Traditional Building Portfolio




Righteous Reuse

Project: Church Turned Arts Center, Buffalo, NY

Architects: Flynn Battaglia Architects, Buffalo, NY; Peter Flynn, Principal; Michael Lennon, Project Architects; With Architectural Resources, Buffalo, NY; Kevin Murrett, Principal

By Eve M. Kahn

When congregations leave a church behind, and no other religious group steps in, the buildings don't necessarily submit easily to reuse plans. Quirky footprints, delicate art glass, woodwork and stenciling to protect – not every adapter is willing to cope with such obstacles while wangling for preservation tax credits. But major obsolete churches nationwide have nonetheless been fortunate during the past decade. Thrifty, resourceful owners have converted the buildings gently for secular purposes, garnering rave reviews from the public and architectural cognoscenti alike.

Partners for Sacred Places, a Philadelphia-based stewardship-support and advocacy group, tracks such conversions on its website ( Examples abound from Maine to California of churches recently turned into apartments, schools, offices or museums. The buildings' sanctuaries – originally intended to accommodate audiences – metamorphose particularly well into performance spaces.

Perhaps the country's highest-profile church-to-concert-hall transformation belongs to Ani DiFranco, an indie-darling singer/songwriter known for her honey voice and moody, enigmatic lyrics about politics gone awry or relationships soured. Thanks to her commitment to preservation, an 1870s Methodist church in Buffalo, NY, has gone from condemned wreck to oft-booked combination of auditorium, nonprofit art gallery, cinema and offices for DiFranco's label, Righteous Babe Records.

The Medina sandstone building, on a major cross-Buffalo avenue, is one of the city's tallest buildings outside the downtown high rises. Designed by Buffalo architect John H. Selkirk (1808-1878), it was originally named Delaware Avenue Methodist Church. Its buttressed, dormered and louvered steeples reach up to 185 ft. tall. For the interior, the congregation commissioned riotous details: cast-iron columns with leafy gilt capitals, plaster chandeliers ribbed like rose windows, rosewood-inlaid oak and mahogany pews, quatrefoil-ornamented mahogany wainscoting and balcony fronts. Only the pointed-arch windows kept the effect from going over the Gothic top: panes are mostly painted with flowers, palmettes, scrollwork and grapes, rather than biblical tableaus. The windows, says Scot Fisher, DiFranco's manager, "have helped the place really lend itself for secular use."

He and DiFranco grew up in Buffalo, recognizing and admiring its historic architecture. He was a carpenter/contractor before attending law school, and his wife Jessie is an urban planner. DiFranco's mother is an architect and preservationist, her father was a structural engineer, and Ani has been restoring her own 1910s brick house in Buffalo. In the mid-1990s, Fisher and DiFranco were shocked to hear that the city planned to raze the Methodist church, due to some chunks of falling sandstone.

A series of under-funded Pro-testant congregations had been struggling to maintain the build-ing for a decade. The city had foreclosed on the property, and when stones rained down in 1995, Dela-ware Avenue was blocked off for months while the steeples were stabilized. Righteous Babe had been planning to set up a new headquarters in New Orleans, but instead Fisher and DiFranco decided to invest in a hometown landmark. After years of maneuvering through red tape, the company bought the building from the city and has spent some $10 million (partly funded by government grants) shoring it up and reworking the interior for public enjoyment.

The church, Fisher says, "was inches away from being a parking lot, and a year away from catastrophic failure." Flynn Battaglia Architects, a Buffalo firm, brought in internationally renowned specialists for conditions studies: Vertical Access of Ithaca, NY, and Robert Silman Associates of New York City. Michael Lennon, Flynn Battaglia's project architect, says he was surprised to learn that Selkirk's craftspeople had cut corners.

"The masons didn't put in full bedding for stonework in the north steeple, and then they pointed over the shoddy work," Lennon reports. "We theorize that since Selkirk was at the tail end of his career, he wasn't very good at climbing scaffolding anymore to inspect the work. We also found that the buttresses were just applied on, and not toothed in. It all looked and worked great for a few years, and then the congregation had to start putting in cast-iron reinforcement rods and moving around and re-reinforcing the rods every 20 years or so."

One tower had sagged nine inches out of plumb. Buttresses were collapsing or separating from the building. The main roof, clad in Pennsylvania soft-vein slate or 1950s asphalt, was failing. The interior showed obvious water damage, and upon closer examination revealed worse problems.

