After several years of uncertainty, the Buffalo chapter of the American Red Cross can now rest assured it will be staying indefinitely in its Delaware Avenue home – along with some musical accompaniment.
John Yurtchuk, a developer and former chairman of the regional Red Cross chapter, is buying the prominent Clement Mansion from the nonprofit he used to lead.
In a surprise move, Yurtchuk will split the property and donate the historic mansion to the Crescendo Campaign for the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra, of which he is also a board member. The BPO will occupy part of the building for its administrative offices and will lease the rest to the Red Cross.
"What a great address for both the BPO and the Red Cross, and I couldn't think of a better caretaker for a part of Buffalo's history," said Yurtchuk, owner of Matrix Development Corp. "I thought the building was an iconic representation of philanthropy. ... I hope they'll both stay there forever and keep the legacy going."
The highly complicated but carefully orchestrated transaction – which represents one of the biggest donations in the BPO's history – will be announced from the stage at the orchestra's opening performance on Saturday night.
"It's a transformational gift for the BPO," said Executive Director Daniel Hart. "This is an iconic Buffalo building... It's a dream scenario for us."
The developer's gift, which he valued at $2.5 million, continues a legacy that began when Carolyn Tripp Clement first donated the 17,000-square-foot mansion to the Red Cross in 1941. The nonprofit has been occupying the building ever since, but no longer uses the entire building, let alone the rest of the property.
"We are very proud to still be able to have a presence in the City of Buffalo, to be able to continue to honor this gift that was made 76 years ago," said Jay Bonafede, spokesman for the Western New York Region of the American Red Cross.
As for the rest of the site, Yurtchuk will split off the mansion and front lawn on Delaware from the back of the sprawling property, which includes the main parking lot and three larger buildings. He hopes to redevelop that complex for office, medical or other commercial tenants. He is also considering developing it as a nonprofit campus or incubator, in partnership with the Oishei Foundation.
"I'll look to repurpose those," Yurtchuk said. "I'm open to what options might be appropriate for that rear building."
Yurtchuk would not disclose the purchase price for the entire four-acre property.
The purchase is expected to close in mid-October, when the BPO will take over and move in. At that time, the Red Cross will shift to the third floor, while the orchestra occupies the second floor and some mezzanine space. The first floor includes three conference rooms that will be shared, as well as a couple of additional offices that the Red Cross will retain. Between the two agencies, about 50 people will work in the mansion, and the organizations will also share the basement storage.
The developer is not putting any restrictions on the property, which he said he must legally own for 366 days prior to the donation, for tax reasons. The orchestra will not have any mortgage, saving them significant money over the rent they now pay for leased space on the second-floor of 499 Franklin St., at Allen Street. And the Red Cross will pay a lower rent than the mortgage it now has, reducing its own costs, Yurtchuk said.
Yurtchuk has arranged for engineering firm EFS to manage the property for the BPO. The firm, based in Cheektowaga, manages Yurtchuk's Dent Tower in Amherst, as well as the Saturn Club and the Darwin Martin House.
He's also seeking approval from the Buffalo Zoning Board of Appeals and Buffalo Planning Board, including permission to formally subdivide the property into two pieces. The front portion that will be donated, with 1.15 acres, will include the mansion and front lawn along Delaware. The rear property, with 2.848 acres, will contain the two-story office building in back, as well as a carriage house and the parking lot. That's what Yurtchuk will keep.
The two-story building, along with an adjoining structure connected by an atrium, total 53,500 square feet of space. Built in 1979, it was formerly the Red Cross' Blood Services building, but is now completely empty and "needs to be repurposed," Yurtchuk said. The one-story carriage house, which used to have a tennis court and smoking room, is "completely dormant" and would have to be gutted, he added.
It's that rear portion that could become a home for nonprofits, following a model used in other cities. Yurtchuk said Oishei is looking at that option to support other agencies, but has not made any commitments.
"If that's something they want to pursue, I'm happy to work with them," Yurtchuk said. "I'm just keeping all of the options open."
The Clement Mansion, at 786 Delaware Ave. just north of Bryant Street, was designed by prominent architect E.B. Green and built in 1912. It served as the family home for 37 years, hosting social functions, musical performances and other gatherings of leading city figures.
The house included a two-story "music room" on the first floor – now one of the meeting spaces – that once housed two concert pianos and a pipe organ. Carolyn Clement was classically trained, and both Clement sisters played. BPO musicians even performed at the house.
That makes the BPO's new presence even more fitting, Yurtchuk noted. Indeed, Hart said the orchestra hopes to make use of it.
"We're hoping to return to public performances in a small intimate setting," Hart said. "It's going to be much more than just another office space for the BPO. It's just exciting."
The purchase resolves questions about the property's future, which arose after the Red Cross put it up for sale two years ago after its national parent directed all chapters to sell their real estate. The agency tried to sell to the Erie County Industrial Development Agency, which had proposed a shared campus for nonprofits, but that idea fell through.
That's when Yurtchuk became involved, when Red Cross officials contacted him for advice on a sale. Coincidentally, Hart also called him, because the BPO wanted to find new space that stood out and fit its mission. The orchestra takes care of Kleinhans Music Hall, but the building is owned by the city.
"He came up with this idea on his own. He took us by surprise when he offered to buy it and give it to us," Hart said. "We can't thank him enough for this great opportunity."