Previous month:
August 2012
Next month:
February 2013

Historic Landmark in Downtown Buffalo Demolished, Commissioner Comerford Flouts Law



City Greases Skids for Demo of 1850s Downtown Landmark; Commissioner Defies Law, Refuses to Meet with Preservation Board Member 

The building popularly known as Bernstone's Cigar Store, part of the Joseph Ellicott Historic District, is threatened with imminent demolition. It was designed by architect Calvin Otis and erected in the 1850's. It was the long-time home of the Third National Bank (Joseph Schoellkopf was president) until its merger with M&T Bank in 1962. Sometime after that, the upper four stories were demolished, leaving the original tin cornice and a Classical cast-iron storefront, possibly the oldest in the city.
Bernstone Night Demo
(photo courtesy Bernice Radle) 

Commissioner James Comerford of the City of Buffalo Department of Permit and Inspection Services apparently is flouting the law on public notice once again (he has failed to notify the City Landmark and Preservation Board several times of "Emergency" demolition orders, as required by the City Charter, most recently in the case of the Riverside Men's Shop and Wheeleer grain elevator demolitions). Campaign for Greater Buffalo Executive Director and Preservation Board member Tim Tielman, acting on calls from concerned citizens, went to the department this afternoon. No demolition permit application in the city is supposed to be issued without being reviewed by the Preservation Board. Tielman found out Comerford had issued a demolition order on Friday afternoon, August 31. Comerford was overheard raising his voice, saying he would not meet with Tielman, who was waiting in the next room. Assistant Director Lou Petrucci relayed the message that the commissioner said "to file an Article 78" if a couple days' leave of demolition was sought. Article 78 refers to a legal proceeding brought against a government agency to force it to comply with its own laws.
On July 19, Comerford sent a letter asking for a waiver of noticication of demolition of an asbestos-containing structure to the State Labor Department; he claimed there was imminent danger to the public. It took six weeks for fencing to be erected around the site. Still, the Preservation Board was not notified and no public notice has been given.
"It is clear the commissioner has nothing but contempt for the public process and for the public body charged with protecting the city's historic assets," said Tielman. 
Timothy Tielman
Executive Director 
The Campaign for Greater Buffalo History, Architecture & Culture


Boycott the Peace Bridge!

The Episcopal Church Home, represented for most Buffalonians for over a century by the iconic landscape of the Hutchinson Chapel and Thornton Memorial Hall, is under imminent threat of demolition. The chapel, Thornton Hall, and the landscape, an island of tranquility in the shadow of the Peace Bridge, was designated a City of Buffalo landmark in 1980. The Public Bridge Authority (PBA) and politicians, right up to the governor’s office, have long salivated over the prospect of increased payments into PBA coffers from Duty-Free sales.


The proposal to demolish the Episcopal Church Home (ECH), as well as a row of historic houses on Busti Avenue, is being driven exclusively, PBA documents show, to build a massive Duty-Free complex big enough to accommodate a feared diesel fueling station for tractor trailers and a gas station for cars. Lieutenant Governor Duffy parachuted into town on short notice on August 24th to announce the Cuomo Administration’s latest effort to facilitate the plaza expansion. The Campaign for Greater Buffalo has filed suit in state court to block the demolitions, and also opposes the demolition of the ECH.

Henry Osgood Holland, a Buffalo architect best-known for his Temple Beth-El on Richmond Avenue, designed Thornton Memorial Hall and its accompanying landscape in 1903-05. The building was named for Thomas Thornton, a local notable who was deeply involved in the “Church Charity Foundation.” Thornton Hall, Hutchinson Chapel and their setting are not only a beautiful design, but also a historic reminder of the importance of religious organizations before government care existed for the indigent.

Once officially transferred to the Public Bridge Authority, these landmarks will likely be bulldozed by a careless lot of businessmen in expensive suits, who seem unconcerned about the future of the neighborhood! They will then encircle the 1895 Hutchinson Memorial Chapel with giant cement walls and a ramp to the new Duty-Free store they hope to build.

But before the real estate deal closes between the State of New York and the Episcopal Church Home (ECH), numerous people came forward at City Housing Court on Thursday to address the issues on the site. Campaign for Greater Buffalo (C4GB) Executive Director Tim Tielman, representing the City of Buffalo Preservation Board, requested that Judge Carney allow the Board access to the City-landmarked Thornton building, due to potential code violations. They were denied that access after a tour of the Hutchinson Memorial Chapel in late July, which was to assess the condition of the structure. C4GB Special Projects Assistant Dana Saylor researched the properties this summer, and confirmed that indeed, both were granted City Landmark status in 1980. Carney ordered that access be granted.


Carney ordered the ECH to comply with the fire code and restore the sprinkler system at the site. It had been cut off, presenting a hazard to the buildings and neighborhood. Neighborhood residents, and board members of the C4GB, present at court, voiced concerns over blossoming graffiti, vandalism, and a lack of site maintenance by the ECH management. C4GB attorney Richard Berger clarified the urgency, stating that as soon as the State of New York or other entity completes the purchase, it will be out of City court jurisdiction. The PBA has a poor record of maintaining their properties, as evidenced by the row of historic homes on Busti Ave that they have allowed to languish, even helped along with recent “asbestos abatement” damage. City Inspector Michael Muscarella is working with ECH officials to ensure compliance with codes. Should they fail to do as they are required by the court, certainly there will be pressure from not only the neighbors and preservation groups, but Judge Carney as well.

Saylor vowed that the C4GB would continue its vigorous efforts to protect the landmarks. The PBA’s decades-long refusal to compromise is hampering the potential for neighborhood revitalization and heritage-driven economic development. Historic sites such as the Darwin D. Martin House, Canalside, and the Richardson Center (at which renovation has not yet been completed) draw huge international tourism crowds. We must recognize the importance of these landmarks for the public and the betterment of Buffalo, and preserve them to improve our future.