The theft of copper pipe from the county-owned Wendt Mansion has exposed more than the value of copper and the lengths that thieves will take to steal it. The incident has shown that the historic home overlooking Lake Erie has been at the mercy of vandals for years.
With its alarm system no longer functioning, Wendt Mansion can be easily penetrated by the adventurous, and in winter months they have little risk of being spotted.
Sheriff’s deputies investigating last month’s copper theft found that the burglars simply manipulated a makeshift lock on a porch door. Once they reached the basement, they felt secure enough to free the pipe with blow torches and saws as water flooded the room.
Deputies in their report surmised that the burglars drove off with their 100 feet of pipe days or maybe weeks before the water rose high enough to run out a door and catch the attention of a parks employee living in the caretaker’s residence nearby. Even then, the employee reported the matter to the county’s Public Works Department as a maintenance problem, not vandalism. Only when a public works crew entered the house the next day, Feb. 28, was the crime discovered.
Deputies found debris in the home, beer cans and several signs of recent inhabitants.
“It appears that kids have partied there more than once,” the report said.
The home, a reminder of the Gilded Age, was built in the late 19th century as a summer retreat for Buffalo Forge magnate Henry Wendt. The estate was donated to the county in 1968.
A year ago, a developer proposed converting Wendt Mansion into a bed-and-breakfast and conference center. But the proposal sank amid concerns about the public’s continued access to portions of Wendt Beach Park and whether the idea served the public at all.
The government is about to again solicit ideas for the mansion. The county legislator representing the area, Hamburg Democrat Robert B. Reynolds, said he would like to see it renovated by vocational students into a dining establishment where culinary students could hone their skills. But until a project firms up, Wendt Mansion remains vulnerable.
“The place is a mess,” Parks Commissioner Angelo Sedita conceded Thursday when quizzed by the chairman of a Legislature committee, Amherst Democrat Thomas A. Loughran. Sedita couldn’t say whether the flooding hurt the mansion, since it was deteriorating before the copper theft.
Because items of value had long since been removed, parks officials four years ago decided against repairing the spotty alarm system that linked the mansion to the Evans Police Department. The alarm would go off in a stiff wind, said Deputy Parks Commissioner Nicholas Page, and a newly wired system was estimated at $7,000 to $10,000.
Sedita said his department employs half the staff it did in 2005, and he has no money to fix the alarm.
For years, Erie County let its parks superintendents live at residences inside their parks, and they generally kept an eye on things. That practice, too, eroded during the budget crisis, and now it’s the rare park with a superintendent in residence.
Parks employee Jacquelyn Zuhlke has been allowed to live in the caretaker’s residence at Wendt Beach, but she does not work at the park and each day leaves it for her job assignment.
“She isn’t the caretaker, and she is not a police officer,” Sedita said.
Lawmakers on Thursday formed a loose consensus Sedita should bring them a proposal to mend the alarm system.