Preservation Ready: The Churches of Buffalo

Buffalo has an amazing and important collection of magnificent historic churches. It is a collection of great architectural heritage that ranks up there with any city in America and surpasses most.  It is a heritage built mostly with the hard earned dollars and devotion of Buffalo’s early working class residents.  Much of this irreplaceable heritage is now being thrown away by WNY’s current residents.  I was scheduled to write this story back in December but somehow could not bring myself to do it.  With the closing of so many churches over the last two decades the problem of what to do with these glorious buildings seems intractable.  I believe that every religious group in WNY has closed facilities in recent years (and this is not only a WNY trend – it is happening across the country).  
Most of the closings, however, have come at the hands of the Catholic Church. The  Church’s congregations are aging and shrinking, the ranks of available priests are thinning, and the big old buildings demand gobs of money and maintenance to keep running.  Add in changing demographics, and the easy choice is to close and merge congregations.  The church calls this latest series of closings a “Journey in Faith and Grace”.  I am not sure why you give something like this a name – especially this name.  To me it seems like a cynical marketing gimmick to allow its members to believe they are doing the right thing.  Of course the people of a closed congregation do not believe that they are doing the right thing.  Those whose churches do escape the ax are likely relieved enough to buy into the faith and graceful tag line.
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Churches are possibly the hardest buildings to reuse after the original use has expired.  They are designed for such a specific purpose that they become true white elephants.  That is not to say that they can’t be re-purposed.  Buffalo has several successful church reuse projects.  The King Urban Life Center now known as the King Center Charter School is one of the earliest examples of a church being saved for a great new use.  The former St. Mary of Sorrows Church came very close to being demolished prior to being saved.  Yes, its demolition was obstructed and now Buffalo still has a gorgeous and unique (in the true meaning of the word unique) building that is productive and still inspiring.  There are other examples of reuse, such as the two Karpeles Manuscript Museums located in Buffalo’s Allentown and Fargo Estates neighborhoods.  The one on Porter, now known as Porter Hall, was carved out of the former Plymouth Methodist Church.  The other, North Hall, is housed in the former First Church of Christ Scientist building at North and Elmwood. 
Each of these three previously mentioned examples allowed for the great sanctuary spaces to be reused, essentially intact in their historic forms.   Other reuse scenarios required the buildings to be carved into smaller segments for use as offices or apartments – not the best option, but one that still allowed the buildings to be saved.  Examples of this include the church at Elmwood and Ferry (recently restored from a fire) which was converted to offices a couple of decades ago.  Also an older conversion was the Full Gospel Tabernacle Church at Bryant and Richmond which was converted into 16 condominiums back in 1994.  The fact that these conversions happened decades before Buffalo’s current positive development momentum began says a lot about how attractive these church buildings can be for redevelopment. 
But let’s not kid our selves.  One of the common denominators of most successful church conversions is that the church is found in a prosperous part of town.  Unfortunately the majority of church closings (quite often the most spectacular churches as well) are in Buffalo’s poorest, most heavily declining neighborhoods.  There is no market for new space in these neighborhoods and there is no large constituency of monied activists to fight for these buildings.  Meaning that they are, for the most part, out of sight out of mind.  So what is the solution?  I don’t know!  I do know that moving them to southern US parking lot suburbs is not a solution. The problem of what to do with Buffalo’s churches  is probably the toughest and most important preservation problem in Buffalo. It is a problem that absolutely has to be solved. Buffalo cannot let these precious and irreplaceable artistic creations disappear.  
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Buffalo Spree featured three endangered Churches in its December 2011 issue. St. Adalbert Basilica at 212 Stanislaus on the East Side has recently been closed for regular services but remains a viable building (hanging on by a thread) – being used only as something called an oratory.   The congregation has fought the closure, even gaining support in its fight from the Vatican. The Vatican, by the way, could save any one of these churches with the sale of a statue or two out of its vast Vatican collection.   
Our Lady of Lourdes Church on Main near the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus is a vacant shell.  Former owners have completely stripped the building of its windows and interior detail.  It is currently owned by Ellicott Development which promises that the building will be redeveloped (there is that good neighborhood thing again).  The final church in the story is Transfiguration Church – also found on the East Side at 929 Sycamore.  The building has long been abandoned but still has an owner who promises much and delivers pretty much nothing.  Will this be the future of St. Adalbert?  Miraculously, Transfiguration still contains most of its glorious golden hued stained glass and is still very much salvageable.  How to do that?  That is the $5,000,000 question.  Even as I write, I do not know what the solution is, though I do have one thought about how to save them.  Why not use them for their original purpose?  Here is the thought…  Close the churches in the prosperous neighborhoods in the city and suburbs where they are more likely to find a new use and ask your flock to “Journey in Fai
th and Grace” to the city’s desperately poor and needy neighborhoods each Sunday morning.  Would that work?

