Preservation / It’s demolition déjà vu all over again
The Bachelor at Tupper and Franklin; PBN director Jessie Fisher
Fisher photo by kc kratt; all others by Nancy J. Parisi
The newest executive director of Preservation Buffalo Niagara says she wants to do her job forever. She’ll need that enthusiasm. After a brief halcyon period, with local preservationists celebrating historic reuses of threatened buildings—think Hotel Lafayette, 500 Seneca, and Graystone—instead of mourning losses, threats of demolitions now loom over Buffalo’s most iconic neighborhood: the Elmwood Village. At risk also are an historic industrial complex on the East Side and a building rather whimsically dubbed “The Bachelor.”
Jessie Fisher is no novice when it comes to preservation battles. In the early 2000s, she was on the front lines of the efforts to save the 100 block of Genesee Street, and she led the team that rehabbed Asbury Church/Babeville, one of the first structures in Buffalo to benefit from historic tax credits. With a resume that includes stints with respected architectural firm Flynn Battaglia and the environmental nonprofit Buffalo Niagara Riverkeeper, Fisher brings an appropriate skill set to Preservation Buffalo Niagara (PBN). And she isn’t interested in turning preservation into a matter of combat unless it is absolutely necessary.
“I’m looking for the ‘third way’ in preservation and I’m not sure we’re there yet,” Fisher says. “Ideally, every building and every project should be thought of individually. PBN should be a resource for the community. If that means that we have to get an attorney or do a grassroots activism campaign, I’m happy to do that, but I also don’t want to go in thinking that developers are villains. Most of the developers who work in Buffalo are our neighbors; they are active in the community and they’re good people.
“We just need the mindset to be: if you acquire property in the city of Buffalo and there’s a building on it, your kneejerk reaction should be, ‘How do we incorporate this building into our plan?’ If that isn’t in a developer’s plan, PBN should work with them to determine what the resources are and how to make it possible to preserve that building. I really want to be in the win-win business.”
But if buildings aren’t at least mothballed, if not immediately rehabbed and reused, there aren’t any wins. As of press time, victory over two demolitions—and possibly more—was far from guaranteed.
No one passing by this elegant brick structure at Tupper and Franklin would imagine that it’s in any danger of being pulled down. It’s fully occupied and shows no signs of dilapidation. (In fact, some of the online comments advocating its preservation are coming from current residents who love their apartments.) Green & Wicks built this apartment building on 329 Franklin in 1886; it is the oldest structure by the firm in the downtown area. The Bachelor was designed to be an apartment house for men and was one of the first such structures built in Buffalo. It is also a rare example of a Queen Anne-style apartment building, with its sturdy square structure, arched upper floor windows (the lower storefronts were partially bricked in and partially replaced by large contemporary windows), and projecting molded cornice. Perhaps the most interesting element is the notched corner facing the intersection.
The Bachelor is endangered because Ellicott Development would like to use the land its on as part of a large hotel/office/residential project the company is planning for Pearl Street, to the east. Although the ornate former Christian Center at 512 Pearl will be saved and incorporated into the development, Ellicott would replace The Bachelor with a parking ramp that would serve its new tenants. Theater fans are pleased that Road Less Traveled Productions, which just relocated to 512 Pearl, will remain in the new complex, but preservationists are unhappy about the possible loss of The Bachelor and question the necessity of demolition. PBN’s Fisher, as is her wont, is optimistic: “I think Ellicott is a good firm that has done plenty of good development in the city of Buffalo, and a lot of the Pearl Street project is really good; they are infilling on a big surface parking lot, and we do need more density downtown. I’d like to talk to them about incorporating that building into their plans.”
Francis Kowski wrote to the Buffalo News advocating for preservation, saying, in part: “In addition to its historic and architectural significance, The Bachelor Apartments is an important remnant of the historic streetscape at a major downtown intersection. Unfortunately, two corners at the juncture of Tupper and Franklin Streets have already lost buildings to surface parking lots. It would be tragic irony for Buffalo that is just now beginning to appreciate the economic and aesthetic value of its historic building stock and the potential of those buildings to revitalize the urban core to witness the demolition of a worthy landmark structure. It would be especially tragic and shortsighted to see a well-maintained building that is still in use be replaced by a deadening parking ramp.”As of press time, the Preservation Board had denied Ellicott’s demolition request for The Bachelor and granted it landmark status, but the Common Council could reverse both these actions. On January 31, Ellicott Development was quoted in the Buffalo News as follows: “If we can’t demo the building, we can’t do the project.”
