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Tear it down or save it? Finding a comfortable balance between development and preservation
may be the most important thing Buffalo can do for its future

What happens when David meets Goliath, and they both deserve to win?

That's about to happen in Buffalo, where a proposed $100 million federal courthouse project means demolishing a small and dilapidated 19th century house on the city's central square. The strikingly designed courthouse, which already has won national awards, will be built on a site occupied by the 153-year-old Chandler House -- not to mention a nearby old vaudeville theater-turned-office building.

The 10-story, semi-elliptical courthouse tower not only fills a need, it dramatically represents the future in a city that boasts a treasury of great architecture but hasn't added much to it in the past half century. The little Italianate mansion is much abused and decayed but speaks eloquently of the past and the era that once built Buffalo into the eighth-largest city in the nation.

Which path -- development or preservation -- would you pick?

Time's up. In Buffalo, these are always snap decisions. That's because the city still has no definitive preservation plan -- a glaring gap that leaves historic but unrecognized buildings vulnerable to demolition at a time when the city wants to boost heritage tourism, a gap that leaves developers with huge uncertainties, a gap that forces preservationists to throw themselves in front of the bulldozers instead of concentrating on strategic goals and thoughtfully-planned preservation projects.

There have been starts on a preservation plan.

A Landmark Society cultural resource survey commissioned in 1995 by then-Common Council President George K. Arthur found 214 buildings constructed between the burning of Buffalo by the British in the War of 1812 and the start of the Civil War. The list never even was linked to the demolition permit process.

More recently, preservation architect Clinton Brown's firm has been surveying the historic and cultural resources of a few city neighborhoods, and reporting to the city Preservation Board, in a pilot project that could and should lead to a comprehensive city inventory.

Most recently, City Court Housing Judge Henry J. Nowak called a meeting of volunteers that launched a Neighborhood Preservation Collaborative to foster proactive rather than reactive measures, including research and financial planning, preservation and reuse, awareness and marketing, and the salvaging of architectural elements from demolition-designated homes.

All of this is good. But these are tentative first steps, and for many buildings time is running out.

So -- what do we save, and what do we discard? Do we want history, or growth? Can we have both?

More to the point -- can we save the past without becoming hopelessly mired in it?

A comprehensive preservation plan, one that not only identifies the must-save historical and architectural treasures but sets out a careful evaluation process for all sites and buildings, could shift the emphasis from the traditional reactive panic to far more careful planning of a future in which historic preservation plays a clearly understood part.

A good plan seeks balance. That includes the realization that we can't save everything, but there are some things we absolutely must save.

Frank Lloyd Wright's Darwin Martin House? Sure. That's a no-brainer. But the Martin House never could have been built if the city had stopped demolition of the Victorian houses that previously stood on its site -- and the groundbreaking Wright masterpiece itself would have lost context and impact if the Victorian houses around it had all succumbed to more modern architecture in the century that has intervened.

An appreciation of history and architecture is essential to the health of any city, and that's especially true for Buffalo, a place of past glory but current decline. There are nationally recognized treasures here -- eight National Historic Landmarks and a National Historic Site within the city limits, masterworks by America's three greatest architects and its greatest park designer, and several more National Historic Register sites and architectural gems. But there are also diamonds in the rough -- the key African-American historic block along Michigan Avenue perhaps chief among them -- that need appreciation and care.

There are inherent conflicts, as well. Cities are living things, and they change over time. Yesterday's key commercial buildings become today's upscale downtown loft housing; yesterday's residential site for master engraver Henry Chandler becomes a needed plot for a forward-looking courthouse to fill a gap in the monumental buildings on Niagara Square.

Good preservation work, based on an appreciation of the value that history and design bring to any project, has made the current downtown housing boom a triumph of adaptive reuse. Moving the Chandler House may be the only alternative to losing it entirely, in the name of needed progress.

We need to think about this. A lot. We need to think about what we value.

