Plymouth Methodist Church / Karpeles Museum Table of Contents
1989 Application for Landmark
Plymouth Methodist Church and Parsonage
453 Porter Avenue, Buffalo, NY
Buffalo Landmark Status approved 1989
Submitted to: The Buffalo Preservation Board
Submitted by: Preservation Coalition of Erie County
- Hilary Sternberg
- Paul Maine
- Nancy Barrett
Table of Contents:
Church - Architectural Description
The Plymouth Methodist Church is notable for
- its complicated integration of polygonal and rectangular forms,
- its effective, sparing use of ornament and
- its artistic adaptation to its unusual and prominent site.
Structure: It consists of various bays and wings, two portico-like structures and a bell tower which arrange themselves about a central octagonal form, to a certain extent obscuring it from view. Above the center of the building arises a broad octagonal tower surmounted by a lantern (Referred to as a "cupola" below - Ed. note).
Site; The asymmetrical results cunningly fills out the triangular lot which the church shares with its parsonage, allows room for the illusion of spacious lawns and creates facades which are significantly oriented to the many streets which approach them and which make it rewarding to view the church from virtually every direction.
Stone Walls: The walls exhibit quarry-faced limestone (Onondaga limestone - Ed. note) cut into rectangles which have straight edges. The stone is laid in subtly irregular coursing, its rustic surface enriched by natural striation, pitting and hints of fossilization. The cupola walls are made of brick faced with stucco which succeeds in looking like smoothly faced limestone. The lantern consists entirely of cut-stone ornament.
Roof: Above the walls there is, except for the large window bays, a continuous roof line. This is marked by a wide, elaborately molded gutter, however, not a cornice. This focuses the viewer's attention all the more on the walls, while also emphasizing the massive, weighty quality of the red tile roof above them.
It is interesting that this ornamental copper gutter continues across the three sides of the bell tower, where there is no functional need for it. This gutter reappears, prominently, on the cupola and on the lantern .The capstones over the gables above the large windows are conspicuous because they too are clad in copper.
Windows: The large pictorial windows contrast with the others not only in their size, colorfulness, and enrichment with stone tracery but also in the fact that they, with their wide framing of smoothly cut stone, occupy more area than does the surrounding masonry of their high gabled bays.
There is a similar plan in the distribution of decorative stonework over the rest of the church. Generally, the richness of such decoration increases with the height of the area in which it appears. However, the two portal bays, which comprise the most elaborately ornamented stonework on the building, appear within and contrast with the otherwise almost ornament free lower regions.
Above the doors is wood paneling, enriched by tiny wooden attached columns, and above this the tympanums are filled with leaded windows.
Windows: The large pictorial windows, however, are the most impressive single feature of the church. Stone tracery divides each one into a five part arcade with rounded arches surmounted by a simple geometric tracery in which four circles are enmeshed in other, less regular forms.
The color of the Tiffany-style translucent glass is visible on the outside, where its blues, blue-greens and violets contrast pleasantly with the slightly yellowish gray of the stone.
The pictorial designs are also visible on the outside -- Christ the Good Shepherd in the east window, and Christ in the Temple in the south one. Each depiction encompasses all five arcade panels of its window.
The tympanum section contains symbols -- the four gospels, alpha and omega, the lamb of God -- in the circular panels, other traditional motifs in the other spaces, all integrated into geometric patterns which fit the tracery.
All of the small windows are filled with simple geometric designs in leaded glass. The ones in the cupola are of colorless glass while the others, on the first and second floors, are a mixture of yellow and semi-opaque glass.
The structure of the interior is far more complicated than that of the exterior. Under the cupola there is not just one centrally organized space, but two. One of these, the sanctuary, is larger. It is built according to the Akron plan, the pews arranged in arcs along the diagonal of a basically square room so that they face the pulpit and choir which are spread out across one corner, the organ being in an alcove or bay behind them.
In line with the diagonal of the sanctuary, separated from it by another large archway filled with a movable curtain wall is another centrally planned room with a skylight above it. This is the Sunday school assembly room.
On two floor levels classrooms, offices, etc. radiate from it in such a way that they can all open to the assembly room, and when the large curtain wall is raised, to the sanctuary itself, of which they then become a part.
Parsonage - Architectural Description
The parsonage is notable for its integration with the design of the church, its adaptation to the corner of the triangular plot on which it appears and its own deceptively simple but really quite complicated form.
The parsonage is built of red brick with sandstone trim for the windows. It consists of a main section, a rectangular building parallel with Plymouth Avenue, and two wings which connect it to the church.
