Buffalo renews push to demolish Willert Park Courts

Author

Michele Racioppi

Affiliation

Docomomo US staff

Tags

Threatened, New York
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Background

Willert Park Courts is significant culturally, historically, socially and architecturally as the first housing complex for African Americans in Buffalo and as an early International Style design. Funded by the Federal Housing authority, the complex was designed by local architect Frederick C. Backus and completed in 1939, with more units added in 1942 and 1944.

From a 2017 Docomomo US/New York Tri-State news article: 

"The complex’s design and layout was novel for the period: spare, low-rise brick structures arranged around a central courtyard and cushioned with ample green space. Through the Federal Arts Program, artists Robert Cronbach and Harold Ambellan created bas relief concrete panels on the theme of working class life for the entrances of each building. Willert Park Courts was among eight Buffalo buildings included in MoMA’s 1940 Guide to Modern Architecture of the Northeast States. The project manager of the development was Alfred D. Price, the only black senior district manager in the Buffalo Housing Authority. Price oversaw the neighborhood from its initial construction to his death in 1968. The following year Willert Park was renamed the Alfred D. Price Courts in his honor."

The project is a testament to racist housing policies of the time and the fight against against them. For years the Buffalo Urban League fought to allow Black residents to live in BMHA constructed housing, but they were continuously shut out. Finally, BMHA conceded by constructing the racially segregated Willert Park Courts, which still amounted to many fewer units than had been built for whites. 

 

Current Threat

The Buffalo Municipal Housing Authority has neglected the property, has been pushing for demolition for many years, and continues to block the National Register listing. In 2006 and 2009, portions of the complex were demolished to make way for new housing units, and all of the remaining units were vacated. The project is a joint effort of BMHA, Bridges and Norstar Development (the same company responsible for the demolition of Paul Rudolph's Shoreline Apartments).

Preservation Buffalo Niagara (PBN) and Michigan Street Restoration Corporation have been fighting to save the remaining section, which contains ten of the original buildings that have been deemed eligible for listing on the National Register of Historic Places, for many years. In 2019, Willert Park Courts was named one of the 11 Most Endangered Historic Places by the National Trust for Historic Preservation. According to local news outlet Buffalo Rising, "plans for demolition had been temporarily halted due to renewed objections by the Michigan Street Restoration Corporation and Preservation Buffalo Niagara," but BMHA has recently renewed its push for demolition for the last portion of the site. 

As part of the Section 106 process, both PBN and Michigan Street Restoration Corporation were invited to comment on the "Alternative Analysis Supplemental Update Materials." Both organizations issued letters in opposition to Alternative 3, which "destroys all of the buildings except for the Administration Building and saves the bas relief sculptures devoid of their building contexts." At a press conference on Thursday, University at Buffalo Urban and Regional Planning Professor Henry Louis Taylor said the city picks and chooses which historical buildings it allocates money to for preservation. “The failure of the Buffalo Municipal Housing Authority to work with the preservation society in the restoration of Willert Park is an example of systemic and structural racism,” he said. “And if you want to know what systemic, structural racism is, you take a look at this, and you drive across town to the Darwin Martin House, and you will see that.”

PBN has proposed that they be allowed to tak over as the developer and given 24 months to find funding.