Past and present mingle in Central Terminal tour
November 9, 2003
by: Ann Whitcher
About 200 of us gathered the morning of Sept. 13, waiting in the gentle rain to explore Buffalo's once-great train terminal, impressive in its grandeur despite the decay.
Over the past 20 years, I have taken Amtrak trains all over New York State and beyond. But I had never been inside Buffalo's Central Terminal, which saw its last train pull in around 1979.
Like many of my fellow tourists that day, I have a connection to trains and the Central Terminal, which still looms large in my imagination.
My grandfather J.M. Perry, was secretary-treasurer of the Switchmen's Union International, which maintained its world headquarters on Linwood Avenue. It was the train business - or, more precisely, the union organizing business - that brought my grandfather to Buffalo from St. Paul, Minn., around 1929.
My grandfather had a point of view about the people who ran the rail, so I can only guess whether he ever took time to admire the art-deco sconces and other decorative details, a mere fraction of which remain.
Our enthusiastic guide, Central Terminal Restoration Corp. President Russell Pawlak, described the neglect and vandalism that, regrettably, took place over a long period of decline. We could only shake our heads at the tales of past owners who apparently sold off valuable interior pieces. The sales were all legal, it seems, but they rendered a huge disservice to a community that might have done more to protect the terminal when it counted.
I couldn't help thinking, however, that we were all miscreants in some manner, even if all we were guilty of was looking the other way when such a large part of our heritage was so recklessly abandoned. Far more important than stirring nostalgia, PAwlak said, is the goal of finding a creative reuse for the building, one that will serve the community.
Even so, nostalgia - or rather the desire to recover an important part of our collective past - was clearly on the minds of many who stood on the dusty marble floor of the main concourse, myself included. Many commented on what their grandparents had seen, or been a part of, during the glory days of the terminal.
Before our tour, Pawlak showed slides of 1929 images taken by a German photographer who was visiting the neighborhood during the Central Terminal's construction. There was a shock of recognition on the part of many who had lived, or still live, in the shadow of the great terminal, which today is once again illuminated at night and visible for 15 miles in all directions, thanks to the efforts of the Restoration Corp.
Pawlak's words were so stirring, the specter of the still-beautiful terminal so haunting, that I impulsively signed on as a volunteer. Later, driving home, I wondered if I had stepped aboard too quickly.
Picturing all those broken windows and considering the sheer scale of what needs to be done, I thought the naysayers just might be right. How on Earth can a city under the thumb of a state control board entertain such a grandiose notion of restoring this structure to the tune of an estimated $54 million?
In the end, though, I came away admiring the dreams and the audacity of Pawlak and his colleagues. I pictured my grandfather, always a fastidious dresser, going about his union business from the Central Terminal, pausing for a shine (the shoe-shine stands are still visible), then hailing a Van Dyke cab at the bustling curbside. This image of the past makes me hopeful for the future.
The rebirth of this Buffalo landmark could be the perfect metaphor for a city
struggling with adversity and aching for a comback.
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