Save Willert Park Courts/AD Price Courts

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Preservation Buffalo Niagara has been working hard with our community partners, including the Michigan Street Preservation Corporation, for nearly a decade to preserve this important part of Buffalo’s past. It has been announced that Willert Park/AD Price Courts will be receiving Docomomo US 2020 Modernism in American Advocacy Award

We are thrilled to share this news, Docomomo’s press release and our press release.

1. Send an email to the BMHA

2. Become a member of PBN to ensure we have the resources necessary to fight this fight!

3. Share photos or memories of Willert Park/A.D. Price Courts – are you a former resident? Contact Tabitha to share your story and make it part of our research and archives.

 

 

 

To read more about
Preservation Buffalo Niagara’s advocacy
for Willert Park/AD Price Courts click here.

Click here to read the letter from the Society of Architectural Historians (SAH)
opposing the proposed demolition of the Willert Park Courts / Alfred D. Price Courts, Buffalo, NY.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

PBN Continues to Oppose Demolition of Willert Park Courts

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Mr. Gillian D. Brown, Esq
Buffalo Municipal Housing Authority
300 Perry Street
Buffalo, NY 14204-2299
Re: Invitation to Comment – Alternative Analysis Supplemental Update Materials

June 22, 2020

Dear Mr. Brown,

I received the Invitation to Comment – Alternative Analysis Supplemental Update Materials on Tuesday, June 16th. Please accept the comments below as our official response to that correspondence.

Thank you for providing the supplementary materials. Preservation Buffalo Niagara continues to oppose Alternative No. 3 as an acceptable solution. As you know, Willert Park has been determined to be eligible for the National Register of Historic Places under Criteria A and C. Alternative 3, which destroys all of the buildings except for the Administration Building and saves the bas relief sculptures devoid of their building contexts completely destroys the historic integrity of this site, and represents a major erasure of history, and has an especially profound and irreversible impact on black history in Buffalo.

Willert Park/A.D. Price Courts is one of the single most historic places in the City of Buffalo. Its existence is critical to understanding the shape of our City, but it is also a critical site in the history of the United States. Perhaps no other site locally is capable of encapsulating the stories of how government sanctioned racism and segregation shaped the current reality of our City and of race relations in the United States. It is a story of one community’s fight for dignity and fairness against a range of forces determined to keep them down. It is a story of self-determination, and of organizing together to build political power. It is the story of what it means to be at home in the place where you live. Layer on top of that a high style design by a recognized architect, beautiful aesthetic embellishments by a famous artist, and a site plan that is specifically representative of its time and you have a space that should be protected and invested in, not destroyed.

Were Willert Park to be saved and invested in, not only could it serve its intended purpose as housing for those in need, but it could also be another important part of Buffalo’s cultural renaissance. A cultural renaissance that could finally be expanded to include more parts of our community: as architecturally important as the Darwin Martin House, but with a much more profound story to tell, connected not just to design or to a person of local importance, but connected to larger truths about our national identity and the lives of many people of local and national significance.

Criterion A

PBN wholly rejects the BMHA’s consultant’s argument that Alternative No. 3 is in any way consistent with Criterion A. By destroying every single building at the site except for one, the site would no longer be significant and would lack any and all integrity as defined by both the National Register of Historic Places (NR) criteria and the Secretary of the Interior’s (SOI) Standards. Trying to argue that the new units to be built would also be affordable and so would be consistent with Criteria A would be like tearing down Buffalo City Hall and building a new municipal building and trying to argue that the new building contributed to historic significance because it had a similar function as the old building. National Register criteria cannot be applied to non-existent or demolished or new buildings. It is only in relation to evaluating historic (existing) buildings (unless you’re reviewing archaeological sites). These arguments indicate a complete lack of understanding on the appropriate application of both the National Register of Historic Places (NR) criteria and the Secretary of the Interior’s standards. The only Alternative that meets Criterion A is Alternative No. 1.

Criterion C

Alternative 3 is wholly insufficient as a preservation alternative under Criterion C, and Alternative 1 is the best Alternative to preserve the site’s integrity under the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards. While we understand the argument that the BMHA’s consultant is making when they say that changes to some of the interior layouts or changes proposed under Alternative 1 may be problematic from the SOI’s standpoint, we strongly disagree. Nowhere in the National Register Nomination are interior finishes or room layouts identified as significant components of the design. We understand that the BMHA’s consultant has not been able to design solutions that would both preserve the integrity of the site and also result in safe, livable homes for residents. Preservation Buffalo Niagara has worked with other architectural consultants who have been able to create designs which are able to accommodate both HCR standards as well as SOI standards. If the BMHA were to work with PBN to grant us designated developer status, we are confident that we can produce designs that are able to honor both the historic nature of the site, as well as the lives of the people who will live there in the future.

Section 106 Process

PBN would like to request additional information about the Section 106 process. Who is the lead Federal agency on this Section 106 Review? Please also supply a list of other recognized Consulting Parties, and the process used for soliciting those parties. Please supply information about any public or community meetings undertaken as part of the Section 106 process, and any plans for future public meetings. Finally, please supply us with a timeline for the Section 106 process, including any formal public comment periods and the process that will be used for collecting public comment.

