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Originally appeared in Artvoice on October 4th, 2012

The case against demolition of the Episcopal Church Home

There never seems to be an end to the energy and determination of Buffalo leaders to destroy the city’s historic landmarks.

This past month saw the Campaign for Greater Buffalo filing papers in federal court in its case against the Public Bridge Authority’s proposed demolition of the Busti Row, a collection of 19th-century houses on the western doorstep of the city that has welcomed visitors to Buffalo since before there was a Peace Bridge.

Then, in one of his habitual “Oops, I’m sorry” episodes, city inspections commissioner James Comerford engineered the demolition of yet another designated city landmark, the Bernstone’s Cigar Store (designed by Calvin Otis and built as Jacob Schoellkopf’s Third National Bank no later than 1859), without any public notification or defensible justification. To the public, it sure would seem like demolition-upon-request. Downtown loses another corner building for a parking lot expansion.

Finally, Lt. Governor Robert Duffy parachuted into town on short notice to blithely announce that the Peace Bridge Plaza expansion would go forward and that demolition of the landmark Episcopal Church Home could begin as soon as the PBA got the buildings in its possession, thanks to the efforts of the Cuomo administration.

Duffy stated that a deal made with Episcopal Church Home officials to pay off liens “clears the path for a crucial block of land to be moved to state control, ensuring that the US Peace Bridge plaza enhancement project can move forward.” Bizarrely, the PBA continues to deny that their “plaza enhancement” will cross Busti Avenue, but rather that the demolitions will provide a “green buffer.” Internal Peace Bridge documents obtained by the Campaign for Greater Buffalo earlier this summer clearly show what is planned: a massive, block-square walled compound big enough for not only a larger Duty-Free America store, but, as Prospect Hill residents, preservationists, and environmentalists fear, a diesel fuel and gasoline station to rival in size the gargantuan one at the Ambassador Bridge in Detroit.

If money is the mother’s milk of politics, one can see why Governor Andrew Cuomo, State Senator Mark Grisanti, Buffalo Mayor Byron Brown, Niagara District Council member David Rivera, and Assemblyman Sean Ryan are practically falling over each other to man the bulldozers that would demolish the Church Home’s Thornton Hall, brutalize the Hutchinson Chapel, and destroy a green space the neighborhood has had for over a century, the embowered front lawn of the Episcopal Church Home. The PBA, if fully exploiting the expanded land it seeks to control in sovereign nation style, stands to gain tens of millions of dollars in annual fees from Duty Free America. That translates, inevitably, into jobs and political donations through a welter of individuals and Peace Bridge vendors. The sound of grinding tractor-trailers you hear and the whiff of diesel you smell? That’s the sound and smell of money.

The Episcopal Church Home, occupying a full block between Busti Avenue and Columbus Parkway in Prospect Hill, is the endangered landmark of the moment. It is owned, for now, by the Episcopal Church Home & Affiliates, which has been brought to Housing Court for building code violations which exposied the property o the elements and vandals. Court-ordered inspections by the city Preservation Board in July and September revealed that both buildings are structurally sound and dry, although Thornton Hall is the scene of continuous stripping of wiring, piping, and hardware.

The Episcopal Church Home, represented for most Buffalonians for over a century by the iconic landscape of the Hutchinson Chapel and Thornton Memorial Hall, is an island of tranquility in the shadow of the Peace Bridge. It was designated a City of Buffalo landmark in 1980. The Church Charity Foundation (CCF), precursor to the present Episcopal Church Home & Affiliates, began in 1858 with a board of managers that included Reverend William Shelton of St. Paul’s Episcopal Cathedral on Shelton Square and Revolutionary War veteran William A. Bird, whose house still stands as part of the Busti Row. The Church Charity Foundation built an orphange on the site in 1866, which was replaced by Thornton Hall in 1905, as the focus of the church’s efforts shifted to care for the elderly.

Thornton Hall is a handsome Craftsman-style take on the Colonial Revival with a stuccoed upper story tucked under broad eaves with exposed rafter tails. It is named for Thomas Thornton, who was born in London and settled in Buffalo in 1833, one year after the former village received its city charter. Thornton helped establish the city as a center of flour milling and trade. Thornton was very active in the Episcopal Church and used his wealth to benefit a number of other charitable interests, including the YMCA, the Buffalo Historical Society, and the Buffalo Fine Arts Academy (later the Albright Art Museum). The building was funded by Thornton’s daughter, Helen Thornton Campbell.

Thornton Hall’s architect was Henry Osgood Holland, best known for the former Temple Beth-El on Richmond Avenue, skillfully placed the building relative to the Hutchinson Chapel (to the southwest) to create a sheltered tree lawn with southern exposure. He had done this type of picturesque composition before, when he designed the Classical arch and approach of Forest Lawn Cemetery’s Main Street entrance. Osgood also designed the Church of the Covenant Presbyterian Church (at East Ferry Street and Michigan Avenue, currently Bethel AME Church), and Hutchinson Technical High School.

Edward Howard Hutchinson, for whom the high school is named, was a benefactor of the Episcopal Church Home as well, donating the funds for the Hutchinson Chapel of the Holy Innocents, as a memorial to his parents. Hutchinson’s father John was one of the original incorporators of the Church Charity Foundation. The chapel, built in 1895, was designed by Hutchinson’s handpicked architect, William Archer. Built of Medina sandstone on the southwest corner of the lot, it faced Fort Porter until the Peace Bridge was opened in 1927.

The Episcopal Church Home is not only a beautiful and significant cultural landscape but a reminder of the importance of religious organizations in caring for the disadvantaged in the age before Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal and Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society. The poor children, orphans, and elderly that were served by the Church Charity Foundation had nowhere else to turn. In an age when poverty was often ascribed to moral lapses or turpitude, religious organizations stepped into the breach. Provision of shelter, food, and moral instruction in a supportive environment was seen as a natural responsibility. The Episcopal Church Home embodies that ethos.

The proposal to demolish the Episcopal Church Home and the Busti Avenue houses has nothing to do with improving transportation, and everything to do with expanding a sideshow that is also a money-maker: the duty-free store. For the first 68 years of its existence, until 1995, the store wasn’t even on the plaza, and founding documents do not even conceive of this fiefdom-funding mechanism. As far as can be determined, New York State will purchase the Episcopal Church Home (your tax dollars at work), which Governor Cuomo will then hand over to the Public Bridge Authority.

The Campaign for Greater Buffalo has filed suit in state court to block the Busti Avenue demolitions and also opposes the demolition of the Episcopal Church Home. Campaign attorney Richard Berger clarified the urgency, stating that as soon as the State of New York or other entity completes the purchase, it will be out of City Housing Court jurisdiction. The PBA has a poor record of maintaining their properties, as evidenced by the condition of the Busti Row and the “asbestos abatement” damage recently inflicted there.

The Campaign for Greater Buffalo will continue its vigorous efforts to protect the landmarks. The PBA’s decades-long refusal to compromise is hampering the potential for neighborhood revitalization and heritage-driven economic development. Historic sites such as the Darwin D. Martin House, the Erie Canal terminus, and the Richardson-Olmsted Center draw international tourism crowds. The Campaign for Greater Buffalo sees it as necessary to honor not only the wealthy people whose names are attached to the Church Home buildings, but the countless thousands of orphaned and destitute who were given a second chance upon walking through its doors. The buildings that housed their last hope must now also get a second chance, and be re-purposed for the benefit of the city, its residents, and visitors.

Dana L. Saylor-Furman is Special Projects Director for the Campaign for Greater Buffalo History, Architecture & Culture, and creator of the website SaveDontPave.org.