Willert Park Courts
Determined Eligible for Nomination to National Register of Historic Places; New York State Historic Preservation Office/State Register Listing (10/2009); Local Landmark Designation (2/2014)
During the 1930s, Buffalo saw the beginnings of housing developments being constructed around the city (“USHA Approves”). Willert Park Courts, now officially titled the Alfred D. Price Courts, were part of this housing experiment at this point of the city’s history. The housing project was designed for African Americans from the start and remained as such throughout its years of occupancy.
The development came about as part of an initiative taking place across the country at the time. In 1937, the United States Federal Housing Authority (FHA) was created to help manage the housing market after the bust that created the Great Depression (Kraus 69). As Buffalo began to establish public housing around the city, the Housing Authority offered to fund one of these developments (69). Willert Park was planned to address the need for African American residences (69). It was not only one of the first that the Housing Authority sponsored but also the first African American housing development to be government-funded in New York (70). This was also the first public and federally funded housing development planned and built on Buffalo’s East Side (69).
Willert Park was chosen in 1938 from two proposed sites for this new housing development (“Housing Development”). The FHA agreed to loan the city $821,000 to build the project (“Buffalo to Get”). An advance of $250,000 was granted a few weeks later to begin construction as soon as possible (“Contract Signed”). Construction began on the Courts soon after approval of this federal funding in 1939 (“100 Seek”). Frederick C. Backus, a local architect, was brought in to design the project (“Pick Willert”). His design called for ten buildings containing close to 175 residential units, situated mostly parallel around a central courtyard (Banham 246). This was one of the first public housing developments to incorporate such an arrangement and a wide use of green space (“Willert Park – A.D. Price”). Fleischer Engineering & Construction were brought in to build the brick structures, which were eventually handed over to be owned and managed by the city (“USHA Approves”). 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 (“Art, Sculpture”). 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 (“Art, Sculpture”). Of interesting note, a copper time capsule was placed in the cornerstone during a ceremony a few months prior to the official opening of the project (“Applications”). When construction was completed two months ahead of schedule in 1939, the Buffalo Housing Authority, now the Buffalo Municipal Housing Authority (BMHA), took over ownership and management of Willert Park Courts (“Willert Park Project”). The cost of construction at the time amounted to around $913,000, meaning the city only paid for about 10 percent of the project after receiving the federal funding (“Buffalo to Get”).
The choice in location for Willert Park was a curious one, as it was constructed in an area of primarily Jewish and Italian Americans (Kraus 69). The project established a concrete African American community in an otherwise interracial area. The argument to justify this stated that the Courts were part of the city’s plan to clear up blighted areas. Buffalo was receiving $9,000,000 from the federal government to engage in a slum-clearing program throughout the city (“USHA Approves”). Its designation as an African American residential development appeared to be more of an exercise of the country’s “separate but equal” segregation policy (Kraus 72). The units in Willert Park were smaller and fewer than those seen in other ethnic groups’ public housing developments (Evans 107). The BMHA essentially worked to keep the African American community segregated in Willert Park (Kraus 72). The development filled up quickly because of this concentration of one racial group into one area. Even before construction finished, a few families had already moved into the earliest completed units (“Housing Unit Ahead”). By 1940, the units were almost completely occupied, as African Americans were being refused housing elsewhere in the city, and the waiting list for a unit continued to grow (Kraus 74).
This growing population in the development caused the city to look at creating a new African American housing project during the early 1940s; the expansion of the Semet Solvay Company factory and a growing need for defense workers’ housing also contributed to this consideration (“North Buffalo Project”). Officials began looking around the city for possible sites for the new development, suggesting places in North Buffalo, South Buffalo, an old auditorium, and a handful of other locations (Evans 108-109). However, none seemed suitable, as each proposal was immediately protested by the local residents in those neighborhoods, for none wanted a black housing project to come into their areas (108-109). After additional debates between municipal and federal agencies, the city decided on building right next to Willert Park, as it was the only location any of the authorities could agree upon (109-110).
In 1942, the FHA again helped fund the project, earmarking $2,000,000 for the extension on the grounds that further slum clearance would help provide land for this defense industry housing (“Federal Funds Earmarked”). Backus was brought in again to design the new units (“Zoning Board”). Construction began that same year and was completed in 1944, resulting in 300 additional units (“Willert Extension”). The additional buildings, built out of concrete this time with cinder block and brick faced interior walls, occupied the rest of the block south of the original design and most of the next block across Mortimer Street (Willert Park). The buildings were mostly arranged around courtyards like the earlier ten structures (Willert Park). There was an additional new community center built on the block east of Mortimer Street, constructed out of brick like the original buildings (Willert Park). This extension still did not help with housing issues for the African American community, as in 1945, the return of World War II veterans left 600 of them on the waiting list for Willert Park (Kraus 78).
