Buffalo says its first National Register–eligible African American housing project can’t be saved. Preservationists beg to differ.

Whose History?

Buffalo says its first National Register–eligible African American housing project can’t be saved. Preservationists beg to differ.

Buffalo’s Willert Park Courts public housing complex is being threatened with demolition. (Joe Cascio_

Built in 1939, Willert Park Courts in Buffalo, New York, was among the first public housing projects in the country. These ten two- and three-story rectilinear buildings are arranged north to south on parallel tracks around a central courtyard. They were an American echo of German Zeilenbau modernist planning, in which orderly and cloistered apartments gave former slum dwellers access to light and green space.

Willert Park was also the first public housing complex in Buffalo where Black people could live. Its construction, which was made possible by lobbying efforts on the part of the local Urban League, effectively enshrined segregation across the East Side of Buffalo. Willert Park formed a critical part of what became the de facto African American part of town.

Buffalo built ten times more housing for white families around the same time and at a higher quality than Willert Park. The latter’s shortcomings have created barriers to preservation that Gillian Brown, executive director of the Buffalo Municipal Housing Agency (BMHA), doesn’t think his agency can overcome. But plans to raze the site apart from one administration building in favor of new housing with larger unit sizes and more bedrooms are meeting pushback. Willert Park has been deemed eligible for the National Register of Historic Places, a boon for preservationists and members of the local Black community who point to the site’s architectural merits, which they say tie back to the area’s cultural heritage.

Engraving of a baseball player in concrete on the exterior of a brick building
The complex’s many sculptural works celebrating Black culture would be preserved. (Joe Cascio)

Jessie Fisher, executive director of Preservation Buffalo Niagara (PBN), said the buildings are a “bridge” between a mature International Style and vernacular building, borrowing the forms that would later be expressed in steel, glass, and concrete, and rendering them in traditional brick. (Subtle variations in brick patterns approximate the stylings of art moderne.) Frederick C. Backus, who designed Willert Park (also known as A. D. Price Courts), had been influenced by the Bauhaus ideals that found their highest aspiration in public housing, in which progressive design was seen to ennoble residents. Dozens of bas-relief sculptures cast in reddish-brown concrete by Robert Cronbach and Harold Ambellan can be found throughout the complex, adorning walls and flanking building entrances. They depict several facets of the African American experience, from emancipation—women and children flee slavery, a Black Union soldier returns from the war—to the Great Migration, as well as the cultural contributions made by Black artists (signified by a trumpet and an upright bass). Last year, the advocacy efforts of PBN, alongside those of the Michigan Street Preservation Corporation, were honored with a Docomomo Modernism in America Award.

But Brown is not impressed. Despite the National Register of Historic Places eligibility ruling, Buffalo’s housing agency hasn’t pursued any landmarking and instead wants to tear almost all of the complex down while retaining the sculptures. “These buildings are really pretty crappy,” he said. “Even in their prime, they were not particularly lovely. They look like barracks.”

For Fisher, Willert Park tells a story about Buffalo’s built environment and impressive design history that seldom gets a hearing. The prevailing narrative focuses on the city’s system of Olmsted parks, several Frank Lloyd Wright buildings, and a former asylum designed by H. H. Richardson (converted to a hotel by Deborah Berke Partners in 2017). In architecture and everywhere else, “we’re really focused on the history of rich, white, straight men,” Fisher said. “If you read the cultural landscape of our city through what we’ve preserved, that’s what you’re going to come away with, that’s who cites are built for and built by, and of course that’s ridiculous.”

Fisher points out that Willert Park was notable enough to be included in a 1940 MoMA guide to modern architecture in the Northeast. Of Buffalo’s original eight entries, all those that have not been demolished are landmarked, save for Willert Park. “The question we have to ask ourselves as a community is, why have we decided that these other spaces are so worthy of protection, but the one space that’s about Black history, the history of working people, that’s the space that enjoys none of that protection?” asked Fisher.

But Brown said portraying Willert Park as a monument to ethnic perseverance is “a romanticized view of this development by the largely white preservation community. I have not heard any of these complaints from the African American community that lives every day around A. D. Price.”

Terry Alford, who is Black, is the executive director of the Michigan Street African-American Heritage Corridor Commission, whose offices are a dozen blocks away from Willert Park. He told AN he believes it’s important to save these buildings. (Alford sits on PBN’s board.) He said the endangered housing commemorates “the heritage [of] the folks that generationally have been a part of the fabric of that part of the city. With a little bit of ingenuity and some good planning, we can easily incorporate and preserve these spaces.”

The brick facade of Willert Park with a woman and child jumping rope carved in concrete
The complex’s many sculptural works celebrating Black culture would be preserved. (Joe Cascio)

At the behest of the city housing agency, the developer Norstar is examining alternatives for the site and has retained the services of kta preservation specialists. Annie Schentag, a preservationist at the firm, told AN that the small unit sizes of Willert Park’s 170-plus apartments and the lack of interior corridors pose an intractable problem: Dramatically renovating interiors to create larger units more suited to the agency’s needs (three, four, and five bedrooms) would destroy historically significant elements of Backus’s plan. To do so would threaten its historical integrity and thus any “financial incentives that come with the tax credit program,” Schentag said, alluding to federal and state incentives that encourage historic preservation by lessening tax burdens for building owners who comply with preservation codes. However, the interior organization of Willert Park is discussed in just one paragraph in the 24-page National Register nomination report, casting doubt on whether altering the interiors of the units to make them more livable would result in the loss of tax credits needed to make the preservation project feasible.

There is certainly precedent for ambitious interior renovations of New Deal housing. In Chicago, similar campuses have been or are being converted into mixed-income housing and cultural institutions celebrating public housing itself. Fisher also suggests that the small unit sizes could work well for senior housing, but Brown said the agency has relatively little need for these kinds of units. (The BMHA’s total public housing waiting list numbers more than 3,300.)

The finances don’t check out, Brown added. The BMHA estimates that an interior retrofit would cost $44 million, compared with $22 million for 50 new housing units on the Willert Park site. “Are we really in a position to devote this kind of resources and effort into maintaining a giant monument of segregation when we could be making beautiful new housing?” he asked.

exterior aerial file photo of a squat housing complex, willert park courts
An aerial photograph of Willert Park’s ten housing blocks after the facility opened in 1939 (Courtesy United States Housing Authority/Center for Urban Planning, State University of New York at Buffalo)

For Fisher, that’s a false choice. “The African American community should not have to sacrifice its history in order to build new things, especially in an area with this much vacant land,” she said, referring to 2,500 empty lots within a mile of Willert. Nationally, tearing down dense public housing developments and replacing them with fewer, townhome-style units has decreased the amount of public housing available by about 400,000 units from the mid-’90s to 2020.

In 2018, Brown indicated to PBN that he might be amenable to a comprehensive preservation scheme if the organization found a viable developer. According to Brown’s recollection (which Fisher disputes), he told PBN, “If you want to find a developer, I’ll figure out how to get these written off my occupancy rolls and I’ll tell Norstar, ‘Sorry, we tried, and it’s not going to work.’ But you have to have a plan for this.” This is what PBN is asking for now.

Fisher wants her organization to be named interim developer and given 24 months to collect funds and assemble a redevelopment team that will listen to the community for guidance on what Willert should become. (PBN is currently developing a historic property—a former boardinghouse and brothel—into affordable housing.) “It’s a little late,” Brown said in response. But if the two sides can’t come to an agreement, Buffalo’s first African American public housing will meet the wrecking ball. It will be a huge loss, one that will dwarf any exasperated negotiating table impasse.