Next story: Letters to Artvoice
Fall from Grace
by Peter Koch
A few short months ago, an anonymous man marched through the front door of Artvoice’s editorial offices and presented himself at the front desk. He reached into his pocket, withdrew a slate tile, set it on associate editor Katherine O’Day’s desk and, with gravitas, told her, “These are falling off the roof of Transfiguration Church onto the sidewalk, and if anyone gets hurt, now the blood is on your hands.”
His story pitch was pure genius. Ever since that day, we haven’t been able to shake the image of the small, sharp piece of slate roofing tile—five by seven inches, weighing a total of 11 ounces—falling from the roof and lodging itself firmly in the skull of an unsuspecting passerby. The danger is very real. A tile like that, falling from the lofty roof of the church, could kill somebody. How was this allowed to happen? How did the solid, 110-year-old building, once designated a local landmark by the city, decay to the point that it is falling literally to pieces?
From landmark to eyesore
At the end of the 19th century, Buffalo’s East Side was swelling with a population of new Polish immigrants, and the Catholic diocese realized the need for a new parish to serve the mostly Catholic group. Transfiguration parish was established in 1893. Three years later, in response to a growing parish, the current building, Transfiguration Roman Catholic Church, was designed by Carl Schnell in the Gothic tradition of European Polish churches—it remains the only church in the city in that tradition—and built at the corner of Sycamore and Mills Streets. Like most churches built at the time, it was almost certainly built by parishioners themselves, with money that they themselves raised. It was a work of faith and love.
A century after the parish was founded, August 2, 1993, the final Mass was celebrated at Transfiguration. Suburban flight had reduced the parish rolls to the point that the church could no longer support itself fiscally. The Diocese of Buffalo closed Transfiguration, along with four other East Side churches, and the decision was made to raze the building at an estimated cost of $200,000.
That was when labor lawyer Bill Trezevant stepped in, aiming to preserve the church. Preservationists and city officials lined up behind him, fighting to stave off the bulldozers and save the building. Trezevant and his mother, Pauline Nowak, formed a not-for-profit group, Paul Francis Associates, Inc., with the hope of purchasing the building and turning it into a Montessori preschool and community center. Citing the church’s architectural and historical importance, Fillmore District Councilmember Dave Franczyk proposed the church be designated a local landmark in 1994, a measure the Common Council unanimously approved. Soon after, the diocese announced that it would sell the church to Paul Francis Associates for $7,000. The church was saved. Everyone celebrated and clapped each other on the back.
But the honeymoon didn’t last long. For the past 13 years, there’s been a continuous tug-of-war between Trezevant and city officials over Transfiguration church and, as in all divorces, it’s the child who suffers. In this case, the child is the crumbling church. Though it still dominates the Sycamore streetscape—its towering brick steeple is visible from all the way downtown—Transfiguration is slowly losing the battle against the elements. It has withstood 13 Buffalo winters despite gaping holes in the roof, windows broken and missing, and frequent break-ins that have too often left the doors unboarded and open.
During that time, very little work has been performed to save the church. The city, which has written Trezevant and his church into housing court a whopping 61 times since his company bought it, claims that the lawyer has been negligent in regards to Transfiguration Church. He says that it’s the city’s fault for throwing up unwarranted roadblocks, further delaying work on the church and allowing it to continue declining.
Immediately after taking over the building in 1994, Trezevant, supported by Franzcyk, applied for HUD block grant money and was awarded $49,271 in November 1995. Those funds were not released, however, pending approval from the State Historic Preservation Office (SHPO) and a HUD-required environmental review. Over the next two years, a drawn-out dialogue began between SHPO and the city, whereby SHPO was to approve or deny each phase of work planned for the church.
