Mansion owned by Peace Bridge Authority gets landmark status
By Brian Meyer
NEWS STAFF REPORTER
Updated: October 13, 2009
The Common Council voted unanimously today to give landmark status to a long-vacant mansion on Busti Avenue, complicating plans by the Peace Bridge Authority to tear it down.
Preservationists and some neighborhood residents tout the 146-year-old structure at 771 Busti as an architecturally and historically significant building. It was once owned by Col. Samuel H. Wilkeson, grandson of the builder of Buffalo's harbor.
But the Peace Bridge Authority cited studies indicating that the three-story Italianate-style building is unsound and cannot be adapted for reuse.
Peace Bridge Authority General Manager Ron Rienas said today that while he's disappointed by the Council vote, he doesn't expect it to have an impact on the long-debated Peace Bridge expansion. Rienas contended that even with the structure being designated a local landmark, bridge officials are confident that an ongoing federal process would clear the way for demolition, assuming the expansion moves forward.
Meanwhile, city Preservation Board member Timothy A. Tielman said he's hoping the landmark designation will have a two-pronged impact. He said the Council's action should send a signal to the Peace Bridge Authority that it has an obligation to fix a blighted structure that it has owned since 1996. In the longer term, said Tielman, he hopes various groups will band together to restore the once-opulent mansion.
"This is the front door to Buffalo," said Tielman of the Busti Avenue site. "It would be a wonderful monument as a museum or even as a home that is occasionally opened to visitors."
The Preservation Board had urged the Council to name the Wilkeson House a city landmark.
Tielman said relocating the house to another site would be imprudent, claiming its location in the Prospect Hill neighborhood is one thing that adds to its historic character.
Some Council members said they based part of their decision-making on testimony Rienas gave last week in City Hall when he stated that a landmark designation would have no effect on bridge expansion plans. Rienas clarified his remarks to a reporter today, saying what he meant was that the authority believed it would eventually be permitted to demolish the building even if it became a local landmark.
Rienas said the Council legally agreed to the demolitions several years ago when it adopted a plan that called for tearing down structures on Busti between Vermont and Rhode Island streets. He said officials were in agreement that the demolitions would improve the neighborhood by providing additional greenspace and other enhancements.
"This isn't consistent with the position that members of the Common Council took before," said Rienas.