When I first viewed Willert Park Courts while attending a press conference earlier today, my first thought was, “Am I looking at the right building?” But as I listened to members of the black community speak about the Buffalo Municipal Housing Authority’s (BMHA) abandoned Willert Park complex, designed by architect Frederick C. Backus, I began to understand that the concern over preserving the buildings was a lot more than the buildings themselves, it was the history of Willert Park that was actually in jeopardy of being erased.
The more members of the community talked about the site, the more I began to understand the importance of rescuing the structures. You see, Willert Park was once a thriving community – at the time, it was home to a community of close-knit middle class black families who lived in the 170 units. During the summer months, there was a garden competition, and people came from all over the East Side to view the gardens, the public art, and visit with the families in the complex’s central courtyard.
But over the years, due to widespread East Side disinvestment, the last of the families moved out of Willert Park Courts, which has left the complex vacant for the last decade. During its heyday, the social housing project, specifically built for the black community under under the President Roosevelt administration, had become a hub of social activity, partially because it was one of the first garden/courtyard housing projects in the nation, and partially because it was unique in that it was the benefactor of an unprecedented sculpture program.
Walking along the courtyard, as I did after the press conference, I could almost hear the voices of children as they laughed and played, and adults as they cooked out and socializing on warm summer evenings. Fixed up, this now-derelict looking brick complex could be a real attraction for families once again, especially with the courtyard component and the handsome sculptures that grace the entranceways of each unit. As for the sculptures themselves, the themes were actually decided upon by the first residents of the complex, as a point of pride. The bas-relief sculptures, depicting scenes of African American life and achievement, have also been recognized by the Museum of Modern Art.
“To lose these buildings would continue the destruction of Modern Architecture in Buffalo and obstruct our ability to tell our story as a community – a story that we are still in the midst of understanding” said Jessie Fisher, Executive Director of Preservation Buffalo Niagara. “As Buffalo begins to stabilize, as population is added, especially to our downtown and adjacent East Side neighborhoods, how will we understand and honor those who have come before and created community? How will we understand and recognize our complicated past, while working together to create a shared vision for our future? Sites like this force us to think deeply about what stories we are telling about our City, and how we ensure that the New Buffalo has space for everyone.”
When we look at the vinyl cooking cutter housing that is being built all over the East Side, it’s easy to see how a complex such as Willert Park could be a valuable residential asset moving forward. Instead of spending millions of dollars to demolish the complex, and building more ho-hum vinyl townhouses, there is a chance to do the right thing and preserve and invest in these structures. Not only would it probably end up saving a lot of money, it would also be the environmentally responsible thing to do.
Interestingly enough, the National Trust for Historic Preservation and Preservation Buffalo Niagara have now come together to announce that Willert Park Courts has been named one of the United States’ 11 Most Endangered Historic Places* by the National Trust for Historic Preservation. So, if you’re thinking that there are only a few preservation nuts running around trying to save everything, that’s not the case here. And once again, it’s not just about the buildings, which appear to be in decent shape (they were overbuilt by the Federal government), it’s about the history of the people who lived here. They are the ones that are fighting to preserve Willert Park.
“The thoughtful Modern architecture of Buffalo’s Willert Park Courts are testament to an earlier era of government-funded affordable housing,” said Katherine Malone-France, Interim Chief Preservation Officer at the National Trust for Historic Preservation. “Previously recognized by design experts at the Museum of Modern Art, Willert Park Courts were public housing that provided a sense of dignity and pride-of-place to its residents. By naming this site to the 11 Most Endangered Historic Places list, we hope to raise awareness of a key part of the African American community’s history in Buffalo and also spur interest in redeveloping Willert Park as much needed-affordable housing.”
Currently, PBN is on a mission to speak out for the architecturally and culturally significant complex. At the same time, PBN is giving a voice to the black community that wants to see Willert Park brought back to life. PBN says that it hopes that the BMHA will “re-visit their previous demolition plans and work to find a way to preserve this important piece of Buffalo’s past, bringing it back to life as a place that will once again nurture today’s families and tomorrow’s leaders.”
*Each year, the list of America’s 11 Most Endangered Historic Places sheds light on important examples of our nation’s heritage that are at risk of destruction or irreparable damage. Over 300 places have been listed in its 32-year history, and in that time, fewer than 5 percent of listed sites have been lost.
Lend your voice towards the support of the preservation and reuse of Willert Park Courts – click here to add your name. The complex is located at 375 Spring Street in Buffalo.