February 20, 2017

Fearless Lyons: A Small Town's Story of Preservation

  • By: Meghan White
Arial Photo of the Arseneau House, Courthouse, and Park Bakery Circa 1980

photo by: Don Hunt

This aerial photograph from 1980 captures Church Street, where the Wayne County Courthouse is flanked by the Arseneau House (left) and the Park Bakery (right).

Andi Evangelist was wintering in Florida with her husband, Ernest, in 2015, when she received an email from a neighbor from her hometown of Lyons, New York, notifying her of the county’s decision to demolish two 19th-century buildings that flank the county courthouse.

“I didn’t want the house to go down,” Mrs. Evangelist says of the Arseneau House, one of the threatened buildings.

She spent the next few weeks reaching out to her online network of about 1,500 people with whom she shares updates of Lyons, a small town of 3,000 that sits on the Erie Canal. Members suggested she write letters to the public and county to garner support.

The Lyons Heritage Society and others of the community soon created the Lyons Preservation League. They galvanized efforts to salvage the Arseneau House and Park Bakery and find ways to reuse and preserve them.

Eventually, the county agreed to hold an auction for the two buildings, which would save the taxpayers $300,000 in demolition costs, in July 2016.

“I knew it would be hard to live with the demolition of the [Arseneau House] because no one showed up to bid,” says Mrs. Evangelist.

After mulling it over, she approached her husband, and said to him, “Ern, I hate to break it to you, but I think we have to buy it.”

When the auction was completed, Richard Santelli was the new owner of 24 Church Street, and Ernest and Andi Evangelist now owned 30 Church Street.

Joan Delaro, manager of the Lyons Main Street Program who followed the developments closely, is pleased that the properties are in capable hands. "Both are very dedicated to the restoration and preservation of these buildings," she notes.

24 Church Street, known as the Park Bakery, possesses small, rectangular-shaped stained glass framing the glass windows of the upper stories that show a level of design and craftsmanship surprising even to locals. The red brick building and its white storefront has been a staple of the village since 1886. Members of Lyons today remember the half-moon cookies and other baked goods they would purchase from the store as children.

A short walk from the Park Bakery and past the Wayne County courthouse will lead a person to 30 Church Street, known locally as the Arseneau House, after a previous owner who operated a doctor’s office on the ground floor in the 1960s. Constructed in 1842, the two-story, pale yellow brick structure has become a fixture of the square.

But why were these buildings set to be demolished? The answer is one that will surprise few seasoned preservationists: parking spots. 11 spaces, to be exact.

The immediate support of the townspeople for the preservation of the two buildings wasn’t just about winning. The buildings flank the courthouse in a central location, and, according to those who were able to see the conditions of the structures, the buildings were not past the point of saving. To tear down these two 19th-century buildings—one for a parking lot, the other an empty grass lot—would not only make the historic district a little less aesthetically pleasing, but the history and cultural significance of two historic buildings would be lost.

“It’s like teeth missing out of a smile,” says Mrs. Evangelist of how the square would have looked without the buildings.

The recent battle for these two buildings was not the only fight to prevent their demolition. For over a decade, the future of these historic structures have remained uncertain. Once used for county offices and storage, the buildings had sat vacant for over half a decade before the most recent attempt at demolition.

Mrs. Evangelist recalls the first time she walked through Arseneau House. Much of the railings and two marble fireplaces had already been removed for salvage, and the asbestos abatement efforts had done damage to the wall paneling. The roof had not been repaired for some time, and as a result of rainwater falling into the house, there was black mold and rot. Bats, pigeons, and squirrels had made use of the space, adding to the mounting challenges.

Modern day photo of the Arseneau House taken from the adjacent park.

photo by: Andi Evangelist

The greenspace sits centrally in Lyons. Across the street is the Arseneau House and the courthouse (not pictured).

Now that the initial excitement and sense of victory has calmed down, the town is wondering what the Evangelists and Santelli will do to the buildings. The county established regulations on the buildings that limit the options for reuse. The most challenging is that neither can be used as residential properties. Some of the other options that are being explored are a bed-and-breakfast, a bakery, retail, restaurant, or office space. Whatever the outcome, the buildings must be in use within three years of the purchase date.

The owners of the two buildings wasted no time getting started. Mrs. Evangelist remembers spending an afternoon on YouTube to learn how to reglaze windows. “My husband and I are glazing champions!” she notes proudly.

In addition to window repairs, the Evangelists spent the last summer stabilizing the building, which included fixing the roof and repointing the brickwork. This winter they are focusing on the interior.

Santelli has already taken out the stained-glass windows of the Park Bakery and reglazed them. He has even offered his handyman services to the Evangelists, spending a lot of time on their property over the summer.

The story of how Lyons saved two historic buildings from being replaced by a parking lot may seem like a textbook—even cliched—story of preservation. But the efforts of Lyons and the buildings’ new owners represent a deep understanding of the intangible aspects of our country’s architectural heritage that is critical to any preservation movement. Parking lots must be built, of course. But at the cost of destroying culturally significant structures, whose histories are still so memorable and relevant to Lyons’ residents today, was seen as an irretrievable loss for this small, historic town.

“The community gathering together and giving support is very commendable, and I’m really proud of them. I think it’s important that a small community like Lyons can come together and make it work,” says Delaro.

Meghan White is a historic preservationist and a former assistant editor for Preservation magazine. She has a penchant for historic stables, absorbing stories of the past, and one day rehabilitating a Charleston single house.

Applications for the Telling the Full History Preservation Fund grant program are due December 15, 2021.

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