One of the most historic buildings in Black Rock, 1 Howell Street has been a literal landmark along Scajaquada Creek for more than a century, but is in jeopardy after suffering a fire last year.
According to sources in Black Rock, a developer is proposing to demolish the building and redevelop the site. A meeting is being held tonight, Monday, April 25, at 6:00 PM to discuss the situation, in the church hall at Assumption Church. Assumption Church is the large, twin-spired church in the heart of the Grant-Amherst section of Black Rock, across the street from the current home of the Black Rock Historical Society).
That 1 Howell is a Black Rock landmark is clear from the number of historic photos in which it is an arresting visual element, its iconic mansard-roofed tower only upstaged by the twin spires of the church. Many of these photos can be found on display at the Black Rock Historical Society and in the book they recently published in conjunction with the Grant-Amherst Business Association (see image above).
The significance of 1 Howell is also recognized in the Scajaquada Creek Historic Trail developed by the Black Rock Historical Society. Their brochure is here, including this section:
In the 2020 article we published (linked above) about the new home of the Black Rock Photo Project and the Black Rock Historical Society I said, “It takes a village to preserve an urban village – and its heritage.” Given the current situation it may, indeed, take a village – and all of us – to preserve 1 Howell.
And well we should. The building is one of a shrinking collection for former industrial buildings on the western end of the Scajaquada corridor in Black Rock. The rest are clustered around the western end of the creek on Tonawanda Street, where industry once took advantage of a combination of rail and canal access. Canal access was via the wide harbor that once existed west of Grant Street (as I explored in this article), believed to be the site where some of the ships in Commodore Perry’s victorious Battle of Lake Erie fleet were built or fitted out. Rail access was via the Belt Line, and in the case of 1 Howell Street, a former industrial spur that once crossed Scajaquada Creek on a wooden trestle near Assumption Church.
The most storied of 1 Howell Street’s several occupants was the Buffalo Robe Company, originally creating robes from the hides of the great beasts of the prairie that ironically bore the same name as the company’s home city. After those beasts were slaughtered nearly to extinction, the company made large blankets that were used to keep wintertime passengers warm in open-air sleighs and early unheated motorcars.
Less storied was the building’s most recent occupant, Mar Con Erectors, who appear to have used the building primarily for storage of materials and construction equipment both inside the building and within the fence surrounding the property. Its stewardship of the property could perhaps best be described as haphazard, judging from photos of its condition.
The building suffered a large fire last year which clearly did a lot of damage. However, despite the damage it wasn’t recommended for an emergency demolition, and it has since weathered Buffalo’s worst winter in nearly a decade and some extremely high-wind events.
NOW is the time for the community and preservationists to speak up and gear up to push back.
It’s not clear at the moment which developer is trying to get site control and push for demolition, but as the site is still posted with realty “For Sale” signs, a developer may be trying to get community buy-in for demolition and some form of re-use before making a formal purchase offer on the property.
What that means is that NOW is the time for the community and preservationists to speak up and gear up to push back.
While the great folks of the Black Rock Historical Society and the Grant-Amherst Business Association and their great Black Rock Photo Project and book put 1 Howell squarely in its historic context, what is the role of this artifact in present-day Black Rock? And what about the Black Rock that could be in a few years with a remade Scajaquada corridor and restored Scajaquada Creek?
Clearly it could have a role to play that is just as central as its location overlooking Scajaquada Creek and just as prominent as its iconic status in historic photos.
How so? Two primary reasons, I think.
First, with the re-planning of the Scajaquada corridor well underway (the Region Central planners are having their next public meeting next week as we posted here), it seems increasingly likely that reconfiguration of the 198 will allow the western part of Scajaquada Creek, downstream from Delaware Park, to be transformed into a cleaner, greener, scenic and recreational corridor. We’ve shown a design concept (below) developed by Cannon Design illustrating how the Scajaquada Creek valley could look right in front of 1 Howell if the expressway were removed (via shared usage of a beefed-up Iroquois Drive).
It’s exciting to think about a restored Scajaquada that’s clean enough for recreational use on and along the water. But such recreational use would require access – and that’s where 1 Howell could come in. With it’s visible presence overlooking the creek and its central location, 1 Howell could take center stage in that recreational transformation. It could serve as a boat house and provide storage for recreational equipment, and house essential restroom facilities. It would have enough space to also house an interpretive center – perhaps one designed from the beginning to house the exhibits and archives of the Black Rock Historical Society (along with offices for community organizations).
