Recently, a small beaten down building in Buffalo’s Cobblestone District was in the news because City Court granted a demolition order at the request of the owner. The story of this demo permit became the most recent preservation controversy and headline in the Buffalo area. Since the story broke the courts have stayed the demo order pending further investigation. So why all the fuss about this building?
The building, dubbed the Blacksmith Shop after its most recent and long departed tenant is close to 140 years old. Buildings of this age date to near the end of Canal Era Buffalo, a time when railroads were becoming the favored mode of transit. Buildings this old in Buffalo are becoming increasingly rare. This one is a major piece of the so called Cobblestone District. I say “so called” because most of the Cobblestone District is now unfortunately composed of parking. The small collection of historic buildings and newly paved cobbled streets is an official historic preservation district. It has one dense block of remaining historic buildings. Everything else in the area has been removed. The streets were repaved around the time that HSBC Area was constructed. Preservationists at that time lobbied hard to have these buildings retained and eventually convinced the powers that be that the streets should be repaved with cobbles to bring back its original ambiance. The plan was to bring these buildings back to use in the shadow of the arena and save a small piece of the city’s heritage by using the drawing power of the new arena to infuse them with life. With no real plan of action the buildings sat mostly idle and in decline for many years afterward. Recently a few of the buildings in the district have been renovated to great success. Others, including The Blacksmith, continued in decline with no apparent prospects for reuse. The insanity inherent in the proposed Blacksmith demolition will result in the removal of a real Canal Era building while the city struggles to create a fake Canal Era village just a few blocks away. It is crazy – tear down the real and create a fake version nearby. The real thing can’t be brought back so why remove it for no good reason?
“We need a list of historic buildings that are in imminent or near imminent danger.” That is the call after each preservation crisis that arises in Buffalo. The cause of architectural preservation has been in the Buffalo headlines with more and more frequency in recent years. This can be seen as evidence that the increasingly fragile plight of our historic heritage has become a more important issue to a large number of people. However, the interest in historic buildings may not be completely in sync. Some may be in favor of saving a work of human effort that can never be replaced. Opposing interests may be concerned with removing what is considered an eyesore, hazard, or impediment to development. I clearly fall on the side of saving the heritage that makes Buffalo a special place to be. I believe that historic buildings are assets which can add great value beyond the basic commodity of real estate. These buildings are finite in number and can never be brought back once they are gone. The people who made them and many who made lives in them are long dead. The societies that conceived them are what we have built our own society upon. These buildings tell us where we came from and can also provide beautiful environments within which to play out our lives today and into the future. Contrary to a common reprise, historic buildings are not a part of Buffalo’s past. They are part of its present. They exist now and can be a tremendous asset to leverage growth in Buffalo’s future. Once removed, historic buildings DO become part of the past and have no ability to move the city into a more successful future. Their finite nature in itself should make these buildings valuable to society without controversy… but preservation is a complex issue. Saving these buildings for future generations will take money, planning, education, vigilance, luck, and lots of publicity.
Unlike wealthier cities where historic buildings often fall to new structures, Buffalo’s historic buildings are more commonly victims of neglect and often fall only to be replaced with nothing but weeds or asphalt. A majority of the preservation controversies of late have centered on buildings that have partially collapsed due to long term neglect and disuse. Ironically the people who step up in an effort to prevent the complete removal of these buildings in advanced states of decay are often vilified. They are called obstructionists. They are marginalized. The “preservationists” are criticized as inattentive to at-risk buildings and scolded for not doing something sooner. This is all while the derelict owner is given a pass for complete mismanagement of a building. (I call it mismanagement but often demolition by neglect and lack of basic investment IS a management strategy in itself, which can pay rewards for owners, but most often does so at the expense of surrounding property owners, city tax payers and city residents in general now and in the future).
The fact is that the “preservationists” are not doing preservation as a paid full time career in most cases. The “preservationists” are more likely than not concerned citizens who want their city to prosper and who realize the high potential value of irreplaceable historic assets. The best illustration of this was evident a year ago when residents surrounding the collapsing Whites Livery mounted an emergency campaign to save the building. This was after years of complaints to City officials about the ongoing neglect suffered by the building. Still they were vilified for being obstructionists, for not acting sooner, for not stepping up with the money needed to save the building, for not having a list of at-risk buildings in hand. This group was partially successful. Much of the building was lost but they saved a substantial part and it will soon be rebuilt for residential use. Comprehensive vigilance in the cause of saving buildings in Buffalo is a giant undertaking beyond the ability of individuals, neighborhood groups, and poorly funded non profits. It is a cause which needs to be taken up by all. If you are complaining that this or that group did not do enough, then you are complaining about yourself because it will take the awareness and efforts of many, many people to save Buffalo’s incredible wealth of historic buildings.
So with that in mind, what about having a list of buildings in danger that must be saved? Based on Buffalo’s growing portfolio of recent historic building restorations this would not only be a list of buildings that should be saved, it would be a list of buildings that present great opportunity for the city and investors, buildings that we cannot afford to loose. In the spirit of ‘doing’ rather than complaining, myself along with small group of people have been thinking about just such a list. We came together with the mutual understanding that Buffalo’s endangered historic assets DO need to be catalogued and publicized. We are not a new preservation group in association with or in competition with any other group. We are simply people who know the tremendous value these
buildings hold and who do not want to see them lost to history. The task of creating a list is big. Creating a comprehensive list of endangered buildings would be near impossible without a full time staff and could be overwhelming to users and thus ineffectual. We decided to start with a list of 20 to 25 buildings and possibly grow it to near 100 in the future. A list by itself is meaningless. The list is a tool to bring attention to these opportunities which are currently undervalued. With regular attention on these buildings it is our hope that they will be seen and recognized for the assets they are. Soon we will start to roll out our list of buildings. We will shine some light on each building, publicized it the best of our ability and explain our reasoning for why these buildings must not be allowed to disappear. We will need your help in doing this. Stay tuned for more on the list in the coming weeks.
In the meantime check out this group called Young Preservationists Association of Pittsburgh (YPA). YPA bills themselves as “a regional provider of value-added preservation services that encourage the participation of young people in historic preservation. YPA provides events, tours, research, training, technical assistance, and special projects that encourage the next generation to take a leadership role in preserving their communities.” They have been instrumental in saving a high percentage of buildings which they have focused attention on by getting young people involved in their city and helping them get a full appreciation for its built environment and the opportunities it provides.
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