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Secrets of Buffalo: Under Shea’s

At the bottom of a stair, just off the ornate main lobby of Shea’s Buffalo Theater a carved door lets you into a hallway space so opposite in appearance from the elaborate picture palace above it is hard to believe that you are in the same building. Traversing the low dark pipe-lined hall, unceremoniously lit with bare fluorescent bulbs, you periodically pass oddities such as a gilded throne.  After a short distance the hall ends at a small basement room lined with full-height shelves, boxes and, files crammed with the sorts of things that seem to be the leftover fragments of an extravagant dream.  
This room (lead image) in the basement is the heart of the Shea’s Buffalo restoration program.  Restorations and upgrades over the past 30 years have helped taken Shea’s from the brink of demolition to the envy of the regional touring theater market that it is now.  Doris Collins, Shea’s restoration consultant, runs an operation from this hidden hovel, which aims to restore the full glory of the magnificent palace of entertainment one piece at a time.  Unlike many building restorations which follow a finite schedule, Shea’s has been and continues to be an ongoing project to bring back the theater’s full grandeur.  
Ms. Collins is an amazing person, chock full of the knowledge about the Shea’s building, the city, and restoration techniques.  She tells stories of restoration that would read like a novel if written down.  She described the decision to use fiberglass to rebuild the long missing Main Street cornice.  She noted that the original cornice was taken off only a few years after the theater opened due to structural problems imposed by the massive weight of the giant masonry edifice. When planning for a replacement cornice began, the theater considered having a local company, Boston Valley Terracotta, remake the cornice in its original masonry form.  But after considering the structural problems, the theater looked to another local company, Buffalo Plastering and Architectural Casting, which offered a solution in light weight fiberglass which is virtually indistinguishable from the original terracotta.
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Another story related by Ms. Collins revolved around a series of random encounters which led her to an affordable source in Germany that could replicate the ornate lobby curtains which had been long missing. Until this connection was made the cost of the curtains was not affordable. These German curtains now grace the main lobby.  They were fabricated to match the originals, based on a small historic sample that still existed.   
Much of Ms. Collins’ work involves taking impressions of existing intact plaster work for new molds and preparing endless color and tint glaze tests for painting.  Her basement shop is littered with all sorts of plaster and paint tests, making it a wonderland of architectural fragments.  At the time of my interview the theater was nearing completion of a major reconstruction of a section of ceiling below the balcony.  It had been damaged by leaking plumbing above.  The new work was indistinguishable from the original due to the diligence and patience of Ms. Collins and the people she has working for her. The scene in the theater (while I was there) was electric, as master plasterers and painters worked… all the while young students of Shea’s prestigious Master Class rehearsed on the stage in the background. I could not help but think about the tremendous asset this building has become since nearly becoming a parking lot in the 1970s.  
In addition to her diligence in finding the most economical sources for rare or custom products, many volunteers give their valuable time, and several local companies donate work at cost (no profit).  Ms. Collins also makes good use of people sent to her via court ordered community service sentences. Through this program she has met the good and the bad.  She notes that some never show up, but that many of her ‘convict’ (my word) workers discover a new productive and positive part of themselves that they never knew existed.  What a great thing – save a person and a building on a small budget. If you are interested in becoming a Shea’s  volunteer, they invite you to contact  Doris Collins, Shea’s restoration consultant. Call 716-829-1155 to learn more about the Volunteer Restoration Program.

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