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Lessons from a Sister City: Architectural Preservation

By Todd Mitchell:

May is National Preservation month. What better time then to look around and see what lessons we might take from other cities and regions, lessons in how to improve our own local preservation efforts? Kanazawa, Buffalo’s sister city in Japan, is very active in preserving its architectural heritage.

And it should be. Kanazawa is the best-preserved castle town in Japan. Chosen by one of Japan’s most powerful feudal lords as the seat of power around 1600, Kanazawa thrived for hundreds of years under the ruling family’s enlightened patronage of the arts. During World War II, Kanazawa, along with Kyoto, was spared Allied bombing because of its extraordinary cultural heritage. Today, Kanazawa is thriving again, based a great deal on its cultural and tourism industries.

It should be noted before proceeding any further that Kanazawa is a metropolitan government, and therefore Erie County would probably be the best comparison.

Lesson 1: Kanazawa understands that architectural preservation is vital to its future.

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Tourists come to see its castle, Buddhist temples, and geisha districts. Old buildings house sake breweries and gold leaf workshops. Most importantly, Kanazawa’s architectural heritage is central to its identity, a physical connection between its past and present.

Buffalo’s architectural legacy is an integral part of our quality of life and identity. Preserving and using that legacy is critical to our region’s revitalization. This fact is increasingly recognized by the citizenry and leadership alike, but we still have a ways to go to fully “get it.”

Lesson 2: Kanazawa meticulously maintains the historic properties and sites in its care.

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Most of the structures on the grounds of Kanazawa Castle burned down over the years. Fires were a frequent occurrence in Japanese castles and towns. Kanazawa is gradually rebuilding many of the structures. The first such completed complex is the Hishi Yagura and connected structures, all of which opened in 2001. The complex was faithfully rebuilt according to extant records using not only traditional materials but traditional construction techniques and tools as well.

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Located some distance from downtown Kanazawa near the village of Yuwaku, around half a dozen historic structures from the late 19th and early 20th centuries have been gathered and converted into a center for crafts and culture. A former sake brewery is today a print making studio. People of all ages learn the art of screen printing in a farm house built in 1920. The Kanazawa Yuwaku Sousaku no Mori Center for Crafts and Culture keeps alive both important historical structures and traditional arts and crafts. This center is maintained by the city of Kanazawa.

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Not far from the Mori Center is an open-air museum, the home of three farmhouses and a village headman’s house, all dating from the Edo Period, the last period of feudal rule in Japan. Each structure was carefully dismantled, moved to the museum site, and reconstructed. The plan is to relocate ten structures in all; as of last July, about one a year had been moved, at a cost of about 100 million yen apiece (about $100,000).

Perhaps this is a lesson already learned. Buffalo City Hall is undergoing a multi-year makeover, step-by-step unveiling once again what a stunning gem that building is. Several years ago, the 1811 Williamsville Water Mill was on the market, and there was much concern about the village that some ignonimous fate might befall it. To prevent this, the Village board purchased the mill and is dedicated to restoring the structure and bringing it back as a center of the community. On the other hand, the Town of Amherst is putting the 1820 Mennonite Meeting House, one of the most important historic structures in the town, up for sale. Will the town be sure any successful bidder will be a responsible caretaker of this community treasure? We can only hope. Perhaps instead of just selling off the building, the town should be finding a use that guarantees public access. Perhaps we have not yet fully digested Lesson 2.

Lesson 3: Kanazawa provides grants to restore old houses.

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There are very few houses in Kanazawa that are over 100 years old. Most have been torn down in favor of newer buildings or parking. And the pressure has not eased. Most young people want to build a new house for themselves, and the resulting housing vacancy in the center city is probably Kanazawa’s greatest preservation challenge. A hopeful counter trend is a small number of young families purchasing these old houses because an old house is exactly what they want. To encourage this trend, the city government offers homeowners grants of up to $30,000 to restore historic features such as ceramic tile roofs and wooden screens in front of street windows.

Buffalo has a major vacant housing problem, and not only in the city. When Mayor Brown announced his “5 in 5” plan a few years ago, an attempt to demolish our way out of neighborhood blight, many recall
ed the failed policies of Urban Renewal of the 1960’s and 1970’s, in which whole neighborhoods were bulldozed to create a clean slate upon which shiny new neighborhoods and businesses would grow. The wide-open meadows of what was once the Ellicott District just east of downtown are witness to the emptiness of that promise. Demolition is not a creative process. Fortunately, and much to its credit, the Brown Administration has begun to give greater emphasis to rehabilitation of existing housing stock rather than just knocking it down. Let us hope that an ever greater share of our local, state, and federal dollars are put toward making repairs to old buildings and keeping them part of the community, rather than knocking them down simply because they are “old.”

Lesson 4: Kanazawa runs schools to train workers in traditional preservation crafts.
Even when funding is available for restoration, it can still be difficult to find someone who can do the work. To meet this need, a number of small schools have developed to train workers in the traditional crafts. Schools specialize in a particular craft, carpentry, tatami making, roofing, gardening, and interior plastering.

Might one of our institutions of higher learning, or a combination of schools, take up the challenge? There is certainly no shortage of preservation projects in the greater Buffalo region, for example work on the Richardson-Olmsted Complex, to provide practical experience.

We Buffalonians are understandably proud of our architectural heritage, and our lives are richer because of a vigorous local preservation movement which started over 30 years ago. This is something we share with the citizens of Kanazawa.

While Buffalo has suffered significant losses in its built environment over the years, we have enjoyed many preservation victories as well, from the successful campaign to convert the old Federal post office into a downtown campus for Erie Community College to revitalized neighborhoods and restored houses throughout the city. Buffalo’s movement only grew stronger not two years ago with the formation of Preservation Buffalo Niagara through the merger of the Landmark Society and the Preservation Coalition. Let’s celebrate our wonderful heritage this month and do all we can to preserve our built environment now and into the future.

Written by Buffalo Rising

Buffalo Rising

Sometimes the authors at Buffalo Rising work on collaborative efforts in order to cover various events and stories. These posts can not be attributed to one single author, as it is a combined effort. Often times a formation of a post gets started by one writer and passed along to one or more writers before completion. At times there are author attributions at the end of one of these posts. Other times, “Buffalo Rising” is simply offered up as the creator of the article. In either case, the writing is original to Buffalo Rising.

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