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They ‘Did’ Build That: Learning to be a Preservationist – Chris Collins

Often the blame for demolition of historic buildings is laid at the feet of preservationists.  Those who see parking lots as progress and see delinquent owners as victims like to tell us that preservationists are always reactive. These obstructionists should have bought it and fixed it themselves… blah blah blah.  
Rarely do the preservationists get credit for the development of historic buildings and the dramatic improvement in the surrounding neighborhoods that results.  In fact, preservationists are actually driving the quickening pace of renewal in the city through preservation of historic buildings, whether that be through activism or direct participation.  The activism part of preservation gets all the press and ire of the tear-down gang, but most preservationists are actually down in the trenches doing renovations with their own hard work and money. 
As an example I recently highlighted the work of preservationists who saved the Allendale Theater.  But, this is not an isolated case of preservationists directly involved financially in saving buildings.  These days, of course, most of the development in metro Buffalo is in the form of historic preservation as people have come more and more to realize the tremendous value inherent in historic buildings and intact urban environments.  

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Not all preservationists start out as preservationists.  Some are dragged into it by circumstances and learn the glories of preservation along the way.  One such case of learning to be a preservationists involved former Erie County Executive Chris Collins.  He is an investor in fast growing bio-tech company Zeptometrix which has offices on Main Street in Allentown.  To accommodate a needed expansion Chris Collins and his company recently completed a meticulous renovation on the mansion at 878 Main Street directly north of their headquarters building.  
Renovation of a decrepit long neglected house was not at first of any interest to the company executives. In fact, they had at one time submitted a request to tear down the building for parking.  Thanks to laws put in place as part of the Allentown Preservation District decades ago the demolition was not approved (once in a while The City actually follows historic district preservation laws).  With a severely decayed building adjacent to their headquarters and an urgency to expand their offices Zepto decided they might just as well well fix up the old building and use it for much needed new space.  The project took four years, many dollars and soon became a labor of love.  
As I noted Zepto and Chris Collins did not start out to be preservationists.  Things changed as they got into the project.  What started as an expedient way to expand turned into a labor of love.  Since the house was in a historic district certain standards were required to be followed which demanded high quality materials and attention to historically accurate details.  Zepto met these requirements but then went further than the preservation laws required.  They meticulously rebuilt the entire interior and brought back much of the long lost detail. Rich walnut millwork has been reinstalled throughout the interior  Amazing replicated panel doors can be found on the entry to each room.  Interior moldings and an extraordinary 3-storey stair were reinstalled.  The stair rails were replicated from salvaged fragments of the original house.  The restoration is extraordinary inside and out.   
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I toured the house as part of the National Trust Preservation Conference a year ago.  My tour guide was County Executive Chris Collins himself.  This was a man who at one time saw no value in the house but who now was clearly very proud of what he and his company had accomplished with the renovation.  You could see the joy in his eye as he showed our group from room to room pointing out what was done and the problems that needed to be solved.  This was a man who came full circle. He started out wanting demolition.  Without the laws in place to save this building and without the people willing to enforce those laws it would now be just another bland car-filled parking lot.  The laws and activists gave this building time.  They also gave Chris Collins and Zeptometrix time to learn the value of saving our heritage. But it was Chris Collins and Zeptometrix becoming preservationists themselves and investing their effort and money beyond the minimum requirements that brought life back to this wonderful historic building.  The zepto staff clearly appreciated their elegant workplace and the city gets to keep some of its irreplaceable heritage. Exactly what has been obstructed?
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Written by David Steele

David Steele

Architect ( a real one, not just the armchair type), author of "Buffalo, Architecture in the American Forgotten Land" ( www.blurb.com ), lover of great spaces, hater of sprawl and waste,
advocate for a better way of doing things.

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