BACK ON TRACK?
(NEWS) September 9, 2003
Full Text: COPYRIGHT 2003 The Buffalo News. All rights reserved.
MARK SOMMER – News Staff Reporter
It may be that no building in Buffalo strikes a stronger chord, or has a more uncertain future, than the Central Terminal.
Local preservationist Timothy Tielman, for one, understands the building’s appeal.
“It’s one of the greatest Art Deco train stations, and there is none taller in the country,” said Tielman, head of the Campaign for Buffalo’s History, Architecture and Culture. “People from all over the world come to look at that building.”
It doesn’t surprise him that he has bumped into visitors from as far away as Sweden and Los Angeles wanting to view the 17-story, brick and masonry behemoth.
But neither he nor anyone else was prepared for the estimated 4,000 Western New Yorkers who converged on the East Side landmark earlier this summer to get a glimpse inside. The turnout cast a new light on what has been one of Buffalo’s most perplexing architectural problems — and some would contend, opportunities.
To many, the 523,000-square-foot building, closed for nearly a quarter-century, is an architectural treasure and neighborhood icon that must be restored and reused.
Others argue the city’s enormous fiscal problems make it unthinkable to pour money into the building when more pressing needs abound.
Norbert C. Podemski shares that view. The 68-year-old Warren Street resident has lived his whole life in the shadow of the looming structure, and believes it should come down.
“It’s too late for that building,” Podemski said. “Maybe 20 years ago, sure. But now it’s been stripped and vandalized. The train has left the station.”
Russell E. Pawlak disagrees. The president of the organization spearheading an effort to bring the building back to use was overjoyed by the throngs who showed up to tour it.
“This permanently punctures the myth that no one will go there,” said Pawlak, who was the tour guide that day.
U.S. Rep. Louise M. Slaughter, D-Fairport, who recently toured the building with Pawlak, said she is exploring a historic district that would include the Central Terminal.
“When 4,000 people can come on an afternoon, it’s obvious the building is a great attraction,” she said.
The Central Terminal was plagued from the start by bad timing and a questionable location. The terminal was opened by the New York Central Railroad in June 1929, only months before the stock market crash that ushered in the Great Depression. And it was built 21/2 miles from the downtown business district.
Built at a cost of $14 million, the station initially handled about 200 passenger trains a day. It was designed by noted railroad architects Alfred Fellheimer and Steward Wagner.
The grand building was an example of the Art Deco movement that swept the nation in the 1920s. There were metal and frosted glass sconces, pilasters with metal finials in fleur-de-lis patterns, metal geometric grillwork and a floor in four shades of marble.
The dining/lunch room was centered on a rounded W-shaped Carrara marble countertop, with black- and gold-veined marble, and silver and bronze grillwork.
The building owed no small debt to the Helsinki Central Station, completed in 1914 by Finnish architect Eliel Saarinen, who later would design Kleinhans Music Hall with his son, Eero.
In the decades after World War II, rail travel declined. The Central Terminal last heard the rumble of an Amtrak train in October 1979, shortly before it was sold.
What ensued was a long, dark period, when the building was stripped of its decorative ornamentations, primarily by one of its owners, Thomas Telesco, and vandals.
Intruders destroyed the large gold-colored bison statue, which had replaced a stuffed buffalo around World War II. An ornate lobby clock turned up for sale a few years ago on eBay for $29,000.
“Why did the city let this building get destroyed?” wondered Carol Willett of East Aurora, who worked in the rail accounting office above the baggage building. “Oh, it was so depressing to see the building like that.”
That view is echoed by Nellie Bounds, who can see the station entrance from her porch on Paderewski Drive. Her father was a head upholsterer for the Pullman Company.
“I remember it in my day when it was ritzy. It’s made me sad to see it go downhill.”
A victim of location?
The Central Terminal Restoration Corp. acquired the structure — which is on the national and state Registers of Historic Places — for a nominal $1 in 1997.
The nonprofit group has sponsored annual spring cleanups and doggedly pursued its dream of a second act for the embattled Central Terminal. They have made some noticeable strides.
