Paul Rudolph’s Shoreline Apartments, a 1974 complex of low-income housing which occupies 9.5 acres on the edge of downtown Buffalo, is facing the first of several projected phases of “upgrades” which call for demolition of currently unoccupied Rudolph-designed units and replacement with suburban like townhouses.
Buffalo has some of the best and most groundbreaking architecture in America and indeed in the world. As one of the few cities with masterpieces by Richardson, Sullivan, and Wright, it has long been a destination for students and lovers of architecture. And in recent years, a renaissance of sorts is reviving its landmarks and reactivating the neighborhoods. Grain elevators and daylight factories that influenced LeCorbusier, Erich Mendelsohn and Reyner Banham are finding new life while Richardson and Olmsted’s long vacant Buffalo State Asylum for the Insane becomes a boutique hotel, conference center and architecture center. Wright’s Darwin D. Martin House has been restored and reconstructed and Sullivan’s Guaranty building, often called the first real skyscraper, has been restored for a second time in 25 years. Buildings by Richard Upjohn, Daniel Burnham, and the Saarinens fill in the landscape. But what is less recognized is that Buffalo’s architectural innovation continued through the modern era and these traditional icons can be found across the street from buildings by Yamasaki, Edward Durrell Stone, SOM, I. M. Pei and Paul Rudolph. And like much of the rest of the country, Buffalo’s preservationists are now finding themselves in the midst of battles to save its modern architecture.
Paul Rudolph brought his singular brand of sculptural modernism to Western New York in the early 1970s. In a span of two years, three buildings were built to his designs: the Waterfront School and Community Center (1974-1977) design concept by Rudolph and executed by local architects Hess and Gorey, the Earl W. Brydges Public Library in Niagara Falls (1973-1974) and the Shoreline Apartments in downtown Buffalo (1971-1974). The Waterfront School and Shoreline Apartments face one another across a wide expanse of green which has never been used or landscaped in the way it was intended.
The Buffalo Waterfront Housing, a public housing development later called the Shoreline Apartments, was commissioned in 1969 and completed in 1974. What was ultimately built was considerably reduced in scale and concept from Rudolph’s original scheme, due in large part to financial concerns. His original scheme, composed of monumental, terraced, prefabricated housing structures, provided an ambitious alternative to high-rise dwelling that was meant to recall the complexity and intimacy of old European settlements. (Miller, Nick. “Five Paul Rudolph Buildings Under Threat in Buffalo
,” A/N Blog, November 5, 2013) The ambitious urban renewal project in the shadow of Buffalo’s City Hall originally included a marina which was never built. The Shoreline Apartments that stand today represent a scaled down version of the original plan. Featuring shed roofs, ribbed or corduroy concrete exteriors, projecting balconies and enclosed garden courts, the project combined Rudolph’s spatial radicalism with experiments in human-scaled, low-rise, high-density housing developments. The project’s weaving site plan was meant to create active communal green spaces, but, like those of most if its contemporaries, the spaces went unused and the high crime rate over the years has often been attributed to the design rather than the poor management. (Miller)
Rudolph’s first scheme was featured in the September 1972 edition of Architectural Record. It was also featured in a 1970 Museum of Modern Art exhibition entitled Work in Progress. “With few exceptions, Paul Rudolph’s buildings can be recognized by their complexity, their sculptural details, their effects of scale and their texture,” wrote Arthur Drexler
, the longstanding Director of MoMA’s Architecture and Design Department, in 1970. Drexler exhibited Rudolph’s original, much more dramatic scheme for Buffalo’s Shoreline Apartments alongside pending projects by Philip Johnson and Kevin Roche in the exhibit. The projects on display were compiled to represent a commitment “to the idea that architecture, besides being technology, sociology and moral philosophy, must finally produce works of art.” Drexler wrote in the exhibition brief that, despite the project’s massive scale, it was “designed to suggest human use, affording both inhabitants and passersby a kaleidoscopic variety.” (Miller)
The Shoreline Apartments Today
Norstar Developmenthas owned the site since 2005. Like many of Shoreline’s public housing contemporaries, the inventive, complex forms and admirable social aspirations of the development have been overshadowed by disrepair, crime, and startling vacancy rates (30 percent in 2006 according to Buffalo Rising). (Miller) Originally built with over 400 units on 9.5 acres, a 2007 renovation merged many of the units to a lesser count, with Norstar reportedly spending $19 million on “sprucing up” the complex with new facades, windows and railings. According to a report in Buffalo’s Business First, “The Shoreline Apartments have 426 total units although 89 have been “off line” since 2004 because such issues as needed elevator repairs. Of the remaining 337 apartments, nearly 75 percent — or 270 in hard numbers, are occupied.” For a slide show of current photos of the complex, see Norstar’s rental website. <--Link broken as of May 2015. New link here.
