Written by Dana Saylor-Furman
In July of 1900, architect Lansing Colton Holden submitted plans for a Beaux-Arts masterpiece structure to his client, Lackawanna Steel. It was to be the crowning jewel of the vast Lackawanna Steel grounds. Bethlehem Steel bought out Lackawanna Steel in 1922, and closed down in 1982 -- but the place still looms large in the memories of generations of Western New Yorkers.
Built of brick, terra cotta, and incredibly detailed ornamental copper, the elegant-yet-imposing Administration Building spoke to the power and influence of Lackawanna Steel owner John J. Albright and the giant corporation for which he secured the land. Today, that same building is in danger of demolition, and local preservationists are rising up to convince company and city officials that the building is still worth saving.
The entire site has been owned by Gateway Trade Center since 1985, but “Old North," as the Beax-Arts building was affectionately called, was allowed to deteriorate with little to no code enforcement by the City of Lackawanna. The city recently condemned the building, claiming that its roof and floor collapses have made it a public danger. The Mayor and inspector continue to push for controlled demolition, wherein the entire building is torn down and sent to a hazardous waste dump due to possible asbestos and toxin contamination. No part of the structure would be reused or saved.
David Torke, photographer, local preservationist, and blogger at fixBuffalo, and photographer Lesley Horowitz discovered wrecking equipment tucked away behind the building on May 13, 2012. There was a small notice posted on the back of the building only -- where people on the street would never have seen it.
David immediately put the word out regarding the impending demolition. His role as an urban explorer and blogger -- keeping an eye on local sites and notifying the public about their status -- cannot be overstated. As is the case in other preservation-minded communities, paying attention to changes in the appearance or status of historic buildings is an important first step toward preservation.
Local grassroots activists -- through Facebook groups and organizations like Buffalo's Young Preservationists -- learned about the pending demolition and immediately mobilized. They picketed in front of the building, informed passing motorists about the situation, collected stories, and even created an overnight vigil. Their presence served to raise awareness, and also helped the group get to know one another better, improving the effort's collaborative atmosphere. Social media was utilized to gather photographs of the site and share specific updates.
Meanwhile, Torke, with support from official preservation groups (Campaign for Greater Buffalo and Preservation Buffalo-Niagara), performed behind-the-scenes research and Freedom of Information Act requests that helped uncover the money trail. Through a series of strategic actions, experienced preservationists connected the dots and brought the truth to light: the City of Lackawanna believed that $500,000 in Restore New York Communities Initiative grant money could be used for the demolition, which was incorrect.
Local media was kept informed through a series of press releases, social media networks, and personal contacts. Local television stations, newspapers, and alternative press in Buffalo covered the vigils, meetings, and revelations about the funding of the proposed demolition. Preservation Buffalo-Niagara created an online petition for concerned citizens to make their voices heard.
The press learned that the structure is actually quite sound, contrary to the city's claims, and was reminded to hold the owners of the property accountable. By sharing information and staying connected, the preservationists were able to express the importance of saving the building, while invigorating public opinion and raising awareness.
The most important element of the strategy was, and is, connecting with community members in Lackawanna that were willing to speak out and help lead the charge. Andrea Haxton, a former city council member, introduced herself to the groups rallying, and spoke out at City Hall during a contentious -- and full -- council meeting. Along with numerous supporters, she used the information about the almost-misused Restore New York funds to hold Gateway Trade accountable, forcing them to forgo use of the state-granted $500,000 for demolition purposes. Although it's a small victory, this means that in order to demolish the building, they will have to come up with the money themselves.
This short pause gives us time to bring additional attention to save the endangered building. Despite the city bringing Gateway Trade into court on June 21st, the demolition could happen at any time. We are monitoring the site and keeping in touch with officials and individuals who have information to share. Stay current with events and updates with our Facebook page, where we'll announce our upcoming rally and public hearing in the City of Lackawanna.
Dana Saylor-Furman is an artist, genealogist, historian, and proud resident of Buffalo, New York.