Q: Can these buildings be saved?
A: "Yes. No. Maybe."

By Elizabeth Licata
Photography by Jim Bush.

Buildings
591 Delaware, after surviving five
Buffalo winters without a roof.
A preservation tragedy was averted on December 10, 2001, when a classic colonnaded mansion at 591 Delaware Avenue, a fixture on the avenue’s row of historic buildings, was saved—just in time—from the wrecking ball. Empty and roofless for over five years, the building was finally seized by the city for non-payment of taxes and an auction was held. Two brothers, Matt and Chris Moscati of TRM Architects, were the successful bidders. They plan to have the building in move-in condition by fall, 2002, or as close to that goal as they can get.

Even as local preservationists were rejoicing over the miraculous deliverance of 591 Delaware, however, another preservation nightmare had already started brewing further northeast at 1313 Main Street. Here, located on an entire campus of historic architecture, the 1860 Squier Mansion, Buffalo’s last surviving Main Street Italianate mansion, is being threatened with demolition. By the time this article is published, the Squier may be gone—the demolition order has already been issued. The order makes no distinction between the Squier and the other buildings on the property—thus the entire campus is threatened. The only thing stopping it is a restraining order obtained by the Preservation Coalition on December 21, which halts the demolition until higher courts decide to rescind the original order, or a compromise is reached.

It’s the old Buffalo story. One step forward, one step back.

Even as local preservationists were rejoicing over the miraculous deliverance of 591 Delaware, however, another preservation nightmare had already started brewing further northeast at 1313 Main Street.

A frustrating five year struggle
The Shakespearean overtones to the near-tragedy of 591 Delaware are appropriate to the classical proportions of the structure. It was completed in 1899 by architects Esenwein and Johnson, who also built the Calumet Building, the General Electric Tower/Niagara Mohawk Building and many of the Pan-Am’s most distinctive structures (including the Temple of Music). The original owner of the mansion was Clarence L. Bryant, the co-founder of Bryant and Stratton Business College.

Like many a classic tragedy, the decline of 591 started with a lover’s quarrel. In February, 1996, one of the tenants of this building, enraged over a break-up, set fire to the building. It destroyed the entire interior structure and the roof. Where a dentist’s office and ten apartments had been was now a rubble-filled shell.

The owner of the building, Buffalo dentist Charles Battista, while expressing confidence that the building could be saved, chose not to use the $280,000 he received in insurance money (Buffalo News, 10/5/99) to make any effort to secure the building. A temporary roof would have stopped five years of Buffalo winters from further undermining the structure, but this was never done under Battista’s ownership, or under the ownership of the Witness Cathedral Church, which bought the building from Battista in September, 1999.

Buildings
591 Delaware, after surviving five
Buffalo winters without a roof.
From 1996 to 1999, there were a few parties interested in buying the building—including TRM Architects, who seriously considered buying the building in 1997. Eventually, they ended up buying a more modest structure further down Delaware, that didn’t require quite as much renovation. There is some question as to whether the asking price of the property—which was at one time over $100,000— took into consideration the enormous amount of work any prospective buyer would have to put into the structure after buying it.

Years of citations
In the meantime, a series of city inspections cited the building for various hazardous conditions. It is actually illegal to own a building that has problems like a missing roof, falling eaves, missing gutters, a loose front porch ceiling, boarded and broken windows, and is filled with debris—illegal, that is, unless you’re doing something about it. These are considered hazardous conditions. (The next time you see a building with any of these conditions in your neighborhood, you might want to keep that fact in mind and talk to someone about it.)

The city citations, followed by court summons’ and fees, went on for three years, until the building was sold. They did not succeed in getting a temporary roof put on the building, or any other substantial improvement made to the structure. The fact is, this process is so slow and laborious—inspection, citation, court summons, court date, court-ordered repair, fine if repair is not made—that it can go on for years, especially if the owner in question is frequently out of town, as this owner was.