For more on this and other preservation issues in Buffalo checkout the Preservation Ready FaceBoook page 

About the author  ⁄ queenseyes

Founder of Buffalo Rising. Co-founder Elmwood Avenue Festival of the Arts. Co-founder Powder Keg Festival that built the world's largest ice maze (Guinness Book of World Records). Instigator behind Emerald Beach at the Erie Basin Marina. Co-created Flurrious! winter festival. Co-creator of Rusty Chain Beer. Instigator behind Saturday Artisan Market (SAM) at Canalside. Founder of The Peddler retro and vintage market. Instigator behind Liberty Hound @ Canalside. Catalyst behind the Pierce-Arrow Film Arts Center. Throws The Witches Ball at The Hotel @ The Lafayette. Themed New Years mayhem at various locations. Next up: Porchfest... Also offers package tours of the city for groups or individuals. Contact Newell Nussbaumer | Newell@BuffaloRising.com

46 comments
elizgiles
elizgiles

Yes, that is a good solution: closing the pedestrian buildings now serving as suburban churches and transferring the congregations to these inspiring monuments instead.  Kudos to Buffalo Mass Mob for organizing an instant means of getting people into our iconic churches---but it should be a different church each week!

sbrof
sbrof

Blessed Trinity has the same "Under This Roof" compaign to raise money specifically for the renovation and preservation of the church and it's art. I believe this is probably a common them among active parishes today. Pick a building you like and help.

montusama
montusama

I have the solution, no one will like it though.

Change is always fought against.

montusama
montusama

I have the solution, no one will like it though.

Change is always fought against.

timatbuffalo
timatbuffalo

St Francis de Sales on Humboldt and Northland still retained it's tax-free status as of this past year. A formal complaint was placed with real property tax office at Buffalo City Hall to try to get their status pulled as the property has not been used in years. Buffalo City Housing Court has had the case for over two years but to no avail. Hopefully the new judge will see the real story and start enforcing the law.

timatbuffalo
timatbuffalo

St Francis de Sales on Humboldt and Northland still retained it's tax-free status as of this past year. A formal complaint was placed with real property tax office at Buffalo City Hall to try to get their status pulled as the property has not been used in years. Buffalo City Housing Court has had the case for over two years but to no avail. Hopefully the new judge will see the real story and start enforcing the law.

timatbuffalo
timatbuffalo

St Francis de Sales on Humboldt and Northland still retained it's tax-free status as of this past year. A formal complaint was placed with real property tax office at Buffalo City Hall to try to get their status pulled as the property has not been used in years. Buffalo City Housing Court has had the case for over two years but to no avail. Hopefully the new judge will see the real story and start enforcing the law.

timatbuffalo
timatbuffalo

St Francis de Sales on Humboldt and Northland still retained it's tax-free status as of this past year. A formal complaint was placed with real property tax office at Buffalo City Hall to try to get their status pulled as the property has not been used in years. Buffalo City Housing Court has had the case for over two years but to no avail. Hopefully the new judge will see the real story and start enforcing the law.

Tim
Tim

What do you think the justification is for implementing these kind of regulations? The line of thinking is 'these people need our help, they can't afford to get condoms themselves, they are horny so there's no stopping the force field.' obviously rich people get horny too. As do I. Shocker. You are spinning my point and misunderstanding me. I'm done cause were off topic.

Tim
Tim

What do you think the justification is for implementing these kind of regulations? The line of thinking is 'these people need our help, they can't afford to get condoms themselves, they are horny so there's no stopping the force field.' obviously rich people get horny too. As do I. Shocker. You are spinning my point and misunderstanding me. I'm done cause were off topic.

Black Rock Lifer
Black Rock Lifer

What does 'but they are poor!and Horny!' mean? I have not seen any correlation between being poor and being horny? Believe it or not the rich are horny too, lust is an equal opportunity affliction, and thank God for that.

Black Rock Lifer
Black Rock Lifer

What does 'but they are poor!and Horny!' mean? I have not seen any correlation between being poor and being horny? Believe it or not the rich are horny too, lust is an equal opportunity affliction, and thank God for that.