In April 1997, Trezevant had minor work done on the church, and it took nearly a year for $14,013.66 of block grant money to be disbursed for repayment. In early 1999, Trezevant moved to replace the missing stained-glass windows, but was denied by SHPO because he wanted to use cheaper modern silicone caulk rather than following the traditional method of mixing putty out of linseed oil. Trezevant eventually agreed to the older, more expensive method, and the city released $24,068.66 of HUD block grant money, a figure he says didn’t correspond to the actual project costs. In 2002, HUD approved $25,000 more in block grant funds for “temporary roof repairs,” but the city won’t release the funds because Trezevant’s building is violating housing codes.
Throughout this time, Transfiguration Church was written into housing court repeatedly. Admittedly, some of those violations were petty, like being written up in September 2002 for violating Chapter 109; that simply means the church didn’t have four-inch high street numbers visible from the center of the street. (The church itself is visible from a mile away.) Other violations were legitimate, though—the building was unsecured in September 2003 and it was determined that steeple-securing work needed to be done this past December.
In January of this year, Bruna Michaux, Commissioner of the Department of Assessment and Taxation, informed Trezevant that his building was being assessed for taxation. Since a Jewish cemetery stood on the site before Transfiguration Church was erected, the land was always classified as tax exempt. Since it was no longer a house of worship, however, the city decided to pull its exemption.
This May, the Buffalo Fire Department dispatched an aerial ladder and a crew of four firefighters to Transfiguration Church to respond to reports of slate tile—like our piece at Artvoice—falling from the roof. The crew spent three hours blasting the loose tiles from the roof with a fire hose, at an estimated cost of around $1,000.
In total, only about $38,000 of block grant money has been released for Transfiguration Church. Meanwhile, Trezevant claims that Paul Francis Associates (i.e. he and his mother) has spent much more than that on the property, and maintains that he himself has volunteered about 6,000 hours of his professional time, valued at approximately $90,000.
Of course, he “volunteered” this time to his own not-for-profit. One of the stranger parts of this whole situation is the fact that Trezevant insists on refering to himself in the third person. He keeps representing himself, in housing court and in official letters, as the legal counsel to Paul Francis Associates, which is a not-for-profit entity with only two officers: Trezevant and his mother.
Something else that remains unclear is where Trezevant originally planned on getting the money to restore the church. He says that, over the years, he has applied for dozens of grants to secure funding for the church’s restoration, but that those attempts have been frustrated by the city’s unwillingness to support him and by negative press.
So, in the end, the city thinks that Trezevant is broke, crazy and doesn’t really care that much about the church (and he apparently is broke, judging by the $10,000 federal tax lien against him). Trezevant, who once had the city, the media and the preservation community behind his project, thinks that everyone is plotting against his success with the church, the city and the media included. Contacted by Artvoice for this article, and informed of an approaching deadline, Trezevant erupted about past misrepresentations, saying, “Nobody’s ever talked to me or Paul Francis Associates about it! But I can tell you this, I’m not going to be told that you’ve got a deadline and, ‘Hey, buddy, can you talk to me for a few minutes?’ This has been a 14-year-long thing. I don’t know that a few minutes is going to accomplish a 14-year-long story, but, hey, who am I?…
“My comment right now, as attorney for Paul Francis Associates, is ‘No comment.’ So write whatever you want to write.”
None of that matters. What does matter is that, through all the bickering, Transfiguration Church continues to waste away. In early June, city officials met with Trezevant in a bid to resolve the housing court violations and make forward progress on the building’s restoration. The meeting was closed-door and resulted in a list of five requests from the city. A fence or barricade must be put around the front, side and rear of the church. The fence must be maintained to ensure the property is secure from trespassers. A structural engineer must be hired to evaluate the building’s structural integrity. Loose and falling slate roofing tiles must be removed. The appearance of the building must be maintained.
Though the fence went up a few weeks ago, it seems as though the city, particularly Housing Court Judge Jeannette Ogden, wasn’t pleased with Trezevant’s progress after 30 days. It’s rumored that the City of Buffalo Law Department will be taking him back to housing court in September.