Even if the city had been able to take over the building, it’s entirely possible there would now be a vacant lot in its place, instead of a damaged structure soon to be repaired. As reported in a previous Spree article (Anna Hausmann, 3/00) the city does not have a budget to make court-ordered repairs. They do have a 3.5 million dollar budget (or did, prior to this year) to demolish buildings—and that’s probably what they would have done. In fact, as early as 1996, a letter from a city inspector urged that the city declare the building for emergency demolition.

It’s interesting that the city inspectors were so quick to give up on the structure, particularly since a 1999 letter to then City Court judge Timothy Franczyk from Siracuse Engineers, a firm that had worked on restoring the Roycroft Inn, the Market Arcade, and the Olympic Towers, concluded that even after three years of exposure, the building had no structural defects that would prevent it from being successfully restored.

In the end, the owners probably did us all a favor—assuming that they could not fix or sell the building—by dragging out the process as they did. In official hands, the building probably would have come down.

Ironically, Charles Battista was one of the leading voices in defense of preservation in the days before Buffalo had a Preservation Board as part of its governmental structure. He was part of a group that in the early 1970s vigorously protested the demolition of three stately mansions further north on Delaware, between Summer and Bryant—the Cabana (824), Matthews (830-832), and Lockwood (844) estates, as they are known to historians. All three of these were to be torn down so that IBM could build a new Buffalo headquarters on the site. Thanks to these efforts and other factors, those demolitions never happened.

Buildings
591 Delaware, after surviving five
Buffalo winters without a roof.
Another owner—
and more citations

The 591 Delaware building was transferred to a new owner in 1999. The Witness Cathedral of Faith Church, represented by Reverend Ronald Kirk, took over the building with a mortgage held by the previous owner. Because of all the housing violations on the building, the transfer had to take place in court.

“I was in the court when this happened,” recalls Tim Tielman, the Director of the Preservation Coalition, “and I was absolutely appalled.” Witness Cathedral planned to convert the building to a music school, and had some ambitious architectural drawings to support their intentions. Unfortunately, there was little else in the way of actual resources. Kirk claimed he could get the roof replaced for $5,000 when every professional estimate indicated this would cost at least $40,000. “It was a perfect setup for further deterioration,” Tielman says.

And, indeed, there were no improvements to 591 under the Witness Cathedral ownership, only another dreary series of citations and court dates. Fortunately for the building, the process came to a conclusion much more swiftly than it would have with an owner who could tread water by paying fines and taxes. Witness did neither. In late 2001, the city foreclosed for non-payment of taxes and an auction was quickly put together, allowing the Moscatis to purchase the building for $33,000.

“It’s really about doing the right thing for the city.”
The Moscatis plan to renovate the building to be, once again, a combined office and residential space. They will live on the second and third floors, while the first floor will be offered as office space. They plan a contemporary design for office tenants, but will recreate the front rooms in a period style. When I asked Chris Moscati why they were taking on such a formidable project, he said, with a straight face, “we’ve been looking for a place to call home for a while.” When I then wondered why the many buildings in Buffalo already possessing roofs hadn’t attracted the brothers, he put in words what we both already knew: “it’s really about long-term investment. It’s really about doing the right thing for the city.”

The Moscati’s aren’t just saving the building for posterity. They also plan to make it Buffalo’s first “green” building, using systems and materials that will conserve energy and cause less environmental damage. “It’s a fun project actually, says Matt Moscati. “It’s supposed to be the first USGBC lead-certified project in Western New York. We’ll recycle and use environmental friendly mechanicals and electrical systems designed for low energy costs. There’s a whole checklist.”

Another preservation emergency
By the time 591 Delaware had passed into the hands of the Moscati brothers, Preservation Coalition head Tim Tielman had a new headache. At 1313 Main St., one of the buildings in an entire campus of historic buildings which had sat vacant for years was being threatened with demolition by a new owner. Referred to for years as the St. Vincent’s Orphanage site—though it had ceased to be an orphanage in 1952—this campus consists of three historically and architecturally significant buildings (a fourth, the G. Barrett Rich Mansion had been sold in 1984 and is in use as the Little Portion Priory).

