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Historic Preservation Students Help Place Local Church on National Register

Saints Peter and Paul Orthodox Church in Buffalo’s Lovejoy neighborhood. The late 19th century church, an example of the Byzantine Revival Style, is also the oldest Orthodox Church in the Diocese of New York and New Jersey. Photo by Douglas Levere

By Lisa Gagnon

Published September 28, 2015

Saints Peter and Paul Orthodox Church, an important piece of Buffalo's architectural and cultural history, is now officially on the National Register of Historic Places, thanks, in part, to the efforts of students in the Buffalo School’s historic preservation program. 

Under the direction of historic preservation professor Ashima Krishna, graduate students in the school’s documentation and field methods in historic preservation course last fall compiled the historical and architectural background of the church that served as the foundation for the New York State Office of Historic Preservation’s nomination to the National Register.

The late 19th century Sts. Peter and Paul is the oldest Orthodox Church in Western New York and in the Diocese of New York and New Jersey. Located at 45 Ideal Street, it is the only Orthodox Church in the Lovejoy neighborhood on the city’s East Side. 

Designed by architect Joseph E. Fronczak, born in Buffalo in 1894 to Polish immigrant parents, Sts. Peter and Paul exemplifies the Byzantine Revival Style, with its yellow-buff brick construction and copper and stone accents. Like most traditional Russian Orthodox Churches, Sts. Peter and Paul follows a cruciform plan; many elements, including gilded transept windows and detailed interior paintings, occur in sets of three to symbolize the Trinity. The structure itself represents the universe – arched windows in the dome allow light from heaven into the earth below.

Sts. Peter and Paul follows the Orthodox Russian tradition of "cruciform" design, where elements, such as the gilded transept windows pictured above, occur in groups of three to represent the Trinity: Father, Son and Holy Ghost. Photo by Douglas Levere

Sts. Peter and Paul also holds an important place in the social and cultural fabric of the community. During communist Russia’s persecution of Orthodox Christians, the church served as a place of refuge and community for Russian and Eastern European immigrants who had come to American in search of religious freedom.

During the "Red Scare" in America, Sts. Peter and Paul strove to overcome perceptions of Russian communism, anarchy and atheism by sponsoring musical evenings with Russian teas and dance recitals by Russian performers. Eastern European ethnic immigrants eventually dispersed from the area, but the church remains as tangible evidence of the cultural and ancient religious experience of thousands of East Side Buffalonians.

For the course, students compiled site descriptions, historical narratives, site visits, architectural photography and measured drawings. They also gained real-world experience in working with the New York State Office of Historic Preservation and completing a National Register nomination.

The addition of Sts. Peter and Paul to the National Register is a step forward for both the church and historic preservation, according to Krishna, who, as an architect and preservation planner, focuses her research on the adaptive reuse of historical religious structures and the management of historic urban landscapes "Churches are increasingly threatened in American cities. When parishes dwindle or move out, the church is often either sold off for other purposes or lies vacant for years."

Sts. Peter and Paul has been deemed significant in the areas of Religion, Architecture, and Art and Community Development from 1932-1970. The designation opens up opportunities for grants for much-needed restoration and repairs on the church itself, opportunities members of the church and local residents hope to take advantage of.

Yet the process of restoring or rehabilitating a church is not always easy, according to Krishna – any changes to a liturgical space must take into consideration the rituals and traditions practiced within and maintain the sanctity of the worship space. With a strong and active congregation, however, the church is in good hands, she says. "[Sts. Peter and Paul] has been incredibly lucky to retain its congregation, unlike many other Buffalo churches that have been rehabilitated for other uses, or worse, demolished.”

Ashima Krishna is an architect, historic preservation planner and educator. Her research focuses on three broad areas related to cultural heritage and its preservation: the management of historic urban landscapes in developing countries like India, issues in adaptively reusing religious historic structures and landscapes, and contemporary problems with world heritage sites in the developing world. Photo by Douglas Levere.

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