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Great Potential for Residential Church Conversion is Squandered by Owners Unwilling to Sell

This post originally appeared on Views of Buffalo

Another church on the east side is slated for demolition
with an owner who is unwilling to sell. This handsome brick church at 41 Spruce
Street was built for the First German Baptist Church in 1869. The current
owners, Trinity Baptist Church, have owned the building since 1940 according to
Erie County Property records. I was able to get in touch with the church, located at 2930
Bailey Avenue
and the receptionist informed me that the church will be
demolished shortly and they will not consider selling it. This decision
apparently comes after a structural report revealed the building was “beyond
repair.”

SS-9301

A quick call to Inspections and Demolitions at City Hall
confirms that demolition is imminent. I spoke with Taleshia in the office who stated
that the owners have a demolition permit, but have not yet raised the necessary
funds. Apparently, the owners are able to do a sort of payment plan pre-demo,
which once fully funded will mean the end for this 144 year old church.
SS-9278


The following is a brief history of the church from James
Napora’s fantastic document, Houses of
Worship: A Guide to the Religious Architecture of Buffalo, New York
:
“Organized as the fourth Baptist church in the city, the
First German Baptist Church was the third German Baptist congregation organized
in the United States. In the early 1840s, a small group of German Baptists,
under the leadership of Alexander von Puttkamner, a nobleman from Southern
Germany, fled the religious persecution of their homeland. Arriving in Buffalo,
the group joined the Washington Street Baptist Church also known as the First
Baptist Church. Although welcome in the congregation, they did not feel
comfortable with the English language service.  On 14 February 1849, twenty-four of these immigrants were
dismissed to form their own congregation.
In January 1850, they acquired the property on which the
building now stands and converted an old school house located on it for
worship. By 1869, they had outgrown that space and had begun plans for the
current structure. Recognizing the social importance of the place of worship,
they constructed their building in a manner common to most German places of
worship of the day. The actual auditorium was raised above street level,
allowing for community and classroom space to be located on the lower level. Constructed
at a cost of $14,000, they dedicated their new building on 6 February 1870.”
SS-9297


This wouldn’t be the first time a building has come down as
a result of a questionable structural report with similar claims, see Bethlehem
Steel demolition
, but it’s anyone’s guess if that’s the case here. While
I’m certainly not an engineer, from my personal observations, the extent of the
deterioration seems largely repairable and looks limited to a small section of
failed roofing and some slight masonry issues. I’ve dealt with buildings in my line of work that were in far worse condition than this, but were successfully rehabilitated.
The proximity of the building to downtown is incredible,
less than one mile from Lafayette Square, easily reached in five minutes by bicycle.
Additionally, Spruce Street is a sleepy little street where I have never
encountered problems.
Given the size of this building, it’s not hard to imagine
two residential units within it. The first floor classroom space is ideal for
an open floor plan and could be easily separated from the upper floor sanctuary
space.  The two rooms to the rear
of the space, separated by pocket doors, would be ideal for a master bedroom in
one and the kitchen in the other. The highlight of the building would be the
unit in the sanctuary space.
SS-9276
Classroom space on first floor could be a large living and dining space. The master bedroom could be located in the room to the right with a full bath, while the kitchen could go in the room to the left
A simple design, keeping the space largely open and locating
the bedroom on the balcony would allow for a magnificent unit, while retaining
the open feeling associated with sanctuary spaces. Dividing the building into
two units this way may even be acceptable within the historic tax credit
program, which would allow an owner up to 40% in tax credits if the building
were a certified historic structure. Churches are difficult to convert within
HTC program because the sanctuary space cannot be divided. However, with my design
concept the sanctuary would remain open, intact, and provide a wonderful living
space for someone with the right vision.
SS-9286
Here is the sanctuary space that would serve as a fantastic living space, with the master bedroom elevated above on the former balcony, which features three large windows behind the structure that housed pipe organ pipes 

If anyone is interested in a serious attempt to try and sway
the owners into selling, please get in touch with me and I’ll do my best to
meet with them. For additional photos of the church, check out my Flickr page by clicking here.

