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High hopes for a saved steeple

The disputed demolition of the former Korean United Methodist Church at the corner of Colvin and Tacoma avenues is completed, and the bricks, boards and plaster have been hauled away – with one notable exception.

The church’s bell tower still stands, alone, slightly off center but straight as an arrow on the otherwise vacant lot.

The tower’s salvation comes from an unlikely angel – the demolition company that was hired to knock it over. While preparing to pull apart the fire-damaged church’s sanctuary and office-classroom wing, the company’s officers took a liking to the tower and the site.

“We ended up buying the property, and we left [the tower] up,” said Sam DeFranks, president of Apollo Dismantling Services of Niagara Falls. “Our goal is to redevelop the site and incorporate the tower.”

Architects are working on concepts for a housing project that could work around the soaring spire – which is more than twice as high as most of the surrounding homes. DeFranks said they hope to submit plans to the city within about 30 days, so he should know fairly soon if they will be repairing the last piece of the church campus or removing it.

“The owners wanted to tear it down,” DeFranks said, “but we knew that preservationists and people in the neighborhood had felt like the tower was a local landmark.”

He said engineers have checked the tower and found it structurally sound. The four-sided needle has a pyramid-shaped roof, elongated windows at the top and a doorway to nowhere about one-third of the way up its east side. It stands on its own foundation, separate from the buildings that were torn down, but will need some reconstruction and cosmetic work, inside and out, DeFranks said.

A few doors down from the tower’s lot, neighbor Bruce Weinheimer was taking a wait-and-see approach.

“We were not really happy when they took down the church,” Weinheimer said. “But if they’re going to develop it for some kind of housing, that’s good. That would be what we would hope for.”

Floyd Matthews, who lives near the property on Saranac Avenue, agrees.

“I was hoping they would keep the steeple,” Matthews said. “I also was hoping for a park there. Housing? Hmm. I guess that’s OK.”

Vince Gregory, of the Saranac Central Block Association, said his group has worked closely with both the United Methodist Church Upper New York Annual Conference, which owned the property until recently, and the demolition company in an effort to maintain the neighborhood’s character.

“From what we know about the housing development, we are happy about that,” Gregory said. “We don’t want a vacant lot there, and the tower has been an eye-catcher for a long time.”

Most of the unhappiness on his block, he said, would be with the previous owners.

“This shows the importance of making people maintain their property. Because it was ignored for so long by the United Methodists, we wound up having all the vandalism and the fire,” Gregory said, making it unappealing for any prospective buyer.

Tom Yots, executive director of Preservation Niagara, said he had heard rumors that the developers would keep the tower but was not enthused.

“It’s a mockery,” Yots said. “There could have been a very appropriate use of that entire building.”

The preservation group had hoped to save the whole complex, which was built in the mid-1920s. It was home, until 2005, to a Korean United Methodist congregation, which abandoned the building when maintenance and utility costs became too high. Roving teens and vandals were the only ones using the building, neighbors and police said, until last April, when an arson fire caused an estimated $250,000 in damage.

The United Methodist leadership decided to demolish the unused building rather than attempt restoration. Buffalo’s Preservation Board sought to block the tear-down but missed a hearing deadline in December; despite later protests, crews began pulling down the walls in January.

The building had hosted several congregations in its 80-plus years. It was built as a Baptist church but was sold in the 1930s to a Conservative Jewish congregation. It served as Temple Emanu-El for several decades before being taken over by Scottish Rite Masons. The Methodists bought the church in the late 1990s.

Yots said Preservation Niagara had tried to get approval for a project last year that would have converted the entire complex into apartments, which has been successfully done nearby at the former North Park Presbyterian Church on Parkside Avenue and with the Tacoma Lofts in another former church a block to the north on Tacoma Avenue.

The National Park Service, which oversees Federal Historic Preservation Tax Incentives for rehabilitating historic structures, refused to approve the plan, he said, because it included added “opaque” interior walls.

Instead, all the church walls are gone except for the ones surrounding one tall, lonely tower, waiting for whatever comes next.