The group secured a grant in August 1998 with the help of Assembly Majority Leader Paul Tokasz, D-Cheektowaga, that was used to repair and light the tower’s four exterior bronze and glass clocks.
A $1 million grant from Erie County has been used to stabilize the building and seal it from the elements and intruders.
In the past year, 300 tons of debris have been removed. Roofs, storm drains and the tower have been repaired, windows enclosed, graffiti removed and security enhanced.
The next big hurdle will be to address mechanical and cosmetic issues.
Tokasz said the building will need a huge investment by government, which lacks the funds, or a corporation in search of a headquarters on inexpensive land.
The assemblyman isn’t optimistic. “Location, location, location,” he said.
Pawlak believes the location explains why Buffalo’s cultural elite has supported the Darwin Martin House and other local architectural gems — but ignores one of the hallmarks of railroad architecture.
“I think it’s because the Central Terminal is not in a good neighborhood, pure and simple. I don’t see the East Side having any more respect today than when I was a kid,” said Pawlak, who grew up behind the terminal on Milburn Street.
Expensive to demolish
The Central Terminal Restoration Corp. has a facts-and-figures answer to those who say it would just be better to raze the structure.
An October 1996 study by Paul Battaglia, a partner with Hamilton Houston Lownie Architects, concluded it would cost $54 million to restore the structurally sound building for light industrial use, such as an office building.
Likewise, it found it would cost $53 million — including $16.3 million for demolition and asbestos abatement — to replace the building with a prefabricated metal structure.
“I think that’s when the restoration corporation said, ‘OK, it’s a lot better to have a national landmark than a prefabbed building,’ ” Battaglia said.
Fillmore Council Member David A. Franczyk, a member of the restoration group’s board, said, “If you go to Rome, you go to the baths of Caracalla that are 2,000 years old. It is far more of a ruin than the Central Terminal, and you have thousands of tourists who go traipsing through there. A hundred years from now, people will thank us for saving this great building.”
The Seneca Nation of Indians rejected the group’s proposal to turn the building into a casino, but Pawlak believes it could be converted into a public school. He also would like to see arts groups get involved.
Louis Grachos, director of the Albright-Knox Art Gallery, said the idea intrigued him.
“The building is remarkably impressive and has unbelievable potential. It has scale, it has drama in its architecture,” Grachos said. “We’re willing to explore it if it gets developed enough where we could start doing things there.”
Many old train stations have been converted to new uses.
St. Louis and Scranton, Pa., turned theirs into hotels. Cincinnati’s station, which was also designed by Fellheimer and Wagner, as well as ones in Little Rock, Ark., Kansas City, Mo., and Omaha, Neb., have become museums, sometimes with other attractions.
Still others, like those in Anchorage, Alaska, and for a time, Fargo, N.D., became microbreweries.
While Pawlak is open-minded about how the Central Terminal could be transformed, he admits harboring the hope that one day trains will return.
“Amtrak said they could make a railroad passenger stop at the Central Terminal. They told me it would be no big deal,” Pawlak said.
The Central Terminal Restoration Corp. and the Preservation Coalition will offer tours of the terminal at 9:30 a.m. on Saturday and Oct. 5. The cost is $12.
On Sept. 20, the restoration group will present “Picnic on the Plaza” from 2 p.m. to 6 p.m., with free tours at 2:15 and 3:15 p.m. For more information, call the group at 885-3108.
TABLE: THE CENTRAL TERMINAL AT A GLANCE
* The Central Terminal opened four months before the Wall Street crash of 1929.
* Designed to handle an anticipated Buffalo population of 1.5 million, it cost $14 million to build.
* The 17-story office tower stands 271 feet high
* Concourse shops included a newspaper stand, florist, shoe shine stand, liquor store and jeweler
* The station closed October 1979, after years of dwindling rail passenger service.
* A 1996 study estimated it would cost $54 million to restore it for light industrial use, and $16.3 million to demolish it
Source: Central Terminal Restoration Corp., Railnews