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Written by queenseyes

queenseyes

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.

Contact Newell Nussbaumer | Newell@BuffaloRising.com

8159 posts
  • Rand503

    What an amazing piece of history this church is! Built just when Buffalo was starting to spread its wings and become the major city it was destined to be. Built by humble immigrants from Germany who wanted a respectable place of their own to worship and come together to support one another. Nothing fancy, just good solid values — a sober design just big enough to hold a large congregation and small enough to seem intimate. It certainly thrived as the city thrived, bearing witness to our emergence an an global city.
    Then it saw it’s original population depart, and a new population of African americans, who moved up north with the promise of jobs and freedom from jim crow. I’m sure the humble church of modest size served them well.
    There have been thousands of church services performed there, countless weddings, funerals, celebrations of wars ended and miracles that occurred.
    And now it’s useless. Just tear it down. No value at all. Just wipe away all that history. Forget all the people who built it, used it, loved it, owned it. It’s just an old building with crumbling plaster — nothing more.
    I get so sick and tired of people crowing about “traditional values,” but they couldn’t care less about this enormous gem of traditional history right here. Does everything have to be a parking lot? Does everything have to be new?
    Let’s document this fully so that future generations can righty accuse these owners, and our society, of turning their backs upon their own people, their own history and their own lives.
    We have no pride left in our society. IF we had any self respect, we would honor these buildlngs and the people who built it and lived in it.

  • DeanerPPX

    Beyond repair?
    The church I attend is a couple decades younger than First German Baptist (yet still the oldest building in Atlanta). It was completely gutted by fire in 1982:
    http://album.atlantahistorycenter.com/store/Products/86041-catholic-shrine-of-the-immaculate-conception.aspx
    With only the walls standing, no roof or windows, statuary and furnishings burnt to a crisp, the building was successfully repaired and brought back to use with a fundraiser probably not too different than the monies currently being collected to demolish First German.
    http://agoatlanta.org/Organs/AtlantaCity/img/AtlantaShrineRC%20Gallery.jpg

  • 300miles

    Seems odd that they are scraping funds together to pay for its demolition, but won’t even consider selling it. If they don’t have the money – why not at least look into selling?

  • warehousedweller

    i will give them 20 k cash for it right now

  • Mike Puma

    If you’re serious, shoot me an email at mike.j.puma@gmail.com.

  • irishkwh

    [deleted] racist and ignorant

  • Mike Puma

    Well, if someone has a serious offer they may entertain it. You never know, always worth a shot. We or I could call and see where it goes. Hell, I’ll just drop in to their office on Bailey and see what happens if it comes to that. I don’t want this place to come down, there’s too much potential considering its proximity to downtown, size, etc.

  • grad94

    so they got a demo permit without preservation board review?

  • biniszkiewicz

    pay no attention to: “It’s not for sale” and make an offer. Every time.
    It costs nothing to speak. You might change their minds. As long as the idea of selling is vague and abstract, it’s easy for people to stick by their guns and refuse to listen to anything that would disrupt their plan of action, whatever it is.
    When you say to their faces: “here’s what I’ll pay you for that”, on the other hand, you become real; not abstract. That’s when people listen and think.

  • LouisTully

    Don’t waste your time, Mike. He’s just running his trap, as usual. He’s got more hot air than… Besides, he needs his 20k (if he really has it) to finish his 20 year, ongoing “Sagrada Familia” project.

  • paulsobo

    It has potential for residential
    With Buffalo 60-70% demolished…it makes no sense…to refuse a conversion to residential when the alternative is demolition.

  • thisoldcrackhouse

    Based on the photographs, the Scottish Rite church on Colvin was
    in far better condition as well as a much better candidate for conversion to residential use. We all know what happened to it. I don’t see much hope for this property. Devoting time and energy towards preventing this from happening to viable properties would probably make more sense.

  • grad94

    “beyond repair” is code for one of two things:
    a) “i don’t know -how- to repair it.”
    b) “it’ll cost more than i’m willing to spend.”
    answers:
    a) there are people who do know how to repair it. see: webb building and that place on rhode island featured yesterday
    b) someone else might be willing and able to spend it.

