The True Story of How the Squier Mansion was Saved
January 18, 2020
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.