The $3,000 raised to buy back an original frosted gaslight for the Buffalo Central Terminal this week was a noble gesture.
But so much more is needed, because maintenance no longer can be deferred, longtime volunteers say.
The Art Deco train station’s vaulted roof is leaking water onto the concourse tiles and urgently needs to be replaced. The price tag? About $800,000, including $160,000 for the most pressing needs.
The 17-story tower that stands sentry above the Broadway-Fillmore neighborhood also requires significant roof work and masonry repairs at a cost of about $3 million.
Is there enough money to prevent the East Side landmark from falling into further disrepair, let alone the $50 million to $100 million it would cost to restore it?
Government and philanthropic organizations have yet to write checks in the magnitude needed to ensure the future of a building in one of Buffalo’s poorest neighborhoods. And it still remains to be seen whether a developer will decide to roll the dice.
So, while other historic sites have attracted public and private donations toward restoration to their former glory – the Darwin Martin House, Richardson Olmsted Complex and Hotel @ the Lafayette, among them – the 523,000-square-foot landmark remains something a stepchild.
In May, the John R. Oishei Foundation turned down a $2.5 million grant request for the tower and roof repairs. The reason? Too few public dollars going toward a project of such a large scale, and a neighborhood considered too poverty-stricken and lacking in assets to build on.
“The Central Terminal is probably bigger than just about any other project in terms of what needs to happen here,” said Paul Hogan, Oishei’s vice president. “There was not a whole lot of confidence that the money needed to do that was there in the short term, and nothing we would have given them would have been nearly enough to make this happen.”
The Oishei Foundation did give $15,000 in 2011 to fund a three-acre sustainable natural habitat outside the station. It also provides money to the Hope Center and other Broadway-Fillmore neighborhood organizations.
“I can’t in good conscience put $2.5 million into the Central Terminal on the possibility of an eight- or 10-year turnaround. I’m obligated to put it into the immediate needs of that neighborhood,” Hogan said.
The complex is at a critical juncture, members of the Central Terminal Restoration Corp. say, but they feel the nearly all-volunteer organization is making major strides.
The building drew raves during the October 2011 National Preservation Conference in Buffalo. A master plan last year laid out a vision for the building’s future.
A re-energized board – with added expertise in engineering, historic tax credits and commercial real estate development – and a new executive director, Marilyn Rodgers, are working to execute it. Rodgers, the first paid staff member in the group’s 15-year history, was hired with the help of an $85,000 grant from the Margaret L. Wendt Foundation.
“It’s reached a critical point where they’ve accomplished a great deal, they have real traction, the site has improved, and through the years they’ve added more and more,” said Wendt Trustee Robert J. Kresse.
Kresse shared Hogan’s perspective on why more dollars haven’t come to the Central Terminal: “It’s a tremendous lift – comparable in size to the Richardson Olmsted Complex. Also, I think the neighborhood is a factor, in that you’re not investing in prime real estate, and there’s not an immediate use for the building.”
But Kresse emphasized how much he has admired the work of the volunteers in stabilizing and reopening the cavernous building, which saw the last Amtrak train leave in 1979.
The station opened in June 1929, four months before the stock market crash that brought the Depression. The Central Terminal Restoration Corp. bought the building for $1 in 1997. By that time all of the building’s ornamentation had been stripped by a previous owner and vandals.
After decades of being closed to the public, the terminal reopened for tours and special events in 2003. In 2010, the terminal’s board released a plan that envisions loft-style apartments in the tower, a green business incubator in the baggage room and public space in the concourse. The plan also called for the resumption of train service, which the state Department of Transportation has rejected.
Last week, roofers walked out on the cement tiles covering the concourse, five stories above ground, to determine the extent of damage and plot an action plan.
Contractor Chris Ziolkowski said water has rolled into the corners of the roof, between the roofing and the concrete deck, disrupting the unheated concourse’s tiles through cycles of freezing and thawing. Stopping the water’s infiltration and preventing further damage to the tiles, he said, needs to be the first priority.
Eric Lander, the newest board member, who has commercial real estate experience, said he’s optimistic about the terminal’s future. He anticipates that there will eventually be low- to moderate income housing in the tower. “If we transformed that tower into 100 units, we could probably fill it up with a bunch of 20-year-olds right away. It’s not going to be the people working at the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus – but that’s what we have to determine, what the niche of this building is going to be, and where we should move forward,” Lander said.
There are grants to help restore the two marquee-like canopies outside the building. A 50,000-watt solar heating system is being considered.
An Adopt-A-Tile Roof Campaign has begun to raise funds for the 13,000 roof tiles that would be replaced in the final phase of the roof repair. Creating a Center for Restorative Arts and Sciences involving schools and businesses is being discussed.
A grant was obtained to study what it would take to restore the concourse to its 1929 shape.
The volunteers aren’t sitting around waiting for deep-pocketed philanthropic groups or government agencies to open their checkbooks.
“We can’t wait for the building to get like Bethlehem Steel [Administration Building],” said Jeff Ingersoll, a board member who restored the four clocks with nine-foot dials more than 10 years ago. “There is a very big sense of urgency. We don’t have decades for a developer to come along.”
What the Central Terminal does have, he said, are people on its side – whether it’s the more than 100 people who chipped in to buy the sconce, or the hundreds, skilled and unskilled, who have volunteered to save the sprawling complex.
“The Central Terminal has been called one of Buffalo’s most loved buildings,” Ingersoll said.