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Historic East Aurora home where Price founded toy company is subject of demolition debate

From the sidewalk on Main Street, the beige house where Irving Price lived during the Depression when he founded his famous toy company looks handsome and dressed up, its windows flanked by dark shutters.

Head closer, up the drive, and it is clear that the paint is peeling on the 1840s-era home, which is at the center of a dispute between preservationist East Aurora village trustees and the owner, who wants to demolish it for parking.

The neglected house is an example of the costly limbo in which historic properties can languish and deteriorate while people figure out what to do.

“People don’t come to East Aurora to look at a parking lot,” said Ernie Scheer, a village trustee and Orchard Park Middle School teacher. “They’re not making 1840-something buildings anymore. Once they’re gone, that’s it. It’s over. … If we lose this fight, it will be a sad day for East Aurora.”

Trustees have been mulling ways to save the house. One has even suggested buying, restoring and reselling the home where Price, a retired Woolworth executive and village mayor, was living with his family when Herman Fisher persuaded him to start Fisher-Price.

That history does not, however, inspire the current owner of 259 Main St.

Gene Wachala, who also co-owns Pasquale’s Italian restaurant across the street at 242 Main, has found little to love, or save, about the house, which has holes in the foundation, water damage on the second floor and few interior architectural features he admires. The property is valued at $340,000 and contributes $2,400 to the village tax rolls.

“Nothing is original in that house except the wood the house is built with,” said Wachala. “We’re doing it out of need. We need more parking,” he said.

Parking spillover

Wachala has yet to put forward a formal proposal for a lot, but during an impromptu interview earlier this month at his newly renovated and enlarged restaurant, he said he has had parking in mind from the start. Two years ago he paid $250,000 for the Price house and also bought a neighboring house at 253 Main for $125,000.

Since last fall, when he reopened Pasquale’s with a new bar and takeout area and an extra 2,500 square feet, customers have been filling up the lot out front and taking up spaces of neighboring businesses. Police say Dunkin’ Donuts has complained three times about the Pasquale’s parking spillover.

Wachala said he did not know 259 Main had important history. It’s in such poor shape he doesn’t think it’s worth fixing. A recent leak on the second floor damaged the ceiling and led to a water bill of a few thousand dollars.

While he would be interested in putting up another building, he does not want to fix up the existing one.

“There comes a point in time when property costs too much to bring it up to standard,” Wachala said.

If someone had a yen for the old place, he would let them move it elsewhere.

“They’re more than welcome to have that house,” he said.

After three decades as a local restaurateur and a major employer, Wachala said he doesn’t deserve grief about his plan for more parking.

“I just don’t understand it,” he said.

Building tells a story

For Scheer, Wachala’s reasons aren’t compelling enough to merit demolition.

“People come here to look at the nice architecture,” he said. “They like the look of the place. They like the feel of the place. ... There’s no need to knock the buildings down.”

And the high cost of repairs to Wachala?

“If he didn’t want the expense of fixing the building,” said Scheer, “he shouldn’t have bought it.”

Old houses, he said, help tell the story of the village, which is known for its history.

By 1930, Irving Price, the wealthy village mayor, was living at 259 Main with his wife and children in the house built by Erasmus Adams, son of one of Aurora’s first settlers. He was in his mid-40s and had retired early as an executive of Woolworth’s. His wife, Margaret Evans Price, was an artist, known for her children’s book illustrations.

Their style was generous and creative, according to a neighbor’s detailed reminiscence kept at the Aurora Historical Society. In the backyard, they had a tennis court, football field and baseball diamond.

“…You can imagine all the gang of kids that would gather around to play,” wrote the late Norm Yossie, who built a fort in the backyard with the Prices’ son, David.

One Sunday in 1930, the boys were playing in the cozy living room when they were shooed away so Herman Fisher could talk with Price about starting the toy company.

Mrs. Price was known for her treasure hunts, which featured colored ribbons in trees that served as clues to a prize of candy or a trinket buried in a cigar box.

“We would then have a great lunch and go home happy with our new-found treasure,” wrote Yossie in 2000, the year before he died.

“I’m sure she was the only one in Aurora that would ever think of doing that for the neighborhood kids.”

Creative forces

For Fisher-Price toy designer Lauren Bingel, Yossie’s memories of the Prices and their house are a tribute to the creative forces in East Aurora before the toy company started.

“It was the place to go for creative thought,” said Bingel, an informal company historian. “They sound like the coolest couple this side of the Mississippi.”

The Prices also were well known for saving the once-dilapidated house in East Aurora that President Millard Fillmore built, moving it from its spot behind the Aurora Theatre to its current home on Shearer Avenue so that Mrs. Price had a quiet place to paint.

Irving Price’s rescue of that house makes the current threat all the more tragic, said Scheer.

“He and Margaret Price are flipping out right now,” he said. “There’s absolutely no way that they would accept that.”

Others on the Village Board say they will do what they can to save the house. Of the parking lot plan, Trustee Kevin Biggs said, “I won’t support that – ever.”

As if to prepare for a battle to save the Price house, the board demonstrated its reluctance to demolish it for parking last week when it challenged Wood Funeral Home’s plan to knock down an unused, and unhistoric, garage and apartment.

The owner said he needed to expand parking from 27 spaces to 40 to have enough room for visitors and for piles of plowed snow.

Yet the board questioned the wisdom of losing tax revenue from a building assessed at $92,000. The funeral home failed to win enough votes to pass its environmental review. Next month, Wood will present another plan to the board.

At the Price house, the question of parking is more complicated. The village has yet to develop an approach to saving a deteriorating building with an important history, said Trustee Patrick Shea.

A historic designation alone wouldn’t protect a house that needs fixing, he said. Demolition looms if it becomes unsafe. If it is in good shape, moving the house off the property just to replace it with parking doesn’t appeal, either.

Instead, Shea has proposed using a village development corporation to buy the house, fix it up and sell to someone else.

“I don’t know if it’s the answer,” Shea said. “I just threw it out there.”

Wachala knows the subject is sensitive. He was reluctant to elaborate beyond the initial interview. When contacted again by phone, he declined to continue and hung up.

“I’d rather not even say anything about it,” Wachala said. “Have a good day.”