Preservationists have nominated the "Erie Freight House" for city landmark status as part of a new effort to save the condemned building along the Buffalo River, where ships once unloaded goods bound for railroad cars and canal boats.
"You could call it an ugly duckling," said Henry McCartney, executive director of the nonprofit Preservation Buffalo Niagara. "I'm sure most people drive along and just don't notice it."
Dated to about 1868, the long building at 441 Ohio St. -- with its timber frame exposed like bones where the roof caved in -- is thought to be one the last of its kind in Buffalo. It was most recently used by a recycling company, Great Lakes Paper Fibres.
Architecture students studied old maps to trace its origins. Their findings are part of the evidence used to support the freight house's nomination, scheduled for discussion at a Preservation Board public hearing at 3 p.m. Thursday on the ninth floor of City Hall.
"To a certain extent, we're detectives," said Kerry Traynor, an adjunct architecture professor at the University at Buffalo. "It's the last freight house on the river. If you look at the historic maps, that wasn't always the case."
In past centuries, some of Buffalo's wealth came from the trans-shipment trade: transferring goods from one mode of transportation -- lake boat, for example -- to another mode -- by rail and Erie Canal barge.
The long freight houses were warehouses or depots where goods made short-term stops before moving on.
Grain elevators still dot the lake shore, Traynor said, yet remnants of trans-shipment are rare along the water.
"This industrial heritage that we have in Buffalo is more than grain elevators," McCartney said.
There is still some evidence of the old transport set up at the freight house: Along the side of the building that faces the river, old wood piling stubs that once held a dock poke out of the water. On the other side, closest to Ohio Street, brush grows through the railroad tracks that edge the freight house.
"There's a lot more research we need to do on the building," said McCartney.
While the Preservation Board will decide whether to recommend landmark status, approval rests with the Common Council.
According to a letter from the State Historic Preservation Office, the freight house is also eligible for the National Register of Historic Places, McCartney said.
The building didn't come to the attention of Preservation Buffalo Niagara until earlier this month. Word traveled after the city condemned it last month, a signal of possible demolition that landmark status could help block.
McCartney credits Traynor and her students Geoffrey Butler and Michael Zimmerman for researching the freight house's history and the city's trans-shipment heritage.
To McCartney, the decrepit building with a condemned sign on the door has potential for a longer life as a restaurant or offices on this prime river spot.
"It does take some imagination," he said. "We will start brainstorming about how it could possibly be reused."