Jan 28, 2014

Willert Park to be Considered for Local Landmark Status; BMHA to Issue RFP for Redevelopment

The Willert Park Courts at Spring and West Peckham Streets will be considered for local landmarking at the January 30th Preservation Board meeting in 901 City Hall at 3pm. Residents have completely vacated the historic complex and many relocated to the adjacent vinyl and concrete block new builds along Jefferson Avenue.

Historic Aerial
Historic Aerial view of Willert Park before the 1942 expansion
The Preservation League of New York secured funding for a National Register (NR) nomination, which was prepared by Frank Kowsky and Martin Wachadlo for the regional preservation advocacy group, Preservation Buffalo Niagara (PBN). You can download the full nomination by clicking here.

Willert Park was completed in 1939 and designed by architect Frederick C. Backus with William E. Harris, who was tasked with the landscape architecture and site plan. After its completion, the buildings were highlighted as a great example of Modernism by the Museum of Modern Art, which can be seen here.

MOMA Isometric View
Isometric View of Willert Park from MOMA
In his book of Buffalo architecture, Reyner Banham wrote, “At the time of its completion Willert Park was hailed as one of the finest public housing projects in the country, for both its planning concept and architectural design. Sculptural panels by Robert Cronbach and Harold Ambellan embellish the low-rise brick row houses and apartment buildings, which are organized around a central courtyard.” The sculptures were created as park of the Works Progress Administration and still remain flanking entrances to the units.


The housing development was built specifically for African American families as the population grew tremendously around this time. Demand for the 172-unit complex was so high, that more buildings were constructed along William Street in 1942. These later buildings were demolished a few years ago, but all of the original complex remains.

Although the perimeter has been fenced and outward facing openings boarded, openings in the courtyard are another story 
Alfred D. Price Sr. was the first manager of Willert Park and was well loved by all residents. His son and UB professor Alfred D. Price Jr., fondly recalls the positive impact his father had during his time there and described Willert Park as “sacred ground” of Buffalo’s civil rights era. In fact, many noteworthy African American leaders in Buffalo grew up in the complex and went on to make their mark in education, medicine, arts, and much more.

It’s important place in history combined with concerns over the current conditions prompted Terry Robinson to prepare the local landmark nomination, with assistance from Preservation Buffalo Niagara.

In addition to missing windows and doors, large sections of the roof flashing has gone missing. To avoid water infiltration and issues with freeze-thaw, these conditions should be addressed immediately
“Willert Park is certainly important in the history of Buffalo, but it also is important in the context of housing developments of its era throughout America. It was occupied, well maintained, and all the apartments were fully equipped with appliances that were BMHA property, what happened to all those?” asked Robinson, “It’s been left for dead.” Much of what remained was scraped and looted by trespassers and many of the windows and doors are completely gone.


To find out exactly why the property was in this state, I called and spoke with the assistant executive director of the BMHA, Modesto Candelario last week. “It’s basically acts of vandalism. One of the challenges we have with any of our developments, when there is metal and looks like it can be taken, chances are people will take it,” Candelario said. “The complex is fully vacant and we try to secure it as best we can, but in some cases unless there is a 24/7 guard, there could be issues. We ask staff to drive by if they can every day, but I don’t know if they are doing it quite frankly,“ he continued.

Candelario assured me these removals were not the work of the BMHA and the complex was not being pushed for demolition. “We are not systematically making any effort to demolish or deconstruct the facility in any way. In fact we are assembling a plan to rehabilitate and redevelop the complex. The difficulties of managing a vacant facility in Buffalo are never easy.”

He went on to say that a request for proposals (RFP) could be issued as early as March for the rehabilitation of the complex. It may be a partnership between the BMHA and a developer or may even be completely taken over by a new entity; it has yet to determined.

The font for the cornerstone is simple stunning and emblematic of the period
The National Register nomination has yet to be officially submitted to the State Historic Preservation Office, despite being completed for quite some time. Tom Yots, executive director of PBN explained there is only one thing holding up the nomination. “If the mayor would send a letter of support for the National Register nomination it would move forward at the State Historic Preservation Office” said Yots. Once they get the letter, the nomination can be submitted and ultimately approved, which would enable a future developer to utilize historic tax credits for the rehabilitation and ensure the historic character is preserved, while serving a new generation of residents.

For additional photos of Willert Park, check out my album on Iperntiy here.
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