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.
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.
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?
Newell Nussbaumer is 'queenseyes' - Eyes of the Queen City and 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. Throws The Witches Ball at The Hotel @ The Lafayette, and the Madd Tiki Winter Luau. Other projects: Navigetter.