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After a year of wrangling, Price house sells in East Aurora

For Daniel Kieffer and Barry Chubb, the saga of the dilapidated house where Irving Price started his famous toy company has a happy ending. They bought it.

After the $320,000 deal closes next month, the real estate brokers will renovate the Price house into their new East Aurora headquarters, complete with historic plaque and an open invitation for people to come inside and see the spot by the fireplace where the toy company plan was hashed out in 1930.

“It was the start of Fisher Price, which helped to grow this community,” said Kieffer. “Stuff like that is so cool. It’s such a part of what the community is.”

The story is a bitter end for Gene Wachala, the restaurateur who agreed to sell after more than a year of wrangling.

Wachala, owner of Pasquale’s Italian restaurant across the street, last year announced he bought the Price house and its Main Street neighbor at auction so he could tear them down, pave the lots for parking and build a mixed-use building.

People complained and the village and the Historic Preservation Commission bestowed landmark status on the property.

In frustration, Wachala put them up for sale last fall. The extensive repairs were too expensive for him to get a return on his investment.

The arrangement to sell the Price house and its neighbor, both 259 and 253 Main Street, in return for some parking for Wachala came together during eight months of negotiation.

To the businessman who has worked in the community for the last three decades, the experience still smarts. Wachala is an employer who recently financed renovation and expansion of his restaurant. He wanted more respect and consideration than he got.

“I think it was just uncalled for,” Wachala said. “The village needs more parking ... It’s clear to me they don’t want us to succeed here.”

He still quibbles with the idea of saving a decrepit house.

“It’s not historic,” Wachala said. “Just because Price lived there for a few years doesn’t mean it was historic.”

His frustration goes deep. The village seems to be unfairly selective about which buildings can be torn down and which can’t, he said. He noticed an old bowling alley was razed a couple years ago. Why was its collapsing wall more relevant than the Price house’s decay?

“The village does what they want to do,” Wachala said. “So be it.”

Mayor Allan Kasprzak had his own frustration with the situation. He wishes Wachala consulted him before buying the houses in a Main Street district with zoning that mandates residential. Demolition requests for buildings 50 years or older must be reviewed by the Historic Commission.

“You need to know the rules of the game going forward,” Kazprzak said. “We have to respond, not just to businesses, but to residents, too.”

During its Depression-era heyday, the Georgian-style house was the home to Irving Price and his family.

Price was the former village mayor, a Woolworth’s executive and, famously, the co-founder of toy company that still bears his name. The creation of Fisher-Price was helped along by a meeting in the living room where Fisher used to smoke a pipe and read Fortune magazine.

As Chubb and Kieffer walked through the ruined house on an afternoon this week, the ceiling fan blades drooped, plaster flaked and wallpaper peeled.

The cost of renovations, which should take about six months, is expected to be about the same as the purchase price. Will it be enough?

“We’re just hoping it stays in the budget we have allocated,” Kieffer said.

They were also sympathetic to Wachala’s frustration. The purchase agreement includes a short-term compromise of parking spaces set aside for Pasquale’s.

A successful restaurant deserves public support.

“If they need more parking spaces,” said Chubb, “that’s a good problem.”

He and Kieffer also own real estate offices in Williamsville and Orchard Park. For the past year, they searched for a new space to replace the office they outgrew on Hamburg Street.

The Price house was an opportunity that fit their business of selling homes.

“Where people live is so much more than the bricks and mortar of the home,” he said.

They plan to make their historic home part of their business name: “Coldwell Banker Aubrey Leonard Realty at the Price House.” They will welcome the curious inside to see the big wooden fireplace.

They intend to display toy memorabilia and use the first floor as office space. The old dining room that still has wall cabinets could be borrowed by people in the community for meetings. Upstairs they’d like two tenants; a business and, perhaps, an artist for the sunny back room.

The deal included the house next door, which they will fix up and sell. It was much more space than they needed, but Chubb and Kieffer were smitten by the history. Fisher-Price toys were part of their childhoods.

To think of his favorite, Chubb pantomimed rolling the school bus he liked with little people he’d put inside. Kieffer was a fan of the bubble-blowing “lawn mower” he still had somewhere.

“Here’s where an idea came to life and now the company’s international,” Chubb said. “We’re not just doing this to get an office.”

“We’re happy,” said Kieffer. “Hope everybody is.”