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Bethlehem Steel site to be scrapped; Lackawanna orders 1901 ornate structure demolished for safety

Workers will begin today dismantling the massive Beaux Arts-style building that served as administrative headquarters for the Lackawanna Iron & Steel Company and later, Bethlehem Steel Corp.

The City of Lackawanna recently obtained a court order forcing the owner of the vacant 101-year-old building to tear it down.

"The building is in deplorable shape," said Steven Bremer, Lackawanna's code enforcement officer. "It's been open to the elements forever. All the windows are gone, part of the roof has collapsed in the back and what happens is, it's a system. You start tearing down one part, and the whole thing goes."

But the decaying, 1901 building's ornate, patinaed facade -- with graceful columns and decorative Corinthian pilasters, pediments and dormers -- has long been appreciated by preservationists.

Preservationists on Thursday, called on the City of Lackawanna to postpone its "irreversible and short-sighted decision," urging area residents to contact city officials.

"Even in its present deteriorated state, the Bethlehem Steel administration building hints at our region's grand industrial roots while illustrating our collective great fortune of architectural heritage," said Tom Yots, executive director of Preservation Buffalo Niagara.

The three-story structure, located just across the Lackawanna-Buffalo city line, on the south side of the Union Ship Canal, was designed by noted New York City architect Lansing C. Holden. It was known as the Bethlehem Steel North Office Building after the steel company bought the building and steel works in 1922.

The company moved into another administration building in the 1960s. Gateway Trade Center took title in 1983.

The state Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation had said the building was eligible for placement on the National Register of Historic Places, but an application to do so was never compiled. The office hoped to save elements of the facade during demolition, but Bremer said he made the determination that the building's deteriorated condition made it unsafe to do so.

David Torke, a local preservationist and "urban explorer," said he was in the building on Sunday taking pictures and saw no evidence that the building faced structural collapse.

"A staircase was collapsed because the roof above it was compromised, and there were a couple of places where water had infiltrated and floors were spongy, and there were a couple of holes in the first floor because of that. But there was no evidence of the roof or floor collapsing, and we were on every floor, from end to end," Torke said.

Bremer said it would have cost "almost $2 million" to first remove the asbestos if it was safe to do so. The cost to now knock everything down at once, and transport it to a landfill that handles asbestos, was expected to be between $700,000 and $800,000, according to Joseph Laraiso, Gateway Trade Center's executive vice president.

Laraiso said the demolition was occurring only because of the City of Lackawanna's court order. He said there are no plans to develop what could be a prime waterfront parcel.

"It's a piece of property that ultimately could be redeveloped, but there are no immediate plans because of the economy," Laraiso said.

Gateway Trade Center's parent company is New Enterprise Stone and Lime Co., located in New Enterprise, Pa.

Unlike Buffalo, Lackawanna has neither preservation ordinances nor preservation advocacy organizations. Tim Tielman, a member of the Buffalo Preservation Board, lamented the building's loss as yet another blow to the region's industrial heritage.

"The Bethlehem Steel administration building was beautiful, but more important and compelling from an historic and social perspective are the places where steel was made and tens of thousands of people worked. That goes not only for Bethlehem Steel, but for the grain elevators or structures like Trico. It's not always the things that are classically pretty that are [the most] significant," Tielman said.

The Bethlehem Steel building that was meant to be "the respectable front face to the Dickensian mills behind it was also an unfriendly symbol to a lot of the workers through the years over labor issues," he said.

Bremer said the demolition, by Empire Dismantlement of Grand Island, is expected to be completed in August.

"If they can save cornices or [ornamental] parts of the building, they will try to do that. But it's a game-time decision if they can do so."

Other long-vacant and run-down historic buildings are also being torn down in Buffalo.

Demolition has begun on the former Lumen Bearing Co., 197 Lathrop St., which opened in 1901 and was once the largest brass foundry in the United States. The former Sealtest Dairy processing plant, 202 Walden Ave., and the former 1937 Wildroot Hair Tonic factory, 1740 Bailey Ave., are expected to be knocked down in the coming months.

email: msommer@buffnews.com

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Crumbling relic

The former Bethlehem Steel administration building has been empty for decades

*Designed by Lansing C. Holden
*Opened in 1902
*Located off Route 5 in Lackawanna, just past the Buffalo line
*Was already abandoned when sold to current owner in 1983