Hand Crafted Sconces Light Up Buffalo’s Central Terminal

Published: September 20, 2013

This story was adapted from the original by Tom Campbell, which appeared May 19, 2013, in Western New York Labor Today.
imagThis spring, five Local 71 retirees received the distinguished 2013 Preservation Award from Preservation Buffalo Niagara (PBN) during its 5th Annual Preservation Awards Ceremony and Luncheon in Buffalo, NY. They were honored for donating their time to help restore Buffalo’s Central Terminal by building replicas of Art Deco-style light sconces from scratch.
Local 71 Business Manager John Helak, who was on hand for the ceremony, noted that “this is a high honor for them, but it was never about them or the union—it was just a project that they were asked for their help on.”
10,000 passengers passed through Buffalo’s once-bustling Central Terminal every day during its peak in the mid twentieth century. The building was in service from 1929 to its closing in 1979. Though it was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1984, the Central Terminal fell victim to decay and became a haven for vandals. Shattered windows, cracked concrete, and broken pieces of marble scarred the once-graceful interior and its surroundings. Enduring several harsh Buffalo winters, the building further deteriorated to the point where its shops, restaurants, soda fountains, and concourse were hardly recognizable anymore.
Local 71 Business Manager John Helak approached the retirees after PBN called him for help. According to Helak, “I was told they had some photos and dimensions and was asked, ‘Can you make them?’ I said I couldn’t, but had a couple of fellas I could ask. They come in here to the hall and on their own time and expense are hand-crafting the sconces.”
The task was not a simple job. Retirees Larry Fuchs, a 40-year union member from Buffalo who retired in 2000; Roger Korsh, a 50-year member from Buffalo who retired in 2002; Andy Adams, who retired in 1994; Henry Forman, who retired in 1998; and Robert Stetzko, a 30-year member who retired in 2008, met each Wednesday at the union hall and training facility on Liberty Avenue to build—from scratch—the sconce lamps that once helped light up the Terminal’s Passenger Concourse.
The ornate 27-inch tall, 22-inch wide, eight-sided octagon sconces were constructed without the benefit of original plans or materials. They relied on photos and the dimensions of the original lanterns, now displayed in a Hong Kong restaurant that purchased the sconces when a salvage company sold them in the 1980s.
According to Central Terminal Restoration Corporation President Mark Lewandowski, the photos were taken by a Western New Yorker on vacation in Hong Kong. This vacationing New Yorker not only snapped the pictures, but was allowed to take and write down the dimensions of the sconces, information that was eventually used to help guide the construction of the new lanterns.
Roger Korsh stipulated that “we have not ‘duplicated’ the originals.” Those were constructed out of brass, and the new ones are constructed out of galvanized steel.
Stetzko told Western NY Labor Today that “each sconce project [was] broken down into pieces by the three so a reconstruction procedure could be put into place. Each piece of the eight-sided octagon sconce is clamped down before it’s eventually soldered and/or spot-welded.”
The crew is initially making six sconces as they continue to “get the bugs out,” Stetzko said.
“It’s a challenge,” adds Fuchs. “But it’s about quality control. If it fits, it’s a go, but it’s the kind of project that as it gets looking better, expectations get higher.”
Robert Stetzko made it a point to note that sheet metal workers “do more than just make ductwork.” “We can do anything. The impossible only takes a bit longer. It’s a challenge, but we enjoy doing it. It’s a good feeling to give something back. I’ve lived here all my life and I’m doing my bit to help support [the community].”
Local 71 has also been involved in other ways with the Central Terminal Restoration Project. Business Manager Helak and Business Agents Paul Crist and Joe DeCarlo have dedicated their time to recreating ornate metal railings that have been installed within the Central Terminal’s Passenger Concourse. “We tried to replicate [the railings] as they were, but it wasn’t doable,” Helak said.
All the materials being used to construct the Central Terminal Passenger Concourse Sconces—as well as the railings—have been donated.
Korsh noted, “We’d like to make the public aware of where these sconces are coming from so they think twice about saying anything negative or putting down union people or our union.”