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Sean Kirst: Returning One Seneca Tower to a symbol of civic promise

Barbara Campagna and Susan Penczkowski started on opposite sides of the crowd last Thursday inside One Seneca Tower, but they were drawn toward one another, like magnets.

They kept reacting to the moment in the same delighted way, and they were glad someone else could understand what they were thinking.

Inside the 1970s stone emptiness of the tower's main concourse, they both felt like they'd gone home.

"I love this building," Penczkowski said.

The two women worked there years ago, although for different employers. They both took part last week in a "Buffalo Walks" tour of the building arranged by Working for Downtown, an organization dedicated to vitality in the heart of the city.

The idea of constructing the downtown landmark was announced 40 years ago, at a time when skyscrapers were viewed as big-time civic statements about both relevancy and possibility. By 1967, early ripples of economic anxiety were already drifting through Buffalo, and the goal – by erecting a major league tower near the waterfront – was cementing the notion of being a major city.

Participants of the tour enjoyed the view, including the Erie Basin Marin, from the 37th floor windows. Click on this photo to view more images. (Robert Kirkham/Buffalo News)

The view from the peak of what would be called the Marine Midland Center, then-Erie County Executive John Tutuska said at the time, would reinforce the notion of "an ever-greater and ever-growing City of Buffalo and County of Erie."

The view is still fantastic, but that's not how it played out.

Over the next few decades, changes no one could anticipate swept across the region. Bethlehem Steel – whose long smoking arm wrapped for years along the Lake Erie shoreline – shut off the lights, a moment of emblematic civic trauma. As population drained away, the downtown retail core was staggered by deep alterations in shopping trends. Even Marine Midland, a banking colossus in the 1960s, was acquired by HSBC and eventually left its namesake tower.

In Buffalo, the nation's 20th largest city in 1960, the municipal quest to retain that kind of civic significance – with a 38-floor tower as a skyline exclamation point – was gradually replaced by a simpler, more pragmatic and equally fulfilling 21st century realization:

Being great and being vast don't have to be the same thing.

That didn't hit home until long after they built what is now called One Seneca Tower. By 2013, what might be the most visible Upstate building west of Albany was stone cold empty, a haunting monument to a different time and different dreams, a tower that sent a lonesome signal from a long ways away about municipal struggle.

In other words: It was a 38-story problem, at least until it was purchased last year by the Douglas Development Corp.

Buffalo, as viewed from the 37th floor of One Seneca Tower. Click on this photo to view more images. (Robert Kirkham/Buffalo News)

The Washington D.C. company now promises a $120 million transformation of the complex into residential and commercial space. The company had several representatives at Thursday's walk, including Shana Stegner, Sarah Cashimere and Julie Greene of CBRE Buffalo, whose task, as Stegner put it, "is filling up this office building."

Stegner laid out the mission: Energize the tower, and you link Canalside to the central business district. She displayed drawings that showed big changes at the open plaza at the foot of the building, including an array of shops and businesses. She said work to create 100 residential units in a western wing, near the base, is already underway.

She pointed out how partitions made of "softer" brown materials would be used to break up the sense of loneliness in the plaza, where a new "windscreen" would impede the legendary Lake Erie gusts that get a running start and turn into a blitzing linebacker on winter afternoons, beneath the tower.

The windy reference led to an exclamation from Campagna, 75, who carries a card that reads, "Retired from working but not from life." She told the entire group a story: She remembered a snowy day when she got out of the car and the wind was howling so hard she could barely walk across the street. She was using crutches, the result of a skiing injury.

Campagna waved her hand to a couple of maintenance workers, seeking their help.

They came over. They each took an arm. They glanced at each other.

They picked her up bodily and carried her inside.

A true Buffalo story, said an appreciative Stegner.

"If you look from the other end of Main Street," Campagna said, "this building is the presence."

As for me, I remembered driving to the building with a buddy in the late 1970s, when we were teenagers. We had a kid's fascination about going to high places and a driver's license that finally gave us a shot at getting there. City Hall, with its observation deck, was easy to do. But we wanted the view from the highest point you could reach in Buffalo.

I remembered how we managed to sneak up to the upper floors, how bemused workers let us peer through the windows at the astounding spectacle caused by sunlight cascading across Lake Erie, beneath the moody lakefront skies.

So my question for Stegner and her colleagues was about the tower itself, whether something might be done to transform the harsh and grate-like 1970s design into a more intimate southern anchor of the skyline.

View of the Skyway, main lobby area, One Seneca Tower. Click on this photo to view more images. (Robert Kirkham/The Buffalo News)

Indeed, the view looking up is still how most everyday Western New Yorkers relate to the tower, because you can see it from everywhere, pretty much all the time. Linda Stephens, a participant in the tour, noted she has spotted the tower from as far away as Route 219, out by Springville.

Stegner and her colleagues said they believe the tower will be cleaned and illuminated, but they weren't sure of what other changes might be in the plans. The question is this:

Everyone can see One Seneca Tower. But is there a way to make people feel something about their city, when they do?

From the inside, that question is much easier. The most powerful aspects of the tour came with the big views on the upper floors. The place still seemed well-kept, a kind of 1970s museum, and the occasional out-of-time reminder of what it used to be - a Christmas tree here, a telephone at a receptionist's station there - created the feeling almost of a science fiction movie, as if the former occupants all vanished at once.

Campagna and Penczkowski knew better. They ended up walking the 37th floor side by side, recalling the days when the corridors and meeting areas seemed as familiar as their own living rooms. They were joined by Debbie Di Matteo, an M & T Bank vice president who organized the tour as a member of Working for Downtown. She worked for 16 years for Marine Midland, in the tower,  and she remembered how there used to be a restaurant on the 38th floor.

"We'd take our big clients there, to a room where they'd have an elegant meal and a view of the setting sun and the lake, and then we'd take them downstairs and walk to the Aud and to a Sabres game," she said.

Wistfully, she added: "And the Sabres were good."

Penczkowski and Campagna paused to look with awe across the city from the 37th floor, a view dominated by so many trees that Buffalo – from above – resembled a forest. Faraway, the mist of Niagara Falls burst from the green landscape like a small and distinct fist.

Campagna's gaze was drawn to her childhood neighborhood on the West Side. She said she grew up to become the only woman to take part in an early Marine Midland management program, alongside 24 men, in the late 1960s.

The theater on the main floor. Click on this photo to view more images. (Robert Kirkham/Buffalo News)

She aced it and kept going, working her way through a string of suburban branches until the bank finally brought her downtown, to serve in commercial lending. At that point in time, reaching the tower carried a certain power. It meant she had arrived.

"Working and learning the business was a wonderful experience," said Di Matteo, who saw Campagna as a mentor at a time when there were few women at management level, a tale of allegiance that still binds them to the building.

Penczkowski said she was executive assistant and tenant relations manager for S. Jon Kreedman, owner of the tower for many years. She remembered when a 250-seat theater off the entrance area was in frequent use, when employees would pack inside for presentations. Standing in the emptiness of the main concourse, with its long escalators and wide-open space, she recalled the ultimate statement of belonging:

"My name used to be on the console."

Swept up in those memories, amid the echoes of one of Upstate's tallest buildings, she again used the word "home."

The challenge now is making all of Buffalo feel the same way.

Sean Kirst is a columnist for the Buffalo News. Email him at skirst@buffnews.com or read more of his work at https://buffalonews.com/author/skirst/.

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