What’s been lost?
While the wrangling carries on, a beautiful building and all that it stands for sits vacant and wasting away. Two beautiful murals, painted by famed Polish-American artist Jozef Mazur, are peeling off of the inside walls. Many of the stained glass windows are missing or plain broken. The chance to take the building, which for a century was a community pillar, and reuse it as a functional building is virtually gone. Transfiguration Church is so far gone now that it would probably require millions to stabilize and renovate it. Thirteen years ago, when it was first bought from the diocese, that figure was as low as $250,000.
The church’s deed dictates that it can only be used as a Montessori school. But community activist David Torke, who also publishes the popular Fix Buffalo blog (fixbuffalo.blogspot.com), has proposed a promising, if unusual, reuse plan. He thinks Transfiguration should be converted to a sacred ruin, akin to Christ Church Greyfriar in London or Berlin’s Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church. Those churches, which were both virtually destroyed by opposing World War II bombing raids, have been converted into park-like green spaces. Their roofs were removed, their walls were stabilized, and now they stand as partial ruins. Torke points out that you don’t have to go all the way to Europe to find such examples. St. Joseph’s Church in Rochester was converted for the same use after fire ravaged the church in the early 1970s. Now the stone façade and three walls of the church still stand, but inside is a courtyard garden.
Though it sounds like a great idea, this isn’t Torke’s primary concern. “The question is,” according to Torke, “have we learned our lessons from the mid 1990s, when these churches first started closing?”
In other words, will Transfiguration Church become a model for other church buildings closed down by the Catholic Diocese of Buffalo?
The bigger picture
The upshot of all of this is that if Bill Trezevant or Paul Francis Associates or whoever doesn’t get funding to secure the building soon, the church will become so unstable that the city will have to perform an emergency demolition. A structure of that size would cost hundreds of thousands of dollars to take down, and it would be paid for by taxpayers.
Seen in the context of the wider church closings currently underway in the Diocese of Buffalo, Transfiguration’s decay is about much more than a single beautiful old building turning to dust before its neighbors’ eyes. It’s about whether Transfiguration is a sign of things to come. Bishop Edward U. Kmiec recently announced the upcoming closing of at least 16 churches in the City of Buffalo. With only 238 active priests trying to serve 700,000 Catholics in 265 separate parishes, Kmiec said that the diocese needs to merge and close down some of its parishes to remain viable.
But what will happen to the empty churches? Nine other churches were put on the market with Transfiguration during the 1993 batch of closings. Four of those churches were successfully reused—St. Joachim Church is being used by Free Spirit Missionary Baptist Church, St. Vincent de Paul on Main Street was bought by Canisius College and converted into a classy performing arts center and St. Bart’s Church on Grider is now inhabited by Ephesus Ministries. St. Luke’s on Walden is now St. Luke’s Mission of Mercy.
What of the other five? St. Benedict the Moor sat empty on East Utica until it succumbed to arson in 1996 and had to be demolished. Our Lady of Lourdes on Main at Best was purchased by Prayer and Praise, but has remained vacant and is now being sold again. St. Boniface Church had to be demolished by the diocese. St. Francis de Sales on Humboldt Parkway has been flipped several times, and is currently being restored by the Reverend Perry Davis, who was accused of removing the stained-glass windows from the former house of worship. St. Matthews on East Ferry was flipped and the last tenant, Vision of Faith International, apparently stripped the church of some of its architectural detail and fled.
The challenge ahead is to find intelligent reuses for the 16 city churches that will soon close. Reuses that will benefit not only the Catholics in those neighborhoods, but also the surrounding communities that have depended on them for so many years as a source of physical food and shelter, as well as a source of stability and spiritual life.
Now, it appears that slate roofing tile is about more than the blood of an individual who might be hurt by its fall. If we don’t heed the lessons of Transfiguration Church and its collapsing slate roof, the blood of dozens of architecturally significant churches will be on our collective hands.
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