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Civil War-era home in Fruit Belt gets one last chance to avoid demolition

A battered, much-debated historic home in Buffalo’s Fruit Belt will fall to bulldozers this September unless city officials can find a buyer to salvage it.

For almost a decade, the Civil War-era Italianate home, also known as the Meidenbauer House, has been the subject of fierce debate among developers, preservationists and community groups, who have vied for control of the vacant, city-owned building just east of the burgeoning Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus. 

The city’s plan to demolish the building is a new twist in the 9-year-old saga – and one that has drawn sharp condemnation from preservationists and neighborhood activists. The home has become an icon to some residents who see it as both a testament to the Fruit Belt’s long history and a bulwark against further eastward expansion by the Medical Campus. The neighborhood has shrunk to almost half its physical size since World War II, and community meetings regularly feature tense discussions about land speculation and rising real estate values. 

City officials, meanwhile, say the Meidenbauer House has become a hazard – particularly as the sidewalks and streets around it become more crowded.

“We will try one last time to see if we can find somebody to save the property,” said Lou Petrucci, the deputy commissioner of the Department of Permit and Inspection Services. “If anybody’s out there, we need them to come forward.”  

The current showdown represents the end game in a lengthy battle for control of the Meidenbauer House, which was built in 1865 and repossessed by the city in 2005 when its owners fell behind on taxes. The Fruit Belt Community Development Corp., an arm of St. John’s Baptist Church, had planned to build a new grocery store and parking lot on the parcel, but the proposal fizzled in 2014 when activists objected to the building’s demolition. 

The city then requested proposals from other developers interested in the site but received no serious offers, Petrucci said. City officials determined earlier this summer that the building represented a public safety risk, Petrucci added, in part because it sits so close to other development and activity around the Medical Campus. A planned June demolition was pushed back twice at the request of Preservation Buffalo Niagara and other groups. 

“But this will be the last extension,” Petrucci said. 

Preservationists contend that the Meidenbauer House is historically significant and represents no imminent public safety risk. The two-story, 5,400-square-foot home was built by a German malting family at a time when breweries peppered the Fruit Belt, and the structure achieved local landmark status in 2014 as part of the High Street Historic District. 

Today, the gutters have rotted off the roofline and the second-floor windows gape open. A section of the roof has caved in. Mugwort grows in bushy stands against the foundation. 

Tim Tielman, the executive director of the Campaign for Greater Buffalo History, Architecture and Culture, accuses the city of both failing to maintain and secure the property and moving too quickly to demolish a building he calls “structurally sound.” The most recent city assessment lists the Meidenbauer House in “fair” condition, which indicates “that the structure shows definite signs of deferred maintenance … but the house is usable,” according to the state assessors' manual. 

Petrucci said the house has continued to decline since that assessment. The city has sought to keep the building boarded and free of debris – though it could easily be entered through a 6-foot hole in the east wall when a reporter visited Wednesday. 

Some preservationists have also questioned the politics of the demolition. In emails obtained by The Buffalo News, one high-ranking city official told preservation groups that Common Council President Darius Pridgen "wants this demolished" – though Pridgen said he only supported razing the house if a buyer could not be found to restore it. 

“I am not shying away from the fact that if the building cannot be sold and cannot be rehabbed … then safety should trump preservation,” Pridgen said. “It’s easy for someone who does not live in that area, and does not walk past that house every day, to say, ‘Leave it in that condition for years until we find a buyer.’ I don’t think that’s fair to the neighborhood.”

As the clock ticks down for 204 High St., both city officials and preservationists say they’re proactively searching for a buyer. On Tuesday, members of the real estate division met with at least one prospective candidate, the restoration specialist John Gulick, who has made multiple attempts to purchase the home since 2010. Several other developers, including Savarino Companies, also expressed tentative interest this week, Petrucci said. 

Gulick said he did not submit a formal proposal during the latest call because he believed the city was already aware of his interest in converting the home into three apartments. But after what he called a "productive" meeting with city officials, Gulick plans to submit a new proposal and has already contacted appraisers to begin work on his application. 

“There are several hurdles still – a number of things need to happen for this to go forward,” said Gulick, who expects the renovation to come in under $1 million. “But I’m an eternal optimist, and that’s why I’m still looking at this project.” 

Community activists, meanwhile, say they’ll stay vigilant until the property is sold. The future of the Meidenbauer House is sensitive, said Veronica Hemphill-Nichols, who heads the Fruit Belt/McCarley Gardens Housing Task Force, because so much of the historic Fruit Belt has already been demolished. The neighborhood, which once extended west to Main Street, contracted to make way for the midcentury expansions of Buffalo General Hospital and Roswell Park Comprehensive Cancer Center – now anchor institutions at the Medical Campus. 

The campus’ more recent growth has further intensified development pressure on the neighborhood, Petrucci acknowledged, and increased the value of vacant, developable lots. Some 140 demolition permits were issued in the Fruit Belt in the last 12 years, city data shows. As part of their fight against the grocery store in 2014, preservationists handed out flyers that read “the 50-year war on the Fruit Belt must stop.” 

“When you look at the Fruit Belt from the air, it looks like farmland,” Hemphill-Nichols said. “They’re constantly knocking down buildings for absolutely no reason.”

“But that building poses no imminent danger at all, and there’s no reason it needs to come down,” she added. “My goal in life is to get that building to [a developer] who is going to restore and reuse it.” 

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