Developing: Lafayette Lofts
At the upper level of the original church, there are two unique apartments that feature original wood trusses that had been hidden for years, the stairway to the choir loft, and windows that had been bricked-up, and are now opened and replaced.
It’s the story of many of Buffalo’s churches: declining membership, shrinking attendance, and changes in demographics create a crisis. Many congregations cannot sustain large buildings dedicated solely to serving their flocks. These gorgeous edifices may have spectacular architectural features, but buildings that cannot be maintained are eventually perceived as money pits.
Some houses of worship deal with their dwindling populations by making various concessions or merging with other congregations. Others give up on potluck dinners and bingo, close their doors, and abandon buildings they can no longer support. With their soaring steeples and stained glass, churches may be among the most cherished elements of the American streetscape, but they are also among the most endangered. They possess integrity of materials and craftsmanship that cannot be duplicated, but, for that very reason, churches are the most challenging buildings to repurpose. They can be obsolete in mechanicals, redundant in number, and have difficult-to-reuse interior spaces. So it’s heartening to see a success story like the Lafayette Avenue Presbyterian Church at Elmwood and Lafayette and St James Place. In this church, we find real salvation coupled with a realistic approach, a landmark building, and an effective use of tax credits.
“As opposed to being in the church business,” explains project co-chair Mark Kostrzewski, “we were managing real estate and trying to pay bills. We don’t have Ellsworth Statler and his friends to underwrite upkeep anymore, so there are different ways to be stewards for the church.” The congregation clearly recognized that it didn’t need a 1,400-seat sanctuary to seat one hundred members. In looking to repurpose some of the church space, a study determined that the best use for the property would be market-rate apartments.
This might be a hard formula for the average congregation to follow. It can work if your building is in a prime residential neighborhood. It works better if you’ve got parking in a demand location. But it will work best if your building has a substantial secondary structure on site. This project was blessed with all three.
The main sanctuary building is a handsome 1896 Romanesque Revival structure with an imposing square bell tower, built of Medina sandstone with a red terra cotta roof. In 1920, construction began on a separate building dedicated to the nine members of the congregation who had been killed in World War l. This brick Tudor Revival community house is a three-story structure; above the entry, a dedication reads, “They Have Not Died in Vain.” The building has been used for office space, educational space, meeting rooms, library, bowling alleys, and gymnasium.
The luxury of enormous square footage combined with a two-building complex allows for a vibrant solution. The worship area is still in its original physical space, but has been reduced to a more realistic size. Project manager Murray Gould (Port City Preservation of Syracuse) explains that the new sanctuary uses approximately 6,000 square feet of the total 60,000 square feet available, and points out, “That left ninety percent of space on the campus considered to be excess and available to be repurposed.”
By removing seventy-five percent of the pews, the worship space becomes more intimate, now ending at the church’s transept; this creates a new assembly hall. Gould describes the former church interior as “dull, dreary, dated, and worn.” The original wood wainscoting and trim has been preserved and a beautiful tri-color paint palette transitions from the dark wood, ascending to lighter shades, adding bright vibrancy to the space. The assembly hall is available for a variety of functions. Given its location in the heart of Elmwood Village, Gould predicts it will become a very popular venue for weddings and business events. Its vestibule features the original (refinished) cork floors set in a diagonal checkerboard pattern; original chandeliers light the space.
A new commercial kitchen is being built to support commercial caterers. Gould’s long-term vision suggests an incubator or culinary center; he envisions programming that will build on the Elmwood neighborhood’s energy.
Separate from the main sanctuary, a summer chapel originally seated six hundred. Remodeling in the 1950s dropped the ceilings and divided the chapel into classrooms. Now those ceilings have been eliminated to reveal the soaring original ceilings and tall windows. Unused for many years, the chapel space has now been converted into four distinctive apartments. Similar removal of a dropped ceiling in an adjacent hallway reveals a spectacular barrel-vault ceiling. The new lower lobby was actually the original 1,500-square-foot parlor. It will continue its use as a parlor for the congregation or for events. The large room boasts a spectacular array of original architectural details, including custom-crafted woodwork. There’s also a beautiful fireplace, Ionic and Corinthian columns, rich carpentry and moldings, and heavy pocket doors. Original leaded glass is being reinstalled in the large windows.
Most of the square footage in the separate community house has been converted into apartments. Residences will have their own different entrances with a card-entry system. The structure retains its original wide corridors and stairwells for circulation; it’s ideal for residential use, with a unique layout for each apartment. At the ground level, the four original bowling lanes have been saved to retain their distinctive narrow strips of maple and Douglas fir. On the main level of the same building, there are two-bedroom units, one of which has been decorated as a model by the talented designers of room. The units feature original oak floors, fireplaces, and French doors. Gould notes that much of the wood from the demolitions necessary to convert the buildings has been repurposed for repairs and rebuilding components like new windowsills. It is planned that the wood from the removed pews will be reused to fashion a screen between the sanctuary and the assembly hall.
At the upper level of the original church, there are two unique apartments that feature original wood trusses that had been hidden for years, the stairway to the choir loft, and windows that had been bricked-up, and are now opened and replaced. One apartment has an entire wall filled with the tallest of the church’s stained-glass windows. As opposed to many other church renovations, the sense of verticality has been preserved here. With daylight pouring through the colored glass, the entire living space becomes a piece of art in itself.
All units feature granite counter tops with undermount sinks, stainless steel appliances, and tiled bathrooms.
There are a total of twenty-one apartments—ten one-bedroom, ten two-bedroom, and one three-bedroom—ranging in size from 620 to 2,100 square feet. Many have been made into two-level spaces. They feature all the elements of luxury living that have become de rigueur for loft conversions: granite counter tops with undermount sinks, stainless steel appliances, and tiled bathrooms. Tenants will also find high-efficiency gas and electric and instant hot water from the tankless water systems.
From a financial point of view, it all makes good sense. Sure, the church had to give up its tax exempt structure as a non-profit religious entity. However, the congregration sold its building to a limited liability corporation it created, and is hiring professional management. And the landmarked building is eligible for federal and state historic tax credits. Kostrewski notes, “Without the real estate responsibility, we can focus on our mission as a church again. We’ll have a recurring revenue stream that we can depend upon for years.”
Here, the word preservation applies not only to the stone and mortar of the physical facility, but also to the original mission of the church. This project benefits from a sterling treatment and a particularly sensitive approach. Lafayette’s congregation will continue to function in its home. New neighbors are making the remainder of the space their homes. Lafayette Lofts truly enriches the present while celebrating Buffalo’s rich architecture heritage.
Barry A. Muskat is Spree’s architecture Critic and longtime contributor. A businessman and architectural historian, he has served on the City of Buffalo Preservation Board. As for this project, he says “Bingo! This congregation saw true salvation!”