“Grand old buildings have a story to tell” by Erin St. John Kelly, OpEd for The Buffalo News

Originally published as, “Grand old buildings have a story to tell,” by Erin St. John Kelly, OpEd for The Buffalo News, January 1, 2013.

I bring everyone who visits me in Buffalo on a tour of its vestigial heavy industry – the grain-storing and shipping, steel-smelting, car-making Buffalo. I love its earnest heart. The grand finale of the tour is a Beaux Arts columned building of stone, marble and copper that lies on the shore of Lake Erie at the edge of town, where it turns into Lackawanna.

I felt like the building was a secret. It is behind a chain-link fence, surrounded by overgrown bushes. It seemed forgotten, so I wasn’t worried about it going anywhere between my tours. I didn’t know it had a name, or what purpose it once had.

Mystery revealed. It’s the Bethlehem Steel North Administration Building. I know this because Lackawanna Mayor Geoffrey Szymanski wants to demolish it. Recently, a court order was lifted giving the green light for demolition. What an awful way to kick off 2013 for Buffalo architecture. Panicked preservationists are picketing, petitioning and begging him not to do it. My only hope is that Rep. Brian Higgins will see the beauty and possibility in saving Bethlehem Steel to make it a part of the waterfront development he supports.

Buildings tell stories about “when” and “how” and, perhaps most essentially, “why” a place is. A city’s children need to know, its immigrants need to know, its visitors and regular citizens need to know about the hard work and great wealth that built this place so they can know what’s possible. History is inspiration.

Buffalo, Lackawanna and Niagara Falls have downtowns like once handsome faces smashed and flattened. There are gaping holes like punched-out teeth in once tight rows of houses and stores. Entire blocks are flat and weedy. Over the last 50 years, they have been cleared in the name of progress, which turned into buildings not built and parking lots for cars not coming.

It doesn’t have to go this way. In the two years I have lived here, two grand hotels that had been horrible embodiments of decline have been reopened. Their renovations have begun to revive the area and general optimism about the city. It can be done with Bethlehem Steel.

A year ago, Buffalo hosted the National Preservation Conference. Tourists and preservationists roamed the city praising its architecture. Szymanski stubbornly refuses to entertain any plan but immediate demolition for Bethlehem Steel. Sadly, he can’t picture a grand public space where the citizens of his town once lined up to get their paychecks. But preservationists can. We have real reuse plans. We need the government to help us.

The owners of Pennsylvania-based New Enterprise Stone and Lime Co. were allowed to let the building deteriorate to the point that it is forcing a demolition. I hope someone has the imagination to see his name on a plaque, to create a legacy for his family name and for Western New York.

One of Buffalo’s great shames is the 1950 demolition of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Larkin Building. But it also has some significant saves, like Louis Sullivan’s Guaranty Building. Even children gasp at its ornate engravings and carvings of terra cotta and copper. That building is on a different tour I give, one I’d like to be able to add the Bethlehem Steel Building to. The field where the Larkin Building’s broken pieces were dumped and buried is on the way to the Bethlehem Steel Building. Please help so that my tour’s grand finale isn’t a similar site in Lackawanna.


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