City Demolishes Tower of Former Church

September 27, 2013 Updated May 5, 2010 at 11:24 PM EDT

By John Borsa

September 27, 2013 Updated May 5, 2010 at 11:24 PM EDT

Buffalo, NY (WKBW) -- Preservationists were praying for a miracle, hoping they could save the former St. Mary's-on-the-Hill church, which at one time was the foundation of the west side's Prospect Hill neighborhood.

Even the city was hoping the Gothic-style structure could be saved.

Time ran out on Wednesday when a portion of the 117-year-old church's bell tower collapsed, sending large chunks of sandstone onto the sidewalk at the corner of Niagara Street and Vermont Street.

"It's still a resource that can be saved," said Tim Tielman, member of the Buffalo Preservation Board and executive director of The Campaign for Greater Buffalo History, Architecture & Culture.

"It was one of the first churches designated a local landmark when we had our preservation ordinance enacted in the 1970's," Tielman said.

The church was closed and sold in 1994. Since then, the roof and interior have been removed, leaving the outer walls and bell tower standing.

Jim Comerford, Buffalo's head of inspections, said he told members of the Common Council earlier in the day that the tower was not safe and should be torn down.

Hours later, children playing in the neighborhood watched a section of the tower crumble, forcing the city to take immediate action.

By 8 p.m., the tower was torn down.

Geno Russi, who has lived near the church for 30 years, is happy to see the tower demolished.

"People are coming in and saying we should preserve it," Russi said. "Well where were they 20 years ago -- when it could have been preserved?"

Tielman said the remainder of the structure can be preserved and used in a future development.

"These walls here have economic value to a developer -- who might want to come in here and use this -- use the history -- use the architecture -- to build anew," he said.

The building's owner, who lives downstate, will have to pay for the demolition and cleanup, Comerford said.