By Jason Wilson, Director of Operations at Preservation Buffalo Niagara:
Body - "It has been said that, at its best, preservation engages the past in a conversation with the present over a mutual concern for the future." I would have to argue that this quote by William J. Murtagh, the first Keeper of the National Register of Historic Places, perfectly summarizes the recent debate regarding the future of the locally-landmarked Erie Freight House. Mr. Murtagh's comment touches on the importance of having an informed, public discussion about our community's history and the structures that embody that history, while preparing ourselves for future growth and reinvention as a region. And this discussion is surely most provoked in Western New York when a 'Preservation Issue' is being debated. Enter: the Erie Freight House.
After years of neglect and poor maintenance the circa 1868 Erie Freight House, which is the only extant freight warehouse building associated with the Erie Canal left standing in the City of Buffalo, is being slated for demolition. The current owner who recently purchased the property is proposing to replace this ignored landmark with a five-story apartment building. And so we find ourselves at another crossroads of the past, present and future. So what happens next? How do we evaluate the feasibility of saving this neglected landmark while taking into consideration its historical importance? Who facilitates this conversation? Or do we just let yet another neglected historic structure be demolished on a Friday afternoon without saying much more than a 'good riddance?' Enter: Preservation Buffalo Niagara (PBN).
In its role as the region's leading not-for-profit Historic
Preservation advocate, Preservation Buffalo Niagara is tasked by its funders
and membership to ensure that, at the very least, a conversation takes places
regarding the historical justification for saving a particular structure as
well as the feasibility of its reuse. Our work is at times very public asking
the larger questions of why something was lost or who was responsible, as is
the case with the recent demolition of the Bernstone's Cigar Store at 273 Main Street, Buffalo
The majority of our work is done outside of the view of the public pursuing a
variety of efforts; whether it's working with small community groups like the
folks at the Michigan Street Baptist Church in Buffalo to find ways to
stabilize their history structure, or operating 'Buffalo Tours
' - the largest
educational tour operation in the region, or conducting the most comprehensive
inventory survey of houses of worship in the Cities of Niagara Falls and
In the case of the Erie Freight House, Preservation Buffalo
Niagara would like to guarantee that all of the interested parties, the
community as well as the owners, have an informed opportunity to weight the
pros and cons of preservation. This discussion started with the Buffalo Common
Council's approval of PBN's local landmark application for the Erie Freight
House, which provided two public hearings for citizens to voice their opinions.
As part of that process the Erie Freight House was determined eligible for the National Register
allowing a redevelopment effort of the structure to be eligible for Historic
Tax Credits. A few weeks ago PBN participated in a walkthrough of the site with
the current owners and a member of the Preservation Board to assess the structure's
condition. As a result of our visit to the site, PBN wrote a letter to Commissioner Comerford
Department of Permit and Inspection Services, asking that his office investigate
owners' claims that the Erie Freight House is too deteriorated to be
rehabilitated. PBN's Executive Director Tom Yots recently met with the owners
to ensure that the process regarding the demolition of a locally designated historic
landmark would be followed and to discuss possible reuse options. Tom also
offered and subsequently arranged for officials from the New York State
Historic Preservation Office to tour the Erie Freight House in November in
order to provide an even more thorough analysis of the potential for reuse.
This recent Buffalo News' article
provides some hope that everyone will be given a chance to be heard on the
issue. Commissioner Comerford is quoted saying that his office will "not [be]
issuing a demolition permit until they go through the process; I can tell you
that right now." The process that Comerford is referring to will include a
public hearing hosted by the Preservation Board, which is a key piece of the
extra level of protection provided to designated Local Historic Landmarks.
Ultimately, this public hearing as well as a thorough investigation of the
feasibility of reusing the historic Erie Freight House is what Preservation
Buffalo Niagara is requesting. If it is determined that the structure can not
be saved, then at least there was a conversation about what we've lost. And if
it's determined that the historic landmark can be saved and rehabilitated, then
it should be.
So why should we save our historic structures? The Buffalo
Niagara region is proud of the heritage that built the cities and communities
in which we live and work and has become our identity at the local, state and
national level. An important piece of
this identity is the context of the region's downtowns and neighborhoods. This is rooted in the preservation and reuse
of our ancestor's buildings in conjunction with the introduction of new
buildings that complement the existing fabric. In order to maintain our unique
built environment, we as a community need to give serious consideration to all
alternatives regarding the reuse of our irreplaceable historic structures
before demolition is even considered.
This is a discussion worth having.