We understand that the Buffalo Municipal Housing Agency does not prioritize historic preservation and placemaking in its work, but is focused on housing provision and in this instance, is focused on providing large multi-bedroom units. PBN would certainly not presume to know more than the BMHA about its need for these larger units. However, PBN does reject the BMHA’s assertion that the only answer to filling this community-wide need is the continued erasure of black history in Buffalo. Within a one mile radius of Willert Park are over 2,500 vacant lots, totaling nearly 300 acres of vacant land. Additionally, the BMHA has current site control of Perry Projects and its nearly 1,000 vacant units. There are many alternatives for providing new larger housing. Demolishing an important historic site is not the only way for the BMHA to meet its goals.

With this alternatives analysis, the BMHA continues to offer us a false choice: provide large five bedroom homes for people who need them, or save one of the most historic sites in the City of Buffalo. PBN rejects this false choice. We know from decades of scholarly research that living in places with strong connections to history and culture are an important part of people’s mental and physical well being. We know that building an anti-racist society means investing in the places important to telling a full and complete story of our entire community. We know that Buffalo’s future is tied up in investing in the places that make us special, not in more disposable architecture that further differentiates between the parts of Buffalo that have been able to save their history and culture and the parts of Buffalo that have been systematically denied that opportunity.

Again, thank you for the opportunity to submit these comments. We would be more than happy to sit down with you at any time to discuss these matters further.

Sincerely,

Jessie Fisher

Executive Director

Press Release: Willert Park Courts

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Willert Park announced as One of the
11 Most Endangered Historic Places in the United States.

Buffalo, N.Y., May 30, 2019

The National Trust for Historic Preservation and Preservation Buffalo Niagara are coming 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.

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.

Architect Frederick C. Backus created one of the first garden/courtyard housing projects in the nation and the only project in Buffalo to have a significant sculptural program.  An outstanding example of early Modern design recognized by the Museum of Modern Art, Buffalo’s Willert Park Courts were groundbreaking achievements in architecture, urban planning, and landscape architecture. The distinctive bas-relief sculptures depicting scenes of African American life and achievement were purportedly developed in cooperation with the first residents of the complex.

Perhaps even more important than the architectural significance is the cultural heritage represented at this site.  When social housing was first introduced to the United States under President Roosevelt, it was used as a tool to create and reinforce racially homogenous communities.  Locally, Willert Park Courts was designed and sited as a black-only housing project of 170 units, in contrast to the Commodore Perry and Lakeview projects, which were reserved entirely for white families and contained 1700 units between them.  The Buffalo Urban League and other prominent black Buffalonians were deeply involved in their creation, and they served as an incubator of Buffalo’s black middle class, nurturing a generation of our City’s most prominent citizens.

The site has been vacant and neglected for approximately 10 years.  The complex’s owner, the Buffalo Municipal Housing Authority (BMHA), has previously announced plans to demolish the historic complex.  A 1942 addition on the site has already been demolished and replaced with townhomes.

“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.”

Professor Alfred Price (left), former resident of Willert Park Courts and PBN Executive Director Jessie Fisher (right) discuss development and the chance of possibility for Willert Park Courts.

“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.”

Preservation Buffalo Niagara will continue to work with community partners to protect what is now nationally recognized as an endangered historic site, in hopes that the Buffalo Municipal Housing Authority 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.

For more information, please contact Tia Brown at 852-3300 or tbrown@pbnsaves.org.

The Fight to Save Willert Park

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Preservation Buffalo Niagara has been working hard with our community partners, including the Michigan Street Preservation Corporation, for nearly a decade to preserve this important part of Buffalo’s past. Located on Spring Street, just off William Street in the Ellicott District of Buffalo, the Buffalo Municipal Housing Authority would like to tear down this complex and allow a private, Canadian-based developer to replace it with a new subsidized housing project.
These buildings, completed in 1939 and designed by Frederick Backus, have been determined to be Eligible for the National Register of Historic Places by the State Historic Preservation Office for their significance in the categories of architecture, art, community planning and development, ethnic heritage, and landscape architecture. This project was one of the first built under the United State Housing Agency, created by Franklin D. Roosevelt as part of the New Deal. It was specifically planned for African American residents, and was heavily advocated for by the Buffalo Urban League at the time.
In addition to the architectural and social significance of the complex, these buildings are also notable for the ornamental series of cast relief sculptures based on the themes of labor and family life. Designed and crafted by Robert Crombach and Herbert Ambellan, these sculptures garnered national attention, when the Museum of Modern Art singled out Willert Park as one of eight significant Modern architecture buildings in Buffalo, putting this development in the company of the Darwin Martin House, the Guaranty Building, and Kleinhan’s Musical Hall.
Despite their architectural and artistic pedigree, these buildings are not without their controversy. They contribute to the narrative of housing and social segregation in the City of Buffalo. In so doing, they also contribute significantly to our understanding of how our City has developed, and how we are continuing to think about housing, neighborhood, and community. To lose these buildings would not only continue the destruction of Modern Architecture in Buffalo, it would also hamper our ability to tell our story as a community – a story that we are still in the midst of understanding. 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 lived and created community here?
To delve deeper into these issues as well as to bring attention to these imperiled buildings, PBN hosted a panel discussion on May 25th with Professor Henry Taylor, Professor Francis Kowsky, and George K. Arthur, Buffalo political legend and former President of the Common Council, who grew up in the complex. The meeting was well attended by Buffalo preservationists, community activists, and former residents of Willert Park, who shared their love of living in this location, and their thoughts on why it should be preserved.
PBN will continue to work with our community partners to ensure that this important place is preserved for future generations.