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Redefining TERMINAL

A day after our third major event at the Terminal in a month, the Buffalo News published this excellent article about the progress and vision of the CTRC.

Some people spend endless hours of their own time trying to save the Buffalo Central Terminal from crumbling into obscurity. Just what is it about that building?


These little town blues

Are melting away …

Sinatra’s pure velvet soared beneath the vaulted ceilings of the Buffalo Central Terminal’s main concourse. The fallen plaster, shattered glass and pigeon droppings had been replaced by tables clad in white linen and twinkling lights.

There, in her chapel of choice, Kristen Smith Armstrong danced with her father on her wedding day: July 1, 2006.

I’ll make a brand new start of it

In old New York

In a building abandoned to decay 27 years ago, in a city notoriously allergic to hope, the scene verged on the surreal. The choice, said Kristen’s husband Anthony, was a gesture of hope for what they want to see in their lives together.

“They say Buffalo has good bones,” said Armstrong, who returned to Buffalo with his future wife in 2004, intending to be part of its rebirth. “You could say those same words about the Terminal, too.”

More than two decades into Buffalo’s saddest historic preservation story since the wasting of the Larkin Building, it seems there may finally be a twist in the tale of the Central Terminal.

Not deliverance, to be sure – the 17-story Art Deco tower and its vast plaza are millions and millions of dollars away from anything resembling robust health.

What it does have is a chance. After years of labor, a growing group of volunteers have slowed the building’s slide into history. Against the odds, and against common sense, they have spent thousands of hours at labor and in fundraising, and bought the Central Terminal a reprieve.

It’s the kind of muted good news you get in a hospital room: There’s no heat, but the roof’s finally been fixed. There’s no water, but there’s finally electricity again. There’s hardly any money in the accounts of the Central Terminal Restoration Corp., its nonprofit owner – but people have started to call its office, asking to use the building.

On Sept. 16, nearly 3,000 people packed the concourse for the Buffalo Brewfest, some of over 60,000 people who’ve used the building in the last three years, said Russell Pawlak, the Central Terminal Restoration Corp.’s president.

The Brewfest was so successful organizers are already talking about making it a weekend next year – at the Terminal, naturally.

“We’ve turned the corner,” said longtime volunteer Erwin Rakoczy, a factory purchasing manager. “If you’d have said seven or eight years ago that we’d be getting calls to put events in there, people’d say you were nuts. But that’s what’s happening.”

“A tough sell’

To be sure, getting people into the Terminal can help slow its decay – but it isn’t enough to save it, said Robert Shibley, director of the University at Buffalo’s Urban Design Project.

“That’s a strategy to keep the cash and the passion flowing into the structure while we wait for somebody to come along with the bucks to develop it,” said Shibley, a historic preservation expert familiar with the project. “It needs a big concept. This is not something that’s going to save itself in small increments. It’s just too big.”

In the decades since the trains stopped running, proposals to fill the 500,000 square-foot building with a mix of shops, condos and office space have faded like a passing whistle. While it was pitched as a casino site, the Seneca Nation wasn’t interested, and the run-down East Side neighborhood surrounding it didn’t help.

“It’s going to take a very creative and imaginative developer with a lot of money and tolerance for risk, and it’s probably going to take a ton of public investment,” said Shibley. “In this economy, it’s a very tough sell.”

But if facing all-but-impossible odds crushed their spirits, the Restoration Corp. partisans wouldn’t be tilting at terminals in the first place.

Getting massive financial support from Albany would be super, but it’s no substitute for dedicated, determined people, said Pawlak, who became president of the nonprofit’s board in 2000.

“We don’t have $100 million,” Pawlak said, referring to the promised state funds for restoring the former psychiatric center, “but we’ve come a lot further than the Richardson Towers have.”

Quite a mess

Built to be Buffalo’s equivalent to New York City’s Grand Central, the building was crafted with ornate Art Deco features, a sweeping lighted plaza, and an office tower that held its clocks aloft to the East Side.

It opened in 1929, with as many as 200 trains arriving daily. But as train travel dropped after World War II, New York Central Railroad started trying to sell the building in 1956. In the 1960s and 1970s, railroads merged or filed for bankruptcy, leaving government-supported Amtrak the only passenger line.

On Oct. 28, 1979, the last passenger train pulled away. The building was sold and stripped of its fine metal scrollwork and fixtures.

Every doorknob in the building was removed, along with railings, signs, and the familiar clock that travelers passed on their way to trains, Pawlak said. Many of the light sconces from the concourse are now illuminating a Hong Kong nightclub.

Over the years, as various redevelopment schemes drifted aimlessly, vandals smashed out windows while thieves tore open walls to remove copper pipe.

When the preservationists finally got their hands on it – for $1, in 1997, after the city pressured its former owner for improvements – it was essentially open to the elements, Pawlak said.

The mess was mammoth. Pawlak estimated that 300 tons of fallen plaster, broken glass and other debris was removed from inside the terminal. About 1.5 million gallons of water was pumped out of the basement.

Outside, the crew of volunteers – many who grew up around the Central Terminal – struggled to clear off the plaza.

“Mattresses. Car parts,” said Erwin Rakoczy, who grew up on the East Side and took part in the first cleanup. “Bags of garbage, building material, any kind of trash you could think of.”

