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Places Generally Matter

The city of Lackawanna is scheduled to demolish the Bethlehem Steel Administration Building, which is an objectively beautiful but neglected building. It wasn’t until the last few weeks that this structure became an important “must-save” for the Buffalo preservationist community, but it is now the subject of overnight vigils and earnest signage urging re-use of the property, and that “this place matters”. 

Would it be nice if the building could be saved and re-used? Absolutely.  It would be absolutely fantastic if there was enough wealth in the area and interest in that site to do something useful, valuable, and forward-thinking with it. But must we? Is this a “must-save”? Why? By what standard? It’s not even particularly persuasive that, e.g., FixBuffalo blogger David Torke has established that the building isn’t as structurally dangerous as the demolition contractor avers

Lackawanna has no preservationist group or community, mostly because it’s the type of city that doesn’t have a lot of time for things that don’t involve work. It’s a gritty, working-class place; not a place with a big architecture enthusiast community. That’s why most – if not all – of the protesters against the demolition of the Bethlehem Steel building come from Buffalo. It would be nice if we could save the building, but it’s not a civic priority. Not a “must do”. 

How would we know if it was a must-do, anyway? After so many years of these ad hoc battles every time an architecturally pretty building becomes endangered, we still don’t have an objective set of established rules, lists, regulations, and laws to govern what does and doesn’t get torn down, and the process to do so. After all these years, it still boils down to, “holy crap, [municipal or private entity] is going to demolish [building no one really thought much about until it became endangered]! Let’s react!”

And react they did. Twitter, Facebook, even Instagram all have emotional entreaties to save that building. Torke has written a series of blog posts, including his images of exploring the structure

One of the most common pleas to emotion regarding the Bethlehem Steel building and, earlier, the Trico Plant 1 is that “this place matters”. Well, of course. Everyplace matters. Of all the arguments against demolishing an old, pretty building, is the fact that it “matters” to people the most persuasive and insightful argument?

During the Trico debates, one person went so far as to say the building should be preserved because her parents met while working there. Under that standard, we’d effectively ban demolition of every building, everywhere. Why, I’ll bet someone’s parents met while working at the Donovan Building, but I don’t see anyone clamoring for preserving its facade. I’m sure Buffalo City Court – the ugliest building in Christendom – matters to someone, but if the state decided it needed to be replaced by something less fortress-like, I’d hold a parade. 

So, perhaps we should dispense with the emotion-driven “this place matters” nonsense. Of course “this” place matters, because all places “matter”. 

But what does all of this say about our civic priorities? Lackawanna is a city that was decimated by Bethlehem Steel’s closure. That entire waterfront is a monument, alright – a monument to a century of unregulated environmental destruction of what was once a gorgeous coastline. Just as Trico is a monument to an industrial exodus from WNY to places with palm trees, Bethlehem Steel is a headstone for a uniquely Buffalonian past – ecological crisis to serve a master hundreds of miles away. 

I flew over the site on Friday. Here are two images as I approached the building we’re talking about: 

Approach from the west

Site is indicated

Notice anything there? How about the acres and acres of brownfield that surrounds the site and would likely cost millions – if not tens of millions – to clean up and convert into something that didn’t just randomly poison people. Where’s the political or civic will to actually transform this lakefront into something remotely usable by people? It’s so contaminated that its highest and best use is as land for buildings supplies and really big – often stationary – windmills. Not apartments, or offices, or shops or parkland – it’s so dangerous that people aren’t even generally allowed there.  

A drive down Route 5 from about Gallagher Beach, south to Lackawanna is a tour of despair, decay, and rottenness. What are we going to do as a society – as a community – to right a massive and longstanding wrong? The land where this building is located is owned by Gateway Trade – an industrial park that houses a crushed stone company

We could reclaim that land for general use and public enjoyment, but we’re focused on one pretty building. 

I submit that preserving the pretty building is a nice sentiment, but not a civic priority. Appeals to emotion do not justification make. Cleaning up the lakefront and the contaminated land that once was home to the steel industry, so that it’s fit for human habitation? That’s the real outrage – that’s the real “must do.” And it doesn’t get any less expensive the longer we sit and wait. 

Perhaps we could set up a committee and hold a series of public hearings. 


  • Max Planck

    Bravo, Alan. WNY has a demand/supply problem when it comes to buildings like Bethlehem’s former HQ. The corporate largess which created it has packed up and left town, leaving an attractive, yet unwanted orphan in its wake. But that’s small change compared to the footprint of environmental destruction left behind which given the contracting nature of our current economic time, will take a very long time to remedy.  

  • peteherr

    All true. frustrating that the preservationists want to save everything, but thats all they want to do. They want to stop demolition in and then walk away from the property. They don’t want to actuaslly preserve it themselves. It’s a cool old building. There are lots of them. At some point they need to be torn down.

