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Preservation-ready: 169 East Ferry

Joe Cascio

When the three-story commercial/residential building at 169 East Ferry made the Preservation League of New York State’s “Seven to Save” list of endangered properties in 2010, hope rose for this East Side neighborhood icon that, for more than four decades, has been home to Harris Hardware, the city’s first black-owned hardware store. But the building’s decline poses complex challenges for preservation, and saving it would be a monumental feat. Although it is basically sound, it is in desperate need of a new roof and extensive work to address numerous code violations. It’s been in Housing Court since 2008, where it faces possible condemnation.

The building retains an exceptional number of original features and details, including attractive street-level and roofline cornices, decorative brick and ironwork, stone window archways, leaded transom windows, mosaic tile entryways, stacked window bays, and more. The original arrangement of the first-floor commercial windows and doors, along with the layout of the six residential units on the second and third floors, remains intact. Architects and others who have inspected the building note that its shell is strong, but much needs to be done to rectify years of water damage and deferred maintenance. A cost estimate developed in March shows it would likely take about $175,000 to stabilize the building and bring it up to code, and together with exterior and interior renovations, the total cost to make it viable could reach close to $1 million.

“It’s one of the last remaining mixed-use buildings that’s extremely ornate architecturally along the East Ferry corridor from Main Street to the 33,” says David Torke, an East Side activist and blogger who has kept the building on his watch list for years. “The building’s use should be completely explored and ideally it should be redone to capture its original purpose.” He adds that the East Ferry corridor was once “a very vibrant retail and commercial section of the city” but widespread demolition has all but removed the strip’s unique character.

Torke and other preservationists point to the building’s value to its surrounding community as an even greater argument for preservation than its significant architectural importance. The heart of 169 East Ferry is Harris Hardware and its owner, Glenn Banks, a deeply caring and community-minded window expert who opened the store with his first wife in 1961. They had four children at the time, and over the years he operated the store while raising five of his own kids plus other relatives, several of whom he has taught glass and other trades. He and members of his family, including Robin Rollins, who currently helps run the store, stuck it out through decades of neighborhood decline to provide residents with a source for the tools, materials, and knowledge they need to keep up their own homes (even on Sundays, in the early days when all other stores were closed, to serve the schedules of factory workers).

“We tell them how to do things, how to be careful, and what’s safe and what’s not safe,” Banks says, also noting they sometimes work pro bono for elderly neighbors or others in need. After the building went into Housing Court, hundreds of area residents signed their names to a contact list in support of Banks and his business. “It makes me feel that at least I’ve tried to help the community, because there’s no other store around here in walking distance, and I’ve been here all these years. Because everybody doesn’t have cars; everybody can’t go to Home Depot. … I would love for the hardware store to stay here, even to enlarge it, to give the people more of the things [they need], because there’s always going to be houses that need glass and plumbing.” In its nomination package to the Preservation League to get 169 East Ferry on the “Seven to Save” list, local group Preservation Buffalo Niagara noted: “In a way, this building has become a social landmark. The building, the business, and the people together form an important community anchor.”

Now, as the buildings surrounding 169 East Ferry continue to succumb to the wrecking ball—a neighboring structure just came down in March—the challenges facing Banks are great. After he was summoned to Housing Court late in 2008, Banks and his family asked Preservation Buffalo Niagara for assistance. The group joined Banks for his court appearances and submitted a letter to the court on the building’s behalf; these efforts helped convince the court to grant Banks more time and keep the building from going into receivership. PBN also initiated requests for local and state historic designations, as well as rallying individuals with the know-how to help.

But time may now be running out. “This is a tricky one,” says Harvey Garrett, a Preservation Buffalo Niagara co-founder and board member who joined the effort in recent months because of his experience saving buildings on the West Side. “Like most serious preservation issues, it didn’t happen overnight.” He notes that a plan to rehab the building and make it generate enough revenue to be sustainable is essential for it to achieve any sort of public or private investment, or any historic designations—but given the building’s long and steady decline, a realistic and workable plan has so far been elusive for him and others before him. “It’s sort of like a chicken-and-egg thing, where if there were a plan, then there would be some resources available to make the plan more viable; but without any kind of plan, there are no resources, because no one’s going to throw money into it not knowing what’s going to happen.” He’s quick to point out that the state Preservation League must have really seen promise in the building in 2010—no other city has ever had two properties on the “Seven to Save” list in the same year.

At press time, Garrett, the Banks family, and others were working with the recent cost estimates and revenue projections to try to develop a plan to save and restore the building. A general hearing in Housing Court was scheduled for May 17.
“I’m not giving up on the building,” Garrett says. “I think there’s got to be something we can do.”

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