Preservation-ready: Fairfield Library
The former Fairfield Library
One of Buffalo’s oldest library buildings has been vacant for six years, ever since it was closed as part of the county’s library downsizing program in 2005. The plight of the former Fairfield Library is a cause for great frustration among its neighbors and many others who care about the building and the health of its Parkside neighborhood.
Designed by William Sidney Wicks in 1897, the site began as the home of the Parkside Unitarian Church. The graceful Colonial Revival building features a lovely pediment supported by four columns and four matching pilasters, as well as arched windows and heavily ornamented cornices and eaves. A choir loft, stained glass Palladian window, and more ornamental molding are the most distinctive interior features. In 1912, the Unitarian Church moved to new headquarters, and the building was occupied by the Parkside Evangelical Lutheran Church until 1924, at which time the City of Buffalo purchased the church and an adjacent house. The city sold the house and transformed the church into a branch library so that residents of this affluent neighborhood—located some distance from downtown’s main branch—would have their own library. An addition for a children’s library was added in 1961. In spite of ongoing issues with its outdated amenities, the library continued to thrive, with circulation figures well into six figures and several well-attended storytelling and book discussion programs.
Starting in 1998, the Buffalo and Erie County Public Library system began a lengthy and painful process of considering how best to consolidate its multiple branches, a process that took on grim inevitability after Erie County’s fiscal crisis in 2004. When the dust settled, fifteen branch libraries were closed, and the Fairfield—in the face of repeated protests and pleas for clemency—was one of them. In spite of its lack of air conditioning, parking, and updated bathrooms, the Fairfield was in many ways the quintessential small neighborhood library, fitting in perfectly with its residential surroundings. “If you can’t judge a book by looking at its cover, you can’t judge a library by looking at its numbers,” was how Mary Kunz Goldman put it in a 2005 Buffalo News essay.
At the very least, the library kept a significant historic building in use. It seems strange that such a charming structure—not formidably large or exorbitantly priced—wouldn’t find some kind of interesting reuse, but at least two purchase proposals—one for a photographer’s studio and one for a condo conversion—have fizzled since the closure, and there is very little optimism among neighborhood observers.
“Our frustration is that specific site was part of the Olmsted plan for the neighborhood. He laid it out to be a bucolic green suburb. The library building was designated for public use,” Parkside Community Association director Ben Johnson says, explaining why the PCA’s first efforts were aimed at reopening the building as a library. “That seems Sisyphean at present,” he admits, but insists that “at the end of the day we will preserve it.”
Some of the neighbors are not so sure. Steve Cichon, local author and WBEN journalist, has long been active in the Parkside Community Association, including stints on the board. “I haven’t been directly involved in the negotiations between potential developers and the city, but it always seemed that the asking price was high for a building that the city had neglected,” he says. “The roof leaked and the pipes had burst. Now the building is very much in danger with a partial roof collapse, boiler problems, and the exterior not maintained. If it didn’t have the history that it had, it would be on a demolition list.” On the other hand, many buildings in far worse shape than Fairfield have found purchasers and developers. It could be that a perfect storm of inhibiting factors has stood in the way of this unlucky gem. In the years immediately following the closing, a few proposals for re-use were made, but when—in 2008—the North Park public library branch was closed for environmental problems, talk of restoring the Fairfield to use as a library facility returned with a vengeance. A Friends of Fairfield group proposed using the building as an unofficial branch or community center, holding to the position that, as PCA director Johnson notes, Olmsted meant the building for public use. Now that North Buffalo’s only other library had closed, it didn’t seem unrealistic to fill the empty Fairfield with books again. The BECPL was not interested, however, and the City of Buffalo resumed its efforts to sell the building—indeed, some nearby neighbors were annoyed by the efforts to return the library to public use and pushed for a city sale.
In 2009, two developers known for significant residential renovations throughout the city came forward with a solid condo conversion plan, but withdrew after several enthusiastically attended presentations. There is some speculation that the renovation would have been micromanaged by the Buffalo Preservation Board—unlikely, given that the building is not in a local preservation district.
More likely, they were put off by the purchase price, given the amount of money needed to make the building habitable, and may have encountered other city-related obstructions. In any event, as of late 2011, the building sits empty, with no discernible activity aimed at saving it. For that matter, the area’s other former branch library, North Park, is also empty and for sale by the city. A temporary BECPL branch has been installed in a strip mall on Hertel Avenue, next to the K-Mart. “That branch’s lease will be up in a few years, and then there has to be a new library,” says George Emery, a Parkside resident who is active with the North Buffalo Library Committee, a group that is trying to deal with the loss of two libraries in three years. He’s also on the PCA board and notes, “We had meetings with the mayor’s office about the Fairfield in 2009, but since then nothing has happened.”
Although the unfortunate recent history of Fairfield is complex, one fact is certain. It is still owned by the City of Buffalo and only the City of Buffalo can expedite its revitalization. There may be a city plan for the building, but Spree’s calls to Strategic Planning head Brenden Mehaffy, Real Estate head John Hannon, and the city’s spokesperson Michael DeGeorge were not returned.
It seems incredible that a structure as beautiful as this one—created by E.B. Green’s partner—could be demolished, especially given the neighborhood good will that surrounds it. As the months go by, however, it becomes urgently clear that good will must be transformed into good actions. By someone.
Elizabeth Licata is editor of Buffalo Spree. Thanks to Steve Cichon, George Emery, Ben Johnson, David Steele, and Joseph Cascio for their assistance in researching this piece and the preservation series. Thanks also to Buffalo as an Architectural Museum (buffaloah.org).