On November 6, 2013 Norstar presented plans to the City of Buffalo’s Planning Board to demolish five of the currently vacant Rudolph buildings on Niagara Street and Carolina Street, replacing them with eight suburban-style affordable residential townhouses with 48 units. Reportedly this is “Phase 1” of their plan with future phases not yet identified, but likely similar. Once five are removed, the rest become even easier to remove. While the Planning Board approved
the draft SEQR plan and approved the plan as presented, all is not yet lost.
Since Norstar is intending (hoping) to finance the work with funding from the New York State Department of Housing and Community Renewal as well as with an annual allocation of low-income housing tax credits, the project is required to be reviewed by the State Historic Preservation Office under Section 106 for any impacts to a potentially eligible historic site.
Since this $2.4 million from the state is considered essential for the proposed $8.8 million project, Norstar has reported that the project will be in jeopardy if the tax credits are not awarded. “The intent is to build replacement housing, but keep it for low-income families for the next 30 years,” Linda Goodman, Norstar’s Executive Director said to Business First. “We still have many steps to go.” The project is viewed as the first of many to upgrade the Shoreline Apartments. “We will move ‘down the street’ as funding becomes available,” Goodman said.
It is easy to blame the buildings and grounds for the vacancy rates and crime in modern public housing developments. But a walk around the site today, shows blocks full of buildings in various states of repair with little thought given or planning to the expansive land on which it sits. The private balconies and garden courts are desirable features in high-end condos all over town and the 9.5 acres of mostly ill-used land would be desirable in any city. A good architect and landscape architect, with the ability to respect Rudolph’s intent while recommending native and sustainable land use approaches, could do wonders with this complex.
It has also not gone unnoticed that another groundbreaking modern public housing complex is also under imminent threat in Buffalo. The Willert Park Courts, now called the A. D. Price Housing, a ten two-and-three story brick multiple dwelling complex designed by Buffalo architect Frederick C. Backus and built in 1939-1940, is owned by the Buffalo Municipal Housing Authority who has announced plans to demolish the entire complex. The design was based on the functional, flat-roofed blocks similar to German public housing projects and is ornamented with a series of cast relief sculptures on the theme of labor and family life. The buildings are vacant with windows wide open, missing doors and deteriorating sculpture which has led local preservationists to prepare both a National Register nomination and a local landmark nomination. See David Torke’s blog and flickr page
for more photos.
It seems ironic that both of these Buffalo public housing projects were singled out by the Museum of Modern Art for their architectural significance. Shoreline was included in the 1970 exhibition, Work in Progress, while Willert Park Courts was included in MoMA’s 1940 guidebook, Guide to Modern Architecture of the Northeast States as one of only eight buildings considered as significant modern architecture in Buffalo.
This author is teaching a graduate seminar at the University at Buffalo’s School of Architecture & Planning entitled “Preserving Modern Architecture” this spring semester. One of the class assignments will be documenting Buffalo’s modern architecture and submitting the research to the Docomomo US registry
. Both of these sites will be included as well as many others. Currently, the only Buffalo site listed in the registry is the long-demolished Frank Lloyd Wright Larkin Administration Building, also one of the eight buildings listed in the MoMA guidebook.