achieved a rare distinction: where meeting only one of the criteria would be necessary to become an official landmark, all nine criteria had been met.
"This is a huge victory for preservation in Buffalo," said Campaign Executive Director Tim Tielman. "The public deserves timely decisions to protect its cultural heritage. The Council was doing the public a disservice by not acting on these. They were designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, for Pete's sake. If they are not worthy of landmarking, what is?"
Richard Lippes, a Campaign board member, filed the lawsuit on behalf of The Campaign in January. "We're glad the court removed this impediment to landmarking and governance. It was the proper thing to do, and addresses a longstanding problem in the application of the landmarking law."
Preservationists were becoming increasingly concerned about the fate of the two houses, which, for unknown reasons, were not designated as landmarks decades ago, along with the surviving houses of the D.D. Martin compound in Parkside.
The Davidson House has lost its banded slate roof and has been twice "colorized" contrary to Wright's specifications under the current owner, while the Heath House has similarly had unsympathetic roof and masonry work that effects Wright's rigorous and character-defining horizontality. These erosions of character are particularly felt due to the northern orientation of both houses, which requires architectural detailing to overcome shadowing and silhouetting effects against a brighter sky.
The ball is back in the Common Council's court. The Preservation Board did its due diligence (three times over, in fact). The Campaign for Greater Buffalo has done its part, filing suit to protect the code that protects the public interest, and arguing it to a successful conclusion.
The Campaign for Greater Buffalo and Executive Director Tim Tielman are hosting their annual holiday party for preservationists and friends on Saturday, December 21, 2019 from 4:44pm—sundown on the shortest day of the year—to 7:44pm at a magnificent pile of the Queen Anne style, the Herbert Hewitt House. Donations, new memberships, and renewals will be gratefully accepted. Gift certificates for The Campaign's inimitable tours on its very own Open-Air Autobus will be available. Those wishing to attend can call or text 716-854-3749 for more information or to RSVP.
The house, a preservation work-in-progress, is now owned and operated by Joe and Ellen Letteri as Inn Buffalo, a bed & breakfast. Herbert Hewitt was one of those titans who seemed to have a finger in every pie. He founded the Hewitt Rubber Company and a brass foundry, and, before he even came to Buffalo, he had invented the railroad car coupler that became standard. He decided to build a house on Lafayette Avenue, he picked a firm that was at its creative peak.
Lansing & Beierl had designed the Lafayette Presbyterian Church across the street, and the mammoth 74th Regimental (Connecticut Street) Armory, both in the robust Richardsonian Romanesque style. Lansing & Beierl were keen followers of Richardson, and had just completed a copy of one of Richardson's great houses for William Coatsworth on Soldiers' Circle.
The Hewitt house harkens further back, to Richardson's Watts Sherman House of Newport, RI, of 1874: massive chimney stacks, sweeping roofs with flared eaves, enveloping porte-cochere, Tudor detailing. Added is a an arched piazza similar to that of First Presbyterian church (both Lansing and Beierl worked for Green & Wicks at the time the latter firm designed First Presbyterian), but rendered in wood. The interiors— heavy oak, coved ceilings, custom tile, beaten iron strapping and fixturing—are a match for the exterior. The basement billiards room is a gentlemen's lair nonpareil and alone worth a visit to the house, with custom Flemish tiles, a rustic spring with hot and cold running water, and a massive leather-pocketed billiards table.
Quick action by The Campaign for Greater Buffalo has averted demolition, at least for now, of a distinctive, center-towered commercial and residential building designed and built by Wladislaw Zawadzki, perhaps Buffalo Polonia's most notable designer of the early 20th century. The building was to be the subject of a demolition application review at the city Preservation Board on Thursday, November 21. The Campaign for Greater Buffalo learned of the endangerment when the application was posted on the city's website on Friday, November 15, and posted a notice on its Facebook page. The demolition permit application was dated November 5.
