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CEO to turn former Richmond Avenue temple into 'clean energy' home

The former home of Buffalo's first Jewish congregation has found a prayer for a new life – as an environmentally friendly residence for one of Buffalo's newest CEOs.

Sentient Science CEO Ward Thomas has acquired the historic former Temple Beth El building on Buffalo's West Side from its out-of-town owner, bringing a spiritual respect for its past and a new idea for its future.

The stately building with its green copper dome at 155-165 Richmond Ave. was a house of worship since it was built in 1910. It was used as a synagogue for its first 50 years, and has since been occupied by a couple of churches, most recently Greater Emmanuel Temple Church.

But Thomas has a new vision for the edifice: He wants to live there with his family, which includes seven children ranging in age from 14 to 28. And by restoring the old building, he wants to set an example for the employees of his company and others in Buffalo.

He plans to create what he says will be Buffalo's first 100 percent "clean energy" home, with a rooftop "urban farm," an air purification system, solar power and recyclable materials.

"We want clean energy to be an increasing gambit," Thomas said. "I've devoted my career to it, and I believe it in my home life, as well. ... Hopefully, it'll get other people to be inspired by what I am doing."

Thomas wants to demonstrate to his growing workforce just how affordable Buffalo's real estate can be. Sentient, a technology company that Thomas moved to Buffalo from Idaho, employs 40 here, but expects to add at least 60 jobs locally. Many of those workers are likely to come from out of town, he said.

"I really want to be able to say to these families, 'Move to Buffalo,'" said Thomas, who moved here with his family from San Francisco. "You can buy a small condo in California, or you can buy a beautiful property in Buffalo, and you can make a lot of money in real estate from that."

Focused on renewable energy

Founded in 2001, Sentient is a materials science company focused on lowering the cost of energy and extending the life of industrial operations in wind energy, aerospace and transportation fields. It's received more than $25 million in research and development funding from the federal departments of Defense and Energy, and has a partnership with Purdue University in Indiana, where it operates a laboratory testing facility.

Its research facility is still in Idaho Falls, where it was formerly based near Idaho National Labs, before Thomas moved it to Western New York in 2013. The company was recruited by Sen. Charles E. Schumer, D-New York, and Invest Buffalo Niagara, with funding from the state and a new relationship with University at Buffalo. It's based in the Jacobs Executive Development Center, in the UB-owned Butler Mansion.

Over the summer, the company raised $22.5 million from a Toronto venture capital firm, Georgian Partners. It plans to use that capital to pursue growth and add 70 new employees. It's currently working with Uber Technologies on a project to provide low-cost helicopter rides, using its expertise to lower the operating expense.

"It's an awesome thing to move here to Buffalo," Thomas said. "To be part of a business and a community that is committed to renewable energy and a clean home is very, very important. It will help us attract more people to our business if our CEO is living how he preaches at work every day."

Thomas also plans to install electric-car charging stations around the property, which he will offer free for use to those who own electric vehicles. That'll cost him, he acknowledged, but it's part of "giving back to the community and really trying to promote clean energy."

'Doesn't look like a church'

There are plenty of religious institutions in Buffalo and around the country that have been converted into nonprofit, community or residences. But usually in such a case, a church is renovated into apartments or condominiums, not a single-family home.

The concept may seem odd for the 12,292-square-foot structure, but Thomas say that's not so. The 5,000-square-foot rear of the building has a kitchen, bathroom and "living quarters," he said, so "it's not much of a conversion from that perspective." It also has a gymnasium and basketball court in the basement.

It's also in the midst of an established residential neighborhood, at the intersection of Richmond, York Street and 17th Street, with apartments and single-family homes around it. And it doesn't need a lot of work, he said, "other than it's been let go for a few years and it's a mess."

"It's a beautiful Byzantine building," he said. "It doesn't look like a church. It looks like a stately property."

Ward Thomas, CEO of Sentient Science, said the building's history was part of its appeal. (John Hickey/Buffalo News)

The large sanctuary area, with its pews and the existing raised platform,  is the only challenge to reuse, he said. Thomas said he sees that becoming "more of an indoor backyard" with "very unique windows and sun," he said.

He expects to hire local architects and spend more than $1 million over the next year on the restoration project, including cleanup, repainting and installation of energy-efficient mechanical systems.

"This is my home," Thomas said. "I'm not so much concerned about the money than giving ourselves a wonderful place to live."

Building's history had appeal

Temple Beth El, the first Jewish congregation in Buffalo, was founded in 1847 by Polish and German immigrants. It was initially located in downtown Buffalo, and then moved east to Elm Street in 1873, but outgrew that by the early 1900s, forcing it to find a new location.

The Richmond Avenue temple was designed by Howard Osgood Holland. Construction began in 1910, with completion a year later. At the time, it was built with steel, concrete and brick for about $100,000, which translates to nearly $2.5 million today.

But it has been vacant for at least two years, and its future was uncertain. That created worry among both preservationists and also within the Buffalo Jewish community, where many older people still remember worshipping and celebrating events within its walls.

Jewish symbols, such as the Star of David, still adorn both the interior – above the bimah or stage – and the exterior, where it is carved into the stone facade above the entryway. And the building's stained-glass windows date to its early years, when they were donated by Beth El members.

"It's unmistakenly Jewish," said Chana R. Kotzin, director of the Jewish Buffalo Archives Project.

Besides religious services and bar mitzvahs, the Conservative synagogue hosted a religious school and became a community center, with annual balls and dramatic performances. The congregation marked its 100th anniversary at the Richmond building in 1947.

As the people moved to the suburbs, Beth El eventually expanded with a school building on Eggert Road to serve its members in Amherst. Eventually, the synagogue relocated to Amherst in 1966 and sold its Richmond building.

"That building was active up until the 1960s, so it's in the lifetime of people who still live here," Kotzin said. "It still has meaning as a building because there are enough Jews from that time who had bar mitzvahs there."

The building was last owned and used by Greater Emmanuel, which sold it in a foreclosure auction to Trimont Real Estate Advisors of Atlanta in January for $259,000. Trimont then put it up for sale for $449,000 through Hunt Commercial Real Estate. According to a deed filed with the Erie County Clerk's office, Thomas paid $230,000 to Trimont, which acted through VFC Properties 18 LLC.

Thomas said he's enjoyed learning about the building's roots and history, which appealed to him even more than just the architecture.

"We're a very religious family. We're very centered spiritually," said Thomas, who attends church services at The Chapel at CrossPoint in Amherst. "If you're making a truly green building, it's hard to leave out the spiritual factor."

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