The UU Church of Buffalo – A Continuing History
The Unitarian and Universalist Churches in this city were both organized in 1831, when Buffalo was still a village. The two congregations merged in 1953, when the First Unitarian Church of Buffalo and the Universalist Church of the Messiah joined to begin worshiping as the Unitarian Universalist Church of Buffalo at 695 Elmwood Avenue at West Ferry Street. Nationally, the two denominations merged in 1961.
The first Unitarian Church building in Buffalo (pictured left) was erected on a lot at Franklin and Eagle Streets. Its cornerstone was laid in 1833. Among those contributing towards its construction was Millard Fillmore, church member and future U.S. President, who later welcomed John Quincy Adams and Abraham Lincoln as guests in his pew. Lincoln’s visit occurred during his stop in Buffalo, on the way to Washington for his inauguration. Other Unitarian churches (at Delaware & Mohawk in 1879, and Amherst & Fairfield in 1897) were built prior to the current church.
The cornerstone for the first Universalist Church was laid near Washington & Swan Streets in 1832. Later locations were Main & Huron (1866), North & Mariner (1892), and Lafayette & Hoyt (in 1911). The building at Lafayette & Hoyt still stands.
The UU Church of Buffalo – Historic Architecture
The First Unitarian Church of Buffalo, in recognition of its significance in American history and culture, was listed on the State Register of Historic Places and the National Registry of Historic Places in 2015.
When completed in 1906, the ‘English Country Gothic ‘ church at the corner of Elmwood Avenue and West Ferry was acclaimed for its charm and beauty. It stands today as a stunning example of early 20th Century Arts and Crafts aesthetic.
Buffalo industrialist and philanthropist, John J. Albright sold the land for the church to the congregation at a bargain price; the building was sited at the western end of Albright’s West Ferry Street estate. The architect, Edward Austin Kent, of a prominent Buffalo family, was a member of the church (Kent is also notable for being the only resident of Buffalo to die in the sinking of the Titanic in 1912. He was a true hero of the catastrophe, going below several times to alert passengers and assist them to lifeboats on the deck.)
With construction that was completed in 2001, the building was made accessible to those with special needs, with the addition of the “Garden Entrance” to the church Parish Hall. An elevator and accessible restrooms were included in the renovations. The grounds of the church, resembling an old-style English perennial garden, are a tribute to the work of dedicated volunteers. From early spring to late fall, its natural beauty is shared with the many visitors and neighbors who pass by or stroll through the grounds. The garden has been recognized for its excellence, having received the Buffalo in Bloom city garden award.
The UU Church of Buffalo Sanctuary
The interior of the sanctuary, featuring walls of Indiana limestone and a great oak hammerbeam ceiling, has been called “one of the best Arts and Crafts spaces in Buffalo.” The church is a locally designated historic landmark; it is also listed on the New York State and National Registers of Historic Places.
Its design represented a return to hand craftsmanship (as reflected in the woodwork) and natural forms and light (as illustrated in the stained glass windows). An outstanding feature of the Sanctuary is the great oak hammer beam ceiling, soaring from stone corbels, which are about ten feet above the floor.
The Gothic design continues with the hand-carved, dark oak woodwork used for the reredos (the screen behind the pulpit), as well as for the beautiful ‘windscreen’ at the rear of the room. The simple pews are also of oak. The stained glass windows, in “art nouveau” style, were designed by Harry E. Goodhue, of Boston.
The pipe organ in the choir loft at the rear of the room was the gift of the family of parishioner Ethan Howard. Built by the Hutchings-Votey organ company in 1906, it was rebuilt in 1960 by the Delaware Organ Company of Tonawanda, NY.