During the tourist season of 2017, the Native American Center for the Living Arts stood empty. It was the 22nd summer in a row that the building, known as the Turtle, drew curious visitors who found its doors locked.
But under the cloudy glass eyes of the striking turtle-shaped building, the modest Cataract House archaeological dig captivated and educated visitors about Niagara Falls' Underground Railroad history.
Hundreds of local people and visitors from all over the world stopped by the dig, which was done on state park property by workers from the University at Buffalo Archaeological Survey, to observe and learn a bit about the city's thrilling history. Then many of them looked at the Turtle, owned since 1997 by Niagara Falls Redevelopment, and their questions continued.
"The Turtle came up a lot" in conversation, said Bill Bradberry, former city administrator and chairman of the Niagara Falls Underground Railroad Heritage Area Commission, who spent a significant amount of time at the dig.
"Local residents lament the fact that it (and most NFR property) has been vacant way too long, while out-of-town visitors marveled at its unique design," Bradberry said.
"People were generally surprised and disappointed at its lack of use and long-standing vacancy," said Douglas J. Perrelli, director of the Archaeological Survey and a clinical assistant professor of anthropology at UB. "Seems like a waste of a neat building with an important history of development and ownership."
The three-story, 67,000-square-foot building, designed by Arapaho architect Dennis Sun Rhodes, is in the shape of a large turtle whose glass porthole eyes peer toward the Niagara River from a 1.67-acre property just a stone's throw from the rapids above the American Falls. Its shape refers to the Haudenosaunee story that North America was created on the back of a large turtle.
In late January 2016, Empire State Development, a state agency designed to promote investment and job creation, issued a comprehensive regional report that included a plan to spur development of vacant and underused buildings in the core of downtown Niagara Falls.
The report outlined a project that "involves the acquisition of a number of key underutilized properties within a city block of Niagara Falls State Park to secure new significant downtown mixed-use development ..."
The report noted that in the past, "entities that secured property near Niagara Falls State Park often elected to hold it as a land speculation rather than work to develop it for new uses."
The vacant and underused properties "continue to serve as blighting influences to significant state investment," the report concluded.
Laura Magee, deputy director of public affairs for Empire State Development, pointed out that the report did not name any specific properties. In an email, she said, "We (ESD) never said whether any property was in our sights or on a list. That said, we will not speculate on what specific properties the state will consider acquiring (as that could affect, among other things, the purchase price)."
The Turtle, which has been vacant for 23 years, nine years longer than it was open as a thriving Native events center and cultural museum, is located in the middle of the report's Strategic Acquisition Area map.
The Turtle closed in 1995 due to unpaid taxes and was purchased in 1997 by Niagara Falls Redevelopment as part of a package of 200 downtown acres and buildings.
There was movement on the property, if not the building, in July, when NFR Turtle LLC, owner of the building, submitted a request for a variance to the city to demolish the Turtle and build a 16-story, 200-feet-tall hotel and hospitality center called the Niagara Falls Grand Hotel and Spa on its site.
City Planning Director Thomas DeSantis said the sole development since July is that a representative from NFR called and asked to send an attorney to talk about the project, which has not been scheduled.
"They gave us an incomplete application," DeSantis said, with inadequate environmental review.
The fact that plans for the $205 million project were filed without any fanfare raised eyebrows, Buffalo News reporter Thomas J. Prohaska wrote at the time. "It makes some in Niagara Falls wonder if the hotel project is for real, or if it's just a response to a state plan to buy vacant land in downtown Niagara Falls and make it available to other owners for development," he wrote.
NFR also did not request assistance for the project from state or county economic development agencies, Prohaska wrote, a highly unusual move.
Last spring, a virtual interior tour of the Turtle, posted by NFR in 2012, was still visible on YouTube. That video has now been removed.
Drawings of the Niagara Falls Grand Hotel and Spa on the NFR website show more than 250 rooms with balconies, most with "unparalleled views of Niagara Falls," an attached parking garage with 472 parking spots, a cafe and coffee shop, nearly 8,000 square feet of retail shops, conference and meeting rooms, and public green space.
The website says, "Municipal application pending."
James Haggerty, president and CEO of the New York City PR Consulting Group, who is the spokesman for NFR, did not reply to several emails seeking comment.
Hanging over the year's events is the lesson of the failed Niagara Splash Water Park, which was allowed to deteriorate for 10 years on John Daly Boulevard, a main access road to downtown Niagara Falls. After the park was shuttered for years, owners Fallsview Splash and Fallsite, in which NFR was associated with Niagara Falls attorney John P. Bartolomei, opened it for a short time in 2005. This was months before the state used eminent domain to take the site and give it to the Seneca Gaming Corp. as part of the Seneca Nation's casino deal.