Buildings
The Squier Building was intact from 1860 to 1993.
The hole shown here was inflicted last December
by a demolition contractor.
• The Robinson-Squier Mansion: Built in 1860-63, this building is significant as the last surviving example of the numerous Italianate mansions which were built along Main Street during the 1850s and 1860s. It was built by Alanson Robinson, a prominent Buffalo banker and a founding trustee of Westminster Presbyterian Church. In 1864, Robinson sold the property to George L. Squier, a manufacturer of agricultural machinery who specialized in sugar, coffee, and rice equipment for Caribbean plantations. Squier moved to the Town of Evans in 1885, donating the house and ground to the St. Vincent’s Female Asylum of Broadway, run by the Sisters of Charity. They added a large addition at the back in 1886.

A beautiful building, the mansion features a wide array of architectural elements, including cast iron lintels and window arches, ornamented by scrolls of acanthus vines and rosettes. Besides the richly ornamented windows, there is also an elaborately decorated verandah of three bays supported by cast iron Corinthian columns.

• The Green and Wicks Orphanage: At the back of the Main Street property, on Ellicott Street, this was built in 1898-99—when the old orphanage had outgrown the addition to the Squier mansion—by leading Buffalo architectural firm Edward B. Green and William Sydney Wicks. The windows of this building are a glossary of gothic, renaissance, and neo-classic details.

• The George J. Dietel gymnasium: Built in 1935 by the architect of Buffalo City Hall, this is an unusual Art Deco style building, because its exterior ornamentation complements the Italian Gothic forms of the Green and Wicks structure on Ellicott Street.

All of these buildings are designated Buffalo landmarks as of 1989. That doesn’t mean they can’t be torn down, but the status does require that any demolition has to be reviewed by the City’s Preservation Board. There is a possibility that the Squier Building at least could receive New York State Historic Landmark status.

Fallen on sad times
At the turn of the century and for at least forty years afterwards, St. Vincent’s was a thriving institution—it not only housed orphaned girls but educated them and provided them with technical training so that they could become self-supporting. Back then, this was considered an innovative concept. Their dressmaking school often provided ballgowns and trousseaux for Buffalo’s wealthiest women.

In 1948, after housing and training 10,000 young women, the orphanage moved to new quarters on Bryant Street.

Eventually, the property passed into the hands of Erie County Community College and was used as a city campus from 1971 through 1981, at which time the college moved downtown to the recently renovated Old Post Office. In 1983, the buildings were purchased by Cardiologist Kenneth Gayles, who planned to turn them into a medical facility. At this time, having been recently vacated by ECC, all the buildings were totally occupiable.

Close to a subway station, these buildings were strategically placed—if this section of Main Street ever came back to life as a medical corridor or business district—but that didn’t happen. The three buildings at 1313 remained empty. In 1993, the Squier building suffered the first substantial structural damage since it was built, when a 1993 fire caused a hole in the roof of its 1886 rear addition. The damage was never repaired—there was a problem with the insurance—but this did become a building code violation, causing the City of Buffalo to pay some attention to what was going on with the building. The roof of the back addition has continued to deteriorate causing further damage to the interior of the structure.

A quick sale and an even quicker demolition attempt
Last December, in order to rid himself of the campus, now a considerable liability because of the code violations, Gayles sold the buildings to auctioneer Cash Cunningham, who had a business in the Packard Building across the street at Riley and Main. At this stage, there was a flurry of activity—most of it detrimental to the structural survival of the Squier Mansion.

Tim Tielman details the following chain of events in late December, 2001 (all of this information can be found on the Coalition’s website, www.preservationcoalition.org):

• Wednesday, December 19, 2001

Judge Diane Devlin issued an emergency demolition order for 1313 Main St., the campus of the former Saint Vincent’s Female Orphan Asylum. The Preservation Coalition feels that this improperly occurred because the matter was not put before the City of Buffalo Preservation Board for its consideration, as required by law.