  • warehousedweller

    tully you dont know me at all . i have been in buffalo all my life . you dont even know where i am or what i do ,but i could find you if i wanted to ! but i wouldnt waste my time looking for a cockroach like you !

  • LouisTully

    Go for it. Find me.
    I could care less about where you live or what you do. God Bless. But when you come on here spewing vitriol as your lone contribution then you’re gonna draw such attention.
    You talk such a huge game, and you’re critical of EVERYTHING. When you behave in such a way and then drop an empty offer of $20k then you should expect a derisive response.

  • whatever

    Doesn’t 41 Spruce seem unlikely for anyone wanting to build a parking lot?
    http://goo.gl/maps/whz6z
    …in middle of small side street across from a charter school on Ash (which maybe was closed down by NYS, I think? and anyway, already has a large parking lot)?
    Plus so many already vacant lots nearby on which parking could be put
    …including many vacant on Broadway more convenient for general parking?
    If someone wanted to add a parking lot around there, why wouldn’t they have done so already on one of those other parcels instead of spending extra to demo a building in middle of that side st?
    Maybe the owners want to use their land to build something on, or maybe they think someone else will want to eventually want to, and for now they want to no longer have to deal with property inspections/enforcement, insurance, etc.
    As Mike & Bini said, making offers can’t hurt. Maybe they’d be open to changing their minds.
    (Might this be a possible downside of past demonizing other property owners on blogs, however? – if they’re aware of how others were written about, might they not want to even have discussions with bloggers so they won’t later get publicly accused on here of negotiating in bad faith like if they at any point raise an asking price, etc?)

  • Rand503

    Those light fixtures hanging from the ceiling look original and quite old. I hope that those can at least be salvaged and sold to someone who appreciates them.

  • Rand503

    If the church has a bell, that alone is worth several thousand dollars.

  • warehousedweller

    not if the demo crew gets thier first !

  • Dan

    > 2930 Bailey Avenue
    Are they in the old Precinct 16 building, or in what used to be Bethany Lutheran Church? If they’re in Bethany, I don’t blame them for moving; the building has two sanctuaries (one an airy mid-century space, the other with a traditional Germanic feel), a lot of meeting and office space, and it’s in Kensington, which has become something of an aspirational neighborhood for working-class African-Americans. It’s probably closer to where most congregants live. If they’re in 16 … it’s odd.
    Still, why wouldn’t they consider selling the older building?

  • sirhc77

    Any people ready to stop this demo and willing to help, please let me know. I am prepared for extreme measures, if you are really willing to do something instead of just talking then leave some info or contact me on here and I will let you know what we can do. This is our neighborhood (what is left) and I would like to stop any unwarranted demolition. This building is worth saving.

  • ForestBird

    Let us understand what you’re saying: Engineers say it is beyond repair and the City’s inspectors agree. Please tell us how you know better.

  • fixBuffalo

    Great post MIke.
    Here’s what the place looked like three years ago with the parish house/mance intact.
    http://fixbuffalo.blogspot.com/2010/04/spruce-street-church-landfill-or-loft.html
    The demolition order for 41 Spruce was signed by Judge Nowak w/o Preservation Board review. This effectively ended the church’s Housing Court case.
    The mance next door was demolished w/o Preservation Board review and appeared to be in very good structural condition.

  • Travelrrr

    Follow the money, and it all becomes more clear. These developers, I mean pastors, have some big plans.

  • fixBuffalo

    Yes.
    The parish house/mance next door was demolished w/o Preservation Board review.
    http://fixbuffalo.blogspot.com/2010/04/spruce-street-church-landfill-or-loft.html

  • Dan

    Well, it looks okay …
    The big picture, though: why does the City allow certain property owners to willfully neglect their buildings, where they reach a state of being beyond repair? Some homeowners will be cited for peeling paint, while other buildings rot away with nary a peep.
    Big plans? The site is on the Lower East Side, nowhere near the medical corridor. The only action that area is seeing is the occasional subsidized vinyl Victorian.
    I wish there was some way these masonry buildings could be disassembled, at least, so the bricks can be saved and reused, rather than just chucked into a landfill.

