Q&A: Tom Yots
At a time when most people are ready to retire, Tom Yots has embarked on what by anyone’s count must be his fifth career. The new executive director of Preservation Buffalo Niagara taught high school chemistry for three decades, ran a bed and breakfast, started an architectural consulting firm, and served as city historian for Niagara Falls. In his spare time he studies classical piano. The connecting thread: Yots is the kind of guy who finds jobs doing what he loves. He tackles all with prodigious energy that he attributes to a lucky genetic dice roll, as he comes from a long line of productive and active people. Care to debate any of this? You will run out of steam long before he does. And that is very good news for local preservation efforts, where passion and persistence often prevail.
Chemistry—an interesting subject, but one that seems far afield from what you’re doing these days. Tell us about your teaching life.
I had always wanted to study architecture. I grew up in the Adirondack foothills, in a little town called Mohawk. Our house was 200 years old, the first one to be built after the village had been burned to the ground during the Revolutionary War. It was my parents who steered me toward math and the sciences. I was good in those subjects, and those were the days when we listened to our parents. So I went to Niagara University, where I met my wife—Louise and I have been married 44 years; we have two sons and five grandchildren. I got my bachelor’s and master’s degrees in chemistry, and was offered a job teaching theoretical chemistry at Lewiston-Porter High School. It was a good job, but I never intended to stay. I loved the kids, and made a lot of good friends among the teachers. The school schedule allowed me time to be there for our own children. I ended up teaching for thirty-one years.
How did you get your architecture fix? Teachers are pretty busy in and out of the classroom.
We raised our boys in Niagara Falls, living in three different historic homes. It became a family thing. Our son Jason, a Buffalo attorney, now works for Preservation Studios, which I started, doing historic tax credit work and regulatory pieces. Our son Ben, who works in publishing in New York City, lives in a unique historic home there. At one point, Jason was working in the Guaranty Building here and Ben was working in the Flatiron Building in New York—it was a preservationist’s dream! When they were young, we took family excursions to places like the Darwin Martin House. For years, we were stripping woodwork in our old home.
And then my wife and I got into the bed-and-breakfast business. We bought a house on Park Place, in a historic district in Niagara Falls, and were in that field for seventeen years. Louise really ran the place, and the boys helped out when we needed them. We were only the third owners of the house, which was built in 1913 in the Arts and Crafts style; it even had the original Steuben light fixtures. We rented out five rooms, and had an enormous third-floor living space to ourselves. We sold the place to folks who are still running it as a B-and-B.
Now we live in Buffalo’s Delaware district. Somewhere back there, overlapping teaching and innkeeping, I served as city historian for Niagara Falls. It was a voluntary position, and I am no historian, but I was able to write some two dozen nominations for the city, helping to put historic districts together. Our first big preservation success there was Carolyn’s House, a transitional shelter for homeless women. This became a beacon of light in an impoverished area, and it would not have happened without historic tax credits. Tax credits brought $979,000 to a $5.2 million project. That project made me realize what successful preservation efforts can do for a community.
So the fire was stoked. How did you manage to advance your career in preservation?
My heart was still in architecture. Around the time our boys were finishing college, I learned that UB had an evening program toward a master’s in that discipline. For four years, I took classes at night, and then another couple of years when I’d left teaching. I finally got my master’s degree in architecture in 2002. Then I had to find work. At my age—I was older than most of my professors—I wasn’t interested in low-level starting jobs. I took the advice of my mentor, local architect Bonnie Foit-Albert, who advised me to find my own niche, and create something no one else was doing.
I opened a consulting firm, Preservation Studios, to advise and help people get historic designations. My son, Jason, was working on affordable housing and urban preservation issues, so I often called on him for advice, and in 2008, he proposed joining the firm. What a delight—to work with my child! In March of this year, I was hired by Preservation Buffalo Niagara; I was one of their founding board members. Jason is still with the consulting firm.
Sounds idyllic, like everything has come full circle for you.
It’s not unreal or idealistic to respect the past and make it part of your life now. There is no reason not to, if we can adapt to our current needs. I am still a teacher—that’s how I look at it. On my desk is a sign that reads “So many to educate; so little time.” I am often referred to as an obstacle to progress, [but] that is why education is so important. We have not done a good enough job of educating people about what preservation can do for economic development. The current controversy over possible demolition of Trico’s No. 1 plant on Goodell Street is a case in point. We are advocating for a historic preservation adaptive reuse study, to help the owner decide whether it would be feasible to do a historic preservation rehab of that building. The owner can then explain his decision, whatever it may be, to the community. The study allows [owners] to make informed decisions. There is a historic connection here—the building, most of it constructed around 1920, is on the national registry. It’s a Buffalo icon, a factory where an innovative product was made.
How do you maintain your enthusiasm in the face of many frustrations?
I am a lucky guy—my job is my personal passion. My goal is to take the momentum from the 2011 National Trust for Historic Preservation Conference, which was overwhelmingly positive, and which was brought here by Preservation Buffalo Niagara, and harness all that energy. I like to say we in Buffalo were rich at the right time, at the turn of the twentieth century, when we had famous architects building here, and poor at the right time, in mid-late twentieth century, when other cities were tearing down the past and putting up new structures. We still have those great buildings, and, even more significantly, intact neighborhoods. We can do this, one project at a time, while working to change perceptions.
My brother says I am pathologically optimistic. I guess I am. I believe we can get the story out there. Having buildings like the Guaranty is one thing. Saving neighborhoods is another, and it is so important.
What do you do to take your mind off the latest rehab fight?
I study classical piano. I bought a 1913 Chickering grand piano, and it’s so pretty that my wife doesn’t mind having this huge piece of furniture in the house. I’ve been studying with my teacher Randy Andropolis for five years. I practice every night, because he will know if I don’t. My proudest moment was when I finally learned to play “Clair de Lune,” after two years of practice. It is a great distraction to play piano, because you have to concentrate on what you’re doing. I also love to walk. My cocker spaniel Ollie and I walk every morning for forty-five minutes through beautiful urban neighborhoods before I go to work. My wife doesn’t like to come with me because I point out all the work people do on their homes—good and bad.
Anything people would be surprised to learn about you?
That I’m Italian? My mother was Sicilian; my father Calabrese. Our name was Iozzo—pronounced properly in Italian, it must have sounded like Yots to immigration officials.
Writer Maria Scrivani is a native of Buffalo with an interest in local history and people who make a difference.