on June 13, 2013 – 11:49 PM, updated June 14, 2013 at 1:55 AM
They stood in protest last month in front of the old Bethlehem Steel administration building, trying in vain to stop the bulldozers.
They are battling to save the iconic Trico complex.
But a recent afternoon found Bernice Radle and Jason Wilson in front of a different sort of building: a vacant, gutted 1860s cottage on a tattered West Side street. Months ago, it was primed for demolition. Months from now, the two will call it home.
Welcome to the new face of preservation in Buffalo. It is not just about saving and resurrecting iconic structures. It is also about restoring – one house at a time – the older building fabric that weaves together neighborhoods.
Leading the charge are Radle and Wilson. Self-described “building nerds,” the WNY natives are a near-matching pair of bright, urban-enamored, hip-eyeweared 26-year-olds who mash the eagerness of a puppy with the commitment of a bloodhound. The young preservationist power couple – the generational descendants of Tim Tielman and Sue McCartney – are joined, philosophically and domestically, by a shared love of old buildings and Buffalo.
It was connection at first sight.
“When I met Jason,” Radle told me, “I was like, ‘Sweet, finally someone I can do this with all the time.’ ”
Here is what I think is sweet: Radle and Wilson are part of a loose network of local 20-somethings with a pro-urban, preservationist sensibility. From Trico to Bethlehem Steel, they are welcome reinforcements on the front lines. Beyond that, they are primed to pick up the baton for the next generation of battles.
The battles, as they see it, will be fought as much house-to-house in recovering neighborhoods, as in front of at-risk iconic buildings.
“The Martin House, the Guaranty Building, they’ve already been saved,” said Wilson. “Our generation is also looking at rebuilding neighborhoods.”
Radle has an urban planning degree and is a project manager for Buffalo Energy. Wilson, the director of operations for Preservation Buffalo Niagara, apparently has a genetic predilection. His parents’ first date was at the old DL&W Railroad Terminal.
“People my age are looking for culture, and Buffalo is the epicenter,” Wilson told me. “The amount of history here is what really drew me.”
The two helped to start Buffalo’s Young Preservationists, a loose, social media-knitted assemblage of about two dozen activists. Radle gauges BYP’s blossoming power not just by battles won, but in Facebook “likes.”
They are as much urban pioneers as preservationists. Group methods range from buying and fixing battered houses, to sealing endangered icons like the Broadway Theater, to – I’m not kidding – “heart bombs.” Volunteers cover vacant-but-salvageable buildings with paper hearts, to highlight their plight. To date, a handful have been saved.
“You have one success,” said Radle, “and realize you can get things done.”
They found their 1860s brick cottage on the city’s demolition list. They bought four other West Side houses last fall at the city’s foreclosure auction. All will be resurrected.
“Instead of a vacant lot,” said Wilson, standing outside his future front door, “we will save a bit of Buffalo history.”
And in so doing, find a home. Long may they stay.