Preservationists: Birge Mansion, they did build that. Twice!!

We have written about the Birge Mansion at 33 Symphony Circle a few times, but such a distinctive building is worth another look.  A year ago in October I had the opportunity to tour the magnificent Symphony Circle estate. A few years back the building was restored for the second time in a 20 year span for its new use as the law offices of Spadafora and Verrastro.  Prior to the lawyers taking over, the building had gone through a roller coaster existence from regal manor house to unsecured drug den to middling office space.  Demolition of this magnificent landmark was not out of the question for several years back in the 70s and 80s.
The Birges, once one of the city’s wealthiest families, sold the house in 1938 to the Sisters of the Devine Child after the family matriarch died. They used it as a convent until 1957.  This is one of several extravagant Buffalo mansions which were put to use and saved for the future by the Catholic church after the Great Depression. The church continues to use some of these great houses to this day.  The Elks Club was the next owner, using the house for their meetings up until 1974 after which they sold the building to a speculator.  The carriage house was separated by deed from the main property and restored into a pair of townhouses, but the main house was left vacant and abandoned. It quickly declined as vandals had their way with it.  Marble mantels and hardware were stolen, windows smashed, and water damaged its delicate details.  I believe there may have been a fire or two as well.  

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The house was granted landmark status by the city in 1977 but the property remained in steep decline, open to vagrants and drug addicts and headed for what looked like inevitable demolition. In1982 the City auctioned the property to Olympian Properties for $45,000 in back taxes.  Olympian had plans to save the building and outfit it for rental office space, but in no way was their plan assured.  Funding was very difficult to find for a risky renovation project in a quickly declining city. They were ultimately successful in saving the house after two years of construction and a $900,000 investment – no small amount in 1980s Buffalo.  Much of the original detail was lost but a good effort was made to bring the house back to life as close to original as possible. The elegant railings of the oval balcony around the two-storey central rotunda were replaced with modern floor to ceiling glass panels -an exciting concept at the time which ultimately became somewhat dated.  The rear entry courtyard was also lost and beyond repair.  Concessions were made so that it could be converted to a parking area for the building. It was a miraculous save at a time when Buffalo had a minimal culture of preservation and the city population was seeing its steepest declines.  
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The building never became profitable and was sold again multiple times in the early and mid 1990s. It remained in decent condition over this period, but was a troubled property and was clearly headed in the wrong direction again.  In 2001 the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra purchased the building with plans to use it for their executive offices.  This seemed like a perfect match with the music hall located directly across the circle. For various reasons this plan never panned out and the house remained empty for another three years.  
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In 2004 the Spadafora and Verrastro law firm (S&V) found themselves looking for new office space due to plans for construction of the new Federal Courthouse.  The Birge Mansion was perfect for their needs and they took over the house.  Even having been renovated just 20 years prior, the house was again in need of substantial work.  S&V took on the challenge and became the preservationists the building had been waiting for.  They completely renovated the interior at the highest level, bringing back much of the detail that had been lost.  The glass panels of the rotunda were removed and the intricate balcony railings were replicated and reinstalled.  Detailed plasterwork and elegant mantels were brought back.  The work done by S&V was more than what was necessary for an office.  They went beyond the bare necessities.  Their restoration was a labor of love and all of WNY wins. This house only exists today because of preservationists, whether it be Spadafora and Verresto or the Sisters of the Devine Child.  This house would not exist today if people did not step up through the years to shepherd this treasure through history. 
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See more on the history of the house at WNY Heritage Press 
The Spadafora and Verrastro web site has a slew of great historic images on their web site here
Also see much more and many more images of the house at Buffalo as an Architectural Museum

About the author  ⁄ WCPerspective

Buffalo and development junkie currently exiled in California.

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