Nearly two decades of sparse maintenance and disuse had left the historic Tonawanda Armory in such disrepair the City of Tonawanda declined to buy it for $1. But a local businessman took on the daunting task of restoring it to its once-sumptuous splendor.
With an aura and decor that evoke a bygone era, the Tonawanda Castle, as it is now known, is a lavish banquet and event center. It was built in 1896 by the U.S. military and used for storing arms and housing soldiers. The armory became a community center after the National Guard left in 1986. From 1996 to 2003, it was vacant.
That year, Iranian immigrant Mostafa Tanbakuchi bought it for $70,000 at an auction and began a four-year restoration.
"When I was about halfway through the process, I thought about selling it," Tanbakuchi said. "I had spent so much money and I was frustrated. I used all my own private money, which is sort of dangerous when you fall in love with your own project. My wife said I was crazy. She's probably right."
Inside, walls and glass were worn and broken, the floors damaged by water. Much of the paint clashed with the original design. Outside, bricks were loose.
"Most of the problem was cosmetic," said the 37-year American resident. "Overall, I was surprised by how solid the building was."
Tanbakuchi describes the imposing site, with its high ceilings, circular rooms and ornate woodwork, as a budding success. In 2010, Tonawanda Castle, which primarily hosts weddings, saw a business increase above 2009, and he expects another this year. Open since 2008, it also hosts business affairs, fundraisers and other events.
It has about 33 weddings booked for 2011 thus far and two for 2012.
"Other business owners have been really appreciative of what I have put together here. I think we can bring this part of town to life," said the one-time owner of an Internet company. "I think it can serve as a catalyst (of growth) for local small businesses, a lot of mom-and-pop shops."
Joyce Santiago, the executive director of the Chamber of Commerce of the Tonawandas, said area businesses are impressed with the Castle's potential to draw people to the area. The Chamber held a women's expo last year where about 80 local businesses had booths.
"It was a tremendous success, not only because of the content but because the Castle played right into the feeling we were going for," Santiago said.
Santiago praised the business' decision to use local companies for decorations and sometimes for catering.
Chuck Bell, who works in economic development for the City of Tonawanda, praised the project. "I think it definitely could bring a lot of people into Tonawanda and North Tonawanda. It's exactly the kind of project we love to see in terms of economic development and helping other businesses."
"It's a draw too," Santiago said, "because we do have the armory in the visiting guide, and I know they do tours also. They do special events that may draw people to the area that otherwise would not come."
The biggest issue, said Tanbakuchi, has been getting the word out.
"We have been heavily advertising, but it is still a secret. A lot of people in Western New York are not aware of such a beautiful, magnificent building. (Nearby residents) know this building as an armory, so the conversion to a banquet hall has been quite the transition."
Tanbakuchi said he has done a lot of print, radio and Internet advertising and hosted bridal shows and nonprofit events to generate publicity for the business, which he said he came to own by chance.
The entrepreneur said he was speaking with the city assessor about an unrelated matter when she, aware of his admiration for historic buildings, suggested that he check out the old Tonawanda Armory.
"I went to two open houses and talked to so many people in the real estate industry who said don't buy it," he said. "I couldn't help it. I just fell in love with it."
After the city declined to buy it, the building went up for public auction in November 2003 because, Tanbakuchi said, it was "not financially feasible for the city to buy and save."
Soon after he bought it, Tanbakuchi set up a website seeking input on what to do with it. Among the more upsetting proposals was demolition with the intent of crushing and reusing the bricks. Later, he said he received unsolicited suggestions, including a generous offer to buy it for use as a private residence.
He decided to keep it, convinced that no one else would have his vision to maintain it and allow tours.
"I don't think any private person should own buildings like this, because of their historical value," he said. "I think the government should own these buildings."
The 38,000-square-foot structure is one of about 120 armories built throughout New York State between the late 1700s and 1940. It is one of about six designed by accomplished New York State architect Isaac Perry. The structures built during the same era as the Tonawanda Armory tend to share its large size and castle-like appearance. Today, fewer than 24 remain as government properties. The high cost of lighting and heating contributed to their being sold.
The cost of heating is still a problem for Tanbakuchi. "We try, but it is still expensive."
Tanbakuchi came to the United States in 1974, when he began his undergraduate studies in Utah. There he met his wife, whose father taught at the University at Buffalo. He came to Buffalo in 1978, when he began studying at UB for his master's degree in engineering. He worked at Motorola and Westinghouse, before opening an Internet and computer networking business in 1986. That company, PC Expanders, was sold in 2006.