Tim
Tim

I can see that view but people also can buy the barriers themselves if they desire to do so. ( i know, i know, 'but they are poor! And horny!') The church should not be required to provide something they don't believe in.

Or, as a gay man I can recommend getting handfuls of free protection at the gay bar closest to you. It's really not complicated and government intervention is, again, totally unnecessary.

Tim
Tim

I can see that view but people also can buy the barriers themselves if they desire to do so. ( i know, i know, 'but they are poor! And horny!') The church should not be required to provide something they don't believe in.

Or, as a gay man I can recommend getting handfuls of free protection at the gay bar closest to you. It's really not complicated and government intervention is, again, totally unnecessary.

300miles
300miles

this is a catholic diocese problem, because their deed restrictions prohibit all commercial reuse

Couldn't the city govt deny or void the deed restriction?

300miles
300miles

this is a catholic diocese problem, because their deed restrictions prohibit all commercial reuse

Couldn't the city govt deny or void the deed restriction?

Rand503
Rand503

Which, of course, is sort of how our churches used to operate. Back in the 19th century, churches were the center of your community, often an immigrant one. The priest was a respected and essential member of the community, and so you went there not just for sunday service, but for just about everything else: classes in english language for adults, schools for children, mediation of disputes among members of the community who couldn't afford a lawyer, support in the form of hot soup from other congregants if you were sick or out of a job, help in finding a job, (yes political patronage even!), socials to find friends and future spouses, places to come in times of local or national crises, advice on just about everything from marriage, to employment to navigating city bureaucracy to politics to trade and

well, you get the point. A good church, especially the immigrant ones, helped to build and sustain the communities. Today, they are just a place for sunday worship because all the other functions have been taken over by city services, the internet and everything else.

If churches want to rebound, they should do what they can to reclaim their own heritage, and make them welcoming places for anything the community has needs for.

Rand503
Rand503

Which, of course, is sort of how our churches used to operate. Back in the 19th century, churches were the center of your community, often an immigrant one. The priest was a respected and essential member of the community, and so you went there not just for sunday service, but for just about everything else: classes in english language for adults, schools for children, mediation of disputes among members of the community who couldn't afford a lawyer, support in the form of hot soup from other congregants if you were sick or out of a job, help in finding a job, (yes political patronage even!), socials to find friends and future spouses, places to come in times of local or national crises, advice on just about everything from marriage, to employment to navigating city bureaucracy to politics to trade and

well, you get the point. A good church, especially the immigrant ones, helped to build and sustain the communities. Today, they are just a place for sunday worship because all the other functions have been taken over by city services, the internet and everything else.

If churches want to rebound, they should do what they can to reclaim their own heritage, and make them welcoming places for anything the community has needs for.

Rand503
Rand503

Not really. The law doesn't require anyone to use a condom, and so church's beliefs are not adversely affected.

pampiniform
pampiniform

That's probably true, and I do think it's a true shame that these churches have essentially been left to fate. But I always wonder how much you can say that it qualifies as preservation of these church buildings if they're going to be repurposed into something else. I mean if you want to make apartments or offices out of these churches, it would seem to me that you're going to destroy what truly makes them beautiful. I can't imagine that if you were going to carve up a place like St Adalbert's into smaller apartments how that wouldn't ruin the whole thing.

I suppose it may be better to to that than to tear them down later on, but all of these options seem suboptimal. This is a tough issue that no one really has a solution for.

pampiniform
pampiniform

That's probably true, and I do think it's a true shame that these churches have essentially been left to fate. But I always wonder how much you can say that it qualifies as preservation of these church buildings if they're going to be repurposed into something else. I mean if you want to make apartments or offices out of these churches, it would seem to me that you're going to destroy what truly makes them beautiful. I can't imagine that if you were going to carve up a place like St Adalbert's into smaller apartments how that wouldn't ruin the whole thing.

I suppose it may be better to to that than to tear them down later on, but all of these options seem suboptimal. This is a tough issue that no one really has a solution for.

grad94
grad94

thanks. you are right about st. mary's. it is kind of the exception that proves the rule, whereas reused catholic churches, like king urban life center, are also that exception that proves the rule of diocesan policy being more of a threat to vacant churches than their size, energy inefficiency, or other inherent characteristics.

On Richmond
On Richmond

The building at 198 Emslie St. is the former Sacred Heart Roman Church. The Larkin Co. purchased their former property to construct the Larkin Building. Witness Cathedral of Faith used 198 Emslie for years, making small attempts to keep it in repair but failing at it. Witness now worships at the former St. John the Baptist RC Church @ 98 Hertel, which the Catholic Diocese had no problem selling to them in spite of what they did (or didn't do) on Emslie St.

