Salvation for St. Gerard's?
A Georgia congregation hopes to move a Buffalo landmark
By Eric Wills | From Preservation | July/August 2010
Father David Dye of the Catholic parish Mary Our Queen in Norcross, Ga., has tired of newly constructed churches that look like "Pizza Huts or airplane hangars." These days, "people go to Home Depot to build churches," he says. Spend too much time in those big boxes, and "you're going to live a plastic-box life." So when his parish recently decided to build a new and larger church, Dye was certain about what he wanted: a classically designed building with character.
Little did he know that his desire for good craftsmanship would lead not to the construction of a gleaming new structure but to an audacious plan to move an abandoned Catholic church to suburban Atlanta, from some 900 miles away in New York State.
The idea emerged when Dye and Bill Harrison, the architect commissioned to draw up plans for a new church, visited St. Gerard's in Buffalo with the intention of salvaging the wood doors and marble altar from the shuttered, deteriorating building. "We went there thinking that we would get a few pieces," recalls Harrison. But the architect quickly realized that St. Gerard's, built in 1911 by German, Polish, and Italian immigrants, was not only a sublimely beautiful building but also nearly the exact embodiment of the designs he had drawn up for a new church. Even the length and height were the same, to within a foot: "It was like God made it for us, like it was being given to us as a present."
Harrison turned to Dye and with a few simple words—"I think we should try to move it"—set the ambitious plan in motion. The architect surveyed the structure and crunched the numbers, which confirmed the fiscal soundness of his plan: Building a modern church like St. Gerard's would cost more than $40 million, but moving the existing structure would cost just a third of that. If crews dismantled the limestone exterior and interior granite columns piece by piece, practically the entire building could be transported by truck.
Meanwhile, in February, Dye reached an agreement with the Buffalo diocese to sell the church to his parish. All that remained: initiating a national campaign to raise $12 million. Dye says his plan has inspired Catholic congregations in both Buffalo and Atlanta: "I've never been involved in anything that has resonated so much with people."
Not everyone, however, has welcomed the news of the move. "As a result of Buffalo's decline in wealth, power, and population, its buildings are increasingly at risk of plunder, depredation, or outright removal," wrote David Franczyk, a city council member, in a proposed amendment to Buffalo's preservation code. "The proposed removal of entire buildings to be taken outside the region sets a precedent suggesting any significant Buffalo structure may be available to envious purchasers disappointed in the architectural sterility of their own chosen environment"—in this case, "sprawl-choked suburban Atlanta." Franczyk's amendment would require the preservation board to approve the removal of any buildings, such as St. Gerard's, that are eligible for landmark designation. (At press time, the fate of the legislation or how it could affect the proposed move remained unclear.)
Henry McCartney, executive director of Preservation Buffalo, says he and his staff were also initially aghast at the idea of moving St. Gerard's. Other abandoned churches in Buffalo have been adapted and saved: The singer Ani DiFranco, for instance, turned one structure into a concert hall. Nevertheless, dozens of empty churches, victims of declining congregations, languish in the city without any conceivable plans for reuse. McCartney would like to see a renewed interest in ensuring that those structures don't fade into oblivion. But he has concluded that moving St. Gerard's will not establish a precedent, in part because of the unique factors that aligned in this instance.
As for Father Dye, he's steadfast in his belief that moving the church is the right thing to do: "We're interested in preservation," he says. Remarkably, some of the congregants at Mary Our Queen once lived in Buffalo and attended St. Gerard's. Their new church may end up being their old one, and for Dye, that sends an important message in this throw-away culture about the importance of preserving our heritage.
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