The establishment of this African American community set a trend for the neighborhood in the East Side. With a larger black community moving in, white residents slowly began moving out to the suburbs, contributing to the separation of racial groups within Buffalo (Kraus 72). As people left, even more African Americans came in, as the area was now established as a “black” neighborhood. Willert Park was almost completely occupied by African Americans according to records in the 1950s and 1960s (“New Deal”). It was interesting to note the project manager of the development was Alfred D. Price, the only black senior district manager in the BMHA (Robinson). Price oversaw the neighborhood from its initial construction to his death in 1968 (Robinson). The following year, Willert Park was renamed the Alfred D. Price Courts in his honor (Robinson).
Willert Park Court sits on a three-and-half acre plot of land in the East Side of Buffalo (“Housing Development”). The project consists of ten buildings arranged around a courtyard. The buildings are constructed as two or three-story residences, with the three-story wings circling the central court. The administration building, which also contains residential units, is located at the top of the court. The street layout creates a trapezoidal form for the block Willert Park is located on. The overall layout works with this odd form by spreading out from the south; the buildings are closer together on the William Street end and fan out toward West Peckham. The design only occupies around thirty percent of the actual site, due to the wide outdoor spaces implemented to separate the buildings (“Buffalo to Get”). This allows for recreational space in between the residences, as well as grand vistas down the sides of the buildings. The residences themselves are built of multi-tone brick in a minimalist tradition (“Buffalo to Get”). Inside, each dwelling unit is laid out on a single floor, consisting of two to four bedrooms, a bathroom, a living room, and a kitchen (“Willert Park, Buffalo, N.Y.”). There are few public stairs, with the only ones found in the three-story units (“Willert Park, Buffalo, N.Y.”). For the two-story units, the stairways are only for accessing the unit located on the second floor (“Willert Park, Buffalo, N.Y.”). The basements act as laundry and social spaces (“Willert Park, Buffalo, N.Y.”).
The housing project utilizes brick construction throughout the whole complex (“Willert Park, Buffalo, N.Y.”). The floors are made of concrete slabs, which rest on metal joists (Willert Park). The roofs are also of a flat slab construction (“Willert Park, Buffalo, N.Y.”). Inside, the walls and ceilings have a plaster finish over metal lath, with wood trim and floors of tiled linoleum or ceramic (“Willert Park, Buffalo, N.Y.”). The sculptural panels throughout the project are made of red-brown tinted concrete to match the various color tones of the brick used in construction (Harris). Four 7’ tall sculptural figures in high relief hang off the ends of some buildings surrounding the court (Harris). The panels flanking the entrances to each dwelling unit, eighty in total, are 30” wide in bas relief (Harris). Two more additional 5’x4’ sculptures adorn the main entrance to the center administration building (Harris).
The project was located in a crowded East Side slum of Buffalo. It is roughly bounded by West Peckham Street to the North, Mortimer Street to the East, William Street to the South, and Spring Street to the West. It was part of the city’s slum clearance program that targeted derelict properties during the 1930s (“Housing Development”). The initial design removed and displaced eighty-two families from these worn-down and dirty homes (“Buffalo to Get”). When the first phase on the Courts was finished, the clean and orderly site created a vast contrast with the cluttered and dilapidated houses around it. This contributed to the authorities’ decision to build the Extension a few years later, displacing 100 families and demolishing their lots which had become junkyards for the most part (“Federal Funds”). The namesake park is located north of the block, just across West Peckham Street. A Jewish community center was also located across Spring Street (Kraus 69). The Extension covered the rest of the block south of the original design and the whole block across Mortimer Street to the east. The buildings on William Street were left alone, creating a kind of barrier with the busy street (Willert Park). Today only vacant lots and abandoned buildings, with a few newer housing developments from the BMHA, occupy the land where the Extension once was.
The brick construction of Willert Park Courts integrates the sculpture panels to add some life into the otherwise blank exteriors (Harris). The recessed horizontal bands across the exterior surfaces also break up the plain brick aesthetic. The concrete bas relief panels were laid with the brick as the buildings were constructed (Harris). This approach was a way of truly integrating the sculptures into the structure, rather than treating them as surface decoration. The overall construction makes efficient use of low cost materials, allowing for a clean look that does not appear cheap and is also honest about how the buildings were put together (Harris).