"Selkirk had made up some strange truss designs," Lennon says. "The chords didn't hit the panel points. They were very weak. They were supporting themselves and snow load and not much else. And the builders had used 2x4s for tracery on the largest window, 20x40 ft., over the choir. Within months of construction, that tracery was bowing. When we took the plywood off the window, we found the upper 12 ft. hanging from the masonry, and the rest gone." In addition to suffering from Selkirk's misjudgments, the building had been attacked by chainsaw-wielding architectural salvagers (the last congregation to own the place had allowed in the scavengers). Pew seats and backs had been ripped off the sanctuary floor and horseshoe balcony.

For emergency stabilization, Flynn Battaglia temporarily stapled the buttresses to the building. One tower was dismantled to the roofline and rebuilt, and both were re-pointed and strengthened with epoxy-embedded, threaded-steel rods. In one copper-louvered spire, a 3,000-lb. brass bell was hoisted up 30 ft. to make room for steel X-bracing as well as an air handler. No noisy mechanicals mar the church grounds, thanks to 39 geothermal wells sunk 300 ft. below pavement. The basement floor was lowered two feet to accommodate mechanicals as well as offices, an 84-seat theater, and ADA-compliant ramps, dressing rooms and bathrooms. Selkirk had engineered brick foundation columns and mortise-and-tenon beams to support 60 psf live-load capacity – "the Methodists weren't a revivalist congregation that would have been stomping around much," Lennon points out. The design team boosted capacity for concertgoers to 110 psf, partly by inserting 8x8-in. timber columns that Fisher had pulled from the ruins of an 1880s factory being demolished nearby.

Fisher helped turn the whole basement, in fact, into an intriguing collage of historic fabric and imported antiques. A non-working original boiler and central-vacuum cleaner have been lovingly preserved. In a bar/lounge area, Fisher assembled a masonry wall out of bricks and carved stones salvaged from the church grounds or another Selkirk building (an 1859 ashlar gasworks he designed in downtown Buffalo is being incorporated into offices for Blue Cross/Blue Shield).

Visiting performers, Fisher reports, have enthused over the backstage facilities, so different from most venues' sterile subterranean rooms. Righteous Babe was also careful to keep the sanctuary from looking too composed, perfect or museum-like. Lennon notes, "Ani's attitude was, 'This building has had great times and terrible times, and its story, its experiences, should be visible.'"

DiFranco had the walls painted in the boldest colors found in Selkirk's palette: yellows, oranges, greens. To supplement creamy overhead light from the 1870s chandeliers, surviving gaslights have been electrified and recessed ceiling cans and under-balcony fixtures were added. The patched floors were not stained a uniform color; light scars in the red oak mark where the original pews stood. (Only the balcony has been filled with pews again; Righteous Babe bought some fleur-de-lis-carved rows from an Episcopal church undergoing renovations nearby.) Missing windowpanes have been replicated, and steel-reinforced Spanish cedar has replaced the 2x4 tracery. The re-plastered walls and re-varnished mahogany woodwork still bubble and bulge a little here and there.

In a former chapel behind the sanctuary, Buffalo-based Architect-ural Resources designed Righteous Babe's offices, complete with a preserved rim of a stage and footlights. The office is accessed via a rear stair tower, which has a pointed-arch roof to honor Gothic Revival and some exposed I-beams in homage Buffalo's industrial heritage and railroad bridges. Architectural Resources also designed ground-floor galleries for Hallwalls Contemporary Arts Cen-ter, a 30-year-old Buffalo nonprofit. Oak pocket doors and quatrefoil-pattern wainscoting provide backdrops for art mounted on sliding or pivoting walls.

The multi-use building, now re-christened The Church, can hold 1,000 concertgoers, and it also functions well for art openings or cocktail or dinner parties. (The loss of the pews had a silver lining – the floor is open to any chair and table configuration.)

"The phone is ringing off the hook with people wanting to perform or host events here," says DiFranco, who rehearsed at The Church for her 2006 tour. "It's a beautiful room. It looks how we always dreamt it would. We just have to adjust the acoustics, because if you're amplified, it's a bit reverberant." (Award-winning New York firm SIA Acoustics has been brought in to advise Righteous Babe on reverb control.) Lennon adds, "Ani pulled this off in the same spirit of rugged individualism that's made her run her own record company instead of signing with a major label. The building has become a community space, it's filling needs we didn't know existed. It's turned into so much more than a concert hall. It's surprised us all." TB

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