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Demco Puts Buffalo’s Iconic ’Aud’ on Ice

Thu May 28, 2009 - Northeast Edition
Laurie Mercer

Rubber-neckers traveling on both sides of the Skyway in Buffalo have been watching in fascination for months now as heavy equipment works its way through the city’s most famous Auditorium Theater. Being slowly reduced to recycling rubble, the Aud will be gone by June.

The Aud was uniquely filled with local memories echoing the foghorn that sounded after a goal. It was the last NHL arena not to have a regulation-sized ice surface. Famous stories include Jim Lorentz’s killing a bat that was hovering near the ice during a playoff game with Philadelphia. Then there’s the 1975 Stanley Cup Finals when the temperature inside the non-air-conditioned building rose sufficiently to produce a thick shroud of fog on the ice. That became known as the “fog game.”

Developers and city officials did their best to let fans pay a respectful goodbye to the old Aud. The seats are long gone — about 1,600 blue seats grossed more than $300,000 at auction. Thirteen-hundred-pound masonry eagles, slabs of marble, iron railings, and 17 Art Deco-style flagpoles were put into storage for future incorporation into a memorial to the iconic Buffalo treasure. The WPA-era auditorium, called the “Aud,” actually began life as one city’s answer to the Great Depression.

Built for $2,700,000 in 1940, the Aud seated about 15,000, including the floor seats. The building was famous for its close distance between fan and participant. Hockey fans especially loved the fact that players could look them right in the eye if the fan had a good seat.

Located in a solid hockey city, the Aud housed the NHL Sabres, and for about three decades Buffalo also was home to the American Hockey League’s Buffalo Bisons. Beyond hockey and basketball — two major interests — the Aud also hosted the Buffalo Stallions of the Major Soccer League, the Buffalo Stampede of Roller Hockey International, the Buffalo Bandits of the Major Indoor Lacrosse League, and the Buffalo Blizzard of the National Professional Soccer League.

There is no implosion or wrecking ball; instead the landmark is being taken down piece by piece, using traditional demolition methods. It’s been emotionally wrenching for thousands of upstate New Yorkers who once came to the Aud to cheer and be awed by hundreds of teams (hockey and basketball especially), circuses, big trucks, auto shows, pro wrestling, pet shows, amateur sports, Elvis Presley, Frank Sinatra, and even four performances by the Grateful Dead.

Mindful of the emotional impact this has on the town, the developers responsible for the $325 million redevelopment of the harbor, where the Aud is currently in the epicenter, allowed tourists to take photographs just before the excavators began razing the building.

As one fan on site for photos reminisced, “It was a great building; the fans were almost part of the team because they were so close to you. It was a smaller ice surface. The rink had electricity to it. It is tough to see it go.”

Following eight months and $4 million in asbestos abatement, the 80-year-old arena, which has been empty for about 12 years now, is scheduled to be completely cleared and shovel ready by June. Replacing it will be a 150,000-sq.-ft. Bass Pro Shop poised to anchor part of the Canal Side project with a gala opening inked in for May 2011.

As the city’s inner harbor transforms from steel mills to tourists to keep it pumped, waterfront development facilitators point to the potential of about 60,000 people visiting the harbor this summer as positive signs of change. The hope is that site development and year-round programs will get people used to coming downtown to the waterfront to work, live and play.

Many years in the making, Canal Side is part of the city’s overall waterfront development effort. Canal Side will feature a historic mix of replica canals, cobblestone streets and nearly 600,000 sq. ft. of retail, restaurant and entertainment space.

The first phase, a $54 million Erie Canal terminus site, opened last year to rave reviews. Saving the old Auditorium Theatre, however, was not part of the historically reminiscent but structurally progressive plan.

“It is always the end of an era when the demolition company comes on board,” said Kevin Callahan, vice president of Demco Inc., a Buffalo-based demolition company guiding the demolition process. “What’s important is that at the end of the day, everybody feels like they did their part.”

Callahan also said that he has never seen anything like the visitors the demolition process has drawn.

