Now closed, East Aurora’s old Ice House on Elm Street appears abandoned and bedraggled – a lone American flag waving above its door and, at curbside, a neatly stacked pile of 14 rolled rugs.
Its historic reputation as an ice house, dating to the late 1890s, holds its share of nostalgic memories for locals who remember its meat locker days into the 1960s, then later as a butcher shop where one could buy a single meatball and also as a restaurant known for awesome fish fries.
But then there is its latest reputation – a bar that was a hot spot for trouble that village police and residents came to know well. It logged the highest number of fight calls, eight, with another 21 disturbance reports to village police over the last three years.
In late January, the state Liquor Authority pulled its liquor license for underage drinking. Things unraveled rapidly for a business also known as Pete’s Pub over the years.
Nearby residents Tuesday told stories of bar patrons smoking, drinking and sometimes vomiting, even at midday, often spilling out onto the sidewalk. Pedestrians would purposely cross Elm to avoid the bar.
And over the last nearly 20 years, more than $250,000 in back taxes and charges stacked up, along with a string of bankruptcy filings by owner Carol Becker of East Aurora, according to Erie County and local government officials who called the bankruptcy filings a deliberate attempt to avoid foreclosure by the county.
But on Thursday, a judicial foreclosure brought the issue to a head. Almost immediately, a company, 33 Elm Street LLC, was formed by two women, and the property was purchased for $91,000.
Mayor Allan Kasprzak hounded the county for more than a year about the unpaid taxes.
“I think it’s a relief for those people who do the right thing in terms of paying their taxes and making sure the property is kept up in a proper manner,” he said.
“We are pleased that we are able to have closure for a piece of property that has consistently frustrated not only those of us in county government, but village officials in East Aurora and the taxpayers of the community,” said Joseph Maciejewski, Erie County’s director of Real Property Tax Services. “The owner of that parcel is someone who we define as a serial filer of bankruptcy. She took advantage of the system by regularly ignoring our efforts to collect on the arrears by filing five different bankruptcies over the past 18 years.”
Becker’s attorney, Robert A. Gleichenhaus, disputed how the controversy has been portrayed.
“Contrary to some of the rhetoric put out by government sources, there was no bankruptcy abuse or any other type of abuse,” he said, noting that Becker’s local clientele unfortunately did not align with East Aurora’s new push for a more upscale clientele.
Now, a new chapter awaits the old Ice House.
New owners Alixandra Martin and Lisa Hennig couldn’t be happier. They knew they took a risk, but have faith their investment will further spur the rebirth of the Elm-Riley Street corridor, just off Main Street near the railroad viaduct.
“We’ve been trying to push Elm Street for 10 years, so this is very exciting. We’d love to extend Main Street this way,” said Martin, owner of the adjacent redFish Art Gallery, founded in 2003. She and her family live in a New York City-styled loft above her gallery, located next to the Ice House.
The Ice House already is sporting a sign advertising it is for lease or sale. The sign went up Monday night. Together with Hennig, co-owner of the Globe Market on Elmwood Avenue in Buffalo, the two women want to see a new business or a few locate in the old Ice House.
Elm Street boasts a bakery, an ice cream shop in an old red caboose, a florist, a pub, an art supply store, a bookstore and two antique shops, to name a few.
A day after the acquisition, attorney Peter J. Sorgi, who represents 33 Elm Street LLC, posted a letter on the Ice House doors. Old furniture and other items were moved out over the weekend.
“It’s a good thing for the village for that transformed area,” he said.
“People came by and had so many nostalgic memories of it,” Martin said. “People were stopping by all weekend. It has a history of its own.”