Going on a year ago, as part of the National Trust Preservation Conference, I participated in a tour of several Allentown buildings that were saved from demolition. All of them at one time were in horrid shape due to long term neglectful ownership which had rendered them economically worthless and often dangerous. All of them are gorgeous economically productive buildings today after being restored due to the efforts and finances of preservationists.
Prior to restoration the parking lot / tear-down crowd was frothing at the mouth just thinking about having several of these buildings sent to the dump. This same crowd is often screeching that the "obstructionists" (their term for the many various people and organizations interested in saving Buffalo's irreplaceable historic built environment) should put up or shut up. They said (and continue to say) that preservationists have no right to tell anyone what they should do with private property and that they should buy the "eyesores" and raise the money to restore the buildings themselves. It turns out that this is exactly what many preservationists have done and are doing in Buffalo. The hulking Central Terminal on the east side is the largest current example of this. Rocco Termini could be considered the most successful preservationist in town who puts his money and efforts where his mouth is. Many of the buildings on the tour were saved by hard work, sweat equity, and cash from preservationists. These preservationists can also be thought of as regular people who value the historic built environment of Buffalo and want to save if for current and future generations. Over the next few segments I thought I would highlight a few of these stories of preservationist investment.
One of the more compelling and Herculean stories of preservation by preservationists is also one of its least heralded. The Allendale Theater at 201 Allen Street, also known as the Theater of Youth (for the theater company that is now housed in the massive old theater building) came very close to becoming a parking lot. It was saved by preservationists and thankfully so. The Allendale was built in 1913 and later expanded to host traveling Vaudeville shows including big names such as W.C. Fields. Like other Vaudeville houses it was eventually converted to a movie house. In the 1930's a lighted marquee was added. The marquee fell off the building in the 80's after decades of neglect, ironically uncovering long lost stained glass windows below. Crumbling walls and a leaky roof were in need of urgent investment. After slow decline over many years the building was closed and left unheated. The city took ownership for unpaid taxes and demolition loomed as an imminent possibility.
In step the Preservationists. The Allentown Association, concerned about the building's future, outbid a competitor who wanted the site for parking. Without this organization putting its money forward this site would now be a parking lot. But the fight to save the building did not stop there. The Association also drained its entire budget to put a building-saving new roof on the massive structure. This move was key to giving the Association the time it needed to find a user who could bring new life to the building. The stage was set for the next group of preservationists to take on the task of saving this important building in Buffalo's most historic neighborhood.
Preservationists come in many forms. We know of the activists and the non profit organizations dedicated to preservation but this is only a fraction of the preservationist community. Often preservationists are not professionals spending all of their time saving buildings. Often the reason for saving buildings comes indirectly into their daily lives. For instance, in the case of the Whites Livery, which is being saved as I type, preservationists were just citizens who live next to the building and cherished it as a part of what makes them love their neighborhood. In this same tradition the next phase of the Allendale restoration was made possible by the Theater of Youth (TOY). In 1986 the theater company, looking for a permanent home for its youth based programming, was designated as developer of the Allendale. The cost of the project at that time was projected to be only $800,000. The final cost was $3.5 million over 13 years!
During this time TOY became one of the most dedicated preservationist organizations in Buffalo - this during a time when preservation was still rare locally. The company raised money for their general operations while they also raised money for the building restoration. The more they dug themselves into the massive project the more they knew it was the right decision to make the old building their home. There were hard times that tested their will. There were also times that funders asked for theater parking to ensure their investment would pay off. They asked the Company to buy and tear down surrounding buildings. But TOY refused. Part of the appeal of the Allendale for TOY was its position in a dense historic city neighborhood. The project could not be allowed to undo what they were trying to build up.
Former TOY Executive Director, Colleen Fahey, led the Company through its restoration and fundraising described a grueling process which she says was 100% worth the effort. Having this beautiful old building filling the street and being used by a unique theater company like TOY is a massive victory for Buffalo and a repudiation of those whose first reaction to derelict buildings is "tear them down". If you have ever seen a stream of kids and their youthful energy flowing down Allen Street and into the theater you can't imagine how it was ever logical to suggest a parking lot instead.
The Allendale Theater what a gift to Buffalo!