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Law is Clear: St. John's Tower Must Rise Again

Drawing by Lawrence McIntyre from the book "Designated Landmarks of the Niagara Frontier," shows significance of recently destroyed tower of St. John the Baptist Church to overall composition of building
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Condition of tower, with temporary shoring, after an illegal attempt by owner to remove it was stopped by The Campaign for Greater Buffalo. Owner intent was to leave only bottom tier of tower.


2007 photo shows glazed terra cotta ornament on stone or cast stone plinths on either side of entrance have been removed, and the plinths capped with copper.

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]

Demo work halted at St. John's in Black Rock; other violations come to light.

The tower of the former St. John the Baptist on the morning of Oct. 7, after demolition work had been stopped. Emergency water-shedding measures have been approved by the City. The ornamental ventilator of the historic school is visible through the tower's arch.

The demolition work at the former St. John the Baptist Church in Black Rock has been halted, thanks to the timely intervention of The Campaign for Greater Buffalo. Buffalo Commissioner of Permits and Inspection Services James Comerford dispatched inspector Tracy Krug to the site at 62 Hertel Avenue shortly after 7:00 AM upon receiving a call from Tim Tielman of  The Campaign for Greater Buffalo, who was on-site.  Tielman approached a group of contract workers from Cambar Contracting and informed them that no permit had been issued for the work on the landmark, no review by the Preservation Board had occurred, and that they would be advised to stop work. The foreman refused, pending arrival of City officials and Buffalo Police, but no further demo occurred in the time it took the City inspector to arrive and shut the job down. Comerford confirmed that a written stop-work order will be delivered this afternoon.

A trailer filled with interior demolition debris, some of it friable, and none of it tested for asbestos, sits behind the former St. John the Baptist Church

Shortly before the inspector's arrival, a Cambar supervisor arrived on-site and brandished a letter to Tielman from Siracuse Engineers, which allegedly summarized hazardous conditions in the tower. The decision to demolish without permission, rather than mitigate the hazard in some other fashion pending resolution through proper channels, was apparently made North Gate, an evangelical organization that is is partnering with the owners of record, RiverRock Church. RiverRock Church split the property in two pieces, selling the parish house to 60 Hertel LLC to the Mosaic 659 Foundation. Mark Herskind, a trustee of Mosaic 659, which is registered at the same  address as his residence, is a significant supporter of local evangelical Christian enterprises, including Jericho Road Community Center, which River Road also claims as a "partner." 

North Gate, a Clarence-based evangelical group that is expanding into the city with this project. North Gate is funding a large project there with a deadline of November 1st, an organization staffer on-site revealed. That is driving the pace of the work. When Tielman offered that arbitrary deadlines shouldn't drive improprieties, he was told by the North Gate representative that "It is God's deadline."


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North Gate, a Clarence-based evangelical group, is funding the unpermitted demolition and plumbing work as part of its expansion into Buffalo. It is advertising a Nov. 1 grand opening 

The North Gate representative feigned ignorance of the need for permits. Evidently, in Clarence people are allowed to undertake potential asbestos removal and disposal, demolition of historic structures, and excavation work related to the public water supply without permits.

On top of all this, major masonry repointing has occurred without review. It is unknown if the mortar mix used matches the original specifications of architects Oakley & Schallmo, who are perhaps the greatest masters of brick architecture the city has produced. New copper flashing is in evidence as well, but again, without review, the public has no knowledge of whether this or any other work was properly done.

The goal at Hertel and East must be to immediately stop further deterioration and issue plans for the full restoration of the tower. This will now take more money and time than it would have, but North Gate must commit to it, and commit to following the laws of the City of Buffalo henceforth.

[This post has been updated to correct ownership information.]

Campaign Moves to Stop Illegal Demo at St. John the Baptist in Black Rock

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The East Street elevation of St. John the Baptist shows the tower as it existed last month

An illegal demolition at the former St. John the Baptist church at 60 Hertel Avenue in Buffalo's Black Rock neighborhood has been uncovered. The church is one of four masterpieces designed by the firm of Oakley and Schallmo in the 1920's. St. John, in a group with Blessed Trinity, St. Luke, and St. Casimir, displays the highest level of craftsmanship in brick architecture  in the city. Shortly after 7:00pm on Tuesday October 6, Campaign for Greater Buffalo Executive Director Tim Tielman was driving by on Hertel Avenue and noticed a rental lift on the lawn next to the church. Not recalling any action before the city's Preservation Board, Tielman stopped to investigate and discovered that the church's emblematic Italian Renaissance tower, along the East Street side of the building, was being demolished.

St. John the Baptist was opened in 1927, a masterpiece of brick by Oakley and Schallmo

The tower was designed as a three-stepped structure terminating in an arcaded octagonal lantern with a tiled roof. Atop all was a cross. Below, the tower is supported by a square shaft with a monumental battered base. Architecturally, the tower forms a necessary counter balance to the extravagantly ornamented elevation, which features a heroic rose window over a Spanish Baroque portal. The east wall of the nave is held in place by a range of massive buttresses, of which the tower can be said to be the largest, as it supports the entire church by means of lateral bridging which is almost as stout as the tower itself.

It is this tower which is in a state of demolition. The uppermost lantern and cross are gone, and the lower octagon is partially gone. Wood and wire bracing wraps the tower, allowing for what appears to be demolition by hand. A pile of bricks lies at the base of the tower, and a large dumpster contains what appears to be the rest of the bricks of the demolished tower. A smaller dump-trailer contains interior demolition debris.

The last Catholic service was held in the church in 2005. Since then, a succession of entities owned it. Records show the the current owners are River Rock Church LLC and the Buffalo Myanmar Indigenous Christian Fellowship.

Tielman called Buffalo Commissioner of Inspections and Permits Jim Comerford immediately, looking for a stop-work order. Comerford reported that no permits had been issued for the work, and that he would send an inspector and the police in the morning. The Campaign will be there as well, bright and early.

The partially demolished tower on the night of October 6. The demolition is illegal.
Confirmation of demo, rather than repair: bricks from the tower in a dumpster in back of the church