Preservationists worked for years to save the old Wildroot building on Bailey Avenue on Buffalo's East Side, all in hopes that it could be rehabilitated in the future.
Their efforts were validated when the Albany-based Preservation League of New York State named the building to its "Seven to Save" list of endangered properties in 2016. Now, they want to know why the city allowed it to be sold at foreclosure auction last month for $1,000.
"We were shocked by the process," said Mark Paradowski, who began the effort to save the building five years ago as a member of Buffalo's Young Preservationists.
Lovejoy Council Member Richard Fontana said he had recommended just a month before auction that the opening bid be "a number around $40,000" to cover past cleanup costs, and to discourage people without the financial resources to take on such a big project.
"Unbelievable," Fontana said of his reaction to learning that the bidding started at $1,000.
In hindsight, he said, there probably should be have been a follow-up discussion closer to the foreclosure sale.
Omar Sian of Amherst bought the building at the Oct. 26 foreclosure sale. Through his attorney, he said he intends to reuse the building.
"Because of its historic value, he does not want to do any demolition," said his attorney, Mary Chan.
Paradowski said he wishes the new owner well and hopes to share information on the benefits of using historic preservation to guide the building's reuse. But that will be expensive.
A masonry company estimated it would cost $160,000 just to fix the brick damage. according to the preservationists.
"It's going to take a considerable amount to make the building usable again," said Christina Lincoln of the Buffalo's Young Preservationists. "I don't think it's impossible, but it's not going to be for the faint of the heart."
For now, though, preservationists wonder how the building could have been sold for so little.
Paradowski was at the city's foreclosure sale to bid on another property. He saw that the auction program listed the Wildroot Building with a star, indicating the building was recommended for demolition.
The building was moved to the city's inactive demolition list about five years ago after a problem with loose bricks on the building's northern facade was repaired.
To Paradowski's surprise, the auctioneer opened the bidding at $1,000, less than one-sixth of what it was offered for a year ago.
"When the auctioneer didn't see paddles up, he said 'Adjourned!' Paradowski said. "I turned to walk out when I heard someone in the back yell that they'd take it. The auctioneer said, 'You want it for $1,000? Sold!' and that was it."
The low bid didn't sit well with members of Buffalo's Young Preservationists.
"The $1,000 seems to disregard the building's importance to the history of the city," Lincoln said.
Martin Kennedy, commissioner of assessment and taxation, said he wasn't aware the building had drawn the attention of preservationists. The building had been offered at auction for 17 years, he noted.
"If someone had come to us and gave us the history of the property, it probably would have had a bearing on the minimum," Kennedy said. "Then again, probably not too much with the building's history of foreclosure and the length of time it's been out there, and getting worse and worse."
Kennedy said the low bid was intended to get the building into a private owner's hands after being in foreclosure since 2001.
"The idea was to move it and get it back on the market," he said. "I think it's a good strategy. It's not doing the city or the neighborhood any good the way it is now. Moving the property, I think, is a win-win for everybody."
He also said would-be buyers cannot be vetted at a foreclosure sale on their financial resources or their plans for a property. The city is only allowed to find out whether money is owed to the city or if there are court problems with other properties.
'Get Wildroot Cream Oil, Charlie!'
The building at 1740 Bailey Ave. opened in 1930 as the largest cake kitchen in the world for Detroit-based Grennan Bakery. The Wildroot company, known for its Wildroot Cream Oil Hair Tonic, moved there in the 1940s and took over the kitchen space in 1946.
Young B-movie actor Ronald Reagan was among those recruited to pose with the hair cream in advertisements with the catchphrase, "Get Wildroot Cream Oil, Charlie!"
Wildroot was purchased by Colgate-Palmolive Co. for $10.5 million in 1959, which closed the still-highly profitable Buffalo plant two years later.
Even though Wildroot hasn't been produced in Buffalo for 56 years, the Wildroot Foundation, created in 1951 by a part-owner of the company, continues to make a lasting contribution to the region. The renamed Western New York Foundation has given out $15.5 million to support community organizations and projects.
New owner plans reuse
The new owner drives past the building frequently and has wondered about its potential, said Chan, his attorney.
Sian plans to move his business, OS Electric, with offices in Buffalo and Williamsville, to the Wildroot building after the building is stabilized, cleaned up and secure, she said.
"He ran a construction company and has a lot of knowledge about what needs to be done to stabilize the property," Chan said.
Chan said Sian is "very much open to community input, and realizes it's a lot bigger than just him."
Sian thinks bringing business activity to the long-vacant building will help the neighborhood, she said. He plans to talk to an architect about what's feasible for the building, but won't leave the space vacant and unattended.
"He hesitated because it is such a huge undertaking," Chan said. "But because of his ability and know how, and his appreciation for the building, he wants to give it a shot."
Fontana met with Sian, who he said told him he had no intention to demolish the property. Sian said he was looking to use some of the space for storage, Fontana said.
The councilman said he hopes Sian can bring life back into the building.
"He's the first guy who has stepped forward in 25 years from the private sector," Fontana said. "I wanted him to know the city councilman in the area is watching this closely, will continue to and will be a partner with someone doing something productively, and he assured me he would be."
Fontana said he's cautiously optimistic.
"Hopefully the guy who bought it has the where with all to spend what's needed to stabilize the building," Fontana said. "Maybe my idea of keeping away the bottom feeders by asking more for the building wasn't good. If the $1,000 bid brought us a buyer to do that, then I'm OK.
"I do think the Wildroot building has a huge future ahead of it," he said.
The preservationists are willing to help.
"We'd like to help the new owner," said Paradowski, who hopes to speak to him soon. "We have done a lot of the groundwork by having attorneys, preservationists and other professionals who have devoted their time to make it cheaper for a developer."
The Wildroot building is one of the largest undeveloped buildings — 100,000 square feet — left in the city, Paradowski said.
"It is the largest in that neighborhood, and is the kind of building used to bring back downtown and Larkinville," he said. "It would be the perfect piece to expand further into the East Side and share that development with the rest of the city."
The Buffalo Preservation Board will consider granting the Wildroot Building local landmark status at a public hearing Nov. 16. The New York State Historic Preservation Office in 2016 said that the building appears eligible for inclusion on the State and National Register of Historic Places.
Although a building's owner has to want the designation, the transfer of ownership from the city to Sian could take months to complete. Historic designation offers potential financial benefits for redevelopment, but also requires following specific regulations on how the work can be done.
The Common Council will have the final say if the Preservation Board votes to landmark the building. Typically the Council takes its lead from the member representing the district in question, and Fontana said he hasn't made a decision.
"I have to make the determination if it will hinder the building from being renovated, or not," he said.