Fighting Back

LITTLE VALLEY – Standing in rows, some three and four men deep, veterans of the war that divided a nation, men who saw some of the bloodiest battles of the Civil War, stood tall as a building dedicated to the memories of those who could no longer stand was consecrated. Now, 99 years later, the members of the Cattaraugus County Legislature have voted to raze the building.

The building, the Cattaraugus County Museum and Historical Building, attached to the former Cattaraugus County Board of Elections, once held a special dedication by soldiers from all around Cattaraugus County. The building has changed in the near-century it has stood. The day it was covered in bunting, guarded by those hundreds of veterans, the building had a dome on the roof top. It stood stately in memorial to those lost.

“It’s a travesty to plan to tear that building down,” said Mark Dunkelman, Civil War and New York 154th Regiment historian.

That building was the home to relics of Cattaraugus County’s past for decades, until 2008, when history’s reminders were moved to the former poorhouse, called the Stonehouse, in Machias, on the campus of the Pines, one of Cattaraugus County’s two nursing homes. That was one in a series of wrong moves, according Dunkelman. The former museum and Historical Building has sat vacant, unused, since the relics were moved.

“It was wrongheaded of county lawmakers to move the museum,” he said. “Most of the people that came there to do research were doing genealogical research. It seems that it would make sense to have that building as the museum. That way, people doing research can just go across the street to the look at deeds or immigration records.”

But that is not the final straw, as far as Dunkelman is concerned. In preparation of demolition of the buildings, county personnel had to complete a State Environmental Quality Review. In that document, personnel had to ensure there would be no adverse environmental impact. The document also asks for historic impact.

According to Dunkelman, and minutes of recent legislative proceedings, no historical value could be ascertained from the property. Nothing could be further from the truth for Dunkelman.

“Above the door of the Museum and Historical Building is a plaque,” he said. “That plaque reads, ‘To the Memory of the Soldiers and Sailors in the War of the Rebellion, This Building is Erected by Cattaraugus County.’ What could be more historical? The Museum and Historic Building is a war memorial, a Civil War memorial.”

But, part of the problem is to what name has been used for the structure, Dunkelman said. According to the minutes in bringing down the buildings, the structure, two buildings, has been referred to as the former Board of Elections building, not the County Museum and Historic Building.

“It’s hidden in the verbiage,” Dunkelman said.

Part of the reasoning for that determination by county officials has been that there have been significant alterations made to the building, the structure has become functionally obsolete, and is not in compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act. Dunkelman does not dispute those conclusions. In fact, he says they are true, but, he claims the problems that have led to those conclusions could have been avoided.

“When the museum was moved to the Stonehouse, all that money used to renovate that building could have been used to repair the Museum and Historic Building,” Dunkelman said. “At some point in the 20th century, the dome that once adorned the top of the building was removed in favor of a flat roof. That caused some damage as well.

“I would like to see the museum moved back to this building. This is where it should be,” he continued. “I am ashamed of Cattaraugus County with the move to demolish this building. To think, they are talking about tearing it down on close to what would be the centennial of the monument.”

Dunkelman, having many friends in Civil War circles, has started to talk to others about establishing a committee seeking preservation of the building. The problem he sees, however, is that he lives in Rhode Island. He said he would like to see the leadership of the committee be from within the county to better protect the history involved.

As for the Cattaraugus County Museum and Historic Building, plans for demolition have not been determined. No date has been established, according to County Public Works Commissioner, Joe Pillittere.

Pillittere also said the building has deteriorated beyond the ability to rehabilitate into anything useful. He said a wall in the basement has fallen, among other issues, to include mold, asbestos and a leaky roof.

Pillittere said the plans for how the land will be used after the demolition of the building have not been discussed.

“At present time, it is planned to be seeded and be green space,” he said.

That does not leave the space without some kind of memorial for Civil War vets from the county, according to County Administrator John R. “Jack” Searles.

“We certainly want to acknowledge and honor our Civil War veterans,” he said. “I am sure that, in some way or another, we can be accommodating to honor them.”

That idea is the same held by James Whipple, son of First Sergeant Henry F. Whipple, of the 154th New York Volunteers, taken prisoner at Gettysburg only to die at Andersonville, as he spoke at the building’s dedication.

“One need only to observe the number of people who have assembled here to appreciate the fact that all of you consider this more than an ordinary occasion. The day, the purpose for which you are here should and will be long remembered.”