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The Calumet: Making Old Elements Appear New Again

“First comes thought, then organization of that thought into ideas and plans, then transformation of those plans into reality.  The beginning, as you will observe, is in your imagination.”  ~ Napoleon Hill
In Mark Goldman’s imagination twenty four years ago was a plan to transform Chippewa Street in downtown Buffalo from what many people described as a red light district into an entertainment center of the city.  Goldman purchased the Calumet Building in 1988 and the rest is Buffalo history.  
During the 1990’s, Chippewa had an energetic and dynamic nightlife.  The area was a fun, eclectic and safe place to go barhopping with friends.  And everyone had plenty of options. The Third Room (part of the Calumet), Concrete Café, Star Bar, Shebeen and other bars were the places to be.  However, things have changed over time.  According to Goldman “The district has become over-run with bars attracting a challenging clientele.”  In 2010 a double shooting at a bar started to raise eyebrows and questions that the neighborhood was taking a turn for the worse.  For many stakeholders on the street, the heydays of Chippewa were a thing of the past.  Lately, bars open and close quickly as rents remain high and business lightens.
But perhaps as Goldman’s purchase of the Calumet in 1988 was the groundbreaking purchase that transformed the district twenty-four years ago, could another group of imaginative minds use the same building to be the groundbreaking change that this street is poised and ready for?  Goldman views Chippewa as, “A natural conduit between Buffalo’s business district and its waterfront.”  Is the rebirth of Chippewa as a business district about to begin?
In 2009, the Buffalo law firm of Kenney Shelton Liptak Nowak LLP (KSLN) was running out of space in their offices in the Rand Building.  With their lease up for renewal they began looking at leasing options downtown.  After a fruitless search they began to consider purchasing a building.  The Calumet Building was built in 1906 in the Art Nouveau style of architecture.  Its stunning terra cotta exterior is one of only a few in the United States.  When the four partners walked into its space they were blown away by what they saw.  Partner Tom Liptak remembers that “Pigeons were flying through the air as rats and mice were crawling around the empty shell of the building.”  There were remnants of fires that had been burning in the middle of the cavernous space, presumably left by vagrants escaping the elements.   According to partner Jim Nowak, “We didn’t know what we needed to know at that point.”  Nevertheless, their imaginations began to turn.  
Meanwhile, Angelo Natale, co-owner of Soho and President of Natale Builders had been looking at purchasing the Calumet building for over a decade, but could never work out the right deal with Goldman.  He had heard that KSLN was looking at the building.  As he puts it, “Word travels fast on the streets of Chippewa.”  Natale contacted the firm.  Both entities had the same vision and saw the same value in the building.  They formed a partnership and negotiated a deal with Goldman.  Now the work was to begin.
With Steve Carmina as the architect, the new group’s plan was designed to create a welcoming, loft-like space with an urban feel while preserving as much of the historic details and design as they possibly could in order to maintain the Calumet Building’s status as an historical landmark.  They met weekly for over a year, planning every move and crossing every hurdle.  The result of the painstaking venture was realized this July, as the 75-person law firm moved into the space.
And what a space it is.  At the onset, all parties had agreed that the building had, “good bones.”  That cavernous shell of a building allowed them to do pretty much whatever they wanted because they were not limited by existing electrical wiring or plumbing.  What resulted is a sophisticated professional office space that combines old elements of exposed brick walls, original hardwood flooring and original skylights with new features including exposed duct work and partition walls of glass or drywall.  

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The best part of this project for Natale was, “making old elements of the building appear new again.”  Instead of replacing the 100-year-old windows, the team preserved and reused the antique gems.  The brick walls were cleaned with great care in accordance with preservation guidelines to maintain their integrity, and the third floor skylights were repaired to mimic the original specs of the building.  The original ceiling beams are now exposed, adding turn-of-the-century character to the modern office environment.  The walls of the space are now adorned with one of a kind artwork completing the space with an understated sense of style.
The law firm’s office entrance is at 233 Franklin Street where an elevator bank was added to the building along with a ramp.  This was an imperative part of the design as it made the second and third floors of the offices wheel-chair and handicap accessible.  This side entrance is the law firm’s official entry way, while the center door on Chippewa is still used as the entrance to Bacchus Restaurant.  
Judy Shelton was the last of the partners to buy in to the venture.  She thought that they were too old to take on such a challenge.  With hindsight being 20/20, Shelton is now entirely enthused with what she and the others have done.  She believes that this restoration has brought the Calumet back to life and has been nothing but positive for their firm, the neighborhood and the city.  She, like all the partners, loves going to work every day and for her, and seemingly everyone at the law firm, it passes the “Going to work test.”  In her words, the restoration is, “Massively cool.” 
To see more on the restoration process or to learn more about Kenney Shelton Liptak Nowak LLP, you can visit their website at www.kslnlaw.com.
So what does all this mean for the Chippewa area?  In Natale’s words, “Activity breeds activity.”  There is a real bustle in the neighborhood during the day.  KSLN partner Pat Kenney notes that “Lunch time down here is full of people.  There is a very vibrant feel in this area of the city.”  It makes sense then that a prosperous, professional law firm establishing itself in one of Buffalo’s most spectacular buildings might be a turning point in the neighborhood.
There has been some activity in the area recently that would indicate that other like minds are on the same track.  This past September Uniland Development, who recently developed the Avant Building on Delaware, bought the entire block on the northwest corner of Chippewa and Delaware, Key Bank has reached out to Mark Goldman to help them develop a plan to regenerate the area, and Natale Builders has been eyeing buildings in the area for years.  Many
people have suggested a large retail store move into the area to attract more foot traffic, but Tom Liptak remarks that, “You’ve got to have a business district in order to develop it in a retail way.”
Shelton envisions Chippewa becoming a mixed-use neighborhood, combining business, entertainment and services.  Laura Zaepfel, Vice President of Corporate Communications at Uniland Development agrees that mixed-use components would be the most appropriate use of the old buildings that occupy the Chippewa Distict.  With some major key players already invested and showing interest, it is not that far-fetched of an idea that the perhaps the Renaissance of Chippewa is upon us. 
According to Goldman what is absolutely necessary is a master plan.  Twenty years ago Goldman did indeed have a master plan, but without enough buy-in from necessary parties it went nowhere.  However, now it appears as though all the stars may be in alignment.  With Goldman leading the way with a visionary plan, financial interest from a lucrative bank and two successful area builders, this could be the beginning of something big.  In Goldman’s words, “The key here is so obvious; any development needs to combine commerce with culture and creativity.  That will get you a winner.”
By changing nothing, nothing changes.  With the renovation of the Calumet, change is beginning on Chippewa and can only foster more positive change when like minds merge.  Consequently the possibilities are seemingly limitless.  What will happen remains to be seen, but one can only hope that the beginnings of a restorative team will begin to collaborate, and as the partners of Kenney Shelton Liptak Nowak felt when they first stepped into the Calumet, we all just might be blown away. 

Written by Holly Metz Doyle

Holly Metz Doyle

A Buffalo native, Holly spent quite a bit of time traveling the globe, but after living on the West coast for a bit was called back to her roots in Western New York.

View All Articles by Holly Metz Doyle
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