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Statler awhirl in restoration Crews work to return 100,000 square feet to immediate use

Workers replastered ceilings, patched walls and ground and burnished a once-hidden terrazzo floor on Tuesday, some of the many signs that the historic Statler Towers is springing back to life.

Up to 10,000 people are expected in the building starting Friday for the three-day Buffalo Irish Festival, when the public gets its first look inside the formerly mothballed space that Buffalo businessman Mark Croce took title to a little more than five months ago.

Croce is returning 100,000 square feet of the cavernous property -- about one-eighth of its total size -- back to immediate use. He predicts it will become the leading destination in Western New York for weddings and sophisticated nighttime entertainment.

The building's luster and grandeur will become more evident by mid-October, Croce said, when public space in the basement, the first floor and the mezzanine are about 85 percent complete.

"Nobody's ever done a project on this scale except Ellsworth Statler when he built it. So, I guess I'm today's rendition of Ellsworth, because I'm trying to bring back what he envisioned," Croce said.

"This is a hospitality-based building, and it was bastardized over the years and I'm trying to bring it back to the hospitality use it was created for. This will be the go-to place in almost all of New York State outside of Manhattan. I'm that confident."

The project is generating 70 construction jobs and 150 to 200 permanent jobs within the next six months.

Croce said interest in the building from brides and possible tenants has already exceeded expectations.

"My sales and marketing assistant can't even keep up with it. I have to hire a second assistant already, and we haven't had our first function yet," Croce said.

The first of 50 weddings is booked for the Terrace Room on Oct. 8, while the National Trust for Historic Preservation conference will hold opening and closing events in mid-October for an estimated 2,000 attendees.

"We think he's done a marvelous job. He's done much more than what we expected just to have the Statler open for the national conference," said Henry McCartney, executive director of Preservation Buffalo Niagara.

The next big date is Nov. 4, when the Terrace Room, Grand Lobby, Lobby Bar and Palm Court Bar on the first floor, and the Rendezvous Nightclub in the basement are slated to open, with the Golden Ballroom to be finished later in the month.

Also opening around that time will be the Georgian Ballroom, Chinese Room and Grover Cleveland Library on the mezzanine level.

What Croce calls Phase I will be 100 percent completed at a cost of about $3 million by New Year's Eve, when the building hosts the Grand Ice Ball and an estimated 5,000 holiday revelers.

At that time, Croce said, the Statler will be poised to be the prime destination for weddings and sophisticated entertainment in all of Western New York.

"I can't wait -- it's going to blow people's minds. The place is so spectacular and so terrific. Every [woman] who has walked in here that has wanted it for weddings has said yes. They know the splendor, they know the grandeur, they see the commitment, they know I'm spending money where my mouth is."

Among the highlights:

* The former Rendezvous Room, Croce said, will be a "high-end, sophisticated, sexy nightclub" that recalls the cabaret era when the building opened.

"This is going to be a showstopper -- it will be the hottest nightclub this city has ever seen," Croce said. "The room will have black [decor] and black crystal chandeliers and hot pink accents. It's going to be spectacular."

* With the slogan "Bringing Happy Back," the Statler will offer an all-you-can-eat grand buffet for $5 in the Grand Lobby, with food stretched across a 60-foot-long table serving carved prime rib, roast beef, shrimp and turkey.

"You will be able to come in and get a $30 or $40 meal every Friday for $5 starting at 4 o'clock. At those prices, you can't get an appetizer or cocktail at most places," Croce said.

* There will be a custom 2,700-gallon koi pond outside the Palm Court Bar, with water coming out of a terra cotta lion's head.

* The former Jazz Club is expected to open in 2012, along with a sports bar that could be coupled with a Western New York sports hall of fame.

* On the panoramic 18th floor, Croce is planning to open a nightclub, also in 2012, that would overlook the city and Lake Erie from its perch above Niagara Square and the new federal courthouse.

"This is the coolest view in Buffalo," Croce said. "It would be the most sophisticated, state-of-the-art, top-of-the-line club."

Croce said he is in negotiations with a "high-profile tenant" to rent the rest of the 18th floor.

Croce also expects several retailers. So far, Muscoreil's Fine Desserts, which will open on the first floor and have patio dining on Delaware Avenue. The established wedding cake provider will have a consultation room for customized wedding cakes. A Thai and sushi restaurant also will be opening.

Croce said he is spending $200,000 to strip, grind and finish 25,000 square feet of terrazzo floors, $400,000 on draperies, $100,000 on carpets and $60,000 on Oriental rugs.

That alone is more than the $700,000 he paid to buy the building -- $200,000 plus back taxes. Now he's ready to show doubters the Statler is going to be something special.

"This is the most fabulous location in Western New York, and we're in the epicenter of the city. I love doing the impossible. There are a lot of naysayers, and I love proving them wrong," he said.

email: msommer@buffnews.com