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By James Hufnagel

An 11th-hour appeal by local historic preservationists may not be enough to save a Civil War-era building at DeVeaux Woods from the State Parks wrecking ball.

Although demolition of the storied structure known as the Carriage House has been on the State Parks backburner for at least four years, a highly placed source says funding has been allocated and contractors hired, and one of the oldest Niagara County buildings on public land may, as soon as this week, be reduced to a pile of rubble.

Arrogant disdain for the local public interest has been the hallmark of New York State Parks for decades. Many point to the accelerated transformation of the Niagara Falls State Park from the Olmsted Reservation into an industrial tourism factory, the result of backroom Albany deals benefiting the multinational corporations Delaware North and Maid of the Mist at the expense of the local economy.

Eight million tourists a year now park, dine, sightsee, buy souvenirs and then leave Niagara Falls State Park, only a tiny fraction venturing into or spending money in the city of the same name.

State Parks foisted maintenance of parks like Joseph Davis and Knox Farm off on local town governments, blaming the ongoing state budget crisis, but that didn't preclude several infrastructure improvements to Albany's Niagara Falls attraction from recently being completed.

Of course, that's because Niagara Falls State Park is a favored Albany profit center.

Parks like Joe Davis and Wilson-Tuscarora serve only the local populace, and recreational activities such as picnicking, going for a nature walk, snowmobiling and bird watching do little to line the politicians' pockets. Therefore, they appear on the "liability" side of State Parks' balance sheet.

In 2000, Republican governor George Pataki, Parks Commissioner Bernadette Castro and local dignitaries dedicated the DeVeaux Woods State Park. One of the unique aspects of the new park was five acres of old-growth forest. The stand of old-growth trees, located mere yards from the Niagara Gorge and estimated to be more than 250 years old, is one of few known to exist in an urban setting.

A press release dating from February 1997 states that "DeVeaux Woods was selected as one of Western New York's top 12 priorities deserving protection in New York and was listed for acquisition by Gov. Pataki in the 1998 Conserving Open Space Plan."

"With acres of beautiful trees, DeVeaux Woods is one of the most unique open-space treasures in New York state," Gov. Pataki said. "By creating a new state park on this property, we are protecting an old-growth forest while offering one more incredible recreational and educational opportunity for residents and visitors to enjoy the Niagara Falls region."

Years later, during May of 2009, State Parks workers under Paterson, Parks Commissioner Ash and Regional Director Mark Thomas bulldozed an area within the old-growth woods at DeVeaux to create yet another parking lot. You can see photos of the devastation taken at the time by this reporter at www.niagaragreenway.com. A section of the forest was scraped bare, leaving large piles of refuse and destroying many trilliums, a flower listed as a New York State Threatened Species.

After the damage to DeVeaux Woods State Park was brought to the attention of local nature groups, work on the site was brought to a screeching halt.

While a forest may stage a comeback from abuse such as that inflicted by State Parks, the Carriage House, once demolished, will be gone forever.

Formerly the location of a private school attended and fondly remembered by hundreds of local residents, the grounds of the DeVeaux campus feature several buildings, the oldest of which is the Carriage House, a brick structure built in 1863.

Largely through the efforts of Thomas Yots and other area preservationists, the entire DeVeaux campus was listed as a National Historic District and the Carriage House named on the National Register of Historic Places.

According to Yots, State Parks fought the designation every step of the way, a pattern of bureaucratic behavior that has always been painfully evident to citizens who have advocated for more local control of Niagara Falls waterfront.

Another local historian and preservationist, Paul Gromosiak, points out, "Recently, buildings at Fort Niagara were restored and put to use, even though they were in much worse shape than the Carriage House. Why are they (State Parks) in such a rush to knock this 1863 landmark down?"

The answer to Gromosiak's question may well be that the contract to demolish the Carriage House is worth, according to sources, over $200,000.

For $200,000, you could knock down and haul away the pyramids of Giza. A terrible idea, but one that State Parks would probably consider.

To summarize: The Cuomo administration, amid the biggest budget crisis in state history, is planning to spend over $200,000 to demolish a Niagara Falls building that is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

The New York State Historic Preservation Act of 1980 requires State Parks to "consult with the State Historic Preservation if it appears that any projects being planned may or will cause any change, beneficial or adverse, in the quality of any historic, architectural, archeological or cultural property that is listed on the National Register of Historic Places or listed on the State Register or that is determined to be eligible for listing on the State Register."

Andrea Rebeck, a specialist at Preservation Buffalo Niagara and longtime State Parks consultant, has questioned whether these regulations were followed, in spirit or letter, by State Parks in their deliberations. In a related story, the National Parks Service spent $2.7 million to renovate another Carriage House, opened just last week next to the Teddy Roosevelt Inaugural National Historic Site on Delaware Avenue, Buffalo.

To summarize: National Parks -- respect and restore. State Parks -- disrespect and destroy. Perhaps the state Office of Parks, Recreation and "Historic Preservation" should consider changing their name to "Historic Desecration."

The incredible irony is that Regional Director Mark Thomas, the man who made the decision to bulldoze the Carriage House, now also serves on the newly formed Niagara Falls National Heritage Area Commission.

Niagara Falls Reporter www.niagarafallsreporter.com March 29, 2011