CATTARAUGUS - Dick Horth and his wife, Diane, were just plain scared of the decrepit old house looming inches away from their own well-kept home. At odd intervals, bricks would crash from its crumbling chimney onto their roof or ricochet into their front yard, where their grandchildren often played.
Worse, the Horths feared that the crumbling structure, along with its frequent illicit visitors, posed an imminent fire hazard, not only to them, but to the entire business district. Although the house was supposedly locked and off-limits to the public, the couple witnessed numerous people, usually teens or young adults, entering and leaving at all hours of the day or night.
Upon inspecting the premises themselves, they found a mattress and blankets, along with food wrappers, bottles, cans and other trash scattered about. More alarmingly, candle-stubs and overflowing ashtrays offered ample evidence that matches and/or cigarette lighters were in abundant use. Obviously, the community's own little gang of unsupervised youth had anointed the place as their personal "party place."
The flexed arm of Rupp Excavation’s Hyundai LC130 frames Dick and Diane Horth’s tidy home as owner/operator David Rupp changes the machine’s position to continue a precarious demolition project. Looking on is Dick Horth. Uphill, across an eight-foot driveway, stands the first of a block of business buildings. Although the village’s unsupervised youth lost their party house, Washington Street business-owners feel they’ve gained an enormous margin of safety with the removal of this dangerous fire hazard.
Perched on a pile of rubble, David Rupp puts his huge excavator through a surprisingly delicate dance as he tears down a decrepit two-story house, inches away from the home of Dick and Diane Horth. After trying vainly for years to get either the village of Cattaraugus or Cattaraugus County to take responsibility for the deteriorating apartment house, the Horths purchased it themselves, then paid for its leveling and cleanup.
Cattaraugus residents may remember that the Horths previously lived just down the hill from the old Pritchard Hardware store at 25 Washington St. When fire destroyed the front portion of the store (owned by then by Michael Finnegan) they purchased the property, then set about cleaning up. Through hard work and dogged determination, they transformed the relatively undamaged rear of the building into a comfortable home, and in 1995, they moved in.
But, in the house up the street, conditions deteriorated, and the Horths' concern grew.
"We saw it as a threatening situation, getting worse every day," said Diane. "We were especially afraid of fire. The kids had gotten into the habit of dropping their cigarette butts out the window onto our roof."
Dick and Diane visited the village board repeatedly for the next several years. On one trip, they were armed with a petition bearing well over 100 signatures from concerned villagers. "We begged them to do something," said Diane, "either to permanently secure the place, or to tear it down before something awful happened."
But kids continued to occupy the house at will, and bricks kept falling.
The Horths also appealed to Cattaraugus County to take possession of the building, since taxes were habitually delinquent from a succession of absentee landlords. "But they weren't interested either," said Diane.
"We were at our wits' end," she went on. "We felt if a fire broke out, it could easily wipe out the whole block. Finally, we got it. Nothing was going to be done unless we did it ourselves."
They learned that the house had gone up for taxes only last spring; two bidders had offered $2,000, and $1,800, respectively. However, both buyers withdrew their offers upon personally inspecting the building. In August, another auction was held. This time, the Horths were the only ones attending, and Dick offered a dollar.
"We were told," said Diane, "that we had to bid at least $100, so we did, although we kind of felt they should be paying us for taking it off their hands."
"As soon as we owned it," continued Dick, "we went up to the Village Hall and apply for a demolition permit. That cost us $25." Then they paid the bill for school taxes, and also duly recorded the deed.
"We wanted everything used that could be," said Dick, "so we offered the doors, windows and salvageable lumber to local Amish families--at no charge, of course."
The biggest problem was to find someone skilled enough to tackle the tricky job of dismantling a two-story structure standing just inches from the walls of their own home, and also abutting the village sidewalk. That fearless someone turned out to be local contractor, David Rupp. "I looked it over," said Rupp, "and saw it as challenging, but doable."
On a frosty day in January, deciding it was time to "bring 'er down," Rupp eased his big Hyundai LC130 up to the front of the two-story structure and started dissecting. Moving the heavy bucket inches at a time, he coaxed bits of the outer walls toward the center and rear. No huge crashes, no clouds of dust, just steady, gentle persuasion. Within days, he had the building down and the lot cleaned up. "Seven dumpsters worth of junk got trucked away," said Dick, "and it would have been a lot more if Dave (Rupp) hadn't broken it up so fine."
"I was scared when he started," admitted Diane. "It was so close. We took our pictures and shelves off that wall just in case."
"But he was great." said Dick. "Not a scrap of damage."
Now the Horths are left with the pleasant quandary of deciding what use to make of their newfound space. "The first thing we'll do is paint that side of our house," said Diane. "It was so close we couldn't even get in there before. Maybe, after we put in a little fill, we'll plant a lawn. That would be nice."
Together, they heaved a sigh. You could almost read their minds. "No more bricks on the roof."