Building owner Carolyn Grasper operates a flower shop at the 399 Amherst Street address. The demo application, filed by Hannah Demolition as agent for the owner, claims the "foundation is bad,"and that "the building is constructed [sic] unsound." The structure is assessed at $80,000. The building is a pair with 408 Amherst across the street, also designed by Zawadzki, and acts as a gateway to the Grant-Amherst commercial district.
Zawadzki also designed the Polish Cadets building around the corner on Grant Street, as well as the original St. Floarian's church and school on Hertel Avenue nearby. Zawadzki is best known for his East Side work, which includes several churches and the Dom Polski. He is also credited with designing the former Holy Trinity complex in Niagara Falls.
The building was constructed around 1910, and appears to be in general good condition, with some deferred maintenance. There is a dispute with a neighbor over the neighbor's building allegedly leaning on the Zawadzki structure.
All demolition permit applications in Buffalo must be formally reviewed by the Preservation Board; absent that public review, no legal demolition can take place. (The demo application itself is still on file in City Hall, and the review process can be reinstated in person or by email at any time.)
The building owner, contacted Campaign Executive Director Tim Tielman, contends that she was unaware of the Nov. 5 demolition application or the scheduled Nov. 21 hearing at the Preservation Board. Tielman advised her, then to withdraw the application first thing in the morning. Demolition contractor Hannah Demolition withdrew the item via email the morning of Nov. 20.
The Campaign is now working with the owner to seek ways to save the building.
Treasure-trove of Atomic Age suburbia, saved by Campaign, now accessible through Buffalo History Museum
Tielman first laid eyes on the files in 2003 while researching a bicycle tour that included Pearce & Pearce's Green Acres subdivision. The staff was just then preparing to dispose thousands of deteriorating blueprints, from the immediate post-war building boom. Tielman, agog at the blueprints and the 1950's office-as-time-capsule they were contained in, persuaded Bill Pearce, family scion, not to toss them.
Eight years later, Tielman was back, doing research for a paper, "How Green Were My Acres: Builders, Designers, and Buyers in an Atomic Age Suburb, 1946-1956." Download How Green Were My Acres
In 2016, Tielman got a call from Bill Pearce, notifying him that the company's real estate assets were being put up for sale and the office would have to be cleared out. Now was the time to find a permanent home. Not wanting the archives to end up outside the Buffalo area, Tielman eventually was able to link up Pearce with the History Museum Director Melissa Brown and Library & Archives Director Cynthia Van Ness (a long-time Campaign member).
The History Museum accepted the archives in 2017; intern Alexander Morehouse (Syracuse University) did yeoman's work indexing the file drawers.
There is no comparable archive anywhere. There are dozens of papers and books waiting to be written based on the material, which can keep historians busy for decades. Viewing the material itself requires a visit to the museum, but you can see what is there with the index: https://tinyurl.com/
And the finding aid: https://opac.
The Dream, at Last: Reconstruction of Canal District. Concept to Remove North Skyway Viaduct, Thruway Interchange Wins Contest
It only took 27 years, but the complete reconstruction of Buffalo's Canal District is within sight. Governor Andrew Cuomo initiated a contest last February to develop concepts for the future of the Skyway. The competition was overseen by the Empire State Development Corporation (ESDC). On September 17, a winner was chosen that clears the path for the reconstruction not only of the Canal District, but other neighborhoods and streets as well. The central idea was to remove the northern viaduct of the Skyway, the Thruway interchange, and the on/off ramps, freeing up acres of land to reconstruct neighborhoods and connections that were destroyed 65 years ago. It is a great victory for preservation in Buffalo; the bookend to the successful lawsuit and public campaign to save the Canal District from destruction 20 years ago.
It is a tectonic shift. We have gone from preservationists, led by Campaign Executive Director Tim Tielman, being forced to sue in federal court to stop an ESDC plan that would have destroyed all remnants of the Canal District, to ESDC sponsoring a plan that makes it possible to not only authetically reconstruct the Canal District, but to go further, and reconstruct the long lost, long forgotten Terrace, a park and promenade that goes back to Joseph Ellicott’s first rough sketch of the Village of New Amsterdam. And maybe reconstruct another stretch of the Erie Canalway, parts of Canal Street and the buildings that lined both.