    I also agree that something needs to be done to reclaim that land. It is prime waterfront. Why can’t we get a grassroots campain for that? Can we do a $10 million Kickstarter?

  • I had no idea this was going on as I was out of town and unplugged since Thursday, but the idea did creep into my head. 

    Twice a year for 5 years now, I’ve driven to Tobermory, Ontario to go camping. The route up there is basically Highway 6 all the way, through Hamilton, Guelph, and Owen Sound. Each trip through these cities, I’ve watched old buildings that were there years ago get knocked down, and new, modern buildings replace them. 
    I know the economy in Ontario is generally better than Buffalo, but it just floors me. I never see protesters at the construction sites.  I’ve looked, and never see blog posts complaining about buildings being torn down. The people in these areas see the need for new buildings, and build them. They don’t waste time and energy trying to re-use everything. 

    The more I travel, the more backwater Buffalo feels to me. We hold on to the past at the expense of moving forward. 

  • I think part of what was important here was to put this building in its proper geographical perspective.  Someone on FB argued that the money is there! 
    Funds available to WHOM? Who is going to spend money – whether it be the state’s, their own, or a combination of the two – to restore an admittedly beautiful building that unfortunately sits on an ecological minefield, surrounded by a crushed stone & concrete purveyor in a poor town? It isn’t just demolition by neglect – the entire area surrounding that building has been destroyed, albeit mostly not through neglect but through active contamination. It is a destruction not by omission, but commission. I can’t honestly think of a less attractive place for anyone to plop millions on. The only reasonable solution for this building would be to remove it and relocate it, brick by brick, somewhere that isn’t a field of poison. And furthermore, the “this place matters” argument is so pitifully emotional and in the end means absolutely nothing. Everyplace matters. You want someone to interfere with a landowner’s property rights? Come up with a proactive set of rules & regulations that are applicable in all instances, and go from there.

  • Paul Buckley

    You forgot to mention that all too often Buffalo judges get to decide what happens next when knee-jerk last-minute reaction replaces planning of any kind.

  • Mike_Chmiel

    Agreed with all that was written, although I was disappointed in the lack of reference to “earnest” men with beards or “bulky glasses”.

  • Jesse Smith

    No, every place does not matter. The Walmart on Transit Road does not matter, and no one will be holding overnight vigils in its parking lot when it is scheduled for demolition and salvage in 20 or 30 years.

    If the land is truly contaminated beyond the point of return, then I think dismantling some or all of this building and relocating it is the best solution. Nobody creates buildings or ornamentation with this kind of craftsmanship and artistry today. To throw it in a landfill is an incredible waste of irreplaceable resources. Why is this solution not even on the table? If I were involved with the ECHDC, I would be racing to figure out if we could buy the building and move it to Canal Side or a more pleasant area of the Outer Harbor. Where is the leadership?

    I don’t buy the supply/demand notion. If there is money for the Gates Vascular Center, the new federal courthouse, BCBS, fancy office parks at Crosspoint, there is money to renovate and reuse beautiful older buildings like this one. It is all a question of societal priorities.

    • Wal*Mart on Transit doesn’t matter?  Tell it to the young couple who met there – one was a cashier, and one was stocking shelves. They’re married with kids now. TELL THEM IT DOESN’T MATTER. 

      (I’m only half joking). 

      Also, Jesse, let’s don’t pretend like you wouldn’t be screaming “CONFISCATORY GOVERNMENT!” if ECHDC ponied up public money to move that ornate monstrosity. 

      • Jesse Smith

         Alan, I think you have me confused with a different Jesse. I used to post as JSmith to avoid confusion until Artvoice changed the commenting system. I haven’t bothered to create a Disqus account yet so I am logged in through my Google account which displays my full name.

        I agree with you that “my parents worked there” is not a compelling argument for historic preservation. Personally, one of the places where I went to grade school, the place where I had my senior prom, and the place where I got married have all been demolished. The fact that I have memories associated with these places does not make me regret their demolition. However, the fact that all three sites remain, to date, as vacant lots does.

      • Jesse Griffis

        Oh how I wish I had seen this before today. I’ve never screamed anything in a political discussion, much less “confiscatory government!”

        Nice try though, pigeonholing me because I don’t buy the same shit you do.

  • thestip

    Why is it that the Preservationists are so easily accused of being obstructionists, but nobody even begins to hold the property owners accountable for sitting on a property for decades and letting it deteriorate to the point it needs to be demolished? I’m sure this building as with usually all the buildings that have to be rallied to be preserved was in significant violation of building codes for the last ten years. Why has the owner not been fined? Why were they allowed to let it deteriorate to this point? Those are the questions that should be asked. We would not so often be in this situation if property owners were not so easily allowed to perform “demolition by neglect”.

