St. Louis Church caught between history and access

May 1, 2017

St. Louis Roman Catholic Church officials are caught between wanting to improve access to the historic church's basement and Buffalo Preservation Board requests to not be so visually blatant about it.

St. Louis is the first Roman Catholic parish established locally, in 1829. The current church, located at Main and Edward streets in downtown Buffalo, was completed in 1889 and is referred to as the Mother Church of the Buffalo Catholic Diocese because it is the diocese's first Roman Catholic church - built even before the diocese was established.

The church has a wheelchair ramp on the north side of the stone building, not a very visible side of the church. To improve access to the basement and make the ramp more useable in bad weather, the church asked architect Brian Louis to build a structure to enclose the ramp, to protect it from the weather, and enclose a new elevator to the basement. That would make the entire basement, including a small museum opened in 2009, available to everyone.

Credit St. Louis Roman Catholic Church

Trustee Mike Mikos said the church is trying to balance history with the needs of a congregation, which is both growing and aging.

"Since 2000, we have put up the handicapped ramp, took all the new vestibules, did the exterior restoration, the cleaning, the re-pointing. So I've been involved in this for the last almost 20 years," said Mikos. "We just restored our historic fence, $100,000 expense seven years ago, to restore the fence. We're just very, very cognizant of the fact that we have a historic building in a historic neighborhood."

Mikos said with better access, the church would make more use of its basement and add to the facilities in a large space.

However, Preservation Board members tabled the plan, asking for a better one. Architect John Laping said the addition did not reflect the building.

"It's a historic building. We've got to respect that. That addition did not respect the historic building," Laping said. "It points at it. It was an addition. It's not just an enclosure."

"Tried to make it as open as possible, but they didn't see it that way," said Louis. "It comes down to: Can you improve a historic structure like that or do you just live with the issues forever? and that's, basically, they are telling us we have to live with the issues forever."

In a long discussion, board members said even though it was on the less visible side of the church, the enclosure was just too big. There were also questions about how the roof of the proposed structure could be connecting to the church to keep the weather out without damaging the stonework.

The project goes back before the board Thursday.