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Treasures abound as church downsizes with estate sale

Fine china and crystal stemware.

Bookcases -- some inlaid, others made of oak.

Classic Kittinger furniture, pews and even a Steinway piano.

These were some of the items available for purchase on Friday, the first day of a weekend estate sale at Lafayette Avenue Presbyterian Church.

The 60,000-square-foot Romanesque building has anchored the northeast corner of the Lafayette-Elmwood Avenue intersection since 1895. The church is downsizing to prepare for the construction of apartments that will occupy much of the building's space.

Many of the pieces for sale, especially the Kittinger furniture, are easily 100 years old and are hard to find, said David Johnson, who works for Sweet & Harding, the company running the sale.

The famous furniture-making Kittinger family was among the founding members of the church, Johnson said.

"That's why you see a lot of furniture here with Kittinger on it," he said.

Other interesting items include a Victorian-style, 90-year-old Duncan Phyfe sofa, bookcases adorned with leaded glass, expansive library tables and desks made of dark wood.

Sean White and John Dudkowski -- who recently moved back to Buffalo after living in San Diego for 30 years -- bought a Chinese checkers game, plastic picnic dishes, handmade doilies and a china serving platter that matches a set passed down to White by his late grandmother.

Kristy Gantzer and Erik Schwab, both 25-year-old city residents, were walking by on Elmwood Avenue and were drawn to the action going on at the church, but many of the items were out of their price range.

"There's a big rug for $400 that takes up the whole room I would love to have and a couple of big, red chairs that are well-made," Gantzer said.

Money was not the only challenge for Schwab, who pointed out many of the pieces would require a large space.

"I wish I could afford them, and even if I could, I wish I had somewhere to put it," he said.

Financial pressures and a shrinking congregation are prompting First Presbyterian to convert a large part of its building into 23 market-rate apartments. The move will bring in needed revenue to support the church's budget.

Under the proposal, the flat-roofed brick building to the northeast of the sanctuary would be converted to apartments, as would the top level of the building behind the sanctuary. The church currently envisions a mix of one-bedroom and two-bedroom units, which would be available for rent by anyone, not reserved for members of the congregation.

The number and type of apartments could change as plans evolve, but the site will not stop being a place of worship and a community center even after the apartments are added.

The congregation will still maintain its sanctuary and the lowest level of the other building will be used by the church and the community, church officials said.

The church will continue to share some of its space with nonprofits and groups such as Serendipity, a thrift store that raises money for people with AIDS, and Loaves and Fishes, a soup kitchen run by the nonprofit Concerned Ecumenical Ministries.

Lafayette Presbyterian is the developer for the project, but it has hired a construction manager, Syracuse-based Port City Preservation LLC, to get the contractors and financing in place. Carmina Wood & Morris is handling the design work.

Because the church is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the conversion qualifies for federal tax credits. The congregation has lined up a construction loan and long-term mortgage from Evans Bank and will use some of its own money to finance the work.

Plans call for starting asbestos remediation and demolition next month, with a goal of completing the project by the end of the year and opening at the start of 2013, subject to state and local government approvals.

Lafayette Presbyterian's plan comes as churches, synagogues and other religious organizations in Western New York adjust to aging, declining populations and are in danger of folding.

The congregation of the landmark church has dwindled to about 100 members from 1,500 in the 1950s.

The estate sale continues from 9:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. today and noon to 4 p.m. Sunday.