    As to a reuse for this building, condos, apts, retail, none of that would work obviously. But there has always been a natural reuse, the Steel Plant museum. Instead of languishing in the basement of the library, why not help them to reuse the front portion of the building while demoing the back that was added on much later. This building is what was the foundation for the entire City of Lackawanna. Before the Lackawanna Steel plant was built, the area now the City of Lackawanna, was just part of the Town of West Seneca. The City grew out of the steel plant, it even took its name. I’m sorry, but if you are looking to save something historic this is it.

  • Dan_Blather

    Four articles so far on Buffalo Rising?  Four? 

    While I consider myself a supporter of the local preservation movement, it often seems that there’s too much of a focus on saving individual buildings rather than the fabric of the places they’re a part of.  The context of a building seems secondary to the building itself.   If the Bethlehem Steel office building were in downtown Lackawanna, an iconic part of that city’s urban fabric, I could understand why it would be worth a fight.  Forgotten for years in an empty, toxic wasteland, on the other hand … no.  Same thing with more modest structures;  save the cottages on intact blocks where the loss of one or two would do much greater damage to the urban fabric, and let those on otherwise desolate urban prairies go.

    Clean up the site, and let’s direct our energies towards doing something truly wonderful there.  Build the lakefront park we were promised in the 1890s.  Build a new neighborhood that will grow organically, like Buffalo’s other great neighborhoods.  Let’s create a great place, not just save a once fairly nice building.

    Anyhow, I have to agree with thestip on one thing: how is it that we allow these property owners to allow their buildings to such a point?  How are such flagrant examples of demolition by neglect still possible, still tolerated, when the rest of us would probably face the threat of a healthy fine for letting our grass grow a half inch too long?

    By the way, my parents met at Duff’s.  In the early 1950s, when it was just one of many dance-under-the-open-air hotspots that once lined then-rural Sheridan Drive before the homebuilders and auto dealers arrived.

  • Robert Galbraith

    My main beef with the demos and new builds is that all the new buildings that go up are ugly, cheap, and not built to last. I doubt people would be so hot to stop the demolition of old buildings if we built ones even close to the quality that people used to. On the tour of the grain elevators at the little expo they had, a guide marveled over the fact that the elevators had design elements that “weren’t even necessary!” Can’t remember the last time I saw a nice-looking new building go up. The HOME renovation was okay, but that was mostly adapting the former design. The part that fronts on Main Street looks way better than the part on Ferry behind it, too.

  • Dan_Blather

    > My main beef with the demos and new builds is that all the new buildings that go up are ugly, cheap, and not built to last.

    Survivor bias.  They built as much crap in the good ‘old days as they do now.  We just don’t see much of it because it didn’t last.

    Every generation has said the architecture from their era sucks, and won’t last.  In the 1950s, pundits were saying that all the tract homes being built in Buffalo’s suburbs wouldn’t last 25 years.  If that was the case, why aren’t Tonawanda and Cheektowaga urban prairies today, instead the East Side where cottages were “lovingly crafted with pride by German carpenters who worked on the great cathedrals of Europe”?

    Old buildings had detailed, intricate design elements because the only building materials of the era were inherently very granular, inexpensive mass-produced terra cotta elements could be chosen out of a catalog, and the cost of skilled labor was ridiculously cheap.  If tilt-up concrete was available in the 1890s, it would have been used instead of brick.  If a factory owner from the early 1900s could order an ugly prefab steel building and have it delivered and built for a third of the cost of something site-built using brick and stone, most probably would have.  Builders and architects of the era weren’t any more noble or less concerned about profit margins than those of the present.

    The problem with today’s architecture isn’t so much the materials, but rather the siting and scale, with vehicles rather than pedestrians in mind.

    • peteherr

      I agree @Dan_Blather – if there were steel building/ pre fab concrete alternatives back in the day, we would have more of those now. Or…more empty lots where they were taken down.

    • Robert Galbraith

      I still can’t remember the last time I saw a new building and liked the way it looked. Maybe only the good old buildings made it, but at least there were SOME good old buildings.

  • A couple of things:

    First, Alan’s claim of a supposed lack of objective rules, lists, regulations, and rules governing preservation is not true.  There is the National Register of Historic Places which has clear and objective guidelines as to what qualifies for listing and restricts the use of state and federal funding for demolishing a listed or eligible building.  The responsibility for outright denying demolition lies with the local government, which unfortunately in this case, does not have a register for landmarks. 

    Second, I disagree with the idea that Lackawanna is somehow above preservation based on socioeconomic status.  I personally have been involved in preservation initiatives in similar “gritty working class” communities and received as much enthusiasm in their history as anyone. 

