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Wasteland Studios needed more jam space so it bought a church

Growing demand for rehearsal and practice space for local musicians has prompted the owner of Wasteland Studios in downtown Buffalo to expand – in an old church in the city's Valley neighborhood.

Brian Wantuch has been renting rooms on Main Street to bands, artists, dancers and others who need a jam room or studio to perfect their skills. But there's been so much interest that he's run out of space at his main location in a six-story building in downtown Buffalo.

So he plans to turn the former St. Clare Catholic Church rectory on Elk Street into more rehearsal space, making the former living quarters and other rooms available for rent by performers. There's a full kitchen and space for band members to sleep there.

He already has an out-of-town band rehearsing in one of the 10 rooms, and he expects the rehearsal space to fill up soon, as well.

"This'll be full inside of a couple of months," he said.

He'll also turn the vast sanctuary in the main church into an event venue and community arts space called Elk Tree Gardens, focusing particularly on hosting large weddings or other social parties of as many as 700 or 800 people.

The purchase of St. Clare's is only the latest example of how old churches, rectories and church schools in Western New York are being reused and repurposed in a variety of ways after their congregations shrink, move out or close.

Many have been turned into residential space, particularly loft apartments, while others include some commercial areas or even medical office space. The St. Clare's school next door was separately acquired by developer Samuel Savarino, who is converting it into apartments.

The new venture will become an extension of Wantuch's Wasteland companies, which began as a music store by the same name on Elmwood Avenue in the late 1990s, but is now primarily rooted in renting studio space for both musical and visual artists. Tenants include all manner of bands, as well as dancers, photographers and painters. "I'm open to every artist. It just gives me more variety," he said.

Brian Wantuch purchased the vacant St. Clare Catholic Church on Elk Street in Buffalo. The rectory on the left will be rehearsal spaces and the the main church will be an event center. (Robert Kirkham/Buffalo News)

Early this year, he started looking for more space to meet the demand, mostly in industrial buildings in the area. That's when his real estate agents at Pyramid Brokerage Co., which were also handling the sale of the church, suggested he take a look at that property.

When he saw how much space he could get, and realized it had what he needed, he seized the opportunity, paying $200,000 to the Diocese of Buffalo. "I hadn't planned on buying a church," Wantuch said. "It's an immense property."

The two-story brown Medina sandstone church, with its slate roof and old brick additions, sits near the intersection of Elk and Smith streets, with a rear parking lot easily capable of fitting at least 40 to 50 cars. Built in 1890, it was the longtime home of St. Clare's Parish until shrinking demographics forced its merger into St. Teresa Parish on Seneca Street. The church has been empty for about two years.

Only minimal changes and cleanup are needed before Wantuch can reopen the former St. Clare Church, he said. That work began as soon as he took ownership of the vacant church in early November, and he already has lined up a dance performance in January as the first event in the new hall.

"I'm keeping it as is. I'm not turning the church into anything. It's staying a church," Wantuch said. "It won't be used for services, of course, but we'll do weddings, we'll do graduations, we'll do dance recitals."

In preparation for the sale, Wantuch said, the parish removed most vestiges of the building's religious past, with the primary exceptions of a cross atop the five-level east tower and a single Jesus statue embedded in the sanctuary but that was so well hidden that Wantuch said it took him "two weeks to find it."

The parish was also unable to take an array of stained-glass windows, which still adorn the entire length of the sanctuary on both sides. And the 1860-era organ remains, fully functional. "It's pretty sweet," he said. " It's in great shape."

Despite those remnants, Wantuch said he wants to make the building a non-denominational setting, open to anyone of any faith to feel comfortable inside.

He’s even open to theme weddings. “We’re allowed to do anything, as long as it’s tasteful,” he said, referring to deed restrictions placed on the future use of the church to prevent it from being used for “obscene performances.”

The former St. Clare Catholic Church on Elk Street was vacant before it sold. (Robert Kirkham/Buffalo News)

Initial work will cost only a few thousand dollars, but he eventually wants to make some bigger changes in the sanctuary, as well as enhancing bathroom facilities and other changes.

“It’s in good shape. It needs some love. It needs some work,” Wantuch said. “For the most part, we’re going to get it going, and as the money comes in, it takes care of itself.”

Wantuch, who says he grew up poor on the West Side, is a musician and composer who wrote music for video games, theater and local commercials before he started getting into the production side of the business as an audio engineer in order to support himself. He's worked for more than 18 years as a stage hand at Theatre of Youth, Studio Arena, Shea's Performing Arts Center and the former Rich Stadium. Additionally, he ran the Wasteland Music store until he sold it to a friend.

"In Buffalo, you have to have every job in music to make a living," he said.

He also had his own band, and used to practice along with other musicians at the Sidway at 777 Main St. until that building was sold and converted to luxury apartments more than 15 years ago. At that point, he rented an apartment for his band and set up a recording studio at his home.

But "I always thought it would be great to get a place like that back," he said, referring to the Sidway. So nine years ago, he convinced a friend who owned the building at 700 Main to allow his space to be used by bands.

The first advertisement yielded 32 hits in 24 hours. "It just spread. I got a lot of calls," he explained. "There was a huge demand for space for musicians, and that's what it came down to. Then I was full. I'm getting a call every week, and I'm still full."

Today, the 50,000-square-foot building on Main Street hosts 40 practice studios, not including an off-site recording studio on Clinton Street in the Kaisertown neighborhood. The rooms aren't soundproofed – neither is the church rectory – but that hasn't hindered the musicians. All studios are occupied, and Wantuch makes sure the performers are truly using their space, not just squatting.

"I'm not only a landlord. I make sure that they're productive," he explained. "If they're not productive in the room, they've got to get out of the room so someone productive can use it. I don’t let them sit on it or just use the room to hang out."

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