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Razing of grain elevator begins

A backhoe smashed into brick and reinforced concrete Tuesday, disassembling portions of the historic Wheeler-GLF Grain Elevator, after State Supreme Court Justice Timothy J. Walker signed an order Monday allowing the emergency demolition to proceed.

The start of demolition came one week after Walker set aside a preservation group's temporary restraining order and attempt to stop the wrecking ball.

James Comerford, the city's permit and inspections commissioner, had ordered the demolition at 339 Ganson St. earlier this month, claiming that the Wheeler elevator, the complex's oldest building, and an adjacent feed mill posed a threat to public safety.

"The first thing it will do is provide safety for our employees, so we don't have to shut down our operations on that side of the building," said Ron Chapin of Ontario Specialty Contracting, which is based at the site. "We are tearing down what needs to be torn down, and keeping what we can save," Chapin said, referring to two main buildings that will remain.

The Wheeler elevator opened in 1909 and was purchased 20 years later by GLF, which added the feed mill. The complex closed in the mid-1970s. It had unattended code violations against a subsequent owner and Ontario Specialty Contracting after the company purchased it in 2006 with an eye toward expansion.

The company's intentions fueled skepticism among Buffalo Preservation Board members about whether the buildings needed to be torn down. The board voted unanimously March 3 to oppose demolition after a request to schedule a site visit for the board and possibly an engineer was rebuffed.

Comerford said he reached his conclusion after three department inspections and an engineering report submitted by Schenen & Associates of East Aurora on behalf of the owner. The report concluded the buildings were in disrepair and needed to be demolished.

Buffalo has the largest collection of grain elevators in one place in the world. They are eligible for designation on the National Register of Historic Places. Last week, a new Travel Channel series came to Buffalo, spending a day filming the hulking structures.

"If you want a museum on the development of the grain elevator and its influence on modern architecture, it's the three on Kelly Island -- the Great Northern, the Wheeler and General Mills," said Tim Tielman, executive director of Campaign for Greater Buffalo, which tried to halt the demolition in court.

"The National Trust [for Historic Preservation] is coming in October [for its annual conference], and here we're demolishing one of them."

Tielman said it's the latest in a series of "destructive actions" involving historic sites in the Old First Ward in recent years. "We're losing the fabric of Irish and First Ward culture at precisely the time when the magnificent industrial heritage of this area is becoming known to a general public and not just students of architecture," he said.

But Chapin hailed the demolition, which will be done by Ontario Specialty Contracting at an estimated cost of $270,000, for the opportunities it will provide.

"We've created some new businesses there, and it will help us to expand, hire new people and create new jobs," Chapin said.

e-mail: msommer@buffnews.com

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