icons at risk

Willert Park Courts

Architect: Frederick C. Backus
Year of completion: 1939
Location: Buffalo, NY, USA

Threatened with demolition
Latest update 1 June 2020

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Willert Park Courts

This complex, a unique example of early Modernism with bas-reliefs depicting scenes of everyday life, was New York State’s first housing project constructed specifically for African Americans. Today, the site is vacant and many of its structures are open to the elements. The Buffalo Municipal Housing Authority previously proposed demolishing the complex to construct replacement housing.

The National Trust for Historic Preservation and Preservation Buffalo Niagara are coming together to announce that Willert Park Courts has been named in May 2019 one of the United States 11 Most Endangered Historic Places by the National Trust for Historic Preservation. Although Preservation Buffalo Niagara has been fighting to save Willert Park Courts from demolition for ten years, this national recognition is a notable notch on the timeline of this fight.

This Place Matters: Willert Park Courts. Uploaded by Preservation Buffalo Niagara.

Architectural Highlights

Willert Park Courts, completed in 1939 with a later addition completed in 1944, were designed for African Americans from the start and remained as such throughout its years of occupancy. Frederick C. Backus, a local architect, was brought in to design the project. His design called for ten buildings containing close to 175 residential units, situated mostly parallel around a central courtyard. This was one of the first public housing developments to incorporate such an arrangement and a wide use of green space. To give the design an aesthetic other than the brick façade, Backus worked with Robert Cronbach and Harold Ambellan from the Federal Arts Program to design sculptures with the theme of work and working class life. The tinted concrete panels, situated at the entrances of each building, added a different look to the project and made it one of the first in Buffalo to involve sculpture in housing design. The complex is significant culturally, historically, socially and architecturally as the first housing complex for African Americans in Buffalo and as an early International Style design. The complex is threatened with demolition. Despite receiving approval for local landmark designation by the Buffalo Preservation Board, the Common Council denied its designation because its neighbors “were opposed to it, although they do want to see the artwork embedded in the walls preserved.”

Call to Action

Ask the Buffalo Municipal Housing Authority to preserve and redevelop rather than demolish this important site.

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Willert Park Courts

Frederick C. Backus

1939, USA