Historic East Side industrial buildings at risk
As with The Bachelor, there is no urgent need for the Crosby Company at 173 Pratt Street to demolish several of its structures; the buildings are simply long vacant and no longer needed by the firm, which has been in business since 1896, first making bicycle frames, then automobile parts, and now, a diverse range of products, including bathroom scales. And, although nobody is particularly blaming Crosby for viewing demolition as a feasible option, local preservationists see the historic brick buildings—distinguished by irregular brick façade, spacious, airy, interior footprints, and large, multipaned windows—as ideal for reuse by small start-ups, commercial kitchen facilities, markets, or even residential when the market catches up. The buildings are not unlike many other nineteenth century industrial buildings that have been successfully redeveloped throughout the city (including Spree’s current offices). As Jessie Fisher, who has been in meetings with co-owner Jason Crosby, notes, “They’re good people and they want to do the right thing. One option would be to repurpose their demolition budget into a mothballing budget. The residential market is not quite there yet, but if you tear the buildings down, they’re just gone and you’ve lost a resource forever. We encourage any owner to mothball a building. We also need low-cost start-up spaces for small companies. The light in the buildings is beautiful and they’re really interesting spaces.”
At press time, the entire Crosby complex had been landmarked by the preservation board as part of the Pratt Street Industrial District.
Rumors flying on Elmwood—how many buildings and what will replace them?
There have been no demolition requests yet for several structures on Elmwood between Potomac and Bidwell, but many observers believe that it’s just a matter of time. From Hero Burgers at Bidwell to the corner building that once housed Gelateria Luca at Potomac—and maybe around the corner to the former Sunday Skate Shop—at least six structures are said to be in play. Further north, J. P. Bullfeathers and three houses north of it are also mentioned as candidates for demo. As with The Bachelor, none of these structures are in housing court or rundown in any serious way. Some might be in better shape than others, but they are all occupied or occupied until very recently. As has been reported in the Buffalo News and elsewhere, Ciminelli Real Estate is looking to build two large mixed use complexes on Elmwood; the buildings will be at least five stories tall (two stories higher than any of the current structures here), but the facades of existing structures may be incorporated into the new buildings. However, according to Anne Duggan, Ciminelli’s director of marketing and PR, it is far too early to pinpoint what, exactly is being planned. “We’re talking to homeowner groups to get their ideas,” she says. “That’s how our projects take shape.”
It’s not only longtime preservationists who are disturbed by the prospect of multiple demolitions on Elmwood Avenue. The Elmwood Village has long been treasured as Buffalo’s most charming neighborhood, where nineteenth century houses alternate with brick storefronts and construction footprints are usually on the small side. Residents and visitors seem to like it that way, and nobody seems thrilled at the prospect of large-scale residential/retail complexes replacing historic structures and consuming entire blocks of real estate. Jessie Fisher wonders why demolition has to be involved at all: “Is there a need in the city right now to take down character-defining buildings in a very densely populated, successful neighborhood? I would rather see projects like these go in as infill projects on vacant lots. Demolition just doesn’t seem necessary.”
It is very important to note that no demolitions have been requested and no concrete plans have been put before the public, but enough has been substantiated for community leaders and preservationists to start figuring out how they can oppose demolitions in a district that is not protected, and there is talk of landmarking certain buildings that may have the history to merit it. In fact, three of the most distinctive buildings here are by well-known architects. John H. Coxhead, who also built the Delaware Avenue Baptist Church and the J.N. Adams complex, built 976 and 982 Elmwood (c. 1907), with their handsome brick facades, while Ulysses G. Orr designed the building at the southwest corner of Elmwood/Potomac in 1903. Its intricate and beautiful cornice work is original; an almost identical building behind it on Potomac is also by Orr.
One aspect of this situation that can’t be ignored is that, at least in the cases of The Bachelor and the Elmwood properties, undesirable things may be happening for desirable reasons. People want to live in the city, and downtown is coming back. More hotel rooms and apartments (the preferred residential choice of millennials, who hesitate to own) are needed. But many feel that if the past ten years of tentative growth in Buffalo have demonstrated anything, it is that development and preservation should be in partnership, not opposition.
Elizabeth Licata is editor of Spree. She thanks architectural historian Martin Wachadlo for his help in researching these properties.