  • buffalorr

    That’s so true, the “Pastor’s” of these churches have it down to a science.
    Strip the building of all the valuable, salvageable materials, let the building sit until it’s badly deteriorated and then have it demolished.
    It’s happened over and over again in Buffalo.
    It happened to our church which was built in 1891 located at Broadway and Fox Sts.
    The congregations who’ve moved to the suburbs and no longer want the buildings donate these churches to small denominations that don’t have the funds nor intention to maintain them.
    The “Pastors” of these groups make out like bandit’s once they’ve cannibalized the building and then have them demolished.
    So sad and even sadder that there doesn’t seem like there is anything that can stop it from happening.
    I drove by St. Mary’s on Broadway yesterday and now that it’s been shuttered, couldn’t help but wonder how long before that magnificent church will be bulldozed.

  • jbuffalo

    Ah another building on the East side that used to be beautiful. Then the original occupants moved out and the new occupants turned all those neighborhoods into run down, crime ridden, garbage dumps. (i.e. the Broadway Market area)

  • Greenca

    While I don’t understand why the owner wouldn’t consider an offer to sell, unfortunately if it was for sale it is highly unlikely it would make financial sense to rehab this building into marketable units given where it is. The real estate maxim of location, location, location comes into play.
    Even if the church gave the building away, let’s pretend you would need $250k to rehab the place (the reality is that it would like cost more). Per the City’s website, after looking at random houses on this block, nothing appears to be assessed over $20k. Would you invest $250k into a place where they neighboring properties are only 10% of the value? If this was closer to downtown or the BNMC, that would be a different story.
    I am very much in favor of preservation, but many times economic realities get in the way of great ideas.

  • pampiniform

    Where is St Mary’s on Broadway?

  • buffalorr

    Sorry, meant to say St. Ann’s on Broadway.
    It does look like it’s been pretty well mothballed on the outside.
    The Diocese still own’s it and holds services in a rear building I believe.
    According to the Diocese, making repairs would cost $ 7 million dollars, an amount that they won’t have.
    The only thing that can save it is a developer or someone that could do the same as Annie De Franco did for the Asbury Church on Delaware.

  • pampiniform

    If I were the pastor of the church and someone came along and offered me 20K for the place, I’d jump on it. You’d really make out on the deal. Imagine getting someone to free you from the responsibility of demolishing it, plus some money on top of it.
    The problem is that it doesn’t make any financial sense for anyone to do it. The place might be close to downtown and the medical campus geographically, but it’s not close enough that it’ll benefit from any spinoff before it becomes a total wreck. The amount of money required to bring the place up to a decent standard is likely to be pretty steep, and this isn’t Elmwood or Hertel, where you might make a decent return on your investment. While it’s not the worst part of the East side, it’s still not a place that can bear very high rents.
    It’s a shame that this happens as much as it does in Buffalo, but there are still a good number of these structures located in bad neighborhoods without congregations to support them. This won’t be the last time we see this happen.

  • biniszkiewicz

    yes, but in Ms. DiFranco’s case most of that rehab money was courtesy of New York State (same is true of the brownstone church available at Richmond/W Ferry). Given the current budgetary climate, I don’t see many churches getting rehabbed that way.

  • benfranklin

    Buffalo Rising did a story on this in May of 2010. You may recall back then that the parsonage next door that was owned by the church.
    The story the church was putting out then was that they had no money, and no buyer. I spoke with the pastor, a few times, when he finally told me, we don’t want to sell, we’re going to build there.
    You can read my comments in the earlier post.
    At the time, all the windows were in the church, but mysteriously, the windows in the parsonage had been removed, and not covered. I see that the parsonage is now gone, and the windows, in the church are gone.
    http://fixbuffalo.blogspot.com/2008/06/sealed-up-spruce-street.html … at this link you can see a part of the building next to the church they’ve already torn down.
    The two buildings together, a few years ago, we’re in reasonable condition.

  • biniszkiewicz

    very interesting about those windows . . .
    deliberate sabotage to encourage a demo order, it would appear. Thought pastors weren’t supposed to be sneaky like that.

