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Building anything but permanence

What will we worry about saving from demolition 100 years from now?

A Walmart Supercenter? The Walden Galleria? A five-story chain hotel?

Hardly. If they're still here, sitting vacant, growing weeds, we might be lucky if someone ponies up the bucks to tear them down.

Time and neglect have damaged the Beaux Arts-style building that once served as the grand entrance to Lackawanna Iron & Steel Co. Workers in hard hats and florescent vests circled the site Friday, preparing for its court-ordered demolition.

It might be too late for this historic ghost, a reminder of an earlier era seen by most only in glimpses as they whizzed by on Route 5.

But the beginning of its demise raises this haunting question: What are we building outside the City of Buffalo that will be worth saving?

There are exceptions, of course, but for the most part, what is going up are throw-away buildings constructed in the present tense. They're cheap structures meant only for the here and now, not for what they could be.

Some will be empty in 15 years. Some are so distinctly designed for just one retail chain, that no matter what occupies them in the future, you will always know their roots. Ever seen an empty Pizza Hut?

Times have changed, I know. The ornate cornices and slate roof that make the Lackawanna building stand out amid the industrial sites around it aren't likely to appear on an office administration building today.

Styles evolve. Building materials improve. Needs change.

But there's a big difference between the cookie-cutter buildings that make our local streets look like Everytown, USA, and the type of thoughtful design that will make you want to protest when you hear the wrecking ball is on its way.

Today, in some cases, what counts for satisfying design is slapping a few fake columns on a building or adding a parapet to give the illusion that a building has a second floor. These are second-rate solutions that do little more than acknowledge that people care that a building blends into the community.

The glimmer of hope is that there are exceptions. Villages have adopted design standards meant to ensure that new buildings honor the old. Office buildings have been constructed with new energy standards in mind. Projects at local airports and colleges have placed an emphasis on design.

You might shrug off the apathy toward architecture with an explanation that our sluggish growth has soured the willpower to design grand structures.

But there are shining examples -- the ones that make you take notice, whether you love them or hate them -- of interesting architecture that have landed in the city in the last five years despite the region's economy.

HealthNow New York's downtown headquarters integrated green design while preserving the facade of the Buffalo Gas Light Co. The curved exterior of the Burchfield Penney Art Center holds its own in a neighborhood of architectural intrigue. The 10-story federal courthouse shimmers amid downtown buildings.

Time is finicky when it comes to design. What we embrace today might be hideous a half century from now. But it's nearly certain that the strip malls and chain stores of our suburbs won't be the buildings we treasure in decades.

The ornate office building on Fuhrmann Boulevard that housed Lackawanna Iron & Steel and later Bethlehem Steel Corp. might have slipped into its last months.

Like other relics of our industrial past, it might be too far gone to save.

But it can still be a testament that it's not too late to do something about our future.