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When old churches get a second life


Retired, Rehabbed, Reborn: The Adaptive Reuse of America's Derelict Religious Buildings and Schools

By Robert A. Simons, Gary DeWine, and Larry Ledebur with Laura A. Wertheier

Kent State University Press

368 pages, $45.

As religious congregations in Buffalo merge, shrink or move, they leave behind houses of worship that face an uncertain future.

But Buffalo is hardy alone: More than 1,000 religious buildings become vacant every year across the country, according to "Retired, Rehabbed, Reborn: The Adaptive Reuse of America's Derelict Religious Buildings and Schools." To look at what can be done, the book examines religious buildings that found a new lease on life as residential condos, market-rate housing, schools, performing arts centers and even rock climbing gyms.

"Retired, Rehabbed, Reborn" -- the eighth book in Kent State University Press' Sacred Landmark Series -- is geared toward developers, architects, planners and others interested in tackling conversions. The book presents 10 case studies, devoting whole chapters to successful adaptive reuses in cities that include Cleveland, St. Louis, Little Rock, Queens and -- surprise, surprise -- Buffalo.

The Buffalo chapter tells how Asbury Methodist Church, 341 Delaware Ave., became home to musician Ani DiFranco's Righteous Babe Records, a 1200-capacity  performance space in the former sanctuary, the intimate Ninth Ward and Hallwalls Contemporary Arts Center.

Like so many churches near central business districts, the 19th-century Gothic Revival-style church suffered from a shrinking congregation that eventually left, and diminished finances and deferred maintenance made worse by a porous roof.

"It could easily have become a parking lot due to neglect, but was saved by the intervention of the Buffalo community," the authors write.

The book recounts how DiFranco and Scot Fisher, Righteous Babe's president, embarked on a $9.7 million renovation that had to overcome complicated financial and site obstacles. It also points  to long-term challenges. While Babeville hoped to become financially self-sustaining, that remains a goal rather than a reality 11 years later.

Even so, Franco and Fisher are commended for resurrecting a main artery going in and out of downtown.

"Now, as a result of Babeville and other investment, it is starting to boom," the authors write. "Being a community champion has its own rewards."


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