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Loss of pre-Civil War building 'big blow' to African-American corridor

Fire Wednesday destroyed a pre-Civil War building that was to become part of a new attraction in the Michigan Street African American Heritage Corridor.

The two-story federal-style brick building at 68 Sycamore St. was to have been restored as an African-American art gallery with artist work spaces. Developer Rocco Termini, who bought the building in July, planned to connect it to a three-story building next door, which was not damaged by the fire.

"Sycamore and Michigan is a part of the corridor, and this is a big blow," said Karen Stanley Fleming, who chairs the Michigan Street African American Heritage Commission.

[Gallery: Fire destroys historic building on Sycamore Street]

"There are too many vacant parcels already along the corridor, so every building that goes down detracts from the ability to understand the early- and mid-20th-century greatness of the corridor in its biggest day," she said.

Fleming said Termini's project would have been a great addition to the "fabric of art and culture" along the corridor, which extends from First Shiloh Baptist Church at Pine and Swan streets to Bethel AME Church at Michigan Avenue and W. Ferry Street.

Rocco Termini bought the two buildings on Sycamore Street to save them from demolition. He planned to connect them and create an African-American art gallery and artist live/work spaces. (John Hickey/News file photo)

Termini said he will determine in coming days if his plan can work with the remaining, larger building.

"We were looking to start in the spring and open in the beginning of next year," Termini said. "Now, I'm not really sure. We have to rethink the whole thing, but we're certainly going to try."

The two-alarm fire broke out around 3 a.m. Termini said he learned from firefighters that boards in the back of the building had been removed and squatters had been inside. He suspects they may have inadvertently caused the fire by trying to stay warm.

"There was no other way that building could have caught on fire," Termini said. "There was no gas or electric in the building. It's just sad that in this day and age you have people living in abandoned buildings."

Preservation Buffalo Niagara had played a key role in trying to preserve the building.

Concerned by its deteriorating condition, the organization had contacted the building's previous owner, Nancy Singh, who they found to be unresponsive. Next, they researched the building to get it locally landmarked, and then went to housing court to block her demolition request. The organization reached out to Termini about him buying it, and helped identify funding sources and explored uses with other partners.

"Unfortunately, with underused and vacant properties, fires all too often happen," said Christiana Limniatis, Preservation Buffalo Niagara's director of preservation services. "But in this case, we had a developer involved, and things were moving along. That makes this all the more heartbreaking."

Rocco Termini purchased the buildings on Sycamore Street to save them from demolition. (John Hickey/Buffalo News)

When the red brick building was erected, John Tyler occupied the White House as the 10th president of the United States.

Frederick Douglass, who escaped from slavery five years earlier, was in Buffalo to attend the pro-abolitionist National Convention of Colored Men. The Civil War was almost 20 years away.

"People who lived in the house rubbed elbows with all the abolitionists that went to the Michigan Baptist Church around the corner," Limniatis said.

The 4,000-square-foot house appeared as a residential address in the city directory for the first time in the 1844, when it was the home for German immigrant Joseph Staub, a shoemaker. It had a saddleback roof, distinctive end parapets and chimneys, and stone lintels over windows and doors that had been painted white.

The 6,000-square-foot federal-style building next door appeared in the 1849 city directory for the first time under the name of Eliza Smith, who took in boarders, including a cigar maker.

"There is no place in that corridor for anything like what we were planning, and the corridor should become a tourist attraction," Termini said. "No one is going to go there without things to draw people."

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