    Third, the criticism here seems to be directed at the emotions and sentiment of people protesting the loss of this building seems misplaced.  There is no shame being emotional over a cause that someone feels strongly about.  You certainly see plenty of emotion and “knee jerking” on the side of those who are lining up on the opposite side of the issue.   

    • The National Register of Historic Places has guidelines, but by definition those are neither rules, regulations, nor in any way binding on any private or public entity.  You’re dealing with a poor city that is keeping a large local taxpayer happy. The revenue from that operation on the lake pays for a lot of stuff Lackawanna needs that its unwealthy population would have trouble affording without it. (The median and per capita incomes are almost half the state average). 

      Even the preservationist community acknowledges that Lackawanna really only has two architecturally significant buildings, and the people holding candlelight vigils for this Bethlehem Steel building have zero real-world influence over the mayor or city council in Lackawanna. Their best bet would have been to canvass the community, but instead they’ve chained themselves to the perimeter of the building and leafletted the city council meeting. That’s a grassroots fail. 

      My criticism isn’t directed at people’s “emotions and sentiment”. It’s directed at the APPEAL to emotion and sentiment as a last-ditch effort to convince the unconvinced that the building is a must-save. If it’s historically significant, lay it out. If it’s architecturally significant, lay it out. If it’s culturally significant, lay it out.  But when those three don’t persuade anyone to change their minds, taking Instagram pictures of the building with “my grandpa worked here!” is hardly going to do the job. 

  • I’ve probably driven by that Bethlehem Steel office building a million times, and each time thought “too bad they can’t do something with that.” Well, I guess they can’t. And given its location and surroundings, I’d rather see a large-scale effort to clean it all up and have a real, public waterfront. Imagine what it must have been like before industry moved in. It would cost a fortune, yes. But every journey starts with the first step.

  • Bobbuffalo

    Alan, I have sat by for years reading your suburban-based blogs, watching you fronting as expert activist know it all. It’s boring. I know your type – fat guys eating too many pulled-pork sandwiches on your back deck with the view of the next white guy’s lawn service. Sorry Alan, your ersatz world is the exception, not the rule. But how would you know? I don’t have contempt for you as many city dwellers do, I just feel sorry for your sheltered whiteness. You are missing life, missing texture, missing the point. That’s your right as a suburban blogger who has all sorts of ‘opinions’ about what the ‘other’ should be doing. You can sit in Clarence in your lawn-mowed splendidness. I have yet to see you in the city. What do you look like, incase I do? As it were, you might be a bit enlightened if you crossed the border from BMW lawn-barbecue land into something that is actual reality for people who are not suburban white guys (cue the Romney flag waving ad). Here’s a clue: not everyone thinks Lackawanna is a toxic wasteland. The Bethlehem Steel admin building actually sits on a sliver of well used (but how would you know!?) land which straddles Tifft Farm and the new and growing waterfront. If you’d actually made a trip there rather than google-earthing the pictures you’d see a much different envrironment than existed five years ago. There are people riding bikes. Wow, not a big deal. Depends on your perspective of nuance. Ok, let’s forget that urbanist wet dream. Instead, let me ask you, who are you to call out who deserves what? Because what I hear from you (but have never heard you say because (zing) I’ve never actually *seen* you – is that the people of Lackawanna don’t deserve to preserve what little history they have left. I won’t begrudge you – what would you know about actual history except a few Clarence antique stores and cute barns? Still, you have a lot of nerve making calls like this when you haven’t shown up for a ‘hearing’ or a ‘meeting’ or participated in a ‘dialogue’. Perhaps you think you can do that while sitting in your ‘home office’ filled with branch decorations from Michaels. But it would be nice to see your shining round face in person. Because without being here, on the ground, listening to the actual, real, moving, and relevant dialogue, it seems to me that you are nothing more than an ‘armchair quarterback’. And we all know how effective those people are. Right Alan? When was the last time anyone listened to an armchair quarterback with any sense? Come show your face in the city now and again (Sabres games don’t count) and then let’s see what you have to say. Or maybe it’s too scary leaving Clarence for the big bad world of Lackawanna.

    • 1. Paragraphs are helpful. 
      2. Welcome to two weeks ago.
      3. I did attend a meeting, and my suggestions were very well received. You should keep up. 
      4. I’ve never seen such a poorly curated set of stereotypes, and I spend more time of my life in the City of Buffalo than I do in the town of Clarence. I’m also an advocate for metropolitan government and a lot of other stuff that rebuts your clumsy ignorant prejudice. 
      5. Next time you want to personally insult me, use your real name so we can all see your scary handsomeness, find out how full of shit you are, and otherwise vet your list of accomplishments. 
      6. Have a phenomenal day wallowing in your own hatred.