Can This Building Be Saved?/
As the history crumbles

By Elizabeth Licata; photos by Joe Cascio

This article is the first in a series on Buffalo’s most endangered buildings. It is being produced by a team of interested parties, including Chicago architect David Steele, BECHS librarian Cynthia Van Ness, ex-pat Chris Schmid, photographer Joe Cascio, and others.

The former church lost its bell tower (shown in the illustration below), but still has many original features including raking cornices (roof, above), basket-handle doorway arch with distinctive floral ornamentation (below), and Federal moldings and pilasters casements on the second-floor window above the door. The brickwork is early small-dimensioned brick, as used in the earliest brick structures in WNY. The iron bars on the window are a remnant of the building’s use as a detention center. Illustration courtesy of Cynthia Van Ness. Victorian Buffalo. Western New York Wares, (c)1999.
How could the oldest surviving church building in Buffalo sit vacant and ignored for over forty years?

The former Union Meeting House at 44 Breckenridge Street was built somewhere between 1827 and 1831 on land donated by Major General Peter Porter, an important figure in the War of 1812, the first congressman from Buffalo, and John Quincy Adams’s secretary of war. Porter’s home was across the street from the church; he entertained such luminaries as President Adams, the Marquis de Lafayette, and DeWitt Clinton. (Porter’s wife Laetitia was the Dolley Madison of Buffalo.)

When it was built, the Union Meeting House stood on an embankment overlooking an orchard-filled landscape that ended in the Erie Canal (now NYS Interstate 190). It was at the heart of the bustling Black Rock community—Buffalo was then a much smaller community than Black Rock. Immediately renamed the Breckenridge Street Church after opening as the Union Meeting Hall, the church became the First Presbyterian Church of Black Rock in 1831. When its congregation moved in 1888 to a new facility on West Ferry and West, the church was sold, and went through a series of ownerships, including the Grace Episcopal congregation, the Odd Fellows, the U.S. government (as a detention center for illegal aliens), Stritt and Priebe (as a plumbing supply warehouse), and, finally, Rich Products, which has not used the building other than to make minor repairs and is now trying to sell it as a potential warehouse.

There is speculation that the church may have served as a stop on the Underground Railroad. As Western New York Heritage magazine’s then-editor Paul Redding said in a 1996 Buffalo News article, “Runaway slaves left by the side basement door, walked down Breckenridge Street to the Erie Canal towpath, then south along the towpath about a quarter of a mile to the ferry boat landing at the foot of Ferry Street.” Redding and his colleague John Conlin had just prepared a list of Buffalo’s pre-1850 buildings, and found 330 surviving—a 2011 survey would find considerably fewer.

This is a disturbing narrative, but variations of it are seen throughout the annals of preservation advocacy. An architecturally and historically significant building goes through phases of use that at first seem natural, but at some point, something goes awry. What was once a distinguished house of worship—for several congregations—becomes first a jail, then a warehouse, then an empty and ignored hulk. The Breckenridge Church also suffered the indignity of having its bell tower removed sometime between 1911 and 1920. More recently, over the past twenty years, owner Rich products has been cited for numerous code violations that have caused leaks and some deterioration, though the structure is still sound. The interior—from recent observations—appears to lack any significant historical features, but the exterior still demonstrates classic Federal-style architecture, including its neoclassic rectangular design, arched brick entryway framed with pilasters, and elliptical roof cornices.

As almost every expert in Buffalo would agree, the Breckenridge Church is the most historic of Buffalo’s (remaining) early buildings, linked as it is with Buffalo’s pre-history and two wars—not to mention its status as our only remaining Federal-style church.

Is a warehouse the best we can do?


Spree editor Elizabeth Licata has long been a preservation activist. She particularly thanks Chuck LaChiusa and his invaluable website, which provided most of the information in this article.


Sources
Chuck LaChiusa, “Breckenridge Street Church,” Buffalo as an Architectural Museum (www.buffaloah.com/a/breck/44/index.html)

Mark Sommer, Buffalo News articles, 9/08/03, 11/12/03
Mike Vogel, Buffalo News article, 6/23/96
Austin Fox, “Laetitia Breckenridge Porter,” Buffalo Spree, Spring 1996



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