Let's Use the Demolition of the Atwater House as a Lesson
By Michele Brozek
CBCA Community Planning & Historic Preservation Specialist
As snow quietly blanketed the site of the former Atwater House on Elmwood Avenue this week, the dialogue on historic preservation throughout Buffalo seemed as out-of-place as the snow-covered vacant lot on bustling Elmwood Avenue. The debate seemed to center around varied opinions throughout the community- those who thought the building was architecturally significant and should be saved versus those who felt it was in poor enough condition to merit demolition in order for Pano's Restaurant, currently located next door, to expand. The owner of Pano's, Pano Georgiadis, was correct in realizing, however, that this demolition battle was not one of opinion but it was instead a case of the law. And the necessary laws were simply not in place to save the Atwater House. So, as much as strong public opinion is important in cases of making historic preservation "saves," preservation advocates need to understand and take advantage of historic preservation law that will in most cases, make preservation disputes like the one over the Atwater House, a thing of the past.
Communities enact historic preservation laws to protect the places deemed important to the history and culture of the community. These places may be important landmark buildings, such as the Darwin D. Martin House or the Albright-Knox Art Gallery, or they may be far-less well known but equally important, such as the many of historic homes, from the mansions to cottages that line our city streets, like the Atwater House.
There are mainly two types of protection that can be placed on a historic building - one involves national preservation law, and the other involves local law.
National Register of Historic Places
On the national level, communities may list a qualifying historic building in the National Register of Historic Places, either individually or as a group of buildings, a district. A National Register listing requires a review process by local and State officials any time public money will affect the listed property.
While there is no review for when private dollars effect a property listed on the National Register, as in the case of the Atwater House demolition, there are local laws that may be enacted to require a review. By listing a property or district as a Local Landmark in Buffalo, the Buffalo Preservation Board is required to review exterior modifications to buildings, including, of course, demolition.
In short, if the Atwater House had been listed as a Local Landmark, or as a part of a Local Landmark District, the City of Buffalo, through the Buffalo Preservation Board, would have reviewed the Atwater House demolition case, and would have had the legal ground to prohibit it.
Anyone - any individual or group- can nominate buildings or districts to the National Register of Historic Places or as Buffalo Landmarks. Nominations are not simply the job or responsibility of the City of Buffalo staff, elected officials, or Preservation Board. And yes, while it takes funding to complete, there are grants available to initiate the process.
The first step in doing so is to undertake a Historic Resource Survey to get a first look at the building or group of buildings in consideration for listing. Then comes analysis and research to determine that the building or group of buildings qualify as historic. Finally, with the required consent of local property owners, a nomination is prepared and submitted to the City and/ or State.
Many fear that Local Landmark status will detrimentally affect the property rights of those who own homes and businesses listed. This is probably the most common concern heard by those whose properties are being considered for listing. The fact is, the community can decide what level of review, or control, it would like the Buffalo Preservation Board to have.
Some cities have what is called "character districts" in which only projects with a large impact, such as demolition, are reviewed by the local preservation board. So, in other words, if a property owner in this type of district would like to, say, replace their windows or install new signage, they would not be required to obtain a preservation permit.
Other neighborhoods may want the assurance of the full design review services that the Buffalo Preservation Board offers property owners of Local Landmarks.
Instead of using the Atwater House as an example of failed policy, let's look at it as a wake-up call to make it our duty to understand historic preservation policy, and use it to protect the historic buildings that we, as a community, collectively think are important. We can initiate Historic Resource Surveys and nominate historic districts through our neighborhood groups, block clubs, and non-profits, and eventually, come up with a Preservation Plan for the City of Buffalo that will guide the protection and revitalization of our historic buildings and neighbors. As a result, everyone will be assured that buildings that we all agree are important to this city are at least given a review process before they are forever lost - and are turned into another empty lot covered in snow.