The John O'Flanagan House at 171 Niagara Street, deemed by the NYS Department of Parks, Recreation & Historic Preservation as National Register Eligible for planning purposes, is being steered to demolition through the efforts of Acquest Development and the City of Buffalo.
Acquest has long wanted to build a parking ramp over the site of the O'Flanagan House, and conducted a tour last November to demonstrate how bad the building was. I was on that tour, along with David Granville, chief inspector Lou Petrucci, and others. The house was in great shape (see Granville's pictures at http://camapignforbuffalo.bfn.org/171niag/index.html) then. Acquest decided to bide its time until things cooled down and let people believe it would reconfigure its ramp to accommodate the O'Flanagan House. Now construction is well along on its building for the IRS and other tenants, and Acquest wants to force the issue.
Here is how it is set up: Recently, Acquest (William Huntress, president) sold the property to a shell corporation, 4771 Dewey Avenue. This new corporation invited the Department of inspections to inspect the property. Inspections found dozens of violations, including mold formed since Acquest boarded the building last year, which Acquest is going to say is prohibitively expensive to eradicate, along with the other problems. This will happen in Housing Court on Wednesday, October 6. Biting lips, the city liaison to housing court will not object, if not concur, with the remedy suggested by Acquest: demolition.
Judge Nowak will reserve decision until the preservation board hears the issue. Unless an engineer and mold person can get in and inspect the place, the preservation board will take whatever Acquest and the city says about remediation cost at face value. Ten cents in costs would be too much of a hardship for Acquest.
Retaining the house would help mask the certain blight of the ramp and allow for other uses by a sympathetic owner. As very often the case, the key to preservation is new ownership, which can happen if the ramp is kept off the site. Acquest is not a restoration oriented firm.
Here are parts of a letter I wrote to Preservation Board chairman John Laping last November. It describes the house and conditions at that time:
Last Monday, November 3, I inspected 171 Niagara St. with Lou Petrucci, David Granville, a representative from Acquest Development (Steve D’Anna, I believe) and others. Preliminary research shows the structure was built as a semi-detached (side-by-side) double, c.1867 by John O’Flanagan, who identified himself variously as an architect and builder through the period of Buffalo’s post-Civil War boom. The date is arrived at given the style (a combination of Italianate and Second Empire) and the City Directory.
I viewed every area of the building, from basement to attic tower. Some individual bedrooms had locked doors; neither I or anyone else forced them open.
The building appears to have been quickly abandoned—various articles of furniture, bedding, clothing, and personal belongings litter the interior and should be cleaned out. The Campaign would volunteer to do the task, provided a Dumpster is supplied.
The condition of the building is remarkable considering it has seen 140 years of use, the last several decades, at least, as a boarding house. Classical plaster moldings are intact throughout the structure, Cast iron medallions are plentiful on the first and second floors. Stone and cast iron fireplace fronts and mantels are intact. The two principal staircases are intact down to the spindles. They are visible through a grand, wood-framed arched opening in the party wall installed at some time to connect the two halves of the structure. This creates a distinctive full-height feature is one I have not seen in any other Buffalo house.
Many of the public rooms are still full height. Hallways and most bedrooms have lowered ceilings of drywall or acoustical panels which experience shows are easily removed. Such an unveiling would likely reveal plaster and wood trim similar to that in the other hallways and rooms. Some walls have fake wood paneling or vinyl, which could be similarly removed.. Other plaster and lath walls were in good condition.
Floors throughout were solid, without “bounce” caused by walking or jumping (to test for it). One spot, the threshold of an addition on the northwest side, has sagged perhaps two inches. A view of the large floor joists of virgin timber in the dry basement illustrated the solidity of the structure.
One area of water damage was seen on the interior wall of the third story tower, directly under a missing window pane. On the exterior, a missing downspout on the sunless side has caused moss to grow and some loss of mortar. No bricks have fallen in this area. This is the only visible water damage on the exterior.
In short, the structure is in as good condition as could be expected from such a structure. In my experience, it is in much better structural and architectural integrity than many existing and restored houses in Buffalo, notably “Victor Hugo’s,” the former Sternberg Mansion, now a boutique hotel known as The Mansion.
Renovation costs are unknown, as is restored value, since a future use has not been determined, let alone estimated. I do know two separate focus groups brought together by the General Services Administration and the Project for Public Spaces on September 17 both recommended the O’Flanagan house not be demolished. This was based solely on the building’s visual character and presence, without any knowledge of historical, cultural, or architectural significance. Our fund of knowledge in these areas can only grow. Incidentally, both focus groups recommended the building be used as the restaurant/cafeteria for the proposed IRS building, and be connected to it in some fashion. This has manifold advantages for the public, not the least of which is accessibility to the restaurant in the evening. It would also preserve a historic building, hold the streetwall, and contribute to the pedestrian connectivity of downtown.
There are only two Second Empire style houses left on lower Niagara Street, the O’Flanagan house and the Balcom/Chandler house at 91 Niagara. Both are endangered. The State Historic Preservation Office has declared the Balcom house National Register Eligible. It has instructed the General Services Administration to treat the O’Flanagan house as National Register Eligible for planning purposes. This house is exactly the kind on which neighborhood revivals are built.