Streetnotes 20: URBAN FEEL. Spring  2010


Katherine Johnson

The Grand Lady-
From High School to Arts and Cultural Center: Adaptive Reuse of an Historic Structure in Niagara Falls, New York

Niagara Falls at  Niagara Reservation State Park is located one mile from the Niagara Arts and Cultural Center
Niagara Falls at  Niagara Reservation State Park is located one mile from the Niagara Arts and Cultural Center

The Niagara Arts and Cultural Center (the NACC) is at home in the former Niagara Falls High School building, located in Niagara Falls, New York. The monumental building had been slated for demolition, but was instead redefined, renamed, and adapted for reuse.  Today it is a vital component to revitalization in the city as a not-for-profit organization that was invited in 2006 by the Board of Directors of New York Multi-Arts Centers Consortium to join and become an official multi-arts center of New York State.  NACC’s identity as a multi-arts center, defined as an organization that owns or operates an accessible cultural facility providing a balance of arts and cultural activities (NYMACC 1) encompasses its historic roots, current planning, and future goals.

The focus of this piece is on NACC’s historic roots -- the grassroots movement undertaken by the public in Niagara Falls to save the building from demolition.  Today, the spirit of that movement is one of three processes that guide the NACC in carrying out its mission to protect the landmark building, preserve cultural heritage, and promote arts and cultural experiences. The two other processes  involve (1) Taking a leadership role in the city and regional arts community, and (2) Developing and maintaining strong relationships with preservation and arts councils whose own missions are to provide resources and support for artistic and cultural work, through organizations such as NACC.

“In the Beginning” Acrylic painting by NACC Artist Dot Farrell; a presentation of the people involved in the early years to save and rehabilitate the old school
“In the Beginning” Acrylic painting by NACC Artist Dot Farrell; a presentation of the people involved in the early years to save and rehabilitate the old school

Since 2002, I have been a participant in Niagara Arts and Cultural Center activities, including as a member of the Board of Directors, as well as an active observer studying the growth of the organization.  This article presents the foundation of a broader study that utilizes ethnographic research methods. James Spradley, in his work Participant Observation, explained that ethnographic descriptions serve as models for others. Ethnographic research seeks to document how people define the world, from their own perspective.  Spradley wrote “Ethnography yields empirical data about the lives of people in specific situations.  It allows us to see alternative realities and modify our culture-bound theories of human behavior” (Spradley 16). In addition, ethnography should serve the groups being studied as well as serving a broader purpose of understanding the similarities and variations in human behavior.  To this end, Spradley describes one way of synchronizing the needs of people and the goals of ethnography “to consult with informants to determine urgent research topics.  Instead of beginning with theoretical problems, the ethnographer can begin with informant-expressed needs, then develop a research agenda to relate these topics to the enduring concerns with social science” (Spradley 18). 

This analysis follows Luke Eric Lassiter’s discussion on “collaborative ethnography,” which “establishes as a main goal the writing of ethnography with local community consultants as active collaborators in that process” (Lassiter 17).  The best way to serve the needs of the Niagara Arts and Cultural Center at this time is describe and analyze how it began in the suffering city of Niagara Falls, NY.  Against numerous odds, the NACC “demonstrates what can be done through the vision and passion of committed people and the renewing power of the arts,” according to its Executive Director. Currently it is used as a model in New York State of what can be done in both arenas of historical preservation and the arts.  Many individuals and groups are fascinated by the story of how many people in the community came together to save an old high school and give it a new purpose. Others visit with the express goal of getting ideas for how they can tackle such an endeavor in their own communities.

Data for this work is qualitative. Howard S. Becker writes extensively on qualitative research, in Tricks of the Trade, Telling About Society, and Art Worlds, guiding researchers to focus on the activities, the processes, the statuses of participants of the society or world being studied. He wrote about one trick that works well for researchers is to ask “how” something happened rather than “why” because people are much more descriptive in their responses.  This leads, he wrote in Tricks of the Trade, to “a general way of thinking that is a good theoretical trick. Assume that whatever you want to study has, not causes, but a history, a story, a narrative, a ‘first this happened, then that happened, and then the other happened, and it ended up like this’” (Becker 61). The application is relevant for this analysis of the Niagara Arts and Cultural Center.

