Press Release: Willert Park Courts

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.

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