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The politicians and the principals clustered on the makeshift stage Wednesday in the lobby of the Statler Hotel, celebrating the sale of the endangered downtown landmark to developer/restaurateur Mark Croce.

At the edge of a gaggle of spectators, a middle-aged man with blond hair softly played the piano, unnoticed. Yet it was Howard Goldman, perhaps more than anyone except Croce, who deserves credit for the rescue of the iconic building in the shadow of City Hall.

Like most big stories, this one has a personal connection at its core. Goldman and Croce have been friends since meeting as struggling businessmen some 20 years ago. Goldman is restoring the old brick mansion just steps from the Statler. His affection for Ellsworth Statler's 1920s flagship dates to when his late accountant father had an office on the second floor.

After a prospective sale failed to close last year, Goldman -- spurred by nightmare visions of wrecking balls -- launched a one-man crusade to save the 18-story edifice. With the bankruptcy trustees' blessing, he created a website -- www.buffalostatler.com -- to market the property and gave tours to interested parties. And he bugged his old buddy Croce, now the king of Chippewa District nightlife, to make a bid.

"I told [Croce] even before the [2009] auction that he should get this place," said Goldman, who runs an e-commerce business and is the husband of News music critic Mary Kunz Goldman. "I knew that the skeptics had it wrong."

Goldman was arguably the first to understand that the building could be bitten off in small pieces. It was the strategy that saved the Statler.

"I thought you could open the first levels and make them self-sufficient, then build the rest to suit in the future," Goldman told me, minutes after Croce signed ownership papers. Which is why he kept pounding the plan at Croce -- who loved the building, but thought it was too heavy of a lift for him.

"I didn't think I'd have an interest, it is such a monumental property," Croce told me. "Howard's approach made it scaleable He convinced me that the building was savable."

Goldman knew that the gorgeous ballrooms and lower-floor open space were ripe for moneymaking bars, banquets and weddings -- businesses right in Croce's wheelhouse.

"I know the hospitality business," Croce said. "It will be easy for me to get this [lower] level going again, to create a lobby bar and a lounge and make it a fun place."

They are an odd couple. Croce is a plain-spoken, scuffed-edge street guy. The dapper Goldman apologizes when a four-letter word slips out in conversation. But they share a love of business and opportunity. It added up to Statler.

Goldman's step-by-step plan convinced Croce to lay out $700,000 for the purchase and back taxes. There is a prospective $5 million subsidy to seal a building that would cost taxpayers $20 million to demolish.

"Howard and I had a lot of midnight conversations about the possibilities," said Croce. "[Eventually] the conversation became not 'why?' but 'why not?' "

Croce acknowledged Goldman's part in the saga Wednesday, giving a shout-out to the unnoticed guy at the piano. The public thanks and the Statler's survival is all that Goldman will get -- or wants -- for his efforts. That, and one more thing: He can play the lobby piano whenever he wants.

e-mail: desmonde@buffnews.com