Saved at the Bell: How an Illegal Demolition was Stopped, a Buffalo Landmark Saved, and What Remains to be Done
Out-of-the-way but not out of mind, the greatest piece of architecture in Black Rock was being taken apart. But fate was about to intervene. Shortly after 7:00pm on Tuesday October 6, Campaign for Greater Buffalo Executive Director Tim Tielman was driving by the former St. John the Baptist R.C. Church on Hertel Avenue and East Street in Black Rock, and noticed a rental lift on the lawn next to the church. Tielman stopped to investigate and discovered that the church's emblematic Lombard Romanesque tower, or campanile, along the East Street side of the building, was being demolished. No one knew about it because there were no permits and no permission to do any work, let alone demolition. Click the link for the story as published in Greater Buffalo #29.0.
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Signs on the property proclaimed tenancy by North Gate, a Clarence-based evangelical group; the owners are RiverRock Church LLC and Buffalo Myanmar Indigenous Christian Fellowship. The last Catholic service was held in the church in 2005.
Since then, a succession of entities owned it. The three-tiered campanile (pronounced camp-a-knee-lay), was offset from the nave of church, toward the rear. The campanile of St. John’s played a particularly prominent role in its architectural composition, almost acting as a second front. 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 and last, as it visually supports the entire church by means of lateral bridging which is almost as stout as the tower itself. When Tielman got there, the uppermost lantern and cross of the iconic campanile were gone, and the lower octagon was partially gone. Wood and wire shored the tower, allowing for what appeared to be demolition by hand. A pile of bricks lay at the base of the tower, and a large dumpster contained what appeared to be the rest of the bricks of the demolished tower. A smaller dump-trailer contained interior demolition debris.
Tielman called Buffalo Commissioner of Inspections and Permits James Comerford immediately, looking for a stop-work order. Comerford confirmed that no permits—demolition- or asbestos-related— had been requested or issued, and said he would dispatch an inspector that night.
Demo Work Halted
The next morning, shortly after 7:00AM, Tielman was on-site. Seeing a group of contract workers from Cambar Contracting assembling, Tielman again called Comerford, who dispatched inspector Tracy Krug. Tielman informed the workers that no permit had been issued for the work, 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 would be delivered that afternoon.
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. Tielman also called Preservation Board chair Gwen Howard and shortly met her at the site. She 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.
Who made the decision to demolish?
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 partnering with the owners of record, RiverRock Church. RiverRock Church split the property in two pieces, selling the parish house to an entity known as 60 Hertel LLC. North Gate is expanding into the city with this project. A North Gate staffer on-site revealed, had established a deadline of November 1 for the work. That was 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." The North Gate representative claimed 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. New copper flashing is in evidence as well, but again, without review. A pair of unique glazed terra cotta urns is missing from were the flashing was installed, and has been reportedly destroyed. The Campaign’s goals at Hertel and East were be to immediately stop further deterioration and see that plans for the full restoration of the tower were undertaken. These were accomplished. This will take more money and time than it should have.
Law is clear
The Preservation Board at its October 15 meeting followed the legal directives of New York State and insisted that the tower be rebuilt. North Gate apologized for its neglect in asking for permits and undertaking demolition and modification. It agreed to come back with plans and descriptions of stabilization and reconstruction of the tower. Legal enforcement of proper civic conduct is the burden of the Preservation Board and the Department of Inspections and Permit Services. On the preservation side, the rules for designated historic structures are clear. 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 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 urns formerly capping the portal are dismantled, but the historic materials are still on site. There they must remain until they can be used to reassemble the tower.
A Mea Culpa and Promise to Rebuild
North Gate returned to the Preservation Board on October 30 with plans in hand. The Board approved an initial phase of work, including temporarily removing the top of the tower for stabilization and the construction of a platform on which the rebuilt upper tiers will rest. All materials from the campanile are to be sympathetically dismantled, documented, and stored on the site. In addition, periodic progress reports must be submitted no less than quarterly. The vote to approve was 8-0, contingent on the tower being fully restored. There was one recusal. Anthony James, an architect and Preservation Buffalo Niagara’s representative on the Board, was forced to recuse himself when it was revealed through his Facebook comments that had been asked “to look at” North Gate’s options last summer, had informed Preservation Buffalo Niagara at the time, knew of the owner’s decision to demolish, and was aware of ongoing work. It became known, in addition, that James was a member of North Gate, a fact which he did not divulge to the Preservation Board. James did not inform the Preservation Board of the threat to a landmarked structure, and insisted that St. John’s was not an official landmark. In fact, St. John’s was among the earliest designations, in the first year of its eligibility. 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.
Architects Albert Schallmo and Chester Oakley
The former St John the Baptist Church is one of four masterpieces designed by the firm of Oakley and Schallmo in the 1920's. St. John’s, in a group with Blessed Trinity, St. Luke, and St. Casimir. They display the highest level of craftsmanship in brick architecture in the city. Recent research suggests Albert Schallmo, a German Catholic raised in the Fruit Belt, did the drawings. A talented draftsman and architect, Schallmo is credited with designing the recently demolished Franks House at 184 West Utica Street in Buffalo. That demolition, by companies affiliated with developer Nick Sinatra, was opposed by block clubs and the Preservation Board, which had voted to landmark the house based on the association with Schallmo and the evident craftsmanship. The Franks House was completed in 1907. It is unclear whether Schallmo was moonlighting, but in any case, he was back at the drafting board full-time from 1908 through 1918, working successively for Lansing & Beierl, Williams Lansing, and finally, Lansing, Bley & Lyman.