The former Immaculate Conception Roman Church on Edward & Elmwood is slowly shedding its roof. Bethlehem Presbyterian Church at 346 Bird recently sold (no idea for what purpose). 1st German Baptist @ 41 Spruce St is awaiting demolition just like Salem @ 413 Sherman. Tample Ahavath Sholem @ 411 Jefferson is not far behind them. St. Matthew's, St Francis de Salles, Lebanon Presbyterian, Holy Apostles Peter & Paul & so many more are empty, unused & deteriorating.

What will become of the half dozen places of worship in the Doat/Bailey area? The fate of 1st Presbyterian Church on Symphony Circle is in limbo now as is that of one of Buffalo's best religious buildings, St Ann's Roman Catholic Church on Broadway/Emslie.

Religious buildings were the hearts of every neighborhood in this city and many times, the church arrived prior to the build out of the area. In the next 10 years, this city will probably see the demolition of 15-20 more former places of worship if uses cannot be found. The Catholic Diocese placing deed restrictions on buildings they no longer wish to own will not help the city.

Buffalo_Resurrection
Buffalo_Resurrection

Spot on for the Ukrainian Church located at 198 Emslie Street.

If you Google Map and pan from the street level you will see newer infills which is fine but why not add a few "adaptive reuses" to the mix of new "plastic homes" as you say?

Poor urban planning but what else is new....

Buffalo_Resurrection
Buffalo_Resurrection

Spot on for the Ukrainian Church located at 198 Emslie Street.

If you Google Map and pan from the street level you will see newer infills which is fine but why not add a few "adaptive reuses" to the mix of new "plastic homes" as you say?

Poor urban planning but what else is new....

cooper71
cooper71

I'm the head of the properties commitee at St. Paul's Cathedral downtown a National Historic Landmark. I'll tell you from first hand experience that the cost of upkeep on these structures is a huge tax on the congregation, 200 current members cannot do what the membership in the thousands used to do. St. Paul's and many churches have an endowment that they are drawing too heavily on to support these structures. You can help! Become a memeber of a church,if religion is not your thing, join an outreach commitee or simply donated your time, talents or treasure to these magnificent buildings. St. Paul's welcomes all to services, or simply pledge to the upkeep of these historic buildings! Checks made out to building preseravation or windows go into a fund made especially for that purpose.

cooper71
cooper71

I'm the head of the properties commitee at St. Paul's Cathedral downtown a National Historic Landmark. I'll tell you from first hand experience that the cost of upkeep on these structures is a huge tax on the congregation, 200 current members cannot do what the membership in the thousands used to do. St. Paul's and many churches have an endowment that they are drawing too heavily on to support these structures. You can help! Become a memeber of a church,if religion is not your thing, join an outreach commitee or simply donated your time, talents or treasure to these magnificent buildings. St. Paul's welcomes all to services, or simply pledge to the upkeep of these historic buildings! Checks made out to building preseravation or windows go into a fund made especially for that purpose.

STEEL
STEEL

An absolutely amazing little building. What do you want to bet there are a few dozen plastic replacement houses within a few blocks of this.

Tim
Tim

Now that Christian institutions are being forced by the government to go against their beliefs, expect further decline. Sorry. Smh.

Tim
Tim

Now that Christian institutions are being forced by the government to go against their beliefs, expect further decline. Sorry. Smh.

pampiniform
pampiniform

I can think of a few protestant churches which have been abandoned, there's that one over on Sherman Street near Sycamore, can't remember what it used to be. Of course there was the late lamented St Mary's on the Hill. There are plenty of others which fell victim to the same problems that are claiming these churches.

pampiniform
pampiniform

I can think of a few protestant churches which have been abandoned, there's that one over on Sherman Street near Sycamore, can't remember what it used to be. Of course there was the late lamented St Mary's on the Hill. There are plenty of others which fell victim to the same problems that are claiming these churches.

DeanerPPX
DeanerPPX

Make sure the church has a building maintenance fund, and make your donation to that instead of the general collection (ask an usher if the parish has donation envelopes).

Most parishes are -for lack of a better word- 'taxed' by the diocese, so unless you specify how your donation is to be used, it may go toward missionaries in foreign countries, community outreach, or even toward the administrative costs of that 'faith and grace' program which will eventually close the church.

Fortunate4now
Fortunate4now

Saint Francis de Sales & Saint Gerard's are certainly hurting as well. We really need about 10 more "babevilles"

paulsobo
paulsobo

I have to agree with Tim!!!

