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, and efforts are currently underway to achieve state and federal historic landmark recognition.
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.
National Register Initiative
Most people think the work of a church historian must move as slow as molasses. That’s certainly not the case at our beloved church! A new exhibit is up in the Parish Hall display case titled, “The UUCB National Register Initiative: To Gain Recognition as a Historic Place Worthy of Preservation.” This is an informational exhibit that highlights the benefits of listing our 695 Elmwood edifice on the National Register of Historic Places. For illustrative purposes the exhibit also looks at houses of worship of various denominations in Buffalo that have been listed, as well as a selection of UU churches throughout the U.S. that have been listed. All benefit from the recognition that goes along with listing, and many have subsequently received building preservation grants. These are also the hoped-for results of the current initiative to list our church described by Tom Yots at the congregational meeting. For more information, please contact Rev. Margret or stay tuned for updates in future newsletters.
The new exhibit replaces one on the 150th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s visit to the First Unitarian Church of Buffalo as a guest of Millard Fillmore, en route to his inauguration as U.S. President. Many will remember that a fascinating ceremony was held in our Sanctuary on 2/17 featuring a Lincoln reenactor to also mark the occasion. Even though the exhibit has been taken down I’m pleased to share the news that the ceremony will live on forever in a new publication by the National Park Service titled, “Abraham Lincoln’s Inaugural Journey.” Thanks to event planning by Molly Quackenbush and Mark Lozo of the Theodore Roosevelt Inaugural National Historic Site, the ceremony at our church was a great success and it is fabulous to see it covered in this new book in full color. Please stop by the Church Library to review the publication, generously provided to us by Mrs. Quackenbush, at your convenience!
– Bill Parke, Church Historian