The Campaign is working to update its 2007 proposal for a “Skywalk,” which, similar to the winning proposal, saves the main spans of the Skyway and the south viaduct, but goes further, saving the embankment as a continuous elevated bikeway and walkway to Tifft Farm and Buffalo Harbor State Park. Skyway vehicular traffic would be routed along Ganson and Ohio streets to and from downtown, or simply use the Thruway rather than Route 5. A September post shows our original 2007 proposal.
In the meantime, we can start dreaming about reconstructing downtown, and our image.
POSTCARD FROM BUFFALO: TERRACE PARK 1902. Buffalo's very first public park—going back to Joseph Ellicott's original 1803 survey and platting of New Amsterdam—was The Terrace Park. It ran from Seneca Street northwest to where Court and Jackson Street intersect today. Topography argued for it to become a public park and promenade: It was a steep slope, which Joseph Ellicott described as being up to 40 feet high. The top of the slope (which became Upper Terrace) offered views over the flats extending to Lake Erie several blocks away, while the slope itself was difficult to build on.
Until Olmsted's Park and Parkway system was laid out in the 1870's, Terrace Park was Buffalo's primary outdoor recreation and social space. You want a balloon ascension? The square at The Terrace and Church Street was the place. You want to build a market or raise a liberty pole? The square at The Terrace, Main & Lloyd was the spot. The implementation of the Olmsted plan ironically led to the piecemeal destruction of the Terrace; The Terrace must have been viewed as no longer necessary.
In the early 1880's, the city allowed the New York Central to build tracks across Main Street (these would shortly be routed through a tunnel) in exchange for establishing a passenger service on a belt line. A trench was cut across the slope to create a gradient to Church Street, where the tracks turned to run along the Erie Canal. A station was built between Swan and Church streets. Several footbridges were built to cross the trench and keep the Canal District connected with downtown. A four-block stretch of Terrace Park was thus abandoned. Part of this became the site of a new and imposing Buffalo Police Headquarters in 1884. With the building frontages on lower Pearl and Lock Street, a de facto square was created.
Another de facto square was created where The Terrace met Church Street. This was the closest open space to the civic heart of the city, the interface between the proto-industrial waterfront and emerging office and government precincts. This square was where perhaps the most famous aeronaut of the 19th century, Samuel Archer King, launched his hot-air balloon Buffalo, on September 16, 1873. The balloon was manufactured on an upper floor of the Aetna Building on Prime and Lloyd streets in the Canal District, and its ascension warranted a story in the New York Times. King called it the largest balloon in the world; it contained over 94,000 cubic feet, and the letters of Buffalo were seven feet high. King took the Buffalo all across the country. In 1877, it delivered the first airmail-stamped letters on a flight from Nashville to Gallatin, TN.
The comparative illustration immediately below shows that the lands of the original Terrace are almost entirely free of buildings to this day. Removing the Skyway would be the first step in a process that could reconstruct the entire Terrace as the broad, long public promenade it was designed to be and a role it fulfilled from 1803 until the late 1960's. The only remnants are visible at Genesee Street west of WKBW-TV, and behind the Erie County Holding Center.
The Campaign for Greater Buffalo has, since its founding, supported removal of the Buffalo Skyway and its interchange with the Thruway. In 2007, it issued an illustrated concept called the Skywalk to mitigate the damage the bridge caused and allow reconstruction of the Canal District, Terrace Park, and the historic neighborhoods around them. The Campaign is working on refinements of its 2007 proposal, but it is timely to re-introduce the concept.
The Skyway was directly responsible for the demolition of the remaining two blocks of Canal Street in the Canal District in the 1950's, the demolition of an entire block the occupation of the lower three blocks of what had been Buffalo's first public park, Terrace Park, and was indirectly responsible, through its visual and noise bight, for the weakening of adjacent blocks of historic buildings that were scraped clean during Urban Renewal.