With a combination of private fundraising and some government support, the corporation’s workers have boarded up windows in the tower and fixed the roof. They secured the building, started mowing the grass and planted flowers in the traffic circle at the foot of its driveway.

Salvaging what’s left

Sometimes the labor was grueling. Computer programmer Arthur Kogutowski, another former East Side resident, was one of the volunteers who spent months repairing drains that carried water from the roof. In the unheated building, water froze in the drains, rupturing pipe and joints.

“On a rainy day you run around the building and find spots that are wet,” Kogutowski said. “Then you have to open up the wall to determine where the leak started.”

Working in teams of two, the leak hunters worked steadily over six months, fixing about 150 leaks, said Kogutowski. Kogutowski and his brother Mark are also fabricating replacements for the Terminal’s ornate iron railings, which scavengers tore from the mezzanine.

“Someone has to do it,” Kogutowski, who grew up a block from the Terminal, says of the restoration effort.

When people tell him he’s wasting his time, he points out that engineering studies show the building’s bones are solid. That most of the building’s steelwork still carries the original paint. That for what it would cost to tear it down, most of the building’s public areas could essentially be restored.

The goal is “to make sure the building is around when someone does have funding, and a vision, to actually do something with it,” he said.

The Terminal Restoration Corp. sees itself in “a marathon, not a sprint,” said Rakoczy. “Government believes in sprints. Get it done, take the photo op, move on. We think long term,” he said.

“This building has been here for 75 years,” said Rakoczy, echoing Pawlak and other volunteers, “and it should be here for another 75 years.”

For now, the Restoration Corp. is concentrating on stabilizing the building, said Pawlak. Upgraded electrical service and basic plumbing needs must be met before parts of the complex can be shopped to developers.

The current phase of improvements – including electric and plumbing work – is estimated at $1 million to $1.5 million. The corporation will ask a group of local foundations to foot the bill for much of those repairs, Pawlak said. “After that’s in place we’ll start actively soliciting developers.”

At present, event sponsors still must provide portable toilets, clean-up services and security, which is usually provided by off-duty Buffalo Police officers. There have been no crime reports, Pawlak said.

The main concourse and west mezzanine are useable, but “we expect to sandbag the tower until we get someone interested in doing apartments,” said Pawlak. Depending on the reuse scenarios, bringing the entire building back could run to $50 million.

Not a lost cause

For now, part of that mission is keeping the building busy. That’s where volunteers like Holly Hughes come in.

An assistant curator at the Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Hughes first saw the building in 2003, while considering it as a site for artist Spencer Tunick to photograph a large group of people. Her first impression was sadness. “I thought, “This is people’s impression of Buffalo: Beautiful buildings that are falling apart.’ ”

By the end of the tour, Pawlak’s infectious love for the Terminal had her seeing it from another angle.

“Even though it’s a space that has obviously seen years of complete ruin, destruction and neglect, it’s also a place that I think is very much alive, mainly through the people that are so dedicated to the terminal,” Hughes said. “I haven’t brought one person to that space that isn’t in complete awe of it.”

Anthony Armstrong was among those in awe, but he was still surprised how quickly his fiancee Kristen agreed when he floated the idea of being married in a half-ruined building.

“The architecture, even in the state it’s in, is still stunning,” he said. “To have the space to ourselves for a day really called to both of us.”

They hired a caterer who could work without running water. They decorated the space with Christmas lights and hanging lanterns. They rented an “executive washroom” trailer, complete with pumped-in Muzak and real toilets.

“We were joking that people would pull up to the building, turn around and pull away,” said Armstrong. “It wasn’t until the day of, when I walked in, that it finally looked like it was going to work.”

His faith was rewarded – and he expects the same from Buffalo.

“I left with the intention I would never set foot in this town again,” said Armstrong, who attended Alden High School with Kristen and moved away after college. But the more he saw of the world, the more he came to believe that his town wasn’t a lost cause after all. “We wouldn’t be here if we thought there was no hope the city was coming back,” Armstrong said.

It that way, deciding to hold their wedding under the reborn roof of the Terminal was its own prayer, a statement of belief that dedicated people can create a better future.

“I don’t think Buffalo will be what it used to be, but it doesn’t have to be,” Armstrong said, adding that he could say the same about the Terminal. “There’s enough good here that Buffalo can be something great again.”

We know that there will always be naysayers, but how can you argue with the fact that over 7000 people have come to the Terminal in the last three weeks? You can’t say it’s a useless building. You can’t say nobody will come to the East Side. Three weeks in a row we’ve been able to pull massive crowds by holding three very different events.

There is some truth to what Robert Shibley said in the article. Holding lots of great events there isn’t going to be enough to save the building. Sure, we’ll have the money now to pave the parking lot or fix up another room or get some plumbing in the building, but at some point we need to tackle bigger projects. At some point in the future, the CTRC needs to jump up to the next level where we go from being a part-time convention center to focusing on finding bigger sources of funding and trying to find a developer that can help guide the Terminal’s transition into rebirth. I’m sure we’ll all look back fondly on the days when our biggest problem was running out of beer at Oktoberfest.

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One Comment

  1. I was there for the Tunick installation in Aug 04 and for the unveiling party in May 05. The Terminal is a fantastic old building. Buffalo, like Cleveland, my adopted town, is a tough old city with still a lot to offer.

    For accounts of the Tunick event come to hhtp:www.spencertunickforum.org


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