It remains unclear who funded or directed the illegal destruction of the character-defining tower of the former St. John the Baptist Church, a brick-and-terra-cotta masterpiece by architects Oakley and Schallmo. Completed in 1927, it has long been a designated City of Buffalo historic landmark. Its dismantlement became public knowledge when Campaign for Greater Buffalo Executive Director Tim Tielman drove by the site on Tuesday night. It is clear, however, that the Preservation Board must follow legal directives from New York State and insist that the tower be rebuilt (it next meets on Thursday, October 15), and Mayor Byron Brown must back up the Preservation Board's resolve through enforcement actions of the Department of Permit and Inspection Services. North Gate, an evangelical organization that has now badged the property with its banners, must take moral ownership of its lapse and fund the reconstruction. Legal enforcement of proper civic conduct is the burden of the Preservation Board and the Department of Inspections and Permit Services.
The money to fix the tower must be prioritized. A lot of money is being spent around the complex by North Gate. The religious organizations involved—North Gate is partnering with RiverRock Church and another organization— will claim they didn't have the money to preserve the tower, so they certainly would not have the money to rebuild it. But a religious organization's financial books are, uniquely, closed to all. So the public is left to trust organizations whose supervisor on the site claimed ignorance of the need to get asbestos surveys and permits, demolition permits, and Preservation Board review.
On the preservation side, the rules for preservation of historic structures are clear, and New York State law mandates that localities adhere to the standards. They are issued by the Secretary of the Interior and are embodied in the New York State standards and the the City of Buffalo standards for local landmarks. The very first piece of guidance in the entire corpus of preservation law is "identifying, retaining, and preserving character-defining features." The tower is obviously character-defining. The upper part of the tower (and decorative terra cotta ornaments formerly on the front wall of the church) is dismantled, but the historic materials are still on site. There they must remain until they can be used to reassemble the tower. Preservation Board Chair Gwen Howard arrived on site Wednesday morning and was emphatic with representatives of NorthGate, and evangelical organization that was overseeing the work, that plans must be submitted to the Preservation Board before any work could be approved.
On the City side, Commissioner James Comerford, upon being informed of the situation Tuesday night, immediately confirmed that no permits—demolition- or asbestos-related— had been requested or issued, and dispatched an inspector that night. On Wednesday morning shortly after 7:00AM, when notified by Tim Tielman of The Campaign for Greater Buffalo that workmen were on site and preparing to continue the dismantlement, again dispatched an inspector who stopped work upon arrival, and was to issue a written stop work order that day. No work may proceed without Preservation Board review and approval. The Board next meets (remotely) on Thursday October 15.
The process of rebuilding the tower will take time, patience, diligence and more money than it should have. That is time and money well spent to preserve the first building in Black Rock to be awarded city landmark designation. Stopping the destruction was only the first step.
[This article has been updated to correct ownership information]