Consultant sees Medina sandstone as ‘connecting thread’ to canal towns

By Tom Rivers, Editor Posted 9 May 2013 at 12:00 am

Ted Pietrzak says Orleans needs to tell its sandstone story

Photos by Tom Rivers – Ted Pietrzak, a consultant working on a plan to develop the Bent’s Opera House, believes the site in Medina should tell the story of the region’s sandstone treasures, including the Canal Culvert in Ridgeway, where he is pictured on Wednesday.

MEDINA Ted Pietrzak wants to tie it all together, Orleans County’s Erie Canal heritage, the community’s sandstone legacy, and stories of the thousands of immigrants who were drawn to Orleans because of the canal and the quarries.

Pietrzak has been hired by the Orleans Renaissance Group to develop a plan to best utilize the three-story Bent’s Opera House building on Main Street in Medina. He sees at least the first floor of the mostly vacant building as a welcome center that would showcase the county’s sandstone history.

He is pleased the Medina Sandstone Society is going to establish a Sandstone Hall of Fame. A site for the HOF hasn’t been determined, but Pietrzak sees the opera house – a Medina sandstone building – as an excellent home for the Hall of Fame.

“The sandstone is the connecting thread to these communities beyond the Erie Canal,” Pietrzak said Wednesday, after we spent 2 ½ hours driving around the county. “You have all of these monuments to the sandstone industry.”

The former opera house also is eyed for a restaurant on the second floor and a performing arts venue on the top floor. Pietrzak sees it as a cultural hub that could showcase the history of the community, including its dominant industries of sandstone and agriculture. He thinks locally grown produce and farm products should be sold at the building.

Pietrzak has been interviewing community leaders the past two months, soliciting ideas for a reuse plan for the opera house and a greater vision for Medina. I knew he was working on a plan for Medina, and I suggested to Medina and Orleans County officials that the plan be strongly sandstone-based, and include a sandstone trail that would stretch from Medina to Albion, Hulberton and Holley. We once had more than 100 quarries along the canal in these communities.

This photo from about a century ago shows quarry workers in Hulberton.

Medina sandstone is a well-known brand, and is prominently featured in some of the finest buildings in Buffalo, Rochester, Albany and other villages and cities in the state. We should be using this famous stone to help build the community today.

Pietrzak, the former director of the Burchfield Penney Art Center in Buffalo, was willing to listen to me, and here is a snapshot of what I told him, how I think we show claim our sandstone heritage and use it to promote community pride and attract tourists:

The first sandstone quarry opened in Medina in1837, just north of the lift bridge near Route 63. I think this site should be clearly marked, cleaned out, and turned into a park with a sandstone walking trail. A massive historic sandstone building is nearby, a relic of Medina’s industrial heyday in the late 1800s.

Medina and Orleans County should petition the state and federal government to turn this quarry and old building into a National Historic Landmark, a park-like setting that could explored and experienced. This could be the start of a sandstone trail that would run countywide along Route 31.

The Sandstone Trail would have roadside markers along 31, stretching from Medina to Holley. We should use directional arrows to point to sandstone attractions that are down some side roads, such as the Canal Culvert in Ridgeway and the tower in Mount Albion Cemetery.

The trail would link the canal communities, which don’t often work together. I’d suggest using the top of the Mount Albion tower as the iconic logo for the roadside signs. The tower is a county Civil War memorial, built in 1876 of Medina sandstone.

Both the tower and the Canal Culvert could be experienced, rather than merely observed. You can drive or walk through the Culvert, an engineering marvel that goes under the Erie Canal. The tower at Mount Albion has an 84-step spiral staircase that allows people to ascend to the top, 68 feet high.

The tower at Mount Albion Cemetery is a top-notch sandstone structure that could be a bigger attraction with better marketing.

We have cavernous churches that tell community and religious stories, reflecting the wealth and fervor of the community between about 1850 and 1900. We need interpretive panels – those mounted explanatory signs you see at state parks – that share the history of the buildings, explain the architectural features, and highlight some of the wonders inside, including 150-year-old pipe organs and Tiffany stained-glass windows.

We should develop walking tours, so local residents and visitors can learn about a great American story that took place here from about 1850 to 1920. That is when most of our landmark buildings – the courthouse, the churches and downtown commercial buildings – were constructed.

I think the Sandstone Hall of Fame should highlight some of the great buildings and structures made from Medina sandstone. I would like to see another site that told the immigrant story of the thousands of quarrymen who came to our community.

Albion and Holley had more quarries and more people working in them than Medina. I would like to see the old Swan Library turn one of its three floors into center that tells that immigrant story, how people came from Ireland, Poland, Italy and Great Britain to work here. Their descendants could provide photos of their grandfathers and great-grandfathers, first-generation Americans who worked here. Those pictures would make for an emotional gallery.

I have been pushing the Albion Village Board for about six months to allow a vacant piece of land on Main Street to be used as a quarrymen memorial site, featuring an 8-foot-high bronze statue of a quarrymen. The site should also have interpretive panels, giving a brief overview of the immigrants who worked in the county, while another display highlighted the sandstone trail and some of the impressive buildings made of the local stone.

Bill Koch of Buffalo submitted this design of a bronze statue of a quarryman for a memorial in Albion.

The Village Board has instead chosen to make that space part of a larger parking lot on Main Street, which I think is a horrible mistake. We would stand a good chance of getting a state grant to help pay for a well-done quarrymen’s memorial site on Main Street. It would provide a focal point, explaining why Albion and the canal villages are blessed with so many awesome structures.

When the village showed its reluctance for the quarrymen memorial, County Legislature Chairman David Callard suggested a piece of the courthouse lawn could be the home for the statue. But historic preservationists and other community members think the statue wouldn’t be prominent on the corner of the lawn, and it would compete with the courthouse. Most people I talk with agree the downtown site on Main Street, with the Presbyterian Church as a sandstone backdrop, would be perfect.

The village hasn’t paved the site yet, so there is still time to pursue the memorial site. We have a rendering of the statue, and could still meet the deadline to apply for a state grant. If you support the quarrymen project, please tell the Village Board.