“There are people visiting the site here every day, 24-hours a day and on weekends. Thousands of people are coming with their families, taking pictures; I’ve almost never seen anything like it,” he said. “They come and tell you their stories.”

He added that the only similar veneration for a building that he has witnessed involved an old church with devoted parishioners.

“People get emotionally attached to buildings they’ve worked in, or like this one, they attended for special events, often with family members,” Callahan said. “When people have this much reverence for a building they want a piece of it.”

Auctions of a famous building’s memorabilia helped fund the project. The final goal was struck in1996 when the Buffalo Sabres moved to the new and larger HSBC Arena just across the street.

“The strange part is that in 12 years,” Callahan said, “while the Aud was boarded up, nobody took a picture.”

“I’ve built a lot of structures in the past,” he said, “but demolition is kind of the reverse process. You begin with something and end up with nothing.”

Callahan said Demco’s strength is not necessarily demolishing athletic arenas, although the company did just get the contract to take down the old Yankee Stadium. He said the demolition of large automobile factories, nuclear power plants and heavy industrial sites are what they are best known for.

Demco, with a father Joseph, two sons Patrick and Kevin and daughter Gayle, was established in 1994 in Buffalo, which Callahan characterized as the “tightest market for demolition companies in the world.” He insisted he is not exaggerating. “Most major demolition companies are out of Buffalo,” he said.

“I think that Buffalo’s decline led to people being in the demolition industry 30 years before the rest of the county.”

The steel plants that once populated the Buffalo River are central to the area where the city now plans high-rise developments, malls and pedestrian parks and trails. The Aud is the only building slated to come down.

All work is done in stages beginning with inside hazardous waste removal. Remediation includes materials such as household wastes, hydraulic fluids, chemical cleaners, pesticides and asbestos — a universal building material in 1940. The asbestos went to a licensed landfill in Minerva while the other waste streams went to landfills licensed to accept the specific material.

As the structure started coming down, the steel beams are being 100 percent recycled along with all of the metal and concrete. The recycled materials are then sold to Niagara Metals to be shipped to Canada and put into other structural elements. So, in essence, the Aud will live on.

The time capsule placed in a cornerstone of Buffalo’s Memorial Auditorium nearly 70 years ago will be opened at a public ceremony in late spring.

“The time capsule has been located on Aud blueprints, and we are pleased it was found intact and perfectly sealed,’ said Matthew Davison, spokesperson for the Erie Canal Harbor Development Corporation.

People think of explosions and wrecking balls when they think of demolition, but the Aud is being dismantled largely with backhoes and excavators and a variety of attachments. Callahan said his company has all the equipment they need in house.

“In 30 years look what they’ve done with attachments, higher reaches, and computer controls. Twenty or 30 years ago we would have used a wrecking ball on the Aud, no question. Now we have way more control at the end of an excavator and high reach,” he said.

In another highly publicized, media-alerted event, with just a few tugs from some high-tension wires, nearly 40 tons of Memorial Auditorium steel trusses fell to the ground. Demco spokespeople said, “Taking down each truss is a project unto itself.” Others estimated it would take days to prepare each truss and weeks to take them all down.

One writer on the scene described his awe when the truss — one of 12 steel arches that spanned the Aud’s roof — collapsed in a pile of debris and dust. The trusses themselves were part of the original structure and used again in 1971 when the roof was raised to make way for the orange seating section.

Don Luce, a Buffalo Sabres player said in the press, “It was a great building. The fans were right there, and they were just part of the team … Just playing there was awesome. It was a very solid building because when they raised the roof, most buildings you couldn’t do that to. It was well built. It’s tough to see it go.”

The Aud site was further complicated because of its strategic position bordered by the “Skyway” with heavy traffic, a major trunk line for the sewer system, a big water transmission line and rapid transit. Then there’s the steel prices faltering. Buffalo Rising, an Internet site, said that the original demolition bid went to Ontario Specialty Contracting Inc. (OSC), but “OSC opted out of the demolition deal based on the current poor market price of scrap metal.”