Reuse of 1 Howell could also provide additional recreational space around it as well as in it, with its currently fenced off grounds remediated and made available for new active recreational uses like tennis courts or an additional basketball court. That recreational space could be added to that of the Peter Street Playground next door and other recreational space nearby (including basketball courts) to make a more extensive recreational gathering place for Black Rock, adjacent to the Jesse Kregal Pathway.
All of that would take money, of course. If 1 Howell were to become facilities serving the community, it would require public ownership and investment. That’s a possibility well worth considering, given that large amounts of public money will soon be invested in remaking the Scajaquada corridor. It’s not unreasonable to think that some of that funding could be made available to a project that provides access to the new recreational spaces the transportation project will create, serve as an interpretive center for the corridor, and preserve a building with a transportation heritage due to its connection to land and water transportation in the corridor.
On top of that, the legislators who represent the area around 1 Howell and have been pushing for a revived Scajaquada corridor have clout and know how to bring home the bacon. Wegmans, right next door, might kick in for naming rights (perhaps). And a restored central tower for 1 Howell could perhaps be designed to accommodate communications antennae to replace the cell tower next door that is not only unsightly but takes up a large patch of land that could be used for additional recreational space.
And let’s not forget that right now there is an enormous amount of public money circulating in the form of pandemic relief, at the federal, state, county, and city levels – with few strings attached. Whatever you may think of that situation, a project that creates new recreational space for the community and a new community asset could be a great candidate.
The second way 1 Howell could be essential to a post-expressway future for Black Rock can be seen through a bit of land-use planning analysis. I did some of that recently for the Scajaquada planning process which led to an insight about Black Rock that was new to me if perhaps obvious to others. If you look at the north bank of the creek from Delaware Park west to Grant Street or beyond, you find a crescent of significant amenities and places – even if some are potential rather than actual at this point. These amenities are public, quasi-public, commercial, religious, and recreational. Considered together they add up to a whole perhaps greater than the sum of its parts.
This crescent of amenities includes (from east to west):
- The grounds of the historical society, especially the Reinstein Center which, if Elmwood Avenue were returned to its original (pre-expressway) alignment, would be a waterfront amenity once again.
- The grounds of McKinley High School which have some of the characteristics of an arboretum or conservatory grounds. There is also an extensive terrace there that could provide a beautiful area to relax and look out over a restored, expressway-less Scajaquada valley. And of course the extensive multi-purpose lawn.
- The backside of Wegmans, which could become much more as Wegmans realizes the new scenic and recreational landscape that could take form behind their Buffalo flagship store.
- A “Wegmans Village” mixed-use development that could happen over time on the Wegmans parking lots, as pondered in this article.
About that section of the Scajaquada.
- 1 Howell and the grounds around it – in the center of everything.
- Peter Street Playground.
- Assumption Church.
- Polish Cadets.
- A redeveloped Tops Plaza.
- The Tee-to-Green site, which would be a much better location for the athletic complex that Buffalo State College has been pursuing for the auto impound site.
1 Howell is smack-dab in the center of all of it. And another key to this concept is a new, long-desired link across the creek between Black Rock and Buffalo State. Perhaps automotive, perhaps pedestrian-only, but in a central location near Wegmans or 1 Howell.
1 Howell should be smack-dab in the center of visions for the future of the Scajaquada corridor in Black Rock.
That’s the vision for the future. And 1 Howell should be smack-dab in the center of visions for the future of the Scajaquada corridor in Black Rock. As a tangible link to that past that serves as a key to a better future, not just another site where something important used to be (Buffalo and Black Rock already have more than enough of that, thank you). And as a community asset serving as a gathering place not just for recreation but also for community meeting space and community organizations and initiatives that need a permanent home without the distraction of having to move in search of affordable rent.
And perhaps most of all, with its restored tower serving as a beacon to those exploring the new Scajaquada corridor and to those just across the creek at Buffalo State, a visible standing invitation beckoning them to venture over and see what one of Buffalo’s greatest neighborhoods has to offer.
Community meeting on the future of 1 Howell
Monday, April 25 at 6:00 PM
Assumption Church parish hall (in back)
435 Amherst Street, Black Rock