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Just as an East Aurora restaurateur was aiming to demolish two 19th century houses for a parking lot and a new building, the village launched its landmark protection process. Now this community known for its old-fashioned character has been seized by a conundrum over old buildings that many area communities also face.

Should they be saved to preserve a piece of history? Or should they be razed to make way for something new?

This kind of battle occurs in many communities, and scope is expanding from cities to suburban neighborhoods. Places where people lived, worked, worshipped and went to school are attracting new attention, said Tania Werbizky, regional director at the Preservation League of New York State.

“Taken together, that’s really the fabric of a community,” she said.

Thirteen local municipalities have won federal certification that gives preservationists a powerful weapon that East Aurora is now testing: protective historic preservation codes that can stop demolition.

The East Aurora Historic Commission held a public hearing Thursday night to review the merits of historic designations, a protection that could prevent Gene Wachala, owner of Pasquale’s, from demolishing the house where Irving Price, a founder of the Fisher-Price toy company, lived.

The commission voted unanimously to recommend local historic landmark status for the Price house and a neighboring house, also from the 19th century.

The vote does not end the controversy because the Village Board must make the final decision.

Most speakers at Thursday’s hearing said they felt the village’s old-fashioned spirit was embodied by both houses on Main Street, which has lost many of its original buildings.

One speaker pointed out that it was Main Street’s supply of old houses that led organizers of the “Congress for the New Urbanism,” set to be held in Buffalo in June, to offer a visit and walking tour in East Aurora to its out-of-town attendees.

Corey Auerbach, the lawyer representing the owners of Pasquale’s, offered a compromise that was derided by some: If the Irving Price house was torn down for the new proposed building and parking lot, he said, a sign could be posted to describe what was once there with an explanation of Price and the house.

“I’m frightened. That just kind of did it for me. No, thank you,” said resident Chris Burke, after quoting a line from a Joni Mitchell song: “They paved paradise and put up a parking lot.”

Linda Ulrich-Hagner, who said she worked as a docent at the Roycroft Campus, stood to offer her wry observation: “No one has ever come to us and asked to see a multi-use building with four apartments above.”

Speaking before the meeting, John Newton, member of the preservation commission, who triggered the landmark review process in March with a formal application, said, “We’ve got to save this house. You take one house out of that block … it’s like having a missing tooth.”

While Wachala has declined to speak about his East Aurora project, Auerbach earlier had offered a proposed drawing of a new building and statements about his client’s motivations for tearing down the two Main Street houses he owns.

Price’s old house, with its distinctive triangular roof, Greek Revival style and history has damage from water leaks. Floors have buckled, there’s mold on the wall, the foundation is shifting inward, and the first floor must be gutted.

The cost of rehabilitation far exceeds its value, Auerbach said.

Auerbach said that if the village decides to landmark both the Price house at 259 and its neighbor at 253, Wachala will consider a compromise.

“We would attempt to work with them to find an agreeable solution that benefits all parties,” said Auerbach.

Owner’s rights

While there’s a natural draw to historic buildings, many old structures are in disrepair and prohibitively expensive to save.

“I think demolition has a place,” said Jason Knight, an assistant professor of geography and planning at Buffalo State College. “It’s a very complex, very touchy emotional issue.”

Knight, a former community planning coordinator at the Erie County Department of Environment and Planning, thinks a property owner’s land use rights are an important consideration in these debates.

“It’s a real challenge to justify saving everything,” said Knight. “The issue is moving to the suburbs.”

With historic preservation attracting more interest, more and more communities have adopted a municipal code that allows for a protective historic designation. A national program, started in 1980, ensures a municipality’s historic laws, which includes an historic commission. This status also means that local protections of historic structures are up to federal standards and qualify for grants.

In New York State, 80 communities qualify as “Certified Local Governments.” Local communities that have joined East Aurora and Buffalo include Amherst, Williamsville, Clarence, Hamburg, Lancaster, Orchard Park, Springville, Niagara Falls, North Tonawanda, Lockport and Lewiston.

Creative rescues

Some have found creative ways to save their old buildings.

In Lancaster, officials struggled with what to do with a deteriorated 210-year-old log cabin believed to be Erie County’s oldest surviving building. The tiny Gipple family cabin was too fragile to move after decades of neglect. Last fall, the family donated its remnants to the Hull House Foundation, which hopes to reconstruct it next to the historic stone Hull Family Home & Farmstead heritage campus on Genesee Street.

And in Williamsville, the historic Williamsville Water Mill – rescued from foreclosure by the village in 2005 – is being redeveloped to serve as an anchor for the renewal along East Spring Street in the village.

“Smaller communities sometimes look at that and say, ‘Oh that looks like a good planning tool for us,’” Werbizky said.

Buffalo had such a code on the books when, in 2007, the owner of Pano’s restaurant on Elmwood Avenue won a demolition permit for a house to make way for expanding the restaurant.

The protections weren’t used. The Atwater house with its triangular gable and round tower hadn’t been submitted to the historic commission for local landmark consideration. The demolition permit won city approval first, and the house was torn down.

Preservationists said they learned a lesson.

“It told us try to get the landmark, in any event,” said Tim Tielman, executive director of the Campaign for Greater Buffalo History, Architecture & Culture. “We live in a democracy, and it can be very time consuming.”

Reflections in Buffalo

The East Aurora situation reminds Tielman of the 1963 demolition of the Delaware Avenue house in Buffalo where Mark Twain lived. It was replaced by the Cloister restaurant, which has long since closed.

Last year, it was torn down for the new “Twain Tower” building, with Twain’s old brick carriage house still standing behind it. The building has apartments and offices at the Virginia Street corner.

Tielman feels that tearing down the Irving Price house would be “a travesty.”

“What Irving Price created is of great significance to the past and future of East Aurora,” he said. “Once it’s gone, it’s gone … This is how the character of communities is eroded.”

By contrast, last year’s protest of plans to tear down St. Ann’s Church on Broadway had an impact.

Parishioners fought to save it and, last year, the church that opened in 1886 won local landmark status from the city.

Preservation Buffalo Niagara, with the bishop’s blessing, is now working to find a developer to invest in all of the property, which includes the school, rectory, convent and church.

email: mkearns@buffnews.com