When Gary Bolles arrived at Shea’s Performing Arts Center to help repair the historic Buffalo theater, he found sections where water had damaged the 88-year-old building.
So his crew of restoration artisans turned to old photographs to see how the building once looked. They studied the images and then used them to replicate the missing details. It was a big job for Buffalo Plastering and Buffalo Architectural Casting, the two companies that Bolles and his longtime partner, Leo Lysy, own and operate in North Buffalo. But the circumstances weren’t unusual.
“Sometimes we get in there and we don’t have any of the original pieces,” said Bolles, company president. “We have to measure what’s left behind. It’s like detective work.”
Lots of that type of work is taking place in Buffalo, thanks to the resurgence of building activity in nearly every corner of the city’s core. In addition to new construction, several historically significant buildings are being preserved or renovated for new use.
The $2.5 million undertaking at Shea’s is one of the area’s highest-profile restoration projects. But there are others, including several adaptive-reuse projects, that require architects and artisans to find ways to make their designs match the original work.
That’s what happened at the Hotel @ The Lafayette in Lafayette Square. Bolles and his team were part of the $35 million rehabilitation of the historic hotel building, and the work they did there — including restoration of the plasterwork in the ballrooms — demonstrates some of the techniques they use in order to mix the old with the new.
“We’ll take an ornament we find in these old buildings that craftsmen made 100 years ago and we’ll take rubber molds of them and incorporate them into a line of decoration,” Bolles said. “Sometimes if there were 20 column capitals and you have half of one remaining, you have to repair that half of one and make a mold and produce it four times to make one complete, and then cast it over and over to make what’s needed.”
Figuring out material is part of what HHL Architects does when it gets involved in historic preservation or restoration projects. Matthew Meier, one of the Buffalo firm’s two partners, said there’s a difference between preservation and restoration, but they both require careful planning and consideration before any such project can get underway.
“The historic stuff tends to take longer than most projects and it’s twofold,” Meier said. “One could be the research part and one could be the material procurement part. You have to figure out if you can replicate what you’re restoring out of the same material or not.”
The circa 1892 Market Arcade building across from Shea’s is a prime example. Meier said new terracotta was made to match the original terracotta façade.
Finances are key. Preservation and restoration are costly endeavors and without enough funding in place — including in some cases state and federal tax credits and other incentives — developers aren’t able to afford all of the necessary building fixes.
Clinton Brown Company Architecture specializes in adaptive-reuse projects, but the 26-year-old Buffalo company also writes grants to secure funds for those same projects. Founder and President Clinton Brown said the company has raised more than $31.5 million in grant money for historic preservation and renovation projects.
“We breathe new life into historic places,” he said. “For us, the most important thing is that we listen to the building and we listen for two things — the circulation in the building and the layout of the rooms. It becomes a question of: How do you least change the existing conditions and the existing rooms in order to facilitate new use?”
The company will spend nine to 18 months on any given project, depending on the level of complexity, Brown said.
HHL has been working on the Darwin D. Martin Complex restoration on and off for 22 years, Meier said.
Bolles, whose plastering company celebrates its 25th year in business this year, said he gets a kick out of watching the city’s old buildings get some long-deserved attention.
“It’s a real rush working on these projects,” he said. “There’s kind of a resurgence in Buffalo and a lot of hubbub, and it’s nice to see these buildings I’ve seen my whole life coming alive again. It’s great.”