Two phases were involved in the adaptive reuse of the school into an arts and cultural center. The first was in the creation of the Niagara Falls High School Preservation Task Force which researched the desire of the community to try to save the school. Once that work was completed, the second phase lead to the creation of Save Our Sites, Inc., a not-for-profit organization charged with determining what use the building would serve in the community. Historical archives such as newspaper articles, feasibility studies, notes, letters, general office documents, and photographs have been systematically analyzed with the intent to clarify and document the early grassroots movement. Interview data from three key contributors in the movement are included as well: They are the Chair of the Niagara Falls High School Preservation Task Force; a professional historian and former Legislator of Niagara County, NY; and the first President of the Board of Directors of Save Our Sites, Inc.

The Spirit of the Grassroots Movement: Saving the Building

When I asked “What did the possibility that the Niagara Falls High School would be demolished in 2000 mean for you?” the Historian and former County Legislator responded, “The sanity of an individual requires a continuity of memory. So too the sanity of a community is dependent upon the continuity of things like local history, of traditions, of collective memory, of public memory.” He explained that the school was considered “a showpiece in a show city.  Kings, Queens and Heads of State visited Niagara Falls, and the city wanted to present its best self. In addition, the school was the place where different groups in the city, from mainstream through the immigrant society, were united in their diversity during the early years of electrification and industrialization.”

Saving the building was debated in the public realm

Saving the building was debated in the public realm

The Niagara Falls High School building, located on the city block at Pine Avenue and Portage Road in Niagara Falls, New York saw its last graduating class in 2000. Niagara Falls had built one new, state of the art facility for the students of both Niagara Falls High school and LaSalle High School. The former school has a rich history in the city. It was constructed in the Classic Revival Style in 1923-1924 to replace the previous school that was destroyed by fire. The 180,000 square foot building is “A three-story structure with concrete and steel structure, cut stone and masonry façade, and classical inspired details” including the” hierarchical and symmetrical main and secondary facades, a central porch with two-story engaged columns and balustraded main staircase to the front doors and upper porch” (Clint Brown Architecture B.1). 

A local Western New York developer was primarily interested in the land where LaSalle High School sat on a retail corridor on the edge of the city, but agreed to buy Niagara Falls High School as part of a package deal. On June 25, 1999 the Niagara Falls City Planning Board received a request from the developer and the Niagara Falls School District to rezone the site of the former Niagara Falls High School from residential to commercial use so that a strip mall could be built after demolition of the former school. According to the woman who became the “voice of the people” as Chair of the steering committee Niagara Falls High School Preservation Task Force, this was different than what was done for the other school which had been torn down without the necessity of rezoning.

Niagara Falls High School Preservation Task Force

Significant public protest had been forming to save the Niagara Falls High School building through citizens of the city, politicians, and community organizations. Requests were made that the historical and architecturally significant building be preserved and that time be allotted to formulate a business plan for productive reuse of the site and building. The Mayor at that time was included in the movement, without whom the Task Force Chair stated the movement would not have successfully gotten underway. There was a network of people calling for time to study and plan an alternative to demolition.

Meetings were called to get input from the community. The Task Force Chair said she attended because she believed it stirred in her a feeling that “we had to give the people support to come together to see if there really was a desire to make an effort to save the building, and not in a political setting.” She wanted to help if saving the building was what the “will of the people called for.” She stated that what she saw and heard was amazing. Over 80 people showed to the meeting, after Thanksgiving in 1999. This surprised her since she said she had heard rumors of the city going bankrupt; the city would be getting money from the developer which it would lose, should the developer not get the building. A steering committee was formed, that included the future (in 2008) Mayor of the City/Third President of the NACC Board of Directors. The Chair was encouraged to become chair at the insistence of the group, which surprised her since she was “just a home school mom.” But she agreed, stating “The building was a grand old lady. There was no reason for it to go down.  Why should the High School go down?”