We need a preservation plan that guides that process, shapes those debates before they happen, states clearly that we value our heritage and want it incorporated, wherever possible, in our future. And we need a preservation plan that also tells developers that this community is open to change, so long as its heritage is considered and properly valued.

Maybe we need to make some lists.

Lists are simplistic, but they can help shape our thinking by forcing evaluation -- and recognition of the criteria for our evaluations. Listing the most important structures can help shape lesser decisions down the line.

This can be a community effort. Join in. We'll share responses with the Landmark Society of the Niagara Frontier, which is expanding its Web site on local treasures.

To start, we've compiled lists of the 10 most important places or buildings in four key categories (see the front of this section). They are subjective lists. Yours may well be different.

Other top architectural sites, for example, could include the South Park Conservatory, Trinity Church with its Tiffany stained-glass windows, the Electric Building, Soldiers & Sailors Monument, ECC City Campus, Temple Beth Zion, the Buffalo Zoo, the brownstone houses in the 500 block of Delaware Avenue, the Twentieth Century Club, M&T Bank's headquarters or other treasures.

The Connecticut Street Armory, the Coit House, the USS The Sullivans, Old County Hall, St. Louis Catholic Church, or all-but-obscured sites like the Commercial Slip and Erie Canal or the old boat-building yards at Scajaquada Creek are historically important.

Maybe you think the corroding waterfront shed where Bell Aircraft tested the first hydroskimmers is endangered but worth saving. Or the urban fabric of entire city neighborhoods. And maybe you think we've already lost more important treasures than those on our list -- War Memorial Stadium, for example, or the front of the riverfront DL&W Terminal, or the Lehigh Valley Railroad Terminal. Let us know.

Limits on such lists are, of course, artificial. They are simply guides to what a community most values -- what most contributes to its sense of place, and worth, and hopes. What we built, as a community, embodied not only the values of this community at that time, but the values it wanted to pass on to the future.

Geography -- the natural environment -- defines a region. But buildings and places -- the "built environment" -- define a city. As we seek our own redefinition of a city still in progress, we still need to find a balance between preserving the past and building the future.

What do we say to the Buffalonians of the future?

Lists can be sent to Mike Vogel at The Buffalo News, P.O. Box 100, Buffalo, NY 14240, or e-mailed to


>Local treasures

What's most worth keeping? Which part of our past is most endangered? Lists can help bring both opportunities and problems into sharper focus. We offer our views in four important categories.

Top Ten Cultural/Architectural Sites:

1. Frank Lloyd Wright's Darwin Martin House

2. H.H. Richardson's Buffalo State Hospital

3. Louis Sullivan's Guaranty Building

4. Frederick Law Olmsted's Buffalo park system

5. Kleinhans Music Hall

6. Albright Knox Art Gallery

7. Ellicott Square

8. Wright cluster (Heath/Barton/Davidson Houses)

9. Shea's Performing Arts Center

10. City Hall

Top Ten Historic Places:

1. Breckenridge Street Meeting Hall

2. Michigan Street Baptist Church

3. 1833 Buffalo Lighthouse

4. Historical Society's Pan-Am building

5. St. Paul's Cathedral

6. Wilcox Mansion

7. Concrete Central Grain Elevator

8. Forest Lawn Cemetery

9. Central Terminal

10. Fireboat Edward M. Cotter

Ten Most Endangered Sites:

1. Breckenridge Street Meeting Hall

2. Peace Bridge

3. Chandler House/Erlanger Theater

4. Old AM&A's

5. Broadway Market

6. Central Terminal

7. Port of Buffalo/Ford Assembly Plant

8. Lafayette Hotel

9. Front Park

10. Great Northern Grain Elevator

Ten Greatest Losses:

1. Wright's Larkin Office Building

2. Erie Canal

3. Joseph Ellicott's Radial Street Plan

4. Mark Twain's House

5. Olmsted's Humboldt Parkway

6. Fort Porter

7. Grosvenor Library

8. Excursion steamer Canadiana

9. Central Wharf

10. Metcalfe House

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