Historic preservation is a tricky business, and one that is almost never “finished.” An iterative process that involves complex social, regulatory, and financial processes, each preservation project is unique to its place, but also can inform other projects.
We at Preservation Buffalo Niagara are giving continued thanks to Mr. Rocco Termini for his role in saving the pair of boarding homes at 68 and 72 Sycamore Street. Not only is this a successful addition for his own endeavors, this is a victory for the community at large. The new discoveries made within these homes provide us with an opportunity to learn about this style of architecture, the lives of the people who lived here, and Buffalo’s development and ethnic population changed over the city’s history.
Their preservation also gives us a window into the preservation process and how we might succeed at saving other important buildings and sites throughout Buffalo and Western New York. We hope that sharing this journey will lead to future preservation successes.
1) Identify buildings in need of protection
The deteriorated state of these obviously older buildings are what first drew our attention. Some quick research showed that the City of Buffalo and the New York State Historic Preservation Office had previously identified them as historic and worthy of the National Register. The two residential buildings at 68 and 72 Sycamore are distinctive for two primary reasons. The first is that they are among the few buildings pre-dating the Civil War still standing in Buffalo, both dating back to the 1840’s. Second, these are the few Federal-styled buildings, the architecture of their time period, that are still well intact in the City. Many other Federal style buildings lost their original integrity through a series of alterations before falling into neglect and demolition.
Both buildings serve as a living timeline for how Buffalo’s neighborhoods have changed over time. Since the buildings were clearly historic and already identified, they were prime candidates for a proactive preservation approach, even though at the time, there were no plans for demolition.
2) Contact the building owners
Determining that the buildings were historic, but also being neglected, we reached out the existing owner to let her know that the buildings were considered valuable and that there were potential incentives for their redevelopment. We wanted to start with the current owner to find out what their intentions were and what the barriers were to redevelopment, in case we could be of assistance. Unfortunately, the owner never responded, so in this case, we were unable to help her.
3) Research the buildings
While a straight forward process, researching a property involves consulting a variety of different sources, including recorded deeds, tax assessment records, city directories, maps and atlas, newspapers, and census records, just to name a few. This isn’t just to confirm the details of a building’s construction and ownership history, but to provide a fuller context for its history and function.
After detailed research, we discovered that 68 Sycamore was built in 1843 by Joseph Staub, a German immigrant who worked as a shoemaker and 72 Sycamore was built by Eliza Quirk in 1845. In studying the information available about the original and subsequent owners and their tenants, 68 and 72 Sycamore provide a unique glimpse into the societal and cultural changes of Buffalo from an early Canal town to the present day. With this information, we’re able to see the broad pattern of development in the neighborhood, as it evolved from an enclave of newly arriving working-class European immigrants with some racial integration to a working-class African American neighborhood. Which is even more fascinating when you consider that the Sycamore-Michigan-Broadway area had been a small Black neighborhood dating back to the 1820’s and was home to the famed Michigan Street Baptist Church (511 Michigan Avenue), was visited by abolitionist Frederick Douglass, and is believed to have been a stop on the Underground Railroad.
4) Propose local landmark status
Listing properties on State and National Registers of Historic Places is an important step towards commemorating a property’s history and establishing eligibility for tax credits and other funding opportunities. But unfortunately, it isn’t enough to save endangered structures. Legal power to protect our historic buildings rests chiefly with the local preservation ordinance.
Buffalo adopted the Preservation Ordinance as Chapter 13 of the City Charter in 1974. The stated goals include, but are not limited to: promoting intellectual and cultural well-being, enhancing visual and aesthetic diversity, and stabilizing and improving property values throughout the city. More specifically, the Preservation Ordinance establishes the Preservation Board and provides the framework and process for the Preservation Board to designate local landmarks and historic districts and to review permits for alterations to those properties.
Properties under consideration for local landmark status must meet one or more of the nine Criteria for Designation, which speak to the property’s or district’s historical, architectural, and/or cultural significance. Submitted applications are then reviewed by the Preservation Board and if approved, is forwarded to the Common Council’s Legislative Committee for review before moving on to a vote before the full Common Council.
Because 68 and 72 Sycamore easily exceeded the minimal requirements, and because we worked hard with our members to convince the Common Council to support our application, the landmarking process took about three months. The application was immediately approved by the Preservation Board after its March 2017 submission, then unanimously approved by both the Legislative Committee and the full Common Council in May.
5) Intervene in housing court
Aside from a 2016 fire that struck 68 Sycamore, both boarding homes were still fairly intact and structurally sound. While we were working through the local landmarking process, the owner made a demolition request through Housing Court, seeking to show that demolition should be permitted as the structural issues constituted an “emergency.” PBN brought engineers to Court and worked with attorneys to make sure that the Judge had a complete picture not only of the historic nature of the buildings, but also of the legal landmark process that was concurrently underway, as well as the true structural condition of the buildings and options for making sure they didn’t pose a safety hazard.
6) Identify a new owner
When it became clear that the current owner had no willingness to save the buildings, we began to reach out to potential new owners, and Rocco Termini had the vision to take on the project if PBN committed to assisting. “Do I want to do it? No. But someone had to step forward,” Termini said. “These are the oldest buildings in Buffalo … They’re part of the (Michigan Street African-American Heritage Corridor), and they’re important to Buffalo. To have them torn down would be a travesty to the city.”
7) Identify funding sources
Every project is different in terms of what funding sources may be available to assist with redevelopment. Although this project is still in the planning stages, it is eligible for several different funding sources, including Historic Tax Credits, Low Income Housing Tax Credits, and several New York State grant and low interest loan programs. PBN can work with developers across Western New York to help identify sources of funds.
We will continue to update the community as this particular project moves forward. We hope that you have found this article informative, and that it inspires you to identify, protect, and promote the historic resources in your community!