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.