The Fight to Save Willert Park












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.