Dyster pointed out that NFR "reopened the splash park briefly right before the parcel was taken for inclusion in the Seneca compact land, and appealed the price and subsequently got a major payday out of that."
Fallsville Splash and Fallsite were paid $18 million for the splash park parcel, $6 million more than the state intended to pay; Bartolomei argued that the parcel was worth $29 million.
In an emailed statement, Rep. Brian Higgins, D-Buffalo, expressed impatience with the continued vacancy of the Turtle.
"This is prime real estate immediately adjacent to a wonder of the world, and we should all be impatient to see a high-quality, active re-use of this site, whether that is through Niagara Falls Redevelopment’s proposed Grand Hotel and Spa or through the State’s Strategic Land Acquisition Program," he said. "These properties have been sitting inactive for too long. We need to move quickly and aggressively."
Some people have suggested that the Seneca Nation, which operates the nearby Seneca Niagara Casino and Hotel in downtown Niagara Falls, might buy the Turtle and operate it as a performance center or museum.
But Philip J. Pantano, president of Pantano & Associates and a spokesman for the Seneca Nation, said, "The Seneca Nation has invested hundreds of millions of dollars in tangible development and job creation on its Niagara Territory since 2002. The Nation is hopeful that other private interests will also make significant investments in downtown Niagara Falls."
He said the Nation is focused on continued investment and development of its Niagara territory and is building a museum and cultural center on its Allegany Territory, with a projected opening this year.
The building and its impact are remembered fondly by thousands who worked and attended cultural events there.
Tim Johnson, a Mohawk who grew up in North Tonawanda, got his start at the Turtle. He went on to spend a decade in executive management at the Smithsonian Museum's National Museum of the American Indian, eventually holding the title of associate director overseeing exhibitions.
"Those of us who worked and launched our careers at the Native American Center for the Living Arts deeply lament the circumstances, events, and outcomes that led to its demise and current status," Johnson said. "It’s partly because each of us gained so much from the experience. But it’s also because the vision that sparked its genesis remains as relevant and meaningful as ever."
"However, with the benefit of hindsight and without casting judgment," he said, it's now recognized that the board and senior management of the Turtle "simply didn’t have the experience to handle the challenges of managing and financially sustaining a greatly expanded facility when the Turtle opened. We have that capacity today, but we didn’t have it 37 years ago."
He said, “It’s unfortunate because Niagara Falls deserves to feature attractions that educate, that inspire, that set aspirational goals and objectives, that elevate awareness and consciousness, and that create the conditions for changing the current dynamic."
The Cataract House archaeological dig
Meanwhile, a simple project – two 3-foot-by-6-foot trenches in the shadow of the Turtle's head – drew hundreds of curious people.
Some 430 people stopped by during Fridays and Saturdays in September and October while workers for UB's Archaeological Survey dug into the footprint of the Cataract House hotel, a nexus of Underground Railroad activity in the mid-1800s. The hotel, which operated from 1825 until it was destroyed by fire in 1945, employed a corps of highly trained African-American waiters who helped enslaved people flee to freedom in Canada.
After the dig, on the edge of Heritage Park, Perrelli, director of the Archaeological Survey, evaluated the success of the project.
"We now know with a fair degree of certainty where our excavation units are located within the building footprint," he said. "By design, we are digging at a point near the joining of two sections of the Cataract House that were built at different times and with different materials."
He said the debris and foundation materials recovered from the 51-inch deep excavations reflected the historical record, that they had been bulldozed into the basement after the fire. The loose artifacts found in the excavation sites were mostly from 1920 or later, he said.
The greatest benefit of the dig was interaction with the public, he said, which "has been excellent and overwhelmingly positive." He estimated that as many as 1,000 people looked at the site and many more followed the team's reports on social media.
"These interactions were up-close and personal, often lasting several minutes to large portions of our day in the field with many people returning more than once to see the dig and our progress," said Perrelli. "Every site visitor was given an information pamphlet about the project and Underground Railroad context and history. Most were unaware of the significance of the hotel site and its history."
The two excavation sites are now filled in for the winter. There are plans to dig next year slightly south of the 2017 sites, said Perrelli. This is closer to where the original hotel was built in the early 1800s. The plan is to find "less demolition debris and more intact archaeological deposits from older contexts – contexts more clearly associated with our research topic of the hotel as a stop on the Underground Railroad." Any artifacts unearthed at the site could become part of museum displays in the Underground Railroad Interpretive Center.
Bradberry said he heard many suggestions for the Turtle's reuse, including a theater, planetarium, museum, hotel, entertainment complex or "tearing it down and leaving it as open green space."
His view, he said, is "The space immediately adjacent to the State Park represents the city’s best opportunity to capture the visitors' attention and inspire their interest in Niagara beyond the Falls."