A little-known effort to convert a historic former Catholic church on Hertel Avenue into an evangelical church took a step backward this week, after preservationists and city officials abruptly halted some illegal demolition work because it wasn’t properly authorized.
City inspectors ordered crews from Cambria Contracting to stop work on the former St. John the Baptist Church at 62 Hertel in Black Rock, after discovering that neither the demolition firm nor the project sponsor – Clarence-based NorthGate Christian Community – had obtained a required permit.
Nor had they sought prior approval from the Buffalo Preservation Board, which has at least advisory oversight over most demolitions in the city.
Inspectors were alerted to the problem by Tim Tielman, executive director of the Campaign for Greater Buffalo History, Architecture & Culture, who spotted the work in progress while driving by the site Tuesday evening.
Tielman, who wasn’t aware of any pending action, said he spotted a rental lift on the lawn next to the ornate church, and discovered upon stopping that the “emblematic” Italian Renaissance church tower on the East Street side was being torn down. He quickly notified James Comerford, commissioner of the city’s Department of Permits & Inspections, who sent a staff member the next morning.
“It’s a bit distressing. None of the work has permits,” Tielman said, who said a representative from the church also refused to allow the city inspector into the building. “It’s highly unusual. People don’t do this stuff.”
The church representative and contractors said they had a professional report – from Siracuse Engineers – stating that “the bell tower was a hazard” and needed to come down as an emergency, said Louis Petrucci, deputy commissioner of permits and inspections. But the city explained that they still needed proper approvals, he added.
A formal stop-work order was posted on the building, and the city issued a letter of violation to the contractor, Petrucci added.
Designed by architects Oakley & Schallmo, the current St. John building was built from 1925 to 1927 at a cost of $200,000 to replace an older house of worship dating to 1867.
The building remained a Catholic church until 2005, and was later sold to a developer, Plaza Group. Most recently, it was purchased in 2016 by RiverRock Church LLC and the Buffalo Myanmar Indigenous Christian Fellowship, which share the property, and are working with NorthGate.
NorthGate is a fast-growing Clarence evangelical church with nearly 400 congregants that was formed in 2008 and moved to its current location on Harris Hill Road in 2011. It started seeking partnerships with 14 other churches around the area – including RiverRock, a 16-year-old Buffalo church. With RiverRock's pastor retiring this past summer, it's now merging with the suburban church, which plans to begin holding services at the site as NorthGate at RiverRock as soon as renovations are complete, said NorthGate's founder and pastor, Jon Hasselbeck.
Hasselbeck said the Hertel campus includes both the church and a school building. RiverRock and the Burmese church have maintained the school since buying the property, he said, but "they found that the church building itself had been neglected for nearly 20 years."
"It was beginning to go into demolition by neglect, because there hadn’t been any serious maintenance," Hasselbeck said. "We just started to do the maintenance that was necessary to keep it from falling down."
That included restoring and repointing the brick exterior, and Hasselbeck said they had hoped to repair the tower. But masonry contractors found that "the top two sections were so structurally compromised due to neglect that they didn't even want to put anybody on the tower," Hasselbeck.
"We were informed that a partial demolition, removing the two top unstable sections could avoid injury, loss of life and further damage to the rest of the building," the church said in a statement. So they hired Cambria to start the work – but without getting the permits.
"It was very, very unstable, literally held up by some 4x4s in the interior," Hasselbeck said. "We tried to respond quickly, and I think we overreacted. We should have gotten those permits."
The church has now applied for an emergency demolition permit to stabilize the building while evaluating the next steps, and will also seek approval and "tutelage" from the Preservation Board "as an ally," he said.
"We’re really here not to destroy the building. We’re here to save the building," Hasselbeck said. "We love the building. We think it’s a great building, and we want to see it restored."
But the damage has already been done, Tielman said. The iconic bell tower was already in the process of being removed, and part of the interior was being gutted.
The lantern and cross at the very top of the tower are gone, while the lower octagon below it has been partially removed. The tower is wrapped in wood and wire bracing, and a pile of bricks lies at the base, with other bricks in a large dumpster.
Tielman said Comerford also confirmed that the contractors were doing plumbing work without proper permits as well.
Petrucci said the city agreed to allow workers to remove a portion of the tower that is now unstable, and to finish taking away materials laying on the roof. He said the contractor was also allowed to seal off the opening and make the roof weather-tight to prevent water infiltration and related damage.
NorthGate said it wants to "preserve and restore the functional parts of the building and sustain the safe portions of the tower," and to "see this building used as a church once again."
But Tielman insists the tower must be reconstructed “sooner rather than later.”