This particular housing development is a marker of African Americans’ place in Buffalo and its history. It represents this demographics’ experience in the city during the twentieth century. At first, the project responded to a more general housing need for African Americans. Then, more specifically with the Extension, it addressed the needs of African American industrial workers looking for homes. Willert Park was setup as a one of a kind housing project in Buffalo for a specific group of people. This in itself speaks to the segregation policy the city discreetly employed, locking many African Americans in this particular neighborhood. Officially, there was no definitive policy on the books promoting segregation; it was just carried out in the daily operations of the city government and local businesses (Evans 107). Concerns over segregation policy with this housing complex came as early as 1939, when the original design was being constructed (“Racial Bias”). A letter from a man named Frank Herron claimed the project was destined to become a “Jim Crow venture” with the persistent focus on Willert Park as a black housing development (“Racial Bias”). This sort of bias was what led to discrimination and segregation in so many cases before, ultimately withholding the freedom of a group of people to choose where they want to live (“Racial Bias”). These concerns amounted to little, as the project was completed and added upon. Herron was right in a way, as this set the tone for the neighborhood’s development throughout the twentieth century. The East Side became a predominantly African American part of Buffalo, stemming from the concentration of this population in Willert Park and its connection to the flight into the suburbs. This housing development thus represents the social history of a group of people. It speaks to the lives and struggles of the African American community in Buffalo as it fought for equality in finding a place to live, not just in housing but in society in general.
Culturally, Willert Park is again important because it was such a major residential area for African Americans in the city. It represents a part of the history of the community’s modern culture. Many prominent Buffalo leaders, from Alfred Price himself to doctors and politicians, have come from this neighborhood and influenced not only the culture of the African American community but of the city in general (“Willert Park – A.D. Price”). Architecturally, the development is significant for its connection with more Modern European housing projects, such as those of Le Corbusier or the Bauhaus (McEneny). It draws upon characteristics such as a simple exterior with little adornment (McEneny). The site and interiors both focus on a functional layout (McEneny). The art itself is significant because they are such well-crafted works that greatly add to the overall aesthetic of the complex. The sculptures are the work of some prominent artists and the result of a historic federal program (“Willert Park – A.D. Price”). The themes of work, play, rest and contemplation, centered around this idea of how to best raise a family, are beautifully represented in the symbolic reliefs (Harris). The words of the artist Cronbach’s daughter best sum up this significance: “The sculpture and architecture of these original Willert Park Courts Housing Project buildings reflect the spirit of a particular time in U.S. history, a time of social idealism fueled by the New Deal and nurtured through WPA projects (Espinosa).”
Aside from all of the social history embedded in Willert Park, there are a number of firsts associated with the development. The project was one of the earliest public housing developments in Buffalo, and the first one for African Americans (Kraus 69). It was also one of the first projects the FHA funded, as well as among the earliest ones to be federally funded in the city (69). The original design was one of the first in the nation to employ a courtyard space (“Willert Park – A.D. Price”). It is the only public housing development in Buffalo with a sculpture program (“Art, Sculpture”).
Willert Park Courts is a significant housing project in Western New York that many may not be familiar with. The development was among the earliest Modern designs built in the city of Buffalo. It was an early work of Backus, who would become one of the city’s prominent architects (Schrock). The design offered a new way of thinking about public housing in several aspects, such as aesthetics and site planning. This new approach succeeded in its goals, offering a well-designed living space that served its purpose of housing low-income families. The residences functioned quite well, with tenants reporting a good sense of community in the Courts that worked to maintain the appearance and atmosphere of the place (“Community Spirit”). Residents were proud to call Willert Park home, and were particularly proud to show off their units’ sculptures (“Art, Sculpture”). The principles employed in the design and subsequent operation of the facilities drew the attention of others around the country who were undertaking their own public housing initiatives at the time (“Art, Sculpture”). In addition to the history of the development, from the African American community housed here to its impact on the East Side and the city at large, Willert Park has a significant story to tell. Now the prospect of demolition and new construction threaten the continued existence of the project. Having been left to disrepair, Willert Park is nothing like what it once was but still holds potential. With recognition and historic designation status from multiple organizations and levels of government, the site is protected. However, many still do not even know about the project or the role it’s played in the city’s history. Those who do may even think there is no purpose to saving it, that it is not a significant enough piece of architecture. Willert Park Courts is an important architectural resource, though, one worth the effort to preserve it. The question now remains of what to do with the site and how to maintain it so that it stays true to its Modern heritage and the kind of community it engendered in Buffalo.
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