  • benfranklin

    Google street view shows the upper windows, both sides, all intact. The street view picture is fairly recent, because the building next door is gone. Funny how in the street view the grass is all cut. You cut the grass, but then don’t put window coverings that mysteriously all fall at the same time back up?
    I said in 2010 I thought the building would have a mysterious fire. This just looks like a slower process, with the same outcome.

  • benfranklin

    https://maps.google.com/maps?hl=en&q=41+spruce+street+buffalo+ny&ie=UTF-8&ei=MQpWUeirDfHr0QGX2YBY&ved=0CAgQ_AUoAg
    …and the other side.
    https://maps.google.com/maps?hl=en&q=41+spruce+street+buffalo+ny&ie=UTF-8&ei=MQpWUeirDfHr0QGX2YBY&ved=0CAgQ_AUoAg
    Not sure those links will work. I wouldn’t bother writing about this, but I did walk around this building a few years ago. It was wrapped up pretty tight. I get a lower window getting broken into… but the uppers being pulled down, I don’t believe it.

  • whatever

    bini>“deliberate sabotage to encourage a demo order, it would appear. “
    But why would/should the owners have to bother doing anything to ‘encourage a demo order’ if the demo would be privately funded by them and if the building isn’t in one of the official city landmarks and isn’t in one of the preservation districts?
    (just asking – maybe there’s some reason that isn’t apparent, but wouldn’t the City have to grant the demo permit when asked, like it had to do for Pano, and church on Colvin, etc, etc?)

  • whatever

    Dan>“why does the City allow certain property owners to willfully neglect their buildings …?”
    Better enforcement is a good idea in general, but what difference would it make for a building like this if the owner’s hope/desire (as Ben commented) is to eventually replace it with something else on the parcel?
    Would an unintended consequence of better enforcement be a sooner demo to avoid steep fines or jail?

  • benfranklin

    The following is from David Torke about this…from 2010.
    “It’s been reported that the current owner – Trinity Baptist Church located at 2930 Bailey Avenue in Buffalo, NY – has no plan for the church and adjacent parsonage as they no longer have the funds to maintain the property. In July 2008 they plead guilty to a number of Housing Court Violations involving two concurrent cases (#’s 635/2008 & 1319/2008). Part of the plea deal involves paying for a private demolition of 41 & 43 Spruce Street, the church religious structures they left behind.”

  • pampiniform

    I think St Ann’s is a great example of where we could see some proactive preservation efforts. We all know the church has a lot of challenges in front of it. It’s in rough shape, has been for a good number of years. The fact that the masonry has deteriorated to the point that it poses a danger to pedestrians is a serious problem. If someone were to be hit by something falling off of that building, the owners ( the diocese) could be on the hook for quite a bit of money. That fact coupled with the estimate (likely lower than it actually will be) of $7 million is likely to be less than the cost of demolishing the place. Also the lack of a large active parish to support the building and the neighborhood it’s located in are bad prognostic factors for the place.
    That said, there’s no denying it’s a truly historic structure. I would bet a large portion of Buffalo’s people have some family connection to the place. Even in its current state, it’s an impressive structure.
    I’ve tried looking to see if there’s any active effort to try to save this place. I can’t find anything that says that there is. Maybe I’m missing it, but if I am, it’s pretty hard to find it. I hope that when the engineering report returns, that there is hope for the place. I’m not how to raise the kind of money that would be needed to save the place. I don’t see what the point of even trying to do a Asbury – type conversion. It would seem to defeat the whole purpose of trying to save the place if its distinctiveness is destroyed.

  • biniszkiewicz

    strictly conjecture, but my guess is that the pastor fears backlash for choosing demolition as opposed to rehab. Therefore he welcomes structural hurdles too high to cross, so as to absolve him and his church of responsibility for keeping it.
    This deterioration frees the congregation from the burden of maintaining the church or incorporating it into their future re-use plans. Granted, there exists no legal burden to keep the building standing. But there may be a social burden, one arising from activist and perhaps community and congregational sensibilities not in sync with those of the church leadership.
    Again, all conjecture on my part. But if not something along these lines, what do you suppose happened to those windows?

