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Council must vote on landmark status of Frank Lloyd Wright homes

The Buffalo Common Council must decide whether to designate two Frank Lloyd Wright houses as local landmarks, a State Supreme Court justice has ruled.

Justice Paul Wojtaszak said the Council, by not acting on an unanimous recommendation from the Buffalo Preservation Board for designation, violated the city's preservation ordinance by not voting for approval or disapproval.

The ruling is a victory for preservationists, since the Walter V. Davidson House on Tillinghast Place and the William R. Heath House on Soldiers Place meet all nine criteria to become a local landmark.

"These houses obviously deserve to be local landmarks, and are already on the National and State Registers of Historic Landmarks," said Tim Tielman, executive director of the Campaign for Greater Buffalo History, Architecture & Culture, which sued the Council.

"This will protect the public interest not only in having these Frank Lloyd Wright houses with us in perpetuity, but will also protect the integrity of the Buffalo Preservation Board and the preservation ordinance," Tielman said.

The William R. Heath House on Soldiers Place is a prairie home designed by architect Frank Lloyd Wright. (Derek Gee/News file photo)

Owners of both Wright-designed houses oppose local landmark status, contending it would be an unnecessary imposition and lead to more gawkers on their property.

The Preservation Board voted unanimously to designate both houses as City of Buffalo landmarks, just as the Wright-designed Martin House Complex is.

The Council opted to "receive and file" the measure, and so it languished without a vote one way or the other.

It was the third attempt to give local landmark status to both houses.

At a public hearing, a majority of people in attendance favored landmark status, which carries a higher form of protection than state and national designations.

Tielman said the preservation organization went to court to keep the proposal from disappearing a third time.

The city unsuccessfully contended wording in the preservation code meant a vote for approval or disapproval was optional.

The Council's Legislative Committee, which also recommended "receive and file" rather than making a recommendation, will likely have to reconsider. The proposal will be brought back to the Common Council for a future decision.

The city's Corporation Counsel declined to comment.

"I can't think of any reason that the Common Council could give that the two Wright houses don't meet the requirements for landmarking," said Richard Lippes, who represented Campaign for Greater Buffalo in court.

Lippes said the decision now requires votes on proposed city landmarks by preventing future proposals from being "buried" by lawmakers.

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