Why spend so much money on new community centers and libraries when these Churches should be used for those purposes.

These churches are built like fortresses and could last another 25 years with minimum maintenance. That would buy time for another purpose to be found.

Id rather take the money for a new community center or library (as well as the maintenance budget for those buildings) and apply it toward the minimum mainenance of a historic building

ex-716
ex-716

Here's a challlenge: How about everyone who reads this article and feels bad about our threatened churches commits to going to church next Sunday and put $50 (or what you can afford) into the plate. Pick the church you used to go to or one in your neighborhood. You can worship or just sit and enjoy the building. Let's do it! (I will!)

Black Rock Lifer
Black Rock Lifer

You are right about the deed restrictions but the Catholic Churches also tend to be larger than the Protestant Churches making reuse more expensive and more difficult.

grad94
grad94

buffalo is full of successful church adaptive reuses, most of them protestant churches. churches are not white elephants. they can become housing (bryant parish condos), offices (that medical office place at elmwood & ferry), restaurants & brewpubs (in cities i've visited), schools (king urban life center), auditoriums (montante center), and so on.

this is a catholic diocese problem, because their deed restrictions prohibit all commercial reuse, thus all but guaranteeing demolition. protestant churches lack these restrictions. i cannot think of a single major or minor protestant church that we have lost due to closure, abandonment, and neglect. can you?

Travelrrr
Travelrrr

It's a systemic problem, much of which leads back to the church; disinvestment in poorer communities, huge amounts of legal dollars being spent to defend against to stave off lawsuits from molestation, etc. accusations, a culture of intolerance that has driven so, so many people away (women, divorcees, gays, etc.). I read today about how local Buffalo churches are refusing Obamacare because they are opposed to contraception. Are you $#%ing kidding me? Under what rock do they live?

Meanwhile, the community backs these institutions via tax abatements. However, when the churches deem that a facility is no longer "viable" (due to many of the aforementioned reasons), the community has to be passive to the church's decision-making. It's messed up.

Then, there are instances where churches, such as the First Presbyterian and Trinity, are not only proactive and progressive, but are also engaging their parishes. Unfortunately, they are an exception to the rule: www.buffalonews.com/city/communities/buffalo/article723376.ece.

However, Buffalo does have a pretty great history of adaptive re-uses.

Nicholas Tyler Miller
Nicholas Tyler Miller

Very well written post. Church's are a vexing preservation issue, particularly when it comes to preserving the sanctuary space. Here in Detroit, several churches in essentially abandoned neighborhoods are supported by commuter congregations, so that can definitely be a part of the solution.

It strikes me as completely moronic to tear down churches like St. Barbara's while newer congregations build pre-engineered steel churches in the suburbs that look more like Walmarts than places of worship. On Woodward in Detroit, there's a new mega-church being erected only blocks away from several under-utilzed or shuttered historic churches. It upsets me every time I go past it.

I tend to think that housing and office space are the most viable solutions to preserving churches, even though they require substantial augmentation to the sanctuary space, at least things like stained glass and the exterior facade can be maintained.

timatbuffalo
timatbuffalo

Instead of building all of the Community Centers, Municipal Building and 501C3's why don't past zoning requirements that these buildings be used instead. If our tax dollars are going to support these entities, than lets at least save our city.

The biggest challenge is usually the heating, but with Radiant Floor Heat and Geothermal means of getting it, We win all the way around.

I mean, have you seen the buildings being built for Government Offices, hands down these will look so much better!

These building are better to serve, as their location are now in the need to be locals. Allentown needs Gateway Longview in it like a "Whole in the head", along with Friends of the night people and many others. I know it's cool to work in Allentown, but who are we serving, Oh Oursleves!

Good Luck with this as so many self-righteous folks really could care and their Fat directors Saleries allow them to eat out in the right places!

Sorry to be such a Downer on Monday Morning, but I feel it is true.

Black Rock Lifer
Black Rock Lifer

Our old church buildings are certainly a challenge to save and repurpose. The space does not easily lend itself to other uses and the cost to renovate usually exceeds any posssible return on investment. As noted many of the largest churches are located in the poorest neighborhoods further limiting options.

The best scenario would be for wealthier congregations to adopt these old churches. The congregation could actually put their values into action and contribute to the community. Unfortunately many of the new mega churches seem to give lip service to Christian values while celebrating accumulation of wealth. This whole idea of faith bringing material rewards has been accepted by many even though such nonsense contradicts the very basic tenets of Christianity.

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