Built During the

Great Depression

Water draws people, which often leads to commerce. Many cities have made great use of their inner coastal areas. San Francisco has long been famous for its Fishermen’s Wharf, and many years ago the inner harbor of Baltimore was rescued from its slum-like conditions to become an attractive destination.

Buffalo’s waterfront was different because working steel mills still lined the area until fairly recently. For example, not far from the Canal Side efforts stands a still very busy large General Mills plant.

The Erie Canal Harbor Development Corporation (ECHDC), launched in 2005, is devoted to reclaiming for restoration and renewal one of America’s greatest historic treasures — the end of the late great Erie Canal.

The harbor front itself, where the old Aud is being razed, is part of the Erie Canal Harbor, built in 1825 as the western terminus of the Erie Canal. There is no overestimating the Erie Canal’s influence on the growth of upstate New York. The big ditch became the life’s blood of commercialism and progress in the state’s frontier, and grew to become one of the world’s greatest business corridors.

The area was teeming with canal and rail traffic passing from the Atlantic seaboard across the Great Lakes. As a result, Buffalo grew from a village to a thriving metropolis, eventually becoming the largest inland port in the nation as well as the unofficial grain capital of North America.

The arrival of trains and automobiles in the early 20th century led to the demise of the old Erie Canal harbor and its influence. In time, the site was covered over with stone and dirt to become streets and parking.

The area remained quiet until a period during the 1930s when the federal government pumped public works dollars into the national economy in an effort to stem the Great Depression. In Buffalo, that led to the replacement of the aging Broadway Auditorium, the city’s only convention space.

The new auditorium was to be located between Lower Terrace and Lake Streets. It cost $2,700,000 and occupied a spot in the oldest part of Buffalo that was at one end of what was once the Erie Canal. The cornerstone was laid on Nov. 30, 1939.

Opening ceremonies on Oct. 14, 1940, were robust. The 422- by 262-ft. auditorium had 12,280 tiered red, blue and gray-colored seats and 2,000 to 3,000 floor-level moveable seats.

The parade and 3,000-person luncheon that launched the Aud’s opening was described as, “One of the largest civic celebrations ever held in Buffalo.” Its formal dedication was to those who died in World War combat.

Quickly becoming the center of entertainment in downtown Buffalo, more than a million people came during the first seven months of operation devoted to concerts, dog shows, circuses and ice shows in addition to sports events at every level from amateur to highly paid professionals.

By 1996, however, time itself caught up with the Aud, and it was replaced by a newer building just across the street. It then sat boarded up for 12 years with advertising for its last game still hanging wearily from the walls.

The New Harbor Development

First initiated in 1999, the Erie Canal Harbor Redevelopment Project is a $53 million waterfront infrastructure effort aimed at transforming 12.5 acres of inner harbor land into a contemporary recreation and tourist destination.

The first phase of historic restoration came in 2003 when Veteran’s Waterfront Park was completed, featuring a naval armada of WWII ships, as well as monuments and special events carrying the maritime theme. In December 2007 the Aud was sold by the city of Buffalo to the ECHDC for $1 to stimulate development.

Open to the public since May 2008 are other views of the original Erie Canal Harbor including the “Commercial Slip,” which was the link between the Erie Canal and the Great Lakes. The Coit-McCutcheon canal era building has been replicated, and the “Whipple Truss” footbridge connects the “Central Wharf” to cobblestone commercial streets.

That the area surrounding the old Aud would become a tourist Mecca seems to be a rightful part of the region’s legacy of pride, urban significance and natural beauty. There certainly was no shortage of people who wanted to see the old building kept as is, but Mark Smith, director of construction for Erie Canal Harbor Development Corporation, summed up the prevailing attitude when he said, “If it’s not going to be used in the long term then it needs to be replaced with something that will be used.”

Officials were certainly mindful of the emotional impact the Aud’s demolition has had on the city. During an event where people were allowed to come inside and photograph the Aud before demolition began, U.S. Rep. Brian Higgins said, “What you can salvage from this are extraordinary memories.” CEG

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