Lansing & Beierl was one of the top firms in the city in the first decade of the 20th century. In the first three years Schallmo is known to have worked for them (1908-1910), the firm designed over 20 buildings or additions, including 219 Bryant Street for Children’s Hospital and a house for masonry contractor Ballard Crocker at 114 Chapin Parkway, of, naturally, finely detailed brick. Schallmo stayed with Lansing when the latter split with Beierl in 1910. Lansing’s work address is then listed with Bley and Lyman, with some work credited to him alone, and others to Lansing, Bley & Lyman.
In August 1913, the same month parishioner Schallmo was married in Our Lady of Lourdes church, Lansing, Bley & Lyman were designing the Lourdes school. With Lansing, two exceptional houses came off the drafting boards: 68 Penhurst Park and 180 Chapin Parkway, both Arts & Crafts temples of domesticity. In 1913, another draftsman is hired, Chester Oakley. Like Schallmo, he had East Side working class roots, living in the Fruit Belt with his peripatetic parents. Unlike Schallmo, who had five siblings, Oakley was an only child. It seems, from later events, that the two hit it off.
Thriving, Schallmo designed and built his own stuccoed Arts & Crafts cottage in 1915 on the banks of Ellicott Creek in Williamsville, where he grew up. Art glass, terra cotta, and oaken detailing in the Schallmo house are a warm embrace of the Arts & Crafts ethos, and a steppingstone between the Franks house of eight years prior and Blessed Trinity eight years after. By 1916, there was no question the United States was going to join the allies in the Great War. This put a damper on architectural work, and plan filings at Lansing, Bley & Lyman virtually dissappear. In late 1917 the U.S. is at war against Germany, and Schallmo does not appear to be employed in the City of Buffalo.
Sometime in 1918 Schallmo is back at work in Buffalo, as an architect and engineer with Sizer Forge, an essential wartime industry. After the war, back at Lansing, Bley & Lyman, the latter two decide to set up their own firm in 1919. Draftsman Oakley stayed with Lansing, becoming a partner in Lansing & Oakley. A short year later, Lansing dropped dead over dinner at home.
Oakley reached out to Schallmo, busy designing houses in Williamsville for his neighbors and fellow parishioners at SS Peter and Paul R.C. Church (for which he designed a school). Schallmo agreed to a partnership. Oakley & Schallmo set up shop in 1921. The first structure to which Schallmo’s name is attached from this office is the craft-forward rectory of Annunciation Church, completed in 1922. Schallmo was the motive force in the firm, with his connections in the German Catholic East Side paying dividends almost immediately.
Schallmo’s expressive talent in brick architecture, begun at 184 West Utica, honed at the elbows of Williams Lansing and Max Beierl, and reaching maturity at the Annunciation rectory, would come to fullest flower in four ecclesiastical masterpieces over five years.
When Schallmo moved out of the family house in the Fruit Belt upon marriage, the rest of the Schallmo clan joined eldest brother William in a classic shophouse at the corner of Victoria Avenue and Holden Street. It was in the largely German neighborhood that grew up around quarries in the northeast section of the city known as the Yammerthal (“Vale of Tears”). The Buffalo Diocese had just established Blessed Trinity parish, and laid the cornerstone of a its combination church-school-social hall in 1907. The Schallmos were there at the start. When John Schallmo died in 1915, his funeral service was presided over by the founding priest of Blessed Trinity, John Pfluger. In 1916, Pfluger was assigned to another German parish, and Albert Fritton, a Canisius College graduate, took over. Like Pfluger, Fritton was a graduate of the famous Canisianum Jesuitical institute in Innsbruck, Austria. While there, Fritton traveled to neighboring Italy, where he was deeply impressed by the religious architecture of Lombardy.
At the fast-growing Blessed Trinity, Fritton had the opportunity to plan for a new, permanent church, agreed upon by the parish in 1922. When thinking of who might design the structure, Albert Schallmo must have crossed Fritton’s mind immediately. In late 1922 Oakley & Schallmo filed plans. The larger-than-life figure of Thomas Plassman, new president of St. Bonaventure College, chose the hundreds of iconographic castings which adorn the exterior. The polymathic Plassman, yet another German native, would have been known to all involved. Schallmo supervised construction, which started in 1923.
One look at Blessed Trinity’s plans, and other parishes rapidly enlisted Oakley & Schallmo: St. John the Baptist (the first of the four completed, in 1927), St. Casimir, and St. Luke. Each was in an outlying working-class neighborhood. One imagines the two young architects seizing the chance to bequeath people like themselves architectural objects of great beauty generally reserved for downtown. In addition, President Plassman of St. Bonaventure followed up with commissions for a dormitory and oratory at his growing college, with the promise for more work.
The future looked bright, but disaster struck. In January 1928, after St. John’s had opened the previous summer, ground been broken for St. Luke in the fall, and as finishing touches were being applied to Blessed Trinity and St. Casimir, Schallmo died suddenly. He was 43. No cause of death was made public. With the talented Joseph Fronczyk also having just left for his own practice, the firm withered under the reclusive Oakley. The practice lived largely off relationships established by the socially active and hands-on Schallmo.