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Visitors help us appreciate what we have

I love it when folks like this come to town. They arrived this week from parts as distant as Denmark and Dublin, people – architects, preservationists, professors – who center their professional lives on great buildings.

More than 400 of them are at the Hyatt for the Society of Architectural Historians Conference. They are oohing and aahing at downtown buildings that most of us walk past without a second glance. They tell us how lucky we are to live in a city of brick-and-mortar riches.

The downpour of praise (amid, unfortunately, Thursday’s real-life downpour) inflates our collective ego.

It counteracts letters to the editor blasting preservationists as “obstructionists.” It contradicts the notion – expressed recently by Lackawanna’s mayor – that demolition of historic buildings is “progressive.” It deflates any proposed wrecking-ball remedy for a grand but vacant building – often to create a “shovel-ready” site where the shovels (e.g., Vernor Building, R.I.P.) never come.

It surprises me that, at this point, anyone bothers to make the anti-preservation argument anymore. Yet we just lost the fabulous Bethlehem Steel Administration Building, which rotted in plain sight for decades. Currently in the cross hairs is the iconic Trico complex near the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus.

It’s 2013, not 1993. A legion of buildings once commonly – albeit mistakenly – thought of as eyesores has in recent years paved the road to revival.

From the Ellicott Lofts to the Belesario to Holling Press to the Granite Works, the resurrection of century-old structures has spurred downtown’s repopulation. An irrefutable body of recent evidence argues: Preservation is pragmatic.

So it was nice Thursday to join visiting architectural historians touring downtown’s latest grand resurrection, the Hotel @ the Lafayette.

A building that was a few years ago on the eve of destruction is today a downtown restaurant/hotel/apartment destination.

“We lost a lot of buildings across the country that could have, with a little guidance and creativity, become major assets like this one,” said Richard Longstreth.

Longstreth runs the graduate program in historic preservation at George Washington University and is a past president of the society.

He has not just an aesthetic appreciation of great buildings, but a practical one.

“These buildings are part of an economic regeneration in many cities,” Longstreth told me during a pause in the tour. “Your downtown needs more shots in the arm like this one. … The last time I was here, the Statler was [full].”

The state validated the value of grand old buildings by offering developers historic tax credits to spur their revivals. While the Statler and AM&A’s await resurrection, at least no one these days pushes for demolition.

“There has been a transformation in attitude [about preservation] over the last 30 years, more in some communities than in others,” Longstreth said. “There is still a long way to go.”

We saved the Lafayette Hotel; we destroyed the Bethlehem Steel building. What seems self-evident – that these buildings lure commerce and stamp Buffalo’s identity in an overly homogenized world – is not yet a given. By seeing what we have, these visitors help to open our eyes.