• Friday, December 21, 2001

A demolition contractor hired by the owner inflicted damage on three of the buildings on the campus: the 1886 Orphanage (added to the Squier), the c. 1886 “Connector” building (which joins the 1886 addition to the Squier), and the 1863 Squier Mansion. The City had not yet issued a demolition permit, though the order had been issued. Even when an order has been issued, a permit is also necessary (for asbestos checking and other reasons).

According to new owner Cash Cunningham, however, it was necessary to break into the second story to investigate for asbestos, as there is currently no staircase from the first to second floors. Cunningham also contends that the addition, Connector, and Squier are for practical purposes the same building.

• Friday, December 21, 2001

The Preservation Coalition went to court to obtain a restraining order. At 4:50 p.m. the Coalition served the demolition company employee then on site with the TRO (temporary restraining order). The Preservation Coalition believes that further demolition may have taken place after the TRO.

• January 7, in Buffalo City Hall:

A court hearing—the next legal phase—on an appeal to the demolition order had been scheduled for County Court, but at the last minute, a meeting was arranged between the Coalition’s and Cunningham’s lawyers at City Hall. A possible settlement offer from the owner was discussed, but nothing was finally decided.

Cunningham—who stresses “I think where a building can be saved it should saved”—says he was willing “to give them the building as is. I’m also willing to take the back part off, but they have to market [the Squier] and sell it within a year—or not oppose the demolition.”

The Coalition’s stance is that the parcel would have to include enough land around it to make it viable, and even then, they’re not sure their ownership of the endangered building is the answer.

The Squier Mansion has been inspected by engineers and architects, who have recommended that the 1886 addition at the rear and the “Connector” linking it to Squier be demolished, but that the original Squier Mansion is still well worth preserving.

Buildings
The Squier Building was intact from 1860 to 1993.
The hole shown here was inflicted last December
by a demolition contractor.
Saving Squier-but for what and for how long?
The City’s Preservation Board met on the matter of 1313 Main on Jan. 10 and 24, and sent a letter to Judge Sheila DiTullio, who is the County Court judge presiding over the case.

Their letter advised DiTullio that, although the 1886 addition and “Connector” can be demolished, the Squier Mansion should be saved; that the Mansion should be protected from the demolitions of the other structures; that the foundation of the Connector be saved to the water table; that the other buildings on the site should be listed separately; that the recent damage to the Squier be repaired; and that the site should be monitored with surveillance cameras to prevent architectural looting.

There is a possibility that Cunningham’s company will develop the Green and Wicks and Dietel buildings, but, at this writing, nothing about the fate of these three historic properties has been decided for certain.

The Moscati’s aren’t just saving the building for posterity. They also plant to make it Buffalo’s first “green” building.

Waiting for synergy
During a long discussion with Tim Tielman, as we both waded through the quagmire of what has happened with both 591 Delaware and 1313 Main, we agreed that communication and public awareness are the keys to making sure Western New York’s historic structural fabric is preserved and maintained.

“This stuff has to be brought before the citizens,” Tielman says. “We can’t trust the City inspections department to act as a concerned citizen. What we’d like is any inspection report on a historic project to be forwarded to the Preservation Board, so they have advance knowledge of when properties become at-risk. Enforcement of the law has become too complaint-driven. What if someone’s not complaining loud enough?”

Tielman is hesitant to put all the blame on negligent owners. “People are eccentric,” he adds. “Their relationships with their properties are like human relationships.”

He points out that at any given time, five to ten percent of the units in any city are going to be vacant—Buffalo is now averaging twenty percent, which is bad. But he adds the caveat that maybe it’s better for a building to remain quietly empty until the right owner comes along—as long as it is secured against nature’s vicissitudes. The Victor Hugo building at Delaware and Edward, for example, sat vacant for twenty years with plenty of housing violations, before it was resplendently transformed into the Mansion at Delaware.

“There is a lack of patience with natural development,” Tielman concludes. “People purchase with the best of intentions, but the synergy has to be there.”

Elizabeth Licata is editor of Buffalo Spree.


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