Speech for the Steel Plant Museum – Wednesday Night Guest Speaker Series
Speech written and given by Danielle Huber
Good evening. I want to thank you all for coming tonight. By being here, you’re expressing your interest in preservation, history, and the future of the Buffalo area. I was asked to speak tonight about the I’m Steel Standing campaign that we built bottom-up in efforts to save the Bethlehem Steel Administrative Building from the excavator. The journey was life changing. The 1901 Lancing Holden Beaux Arts style building with copper ornamentation that was a symbol of industrial America was irreplaceable. The beauty stood lifeless and vacated for thirty years and I, along with Dana Saylor and others, had to find a way to breathe life into it again when we were just born the year the building closed its doors. The I’m Steel Standing campaign consisted of collaboration, education, research, meetings, rallies, cold winter days, petitioning, peaceful protesting, council meetings, politicking, brainstorming, festivals, paperwork, social media, sleepless nights, being called obstructionists, and so much more. The building is currently only a memory … so you would instantly say that we were failures. I disagree. We raised awareness and shed light on preservation and the importance of saving buildings … saving our history … and building communities.
People often say to me, “Danielle, why? Why do you spend so much of your life saving buildings? Why don’t you find something better to do with your time? They’re just buildings.” Living in the age of reality tv and selfies produces challenges for what truly matters in this world. So many people my age don’t find the time to vote or to get involved in their community. I, however, understand that to have a sustainable and rich future, I must be involved in my community therefore; I work with the current youth with the objective of instilling those same values in them.
Looking back at those 11 months to develop this speech was head spinning, especially since it has been 3 years exactly since the special demolition announcement. It’s fascinating how passion and adrenaline can drive you to work endlessly on a cause. I would teach an 8-hour day and run after-school intramurals then work limitlessly on saving the admin building, also known as Old North. The 11-month experience built me a backbone of steel, pun intended. It taught me things about myself that I never knew. I made new friendships and learned so much from my peers.
So, here’s a little about me. In 2001, I took a History of Buffalo class during my undergraduate work and I did a project on the history of the Canal District. This was before they even discovered the ruins. There was nothing there but overgrown grass, broken concrete, and chain-linked fence. That project made me discover Buffalo and its history for the first time since I was young when my mother would take me to the observation deck of City Hall or for subway rides up Main Street, as I was raised in the suburbs. Upon the completion of my collegiate project, I started my Facebook page, Dedicated to Buffalo. Dedicated to Buffalo’s Facebook page and website’s objective is to educate Buffalonians one fact at a time and expose one image at a time to the city’s vast history, arts, and architecture. It informs of upcoming events, restaurants, good neighbors, and books. It also supports small business via social media networking. My philosophy is that education will lead to preservation, preservation will lead to redevelopment, and redevelopment will lead to revitalization. This is only one component of many that would lead to the rebuilding of Buffalo, but it was my contribution. I quickly got thousands of people following my page and expressing their interest and love for Buffalo history and architecture but the essential problem was that no one wanted to do anything to preserve it. I was destined to keep pushing. I went to talks by preservation gurus and tried to build a networking group. I eventually came across Buffalo Young Preservationists. I’d attend events and introduce myself to anyone who would listen to me and I read almost every book written about Buffalo and its history. I even researched, wrote, mapped out and hosted my own R-rated walking tour of the Canal District. Still, I didn’t feel like I was putting my passion and potential to its best use.
Then, sadly, it happened. I was reading David Torke’s website, Fix Buffalo, and I saw a blog announcing an emergency demolition order for the Bethlehem Steel Administration Building. My heart stopped momentarily. I remember saying to myself, “Over my dead body.” The very next day, when I was at work with my second graders, I couldn’t get the demolition of that building out of my mind. On my break, I called Matthew Fisher, whom had success with preservation projects in South Buffalo. When my students were at lunch, I called every news outlet. Channel 4’s George Richert called back. That night, George Richert interviewed David Torke, Steve Brenner – Lackawanna’s code enforcer, and myself. Brenner claimed that the building was ready to implode. However, we would soon discover from a walkthrough from the State Historic Preservation Office that building was not ready to implode.
Why save the admin building? The building was significant to Lackawanna and its surrounding region for many reasons:
- The architecture was magnificent and buildings aren’t built like that anymore, especially with a detailed copper roof, detailed pediments, terra-cotta pilasters, and unique Corinthian dormers.
- Its history is what put Lackawanna on the map, as it was initially part of a neighboring town, West Seneca.The steel company is of the most powerful symbols in the United State’s industrial manufacturing history. It became the leading supplier of steel in the construction industry, as it was responsible for developing parts for the use of skyscrapers during their inception.
