Cultural appropriation is at the heart of the City’s looming dispute and may cost taxpayers millions.
A dome-shaped building on the edge of Niagara Falls State Park, commonly called “The Turtle,” is at the center of potential litigation involving the City of Niagara Falls and the property’s owners.
The dispute revolves around the Niagara Falls Historic Preservation Committee’s campaign to have the 42-year-old structure recognized as a historic landmark.
The designation would prevent present and future owners from demolishing or making virtually any structural alterations.
The landmark designation would mean that the 1.67 acres adjacent to the most visited state park in the USA could never be developed as anything else.
The building was constructed in 1982, initially as a Native American performance center and museum.
It’s called the Turtle because of concrete attachments designed to delineate the head and four limbs, with the dome representing the shell.
Following a 14-year run as a Native American performance center, the Turtle closed in 1995. The structure has remained unoccupied for 28 years.
Due to the financial insolvency of its Tuscarora Indian owners, the city took the property. Finding no buyers to tackle the operations the City requested its current owner, Niagara Falls Redevelopment, to acquire the property, which, it is important to note, does not sit on Native American land.
One key obstacle to The Turtle’s success is its poor design.
When it was a Native American performance center with display areas for exhibits, it was oversized, and its interior plan made it a guaranteed financial loser.
The Turtle has a vast 67,000 square feet of space under the dome, but seating for only 400 to 500 people. Typically, building codes allocate 7 to 15 square feet per person for assembly spaces, accounting for seating and additional space for movement and related uses. At an average of 10 square feet per person, had it been designed correctly, 6,700 people could be seated in the auditorium instead of less than 1/10th of that.
In addition, the three-story open floor plan, with its energy-inefficient, decidedly not “green” concrete construction with concave walls and domed ceiling, led to poor acoustics. The architect who designed the plans was inexperienced or did not know the intended use was to present live performances. Acoustics and seating are the prime elements of a suitable auditorium. The Turtle fails stupendously, although, with an estimated $25 to $35 million investment, the building could be repurposed for acoustics, made more energy-efficient, and additional seating could be installed.
When the Turtle was in operation, the proprietors offered Native American relics and art for people to view. Given the enormous building space and its unfriendly concrete construction – a material entirely alien to authentic Native American architecture – its presentation seemed underwhelming.
Despite the obsolescence of the building and its brief and undistinguished history as a Native American performance center on non-native land, the Niagara Falls Historic Preservation Commission conducted a public hearing to designate the Turtle as a historic landmark due to its supposed historical association with Native American culture.
The Turtle’s five concrete appendages, representing a turtle’s head and four legs, were cited by the Committee as unique. A sixth appendage was lost over two decades ago when the city allowed the removal of the long concrete tail, which was later demolished.
A historic landmark designation would prevent the owner from making any but the most minor changes to the exterior of the dome building or removing the turtle head and legs, mandating its preservation in its current obsolete state indefinitely, irrespective of economic practicality.
The landmark designation, however, would not require the owners to give the Turtle a new tail.
The historic designation would virtually ensure that the functionally obsolete and impractical dome building remains vacant forever.
The landmark status cannot force the owner to operate the Turtle as an enterprise connected to Native American culture or religious beliefs.
Landmark status can only restrict changes to the structure but cannot dictate what the owner uses the structure for.
A future owner of the Turtle could hypothetically establish an exhibition and performance center celebrating the European conquest of Native Americans or turn it into a UFO museum claiming the turtle head is a creature from outer space.
Furthermore, the Niagara Falls Historic Preservation Committee has yet to identify any party willing to shoulder the immense costs of renovating the outdated dome or managing a business likely to operate at a loss. This is presumably why the Seneca Nation, though flush with casino cash, has not expressed interest in acquiring the property.
Meeting May Spell Long Fight and Expensive Costs
The Preservation Committee will meet on Thursday to vote on whether to force historic preservation on the Turtle against the owner’s wishes.
The Committee, comprised of volunteers with limited experience, may be unaware that they face legal challenges in their quest, which many in the community see as cultural appropriation. None of the Committee members are known to be Native American.
The legal hurdle they face is that New York state and federal criteria mandate that a building be at least 50 years old to qualify for historic landmark designation.
In Niagara Falls, among the 37 designated historical landmarks, none are younger than 50 years, with the majority exceeding a century in age.
The law specifies that properties under 50 years old must be “exceptionally important” to qualify for listing with the National Register of Historic Places or the state register. This 50-year benchmark helps evaluate historical significance with adequate perspective.
At 42 years old, the Turtle does not meet the age requirement.
Whether it meets the “exceptionally important” standard needed for National Register criteria remains to be seen.
To qualify as “exceptionally important,” the Committee must demonstrate that the Turtle had a significant impact over its 42 years, most of which have been vacant.
Federal and State historic preservation offices require extensive evidence and validation of “exceptional importance”, since there are many misguided efforts to place properties on the historic register which is selective in its criteria.
The local Niagara Falls Historic Preservation Committee argues that “The Turtle” is among the scarce instances of Native American architecture in Niagara Falls.
However, this argument is unlikely to pass muster with actual historians.
Not Authentic Native American
The Turtle is not a traditional Native American architectural style.
Native Americans are not known for constructing large concrete domes for paid events. The Iroquois people traditionally dwelt in long houses that look nothing like the Turtle.
There is nothing inherently important architecturally in the Turtle.
Moreover, the local Committee considers the Turtle a unique example of zoomorphic architecture in Western New York, a design trend where animal forms inspire building shapes and features.
Yet, the Turtle’s claim to zoomorphism rests solely on its concrete appendages, and the resemblance to the Turtle is tenuously perceived at best.
The zoomorphic argument is debatable, with one critic calling it “astrozoomorphic” because the concrete turtle head looks more like an extraterrestrial than a testudinal creature.
Do the inkblot test: Show people who do not know the Turtle and ask them what animal that face represents. Few, if any, will respond that it is the face of a turtle.
The local Commission argues that the Turtle reflects the cultural values and artistic vision of the Native American people who created it.
Native American Interest in Financially Backing the Preservation of the Turtle is Nil
But there is no Native American group stepping up with an offer of money to preserve this building and a sustainable business plan.
This is not insignificant.
The American Museum of Natural History closed two major halls exhibiting Native American objects in response to new federal regulations that require museums to obtain consent from tribes before displaying or performing research on cultural items.
The Field Museum in Chicago covered display cases, the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology at Harvard University said it plans to remove certain Native American exhibits, and the Cleveland Museum of Art has covered up some cases. And the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York removed Native American items from its musical instruments galleries.
It cannot return to a Native Cultural Center without Native American participation and financial investment.
Currently, not a single tribe member from the Six Nations has shown interest in investing in preserving the structure or operating the building as a museum on non-native land, which further questions the legitimacy of its claimed historical relevance.
While there is a Buffalo-Niagara-based effort to preserve the obsolete Turtle, the group advocating for the building’s preservation—accused of cultural appropriation—also has not contributed financially to preserving it.
The keen desire for the local Historic Preservation Committee to meddle with and pretend to have superior knowledge of Native American culture smacks of cultural appropriation – leading some critics to call the Committee members “Pretendians.”
Ultimately, a government action on whether to landmark the Turtle should be based on merit. The Turtle structure does not meet even the basic requirements of landmarking, let alone the ‘exceptionally important’ criteria required for a newer building.
Stay tuned for the next in our series.