Members of the task force had backgrounds in planning which was crucial to its success. Forums were held in different places for brainstorming ideas. The participants wrote down the ideas and decided to get more deliberate information on what should or could be done with the building. They were allowed to buy ¼ page space for a survey in the local paper.  There was some speculation that there would be a low response to the survey, however there was a large response- hundreds of surveys, though there is not an actual number available now. The Chair stated there were responses such as “Even though I was sick very often because of the building, I would still say if financially feasible-save the building.” Unfortunately no one has been able to locate the surveys, though there is some hope that they are somewhere within the building. The Chair stated “the strategic planning process made it work. It was what the community wanted.”

Save Our Sites Inc.: Established to Plan for Adaptive-Reuse of the Old School

On November 10, 1999, after public hearings and other forums, Niagara Falls Planning Board, in agreement with the developer and the School Board, tabled the request to allow the Niagara Falls High School Preservation Task Force time to develop a viable business plan. This ended the first phase toward saving the building, and the second phase began. In September 2000, a group of visual and performing arts representatives requested the Mayor of Niagara Falls to intervene. With her assistance, a new group of professionals and interested public representatives was formed to address the issue. The group took the name, Save Our School.

900 seat school auditorium
900 seat school auditorium

School cafeteria
School cafeteria

In October 2000, an Advisory Committee was formed which designated a Board of Directors and supported an application to incorporate as Not-for-Profit 501 C (3). Submitted in October 2000, delays occurred relative to an already used name and a review by the NYS Education Department, since the building was a former school. Amendments and disclaimers were added.  Incorporation was granted to Save Our Sites, Inc. (SOS Inc.), on March 27, 2001. Formal action appointed the initial Board of Directors and approved the By-Laws on April 18, 2001. Earlier, in December 2000, the Preservation League of New York State announced the inclusion of the former school building on its Seven to Save list, a collection of historic locations in New York that the group believes must be preserved. The City of Niagara Falls’ support was formally communicated in January 2001, accepting the city’s responsibility should SOS Inc. fail.

A Suffering City

The Historian and former Legislator who was active in both the Niagara Falls High School Preservation Task Force and Save Our Sites Inc. had responded to the news that the building was slated for demolition by asking “How much more should this community suffer? In an environment, a community, which has had such terrible things happen, makes the story of our community such a national disgrace. This place has been an unofficial emblem for America and in a sense something that has been very representative of America, but allowed to deteriorate.” The unofficial emblem is a wonder of the world, Niagara Falls.

Niagara Falls, NY, a suffering city
Niagara Falls, NY, a suffering city

Indeed, the very city that was a show city when the school was built had been deteriorating for at least forty years. Buffalo News reporter Andrew Z. Galarneau captured many of the problems leading to the city’s urban decline in a September 2002, two part series titled “Wasted Wonder—Wonder of the World:  How Niagara Fell.” A particularly relevant history to the public response protesting demolition of the Niagara Falls High school is found in Galarneau’s discussion on the period of urban renewal. In 1968 Niagara Falls began demolishing downtown buildings for the urban renewal process. The federal government paid two-thirds of the cost, the state paid one-sixth, and the city had an historic chance to redefine itself (1A).

Classrooms were trashed
Classrooms were trashed

Niagara Falls, like other cities, decided to tear down the heart of its downtown, install roads, sewers and other infrastructure, and sell parcels to selected firms with appropriate building plans. 182 acres of land lay vacant downtown. A series of projects started and stopped, and poor planning led to mistakes such as The Convention Center [converted in 2003 to the Seneca Niagara Casino] which obstructed the flow of traffic to the falls. The Hilton Hotel with its new parking ramp, and the Winter Garden were installed halfway along the pedestrian mall, sealing off the flow of sightseers into the city.  The consequences of these and other mistakes have been devastating for the city.

The roof leaked throughout the building
The roof leaked throughout the building

Since 1960 the city population has dropped by nearly half, from 100,000 to its 2000 population of 55,000 residents (U.S. Census Bureau). The pattern of population loss coincides with the problems associated with urban renewal as well as with de-industrialization. Not surprisingly when the group organized to save the former school, other voices were heard arguing for the demolition so the city could get the $650,000 from the developer and be rid of the building as a tax burden. One Niagara Gazette reader commented, in a January 26, 2001 article, “We don’t want one cent of our hard-earned money to go to your old school.  We want to do what’s best for all in the city- not the few” (Morrison 1A).