In addition, the steel company was a major supplier to the Navy and Army during the World Wars. It also made parts for nuclear reactors for the Federal Government and by the 1950s; it began manufacturing 23 million tons of steel per year. The steel company employed a significant amount of people in Western New York and turned Lackawanna into a boomtown.
- The location was essential.The building was adjacent to the city of Buffalo and was conveniently located on the waterfront just steps away from the city line. As the city of Buffalo continues its waterfront revitalization projects, this building would have absolutely had the potential to become an attraction or a focal point for Western New York.
Those reasons being said, preservationists immediately congregated at the building to develop a plan and collaborate on ways we could save the building. It was evident that we needed time and it was evident that we needed alternates to demolition. The Lackawanna Industrial Heritage Group was formed. We instantly began hanging signs at the site that could easily be seen from the on and off ramp of Route 5 at Ridge Rd. One sign read, “Call the Mayor” with the Mayor’s phone number. We needed the mayor to know that saving this building was important to the community.
We learned that the decision to demolish the building was made without the council’s consent. The city’s charter severely limits legislative control over such a decision; the council can establish policy, it controls the finances of the city, and it can override mayoral vetoes with a super-majority vote. This bought us time, as the council had not seen an official engineer report. In addition, we identified improper usage of grant money intended for preservation that the City of Lackawanna was planning to use for demolition of the Administration building. That funding has been retracted. Using that ammunition, we convinced the courts to get a stay of demolition.
Furthermore, I submitted a request to be placed on the council agenda. I addressed the council at that meeting expressing the fundamental need to save Old North. A well-known Lackawanna resident stood up and said, “we’ll never see you preservationist people at another council meeting after tonight.” He was wrong! I attended almost every Lackawanna council meeting from that moment on … to after she [Old North] was torn down … until the very week before I moved to Buffalo years later. It was essential that I’d be seen, heard, and most importantly, involved in other community projects and issues. The campaign was no longer solely about Beth Steel, it was becoming about Lackawanna as a whole. Lackawanna, its history, its people, and its future were now important to me. After all, it was where I lived, worked, and played. Lackawanna’s potential became so apparent to me that upon the unfortunate passing of the 3rd Ward Councilman, I submitted a letter of interest in the hopes to be appointed to the vacant seat. I was not appointed. Joe Jerge, owner of Mulberry Restaurant, was appointed. The council president stated that I was their 2nd choice. That did not deter me. I continued to be actively involved in many Lackawanna issues and events. Lackawanna actually named me as a dignitary for 2 consecutive years for my devotion to the city. Not being appointed, however, was disappointing with preservation in mind. In a non-preservation minded municipality, it would have been beneficial to have a council seat.
I held Lackawanna Industrial Heritage Group meetings in the basement of the Lackawanna Carnegie Hall library. Lackawanna had no preservation ordinances at all. I learned about the benefits of a Certified Local Government and pushed to get Lackawanna to become one. According to the National Parks Services, a CLG is where Local, State, and Federal governments work together in the Federal Preservation Program to help communities save the irreplaceable historic character of places. Through the certification process, communities make a local commitment to historic preservation. This commitment is key to America’s ability to preserve, protect, and increase awareness of our unique cultural heritage found in the built environment across the country. Being a CLG opens doors to funding, technical assistance, and other preservation successes. Historic preservation has proven economic, environmental, and social benefits. Studies show that historic districts maintain higher property values, less population decline, more walkability and greater sense of community. I crashed local municipal meetings and events to inform the community about CLGs. I manned a table at a local festival educating the public and to get signatures to form a CLG and petitions to save the Admin building from demolition. Some of the public was resilient to the idea of a CLG because they believed that it would raise their taxes, even though 60 towns and cities were a CLG in NYS at that time. We ended up not forming a CLG in Lackawanna because the mayor believed that preservation was not forward thinking. You can lead a horse to water but you can’t make him drink it. The Mayor of Lackawanna, Geoffrey Szymanki, has been quoted saying, ”I am tired of hearing about our glorious past. I think preservation societies are only trying to preserve what once was, as opposed to moving our region in a positive direction.” In effect he saw to it that the building owners demolish the building, claiming that it was ready to implode any minute; even though SHPO deemed it structurally sound. The Mayor needs to understand the economic benefits of historic preservation. Preserving this building would have created jobs, increased property values, conserve resources, support small business, and attract visitors, all of which Lackawanna would have benefited from.
Additionally, Dana, David Torke, and I held a public hearing. The panel consisted of the Lackawanna Common Council President, Hank Pirowski, Jason Wilson, formerly a member of Preservation Buffalo Niagara, Darren Cotton whom wrote an adaptive reuse plan for the Admin building, two people that worked in and has passion for Old North and myself. Chris Hawley, a city planner, moderated the hearing. We invited the mayor to this event; however, his seat remained vacant. Actions speak louder than words.