The Skyway-Thruway interchange has been for 65 years the greatest source of noise pollution in downtown Buffalo. This is beyond the obvious air pollution emitted by cars and trucks accelerating and de-accelerating 40,000 times per day at that spot. To be near it for a day's work would be to physically endanger not only your hearing, but risk other physiological damage. Below dangerous levels farther away, the noise is an ever present nuisance. This will hamper reconstruction of the Canal District, especially the North Aud Block, currently under study for redevelopment.
The Skywalk would remove the physical and psychological barrier of the Skyway, eliminate threats to public health, and allow full reconstruction of not only the Canal District, but also Terrace Park and the north side of Canal Street, as well as a further stretch of the historic canalway between Pearl and Erie streets. Let's hope Governor Cuomo makes the right decision in the upcoming days: The Skyway and its interchange must come down, and we must begin reconstructing the historic neighborhoods that tied the city and its waterfront together.
Elevator- and stair towers would be built at the north shore of the Buffalo River at the foot of Main Street and Central Wharf, and also on the west shore of the City Ship Canal, giving access to the north end of Fuhrman Blvd. and Outer Harbor. Connections with the Shoreline Trail, a new East Side bike highway, and the DL&W trainshed would be by means of elevated loops that recall both the historic pedestrian bridges across Main and the DL&W's own viaduct.
POSTCARD FROM BUFFALO: WILLIAM STREET NEAR KRETTNER C. 1910. The subject of this postcard is probably the newly constructed Savoy Theatre, which, in 2019, stands in a long-derelict state. Of special interest is the classic commercial-residential wooden structures and the continuous strip of display window along the sidewalk. There are two display cases projecting onto the public sidewalk, one housing a mannequin in a fancy dress at the Slotkin clothing store—much like a cigar store indian—and one in front of a retail space in the Savoy building. Streets such as this provided a person walking along with a new display every seven seconds or so (with storefronts 20 to 25 feet wide). There was plenty of room to window shop, with recessed entries greatly expanding frontage, and prismatic transom glass above the main windows refracting light deeply into the store. The south side of the street (right) was always shaded during the warmest part of the day on the east-west running William Street, obviating the need for awnings. Conversely, the south-facing side of the street has very deep awnings, which were extended to moderate solar gain inside the store during summer afternoons.—Collection of Tim Tielman
The Campaign is fighting together with neighbors to save the Meidenbauer House at 204 High Street in the Fruit Belt, just as we successfully fought to create the High Street Historic District, of which the Meidenbauer House is an integral part. The house has been owned by the city for 14 years, during which it has done nothing to maintain the building, now it wants to demo it. Councilmember Darius Pridgen also wants it demolished. City reaction thus far has been to issue another Request For Proposals (RFP), and effort it would seem destined—if not designed—to fail. It is unclear why the City insists on blocking, for 14 years, a conventional sale of the property, similar to the process it uses at the annual auction of city properties. Instead, it throws up the very high barrier of the onerous RFP, which, practically speaking, narrows the universe of possible new owners to a handful of developers.
Pictures below were taken in 2003, two years before the City seized the property for back taxes. Top: View from High and Maple street corner; the Meidenbauer House is unusual in that it is two conjoined houses, one facing High Street, the other Maple Street. Middle: The High Street frontage, before garage and adjacent cottage were demolished. Bottom: Maple Street frontage.
As you know, The Campaign for Greater Buffalo and its members were instrumental in saving Buffalo's Canal District in an epic effort that culminated in a March 2000 federal court decision and order that opened the way to saving, rather than destroying and burying, the Commercial Slip, Central Wharf, and the surrounding streets. We've led that effort ever since. In 2016, we unveiled our own plan for development of The Canal District (please don't call it Canalside, a fakey-commercial name decided upon by a former publisher of the Buffalo News). To refresh your memory, or to make first acquaintance, here are some illustrations of that plan, which is meant to represent a middle stage in a phased developement. We'll compare it in a future post to the masterplan general ideas just unveiled by Empire State Development. Stay tuned!