Save Our Sites Inc. Succeeds

The first President of the Board of Directors of Save Our Sites Inc. stated, “We were planning, always planning.”  He explained, “When we started out, we were meeting one and two times a week. Wednesday we’d have our board meeting, and Friday afternoon we’d have a meeting for the public.” Soon, members of the community would simply ask to be up-dated on progress, so the meetings were reduced to Board meetings on Wednesday nights.” Options for viable use of the space included possibilities in humanities and culture, history, commerce, government and education, wellness, and habitat and living. Possible names for the organization included Niagara Falls Community Center, Arts and Cultural Center, and Niagara Falls Cultural Center. 

A feasibility study was conducted on adaptive reuse of the building. In her notes on the planning experience, one board member cites many of the problems the Board was up against, but how there was a feeling of elation when they realized that an arts and cultural center would open the building to the community, offering educational opportunities for children and their families, art space for artists, theater space for performers, and they would no longer need to be concerned with remodeling for living spaces, or bringing in businesses and organizations. The city did not have an arts and cultural center. The consulting architect stated that what was found in the feasibility study is a building virtually reusable as is as an arts and cultural center (Scheer 1A). At that point the name the Niagara Arts and Cultural Center was chosen: the NACC.

The old cafeteria is now a gallery
The old cafeteria is now a gallery

In spring 2001, the Niagara Falls School District discontinued demolition plans and negotiated a transfer of property and the building to SOS Inc. for $1.00 on May 16. The agreement included an understanding that should SOS Inc. fail, it or the City would assume responsibility for either sale of the property or the cost of demolition. The building had been allowed to deteriorate while still in use as plans were made for the new high school. An auction had been held by the school district that left the building in even worse shambles. When acquired by SOS Inc. the building was a complete mess, with missing tiles from the ceilings, books and garbage in rooms and hallways, desks and chairs piled high. Prior to the clean up, but after the former high school building actually belonged to Save Our Sites Inc., the first President of the Board of Directors when he entered the building, said, “My Lord, We burst the big-big. The big-big!” Then he said “Oh my Lord, what did we get into?” The grass roots effort from the community continued as hundreds of volunteers came from throughout the region to clean the building; a wide variety of artists eagerly rented and often renovated studio spaces in former classrooms; and public spaces were designed.

Today, regional and state arts councils are amazed at all that NACC has accomplished with its limited resources and vast talents. According to Architect James Czajka, in a conference address at the NACC, “The amazing discovery for NYMACC is that all multi-arts centers have a similar spirit of place, a passion for what they do, and a determination to succeed.”

The Niagara Arts and Cultural Center.  Photo credit:  Niagara Tourism and Convention Corporation


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Clint Brown Company Architecture pc. Save Our Sites, Inc. Buffalo, NY: Clint Brown Company Architecture, pc, 2001.

Czajka, J “Welcome Address.” Green practices and NYS Code Compliance for Non-Profit Facilities. New York Multi-Arts Centers Consortium Conference. Niagara Arts and Cultural Center, Niagara Falls, NY. 2008. Address.

Galarneau, Anthony Z. “Wasted Wonder—Wonder of the World:  How Niagara Fell.” Buffalo News. 24 September 2002. A1.

Lassiter, Luke E. The Chicago Guide to Collaborative Ethnography. Chicago IL: The University of Chicago Press, 2005.

Morrison, Jill. “Board OKs School’s Demise.” Niagara Gazette: 26 January, 2001.1A.  

NYMAC. (2008). New York Multi-Arts Centers Consortium.  Web. 16 May 2008.

Scheer, Mark. “School Preservationists Talk Renovation.” Niagara Gazette. 19 February 2001.1A.

Spradley, James. (1980). Participant Observation. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth-Thomson, 1980.

U.S. Census Bureau. (2000). American factfinder: Niagara Falls, NY. Web. 16 May 2008.


(c)Katherine Johnson