  • Old First Ward

    Here is an example of how to mothball a building until a future owner with a development plan comes along. This building is at 124 Sycamore next door to and owned by the owners of Eberl Iron Works property.
    http://goo.gl/maps/RjkTD
    You can even zoom down the alley for a look at the new gutters and roof. Notice the tidy window enclosures.

  • WithheldName

    It’s older than every church in Houston, the 4th largest city in the US.

  • Nickel Miner

    Trying to avoid the demolition of this church, and other old churches, speaks to the need for preservation of the faith history of Buffalo. Is there an organization focused on saving, cataloguing, and sharing this history? Could be a curious tourist attraction. Also reaching out, involving, and educating the faith community about preservation would be a key component highlighting the importance of preservation to Buffalo’s physical and cultural environment.

  • RobH

    This church is right in the middle of 7 lots/properties that Trinity Baptist owns, from 31 to 49 Spruce St. They also own 284 Walnut, a vacant lot directly behind 33 Spruce.

  • jim1234664

    original? What do you think electric light fixtures looked like in the 1860’s?
    let me give you a hint… they didn’t exist
    those dont look all that old or exciting

  • 16thStreet

    This church is on the near East Side, not a bad part of town. Not Elmwood, but not Walden and Bailey either.
    This is rediculous. It’s shit like this that makes me not want to read BRO.
    Really? A decent church is getting demoed, while my friends in the cottage district get fines for peeling paint.
    Stupid. Just plain stupid.
    No more Urkle, time for a new leader.

  • whatever

    bini>“if not something along these lines, what do you suppose happened to those windows?”
    I’d be only guessing too about why boarding on side/upper windows might’ve been removed, but off top of my head –
    Is it possible at some point work being done inside (to remove anything for reuse/recycle, &/or for demo prep) motivated it being ventilated a lot – either because of summer heat or other reasons like dust /etc, and then afterward they didn’t see any reason to re-board up those windows since they for sure intend to demo it?
    I’d figure when fully boarded up it would get very hot in there during Julys & Augusts.
    Or maybe possible boarding removed from side/upper windows because they wanted it to be cold inside during winters to discourage squatters from going into it?
    I’ve no idea if either of those are less or more likely than your guess of them wanting it to worsen faster in hopes of more sooner reducing criticism about the demo decision from activists (or from their own congregation if an members oppose demo, etc).
    But clearly if they were hoping faster deterioration from open windows would end up discouraging criticism in blogs, that didn’t succeed fully.

  • whatever

    16th>“No more Urkle, time for a new leader.”
    What’s a reason for blaming the mayor about this building?
    Demo was agreed to as part of a plea deal with Judge Nowak who was often widely praised by progressive urbanists.
    http://fixbuffalo.blogspot.com/2010/04/spruce-street-church-landfill-or-loft.html
    “In July 2008 they plead guilty to a number of Housing Court Violations involving two concurrent cases (#’s 635/2008 & 1319/2008). Part of the plea deal involves paying for a private demolition of 41 & 43 Spruce Street, the church religious structures they left behind. …”
    http://rising.wpengine.com/2013/03/great-potential-for-residential-church-conversion-is-squandered-by-owners-unwilling-to-sell.html#comment-148461
    “The demolition order for 41 Spruce was signed by Judge Nowak w/o Preservation Board review. This effectively ended the church’s Housing Court case.”
    So it wasn’t as though there wasn’t any enforcement from city inspectors or prosecution in City Court. There was. Then during court action, demo was chosen as a way to end the building code violations instead of rehab or selling to someone willing to rehab (if such a person even exists).
    A different mayor could be very good for many other reasons, but what effect would that have had on this building?

  • warehousedweller

    I AM STILL OFFERING 15 K FOR IT AND THE LOTR !!!

  • LouisTully

    Why are you such a sloth? Before you said you’d pay $20k cash; now 15k? What happened?
    Mike Puma offered to help and even posted his email: mike.j.puma@gmail.com
    Do you need to take medicine?