Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Proactive Preservation: What to do about St. Ann's Church

The dried American Falls, in 1969.
Courtesy of TheDailyMail
Written by Derek King, Architectural Historian at Preservation Studios.

In the last two hundred years, Niagara Falls has stopped flowing only twice. Once, as the Lake Erie ice sheet broke apart in March of 1848, a fleet of small icebergs floated into the head of the Niagara, damming the great river for an entire day. The only other time in known history that one of the falls ran dry, was the summer of 1969, when the Army Corps of Engineers diverted the Niagara River in order to perform a structural report on the American Falls. 

Today, Buffalo's preservation community is faced with a daunting challenge: the Catholic Diocese is considering demolishing St. Ann's church, an iconic structure within a mile radius of Downtown, the Larkin Buildings, the Central Terminal, and MLK Park. The church was closed last May after "life threatening structural issues" were reported along the main facade, at an estimated cost of $7 million to repair.

The parishioners are currently organizing to protest the decision, holding a meeting tonight at 7 PM in the hall at SS. Columba Brigid Church. to build momentum toward saving the building. It is not the first Buffalo group to fight for their place of worship: in 2007, Bishop Kmiec closed St. Adalbert's, prompting the parishioners to appeal directly to the Pope. Though the closing was upheld by the Vatican Court, the parishioners delayed St. Adalbert's closing until 2011, when the church, America's first Basilica, was finally closed.

In light of the recent demolitions of the North Baptist Church on Colvin, as well as the loss of the iconic Bethlehem Steel Administration building in Lackawanna, preservation groups in Buffalo are ready to dig their heels into the dirt to fight the loss of another iconic Buffalo structure.

St. Ann's Church, facing Broadway
Courtesy of Views of Buffalo
As preservationists dig in, however, they should remember the two stories above about the Niagara River when strategizing their next move. Like the powerful tributary that divides this nation from our Canadian neighbors, the Buffalo Diocese cannot be forced into doing something it is unwilling to do, but with the right tools, it can hopefully be convinced some route other than demolition is possible.

Today, more than any other time in Buffalo, people are finally understanding the benefits of preservation. Unique destinations like Larkin Square, and the region's numerous Frank Lloyd Wright buildings have drawn people back into the city, and will soon be joined by a renovated Richardson Complex, and restored Central Terminal down the road. The economic benefits of preservation are numerous, and have been repeated ad nauseum on this blog and in many other places. The cost of demolition will never be compensated through a future sale of the property, as the city is already full of vacant land "ready for development."

Preservationists should focus on those issues, but also be willing to be part of the solution. They need to help secure short-term funding for repairs, and if the the Diocese is unwilling to complete them, help find developers the Church may be willing to sell to. Though the Colvin Church was demolished because of structural damage due to a fire, a large part of why it remained vacant for so long was because of limited reuse options, a fault not of the building, but of restrictive National Park Service guidelines regarding sanctuary spaces. 

For St. Ann's, that issue could be circumvented: the parish school buildings at the rear of the Church are ideal for apartments, and equity gained through a variety of tax credits could more than subsidize the $7 million price tag for repairs on the church itself. Examples of sympathetic rehabilitations of churches include Buffalo's own Babeville, which converted the Asbury Church on Delaware into a performance hall and art space, keeping it a community venue. In Rochester, Providence Housing's Holy Rosary Church Complex features converted rectory and school buildings for housing, maintaining the sanctuary space for community organizations servicing the neighborhood.

One of the last services at St. Ann's, in May of 2012
Courtesy of Views of Buffalo
Obviously the ideal situation would be for the church to remain exactly that: a church. Unfortunately, the shrinking congregation cannot support the repairs on their own, despite the best efforts of the parishioners. In order to protect the long-term health of this building, the sale and adaptive reuse of the church and school must be considered as a temporary (at least, temporary in terms of a hundred-and-thirty year old structure) change in order to preserve and protect this place for a day when it can be returned to its original purpose: a place of worship.

Back in 1969, the Army Corp of Engineers knew they could not complete their structural report with the torrents of water rushing past them. Knowing that there was little chance the Niagara would naturally stop flowing, as it had only once during a perfect combination of events in 1848, the Army Corp followed the esteemed logic of "you can't fight the current." That summer, they did not attempt to stop the torrential river, but diverted it over the Canadian Horseshoe Falls, allowing it to continue flowing toward Lake Ontario, and allowing themselves ample time to make their report.

Those fighting to preserve St. Ann's should take this example to heart as they dig in to prevent the unnecessary demolition of another Buffalo building that contains deep connections to the community. There is no point in hoping for a sudden-reversal of the plans, the spontaneous drying up, if you will, of the Diocese's commitment to demolish and even if they were to change, it could be just as fleeting as the day residents of Niagara Falls woke up to foreboding silence 165 years ago.

There are options out there to save this building, some ideal, and some less so, but they will require planning and commitment, as well as an ability to compromise, in order to divert this decision in a way that benefits the Diocese, the parishioners, the building itself, and the City of Buffalo. As daunting of a task as it is, take heart: in the thousands of years the Niagara River roared along it's path to Lake Ontario, it stopped only once on it's own that we know of. In one summer, the Army Corp of Engineers achieved for months what the universe could only achieve for a day.

In order to save St. Ann's Church, all interested parties must work together to find some compromise that allows the Diocese to operate without a burdensome cost on itself or its congregation, and allows the city and, more importantly, the parishioners to count on this iconic structure continually adding to the spiritual and social fabric of their lives. With the right amount of cooperation and ingenuity, St. Ann's can be saved for longer than a day, or a year, or even a decade.

If all interested parties summoned even a fraction of the willpower it took to divert one of the most fearsome natural wonders of the world for half of 1969, the people of Buffalo can divert this demolition, saving St. Ann's for at least a lifetime, though likely much much longer.

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