Religious architecture plays a vital role in urban communities by helping people express religious beliefs, celebrate art and architecture, and come together as a community. But as people and money sprawl out of traditional neighborhoods and attitudes towards religion shift, these community landmarks are increasingly vulnerable to deterioration and loss. In the City of Buffalo alone, over the last two years, no less than three National Register Eligible churches have been demolished.
There are many reasons why we are ultimately faced with the demolition of so many religious buildings. It’s common for buildings, when sold by the religious institution, to place restrictive covenants in the deed. This can make the buildings difficult to re-use, and so buildings may be left to languish for want of a new owner. Municipalities must hold owners accountable for keeping their property up to code and not allow the cycles of demolition by neglect to continue. Code enforcement should be using the full potential of the law to either get owners to fix the property, fix it themselves and then place the bill as a lien on the property, or work to get the property transferred to someone who can and wants to bring the property back to its full potential.
Another key aspect of why religious buildings often sit vacant for many years is because of limitations in the use of Historic Tax Credits (HTC). While HTCs are a key driver of Western New York’s current renaissance turning around countless vacant properties, they aren’t as encouraging to the rehab and reuse of religious buildings. HTC are guided by the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards, which can be tricky to apply to places of worship, with their wide-open spaces, high ceilings, and other character defining features. There are, however examples across the state and country of sacred sites that were able to alter or modify the open space and still use HTC, but it takes a lot of planning and negotiating with SHPO and the National Parks Service.
So, what can be done? Here’s some ways that PBN is moving forward to stop the loss of religious architecture and encourage the revitalization of these historic structures.
Over the years there have been many different lists and inventories completed but today we find those lists out of date or they only included sites which were threatened with demolition at that moment. Starting this spring, PBN will be surveying our communities sacred spaces. Focusing on structures originally built as places of worship we will inventory their current use, condition, ownership status, and current landmarking status.
With a current inventory, we can more effectively work with religious institutions, private owners, and municipalities to address issues before they become a problem. It’s easier to find a productive future for an underused building than a longtime vacant building with a pending demolition order.
Every year there are more examples of innovative rehabilitations which are able to marry preservation best standards and a property owner or developer’s project needs. These projects are not just happening here in New York, but across the country. PBN will be exploring and highlighting these projects so we can expand conversation from why we should preserve to how we can preserve. And then working to engage our design community to help show current and prospective owners the potential to be had with our religious architecture.
We can use a few good interns and volunteers to help us survey building and research case studies. If you’re interested in helping or have any questions, contact PBN’s Director of Preservation Services, Christiana Limniatis.