To speak further about Darren Cotton – he played a fundamental role throughout our campaign. If you get access to his adaptive reuse plan, I suggest that you read it. I was on my way to meet Tim Tielman regarding me giving architecture tours on his Open-Air autobus and I had some time to kill so I obviously sat in front of Old North with the intent of educating anyone and everyone that would walk past the building about its current status. That’s when Darren and his friend walked up. I never met or heard of him before so I started my whole spiel when he told me that he had recently written an adaptive reuse plan for Old North for his coursework. I felt like I hit the jackpot. I literally asked a perfect stranger to come to my apartment so that I could print his project and submit it to the council and hopefully implement some of his ideas, with his collaboration.
There after, we walked door-to-door getting petition signatures from the public. In addition, we utilized social media to get our word out there. We had a Facebook page, website (thanks to Megan Bacco), Twitter handle, Flickr, and various other mediums. We held candle light vigils and held events where former steel plant workers came to express their interest in saving the building by telling stories about their experiences there.
As a group, we did our homework on Tecumseh and Crushed Stone, the parcels of land where the building was perched as well as the surrounding ones. We educated ourselves on brownfields and how, according to Darren Cotton’s study, BOA funding provides a municipality with up to 90 percent of a project’s total cost. Eligible activities could have included community outreach and public participation, market studies, environmental impact studies, marketing, development of design standards, and various other actions that would result in the redevelopment of the targeted brownfield area.
We worked hard to get the former mayor of Bethlehem, PA to come to Lackawanna to educate the owners of the Bethlehem Steel Building and Government officials. Bethlehem, PA found a new use for their former steel plant that would bring in paramount revenue annually and over 1 million visitors. Its name is, Steel Stacks. SteelStacks is a ten-acre campus dedicated to arts, culture, family events, community celebrations, education and fun. Pennsylvania’s Bethlehem Steel site has been reborn through music and art, offering more than 1,000 concerts and eight different festivals annually. Rather than demolish the historic mill or walk away and let it fall apart, the Bethlehem community rallied around the iconic plant, working hard to bring new life to the former industrial giant. In 1999, the City of Bethlehem, Bethlehem Area School District and County of Northampton – the three local taxing bodies – established a Tax Incremental Financing district on the property, dedicating any future tax dollars generated from new business on the site to helping revitalize the former steel plant, in which it has.
Towards the end of our campaign, demolition was ceased temporarily after a restraining order was issued, but recommenced after the judge lifted the order a week later. David Torke told Buffalo Rising that Steven Detweiler, the building’s owner, agreed to sell the building to a new entity, a 501c3, for less than $100k. Detweiler then met with the mayor and the city attorney but Detwiler changed his terms demanding a $200K, non-refundable deposit and complete renovations to the building by the end of 2013. And…. Just a few hours later, demo began. Generally, demolitions start at the back of a building. The demo equipment was perched in the back; however, as a slap in the face and a stab in the heart, when the order was lifted, the magnificent pediment features were struck first. The copper trimmed dormers were ripped off and there were gouges scattered all over the front façade. We are confident that this was done purposely.
All of the work and passion that us volunteers put forth was concluded. The once National Register Eligible Building now only exists in our memories, hearts, photographs, art and textbooks. We need to learn from it and learn from the success of other industrial towns to improve our future!
I was also asked to discuss the current state of preservation in Buffalo. I think that Buffalo preservationists and city lovers or boosters have all gotten pretty creative. We are aware that we need to be proactive rather than reactive. That is not always possible; however, here’s an example of one way that we’re being proactive: Chris Byrd, Greg Witul, Alan Oberst, and myself have started a Mass Mob revolution where we identify a church that could benefit from a boost of attendance and we mob it. We literally pack the pews, raise awareness, re-energize, and raise money for maintenance and whatnot. We hope that it brings parishioners back to church to keep these historic places of worship for future generations. Have we ever claimed that this is the all-in-all answer? Never. It is simply one creative effort, like SteelStacks. We’ve had such tremendous success that states across the nation having been picking up the idea.
There have been so many efforts by fellow preservationists. I developed a brief list of some of the efforts that I’m aware of – some are direct and some are indirect:
- Buffalo Young Preservationists
- Preservation Buffalo Niagara
- The Campaign for Greater Buffalo
- Bernice Radle’s Heart Bombing
- Darren Cotton’s University Heights Tool Library
- Preservation Ready Sites
- Painting for Preservation
- Pastries for Preservation
- Dana’s City of Night