Making an Impact: The Buffalo History Museum Library

Lib 2

Cynthia Van Ness, MLS
Director of Library & Archives

If you’ve taken up genealogy, you know the impact of finally finding a picture of your great-grandfather’s tavern. Or seeing a picture of the long-demolished corner deli where you bought Atomic Fireballs as a kid.

And then there’s the impact when a new fact upends your understanding of what happened back when. Gospel truth does get demoted to urban legend, but first it puts up a fight. One of the just-will-not-die Buffalo urban legends is that in 1901, every house in Buffalo was supposedly photographed for the Pan-American Exposition and we have the pictures. If only it was true!

We do have an estimated 12,000 house pictures dating mostly from 1870-1970, but there was no campaign to photograph the entire city for the Pan-Am. We don’t have pictures of everyone’s house, then or now. There are another estimated 12,000 pictures of schools, factories, churches, hotels, office buildings, grain elevators, and so on. Our pictures are not online, so an in-person visit is needed to see them.

This extensive collection of architectural imagery has another kind of impact: economic.

How so?

Maybe you’ve noticed that Buffalo’s often deteriorated buildings are getting restored, repurposed, and re-occupied at an unprecedented rate. The Lafayette Hotel renovation was just the most celebrated of a long and growing list of rehabs. In Buffalo, existing buildings are attracting more private construction dollars than new-builds. This resurgence has a lot to do with the National Register and New York State’s preservation tax credit program.

In most Buffalo neighborhoods, getting listed on the National Register opens up tax credits for the restoration of old buildings, both residential and commercial. Property owners typically depend on professional architectural historians to write National Register nominations. In turn, professional architectural historians depend on the Library’s collection for historical evidence, visual and otherwise, to make the case for National Register eligibility. We have the region’s largest collection of period photographs, atlases, and architectural drawings.

Investment = jobs, and not just for architectural historians. Bringing back old buildings means hiring architects, engineers, roofers, plumbers, plasterers, electricians, painters, carpenters, decorators, and more. Preservation is good for Buffalo’s economy because when you renovate an existing building, you typically spend about 60% of your budget on labor, which is usually supplied by local talent.  In turn, those paychecks are spent mostly in the local economy on rent, groceries, etc. The remaining 40% goes to materials, which are usually manufactured elsewhere. For a new build, that ratio is reversed. Forty percent of your budget goes to labor and 60% leaves the local economy to buy materials made elsewhere.

We like to think that in our own indirect way, the Library is helping in the revitalization of Buffalo, one building at a time.

To learn more about New York State’s preservation tax credit program, go to: nysparks.com/shpo/tax-credit-programs/
To learn more about the National Register, go to: http://www.nps.gov/nr/faq.htm
To learn more about the economic impact of historic preservation, go to: http://www.achp.gov/economic-general.html

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