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Demolition of Willert Park Courts in Buffalo under review

February 20, 2017

There is an ongoing preservation battle in Buffalo over the fate of the Willert Park Courts, an early public housing project inspired by Le Corbusier and Bauhaus ideals. The original 175-unit, 10-building complex was completed in 1939 with funding from the Federal Housing Authority. An additional 300 units quickly followed between 1942 and 1944, which have since been demolished. The remaining ten original buildings were vacated in 2009. The owner, Buffalo Municipal Housing Authority, in collaboration with private developer Norstar, is seeking to replace nine of the ten buildings with 48 newly constructed units. The Buffalo Planning Board has tabled its decision on granting an application for demolition until the State completes its review. The State Historic Preservation Office has deemed the site eligible for listing on the National Register of Historic Places. 

Not only was it one of the earliest projects funded by the U.S. Housing Authority, Willert Park Courts is significant for being the first public housing development in New York built specifically for African Americans, a product of the country’s shameful “separate but equal” policy of the time. The complex’s design and layout was novel for the period: spare, low-rise brick structures arranged around a central courtyard and cushioned with ample green space. Through the Federal Arts Program, artists Robert Cronbach and Harold Ambellan created bas relief concrete panels on the theme of working class life for the entrances of each building. Willert Park Courts was among eight Buffalo buildings included in MoMA’s 1940 Guide to Modern Architecture of the Northeast States. The project manager of the development was Alfred D. Price, the only black senior district manager in the Buffalo Housing Authority. Price oversaw the neighborhood from its initial construction to his death in 1968. The following year Willert Park was renamed the Alfred D. Price Courts in his honor.

There have been ongoing efforts to protect the complex. In early 2014, the local preservation board granted it landmark status, but the City Council declined to approve it. The current owner has objected to its being listed on the National Register. A fiche was prepared for the property for DOCOMOMO US in 2014. 

Though in poor shape due to neglect, groups such as Preservation Buffalo Niagara say the structures are still sound and can be preserved. In 2010, the site was featured in the Preservation League of New York State’s “Seven to Save” campaign .

It should be noted that this is the second modernist housing project in Buffalo to be threatened in recent years. DOCOMOMO NY/Tri-State has previously reported on efforts, again by Norstar Development, to demolish Paul Rudolph’s Shoreline Apartments.

Unanswered questions delay AD Price project,” Buffalo Business First, January 18, 2017 

Battle brewing over plans to replace A.D. Price public housing,” The Buffalo News, December 25, 2016.

A fiche was prepared for the property for DOCOMOMO US in 2014.

Photo ©Mark Mulville/Buffalo News.