By Frits Abell:
I recently had an interesting, downright serendipitous meeting while on a trip to Florida (I am indeed one of those staunch believers in the “there are no coincidences” phenomenon.)
I had just completed my first article for BRO, Architectural Preservation in Buffalo: An “Outsider’s” Perspective, (see here) when I met a friend of a friend at a dinner party who was until recently a pastor at a church in Atlanta.
“Interesting” I replied to the introduction. “I happen to have a bone to pick with one of your fellow Atlantan congregations, which is attempting to “preserve” one of my hometown’s storied and historic churches, St. Gerard’s, by relocating it to Atlanta (lead photo: fixBuffalo). Unfortunately, however, they have already proven that this is an ineffective approach in that they broke one of St. Gerard’s statues (of a building they do not yet own, I might add) while in transport.”
The pastor was patient with, and receptive to, my rant. He could tell I was damn angry and utterly passionate about the topic.
After a few minutes, he revealed that he has had a long personal history of fighting for the preservation and reuse of shuttered church properties. So, he felt my pain.
He offered that he thought this is an unfortunate outcome for St. Gerard’s on many levels. For one, he is adamantly critical of removing a church from a distressed neighborhood, such as in the case of St. Gerard’s Kensington and Bailey, as it “further drives a nail in the coffin of an already difficult situation,” as he succinctly put it. “Without this building, there is no hope. Instead, they should develop the building into something that could be regenerative for the community-a community center or a charter school, for instance.”
His disapproval also comes from the fact that, stylistically, the building simply would not fit in with a suburban surrounding. As a self-confessed aesthete, therefore, this was not sitting well with him. I agreed and said “Renaissance Revival and strip malls tend not to go hand in hand.”
Finally, and he started to demonstrate some passion about the topic himself, he felt it set a precedent. “Will Buffalo be viewed as a “city for sale”?” he asked directly. I told him that I think that was already a fait accompli, people had been looting our architecture for years; I cited other examples including the Central Terminal (more of a self-looting) and another East Side church, St. Matthew’s (photo below: fixBuffalo), that was purportedly, and coincidentally, pillaged by an Atlantan congregation.
The pastor then shifted in his seat, seemingly interested to strike a new tone in our conversation. “I understand there may not be a concrete use today, but why not safeguard St. Gerard’s for a couple of years until a use can be determined?” he questioned outright. I told him that he was singing to the choir, but that I had no good explanation. I said that many in our own community are behind the move, because they see this as a binary decision: either use it today or ship it off so it can be appreciated by someone. I suggested to him that the concept of preservation for future use was starting to get more buy-in in Buffalo, and that I hoped this situation with St. Gerard’s was an anomaly. I explained how Buffalo is flourishing with many successful examples of preservation and adaptive reuse of churches: Delaware Methodist (Ani DiFranco’s Babeville), Plymouth Methodist Church (Karpeles Manuscript Library), St. Mary of Sorrows (King Urban Life Center), etc.
A good five minutes into our conversation, the good pastor confessed to knowing first-hand the aforementioned Atlantan congregation. He had, in fact, read about the situation in several publications..
Interestingly, and to my surprise, he posited that the congregation in Atlanta is increasingly concerned that they will not ultimately succeed in moving the church, due to rising opposition among Buffalo preservationists and citizens and/or the costs associated with the move, so they might just try to strip the building of all of its worth.
I just about choked on my dinner, and immediately fantasized about boarding a plane for Atlanta to directly address said congregation with a band of Atlanta-based Buffalo expats in toe.
The dinner conversation left me rattled, raw and beguiled: is Buffalo’s architecture, in fact, for sale? Will we see more of our assets dismantled in the name of “preservation”?
On one hand, Buffalo’s preservation and reuse movement is reaching critical mass, and appears to be only gaining momentum. A new paradigm in the preservation dialogue is being codified, and is further reinforced with each new project; whether it be the work starting on the H.H. Richardson complex or the West Side Victorians that are being brought back to their original glory, many in Buffalo now recognize how vital these assets are to both our past and our future. Some are even starting to see the huge business potential (ie tourism) behind safely mothballing that assets we have…when there is not an immediate use. .
Unfortunately, maybe St. Gerard’s and other buildings on Buffalo’s East Side are not in the “core zone” and can still be picked-off by scavengers. Can and should we save everything, no? But should we lose a building modeled after the Sistine Chapel? Is Buffalo really for sale?
As my favorite Atlantan celebrity, NeNe, star of Real Housewives of Atlanta would say: “Hell-to-the-no!”
Buffalo is not for sale.
*Thanks to David Torke for the use of his fixBuffalo images