Gable: The main section has a simple gabled roof, at half pitch, its narrow eaves fitted out with a cornice with includes simple ornamental brackets and quarter-round moldings The walls of the gables at either end are of wood, covered with shingles cut in an octagonal pattern.
Third gable: We begin to become aware of complications in this apparently simple structure when we see that it has a third gable facing Plymouth Avenue, adjacent to the one facing Porter Avenue. The character of this one is entirely different from that of the Porter Avenue gable, yet it has as much or perhaps more decoration; viewed frontally from Plymouth Avenue it seems to be the main gable of the house, as though the rest of the house to the right of it along Plymouth Avenue were a mere extension of it. The face of the gable is brick. On the second floor level a narrow chimney corbels itself out from the wall in a shallow projection and continues up to the peak.
The Porter Avenue end of the main section of the house is at an angle to the street. On the right is an arc-shaped bay containing three splendidly curved double hung windows.
Telltale lines in the masonry suggest that there was once a decorative porch or balcony above the bay.
The corner of the facade which is toward the church is cut at an angle toward the two wings which are positioned so that they form two set-backs. On the first floor there is a door in each wing, the one of the left is an entrance to the pastor's study, the one on the right the front door of the house.
Porch: A porch, which like the bay window, is in the shape of an arc, stretches from the door to the pastor's study around the first wing to the wall of the main section of the house. The porch is decorated. There is a cornice exactly like that on the rest of the house and there are delicately turned spindles in the railing.
Simply stated, the parsonage is a fine example of the late Queen Ann style house architecture.
History of the Church and Parsonage
First church: The gray limestone church we see today on Porter Avenue is the third building project carried out on this site by a congregation which began in 1850 as the Ninth Street Methodist Church (Ninth Street has since been renamed Prospect Avenue).
Second church: They consequently moved to the corner of North and Twelfth Streets (now the southwest corner of Plymouth and Porter Avenues) , then to the corner just south of that, on Jersey Street, where the firehouse now stands, changing its name successively to North Street and then Jersey Street Methodist Episcopal Church.
Third church: On the evening of January 25, 1873 the Jersey Street Church was destroyed by fire. Within the next six months the congregation commenced building a new church, on its present site, with cornerstone-laying ceremonies held on July 12, 1873. At that time the congregation, by unanimous vote, changed its name to Plymouth Methodist Episcopal Church in commemoration of the faith and courage in the face of adversity which the Pilgrim Fathers had shown in 1620 at Plymouth Rock.
Because of the church's prominence on Porter Avenue and its significance in the community it quickly became the namesake for Twelfth Street, whose name was changed to Plymouth Avenue during the intervening years 1874 to 1884.
By March 1, 1874 the new red brick church was enclosed and the chapel room was completed. However, ensuing financial problems, overcome only with the help of the well known Buffalo philanthropist Francis H. Root, prevented the completion of the church until over 3 years later on June 10, 1877. The architects of this church were Porter and Watkins.
Remodeled church: In 1889 a second building project remodeled and enlarged this church and added the red brick parsonage to it. Although there are no records indicating the architect responsible for these improvements which cost $15,000, one can't help but wonder if the Porter family had their hands in it. After all, the architectural firm of (Cyrus K.) Porter and Watkins were responsible for the original church on this site and Porter's son Jesse R. Porter, a member of the firm of Cyrus K. Porter and Sons, was responsible for the third and current church. (Ed. Note: Subsequently, architectural plans have been located and the architects were Cyrus K. Porter and Sons.)
Fourth church: By 1911 the Board of Trustees had decided that it was necessary to replace this church with a larger one. On June 22,1911 a ceremony was held for the removal of the 1873 cornerstone before demolition began. For the next 18 months church services were held across the street at the State Normal School (now the site of Grover Cleveland High School) .
The George H. Kellogg Structural Steel Company was responsible for the fabrication of the roof trusses which were erected during the winter of 1911-12. The building committee chose the Haskins Art Glass Company of Rochester to execute the two pictorial windows and the ceiling skylight for $1,750. One of the other bidders for this contract was Tiffany. The Booth Art glass Company of Buffalo was responsible for the remaining windows for the sum of $1,250.
On Sunday, November 10, 1912 a week of dedication events began. Among them was an organ concert by Prof. H. L. Hibbard, head of the Organ Department at Syracuse University. Preceding the dedication, an article in "The Buffalo Evening news" on November 9, 1912 described the church as:
...of Romanesque style architecture, built of gray limestone with red tile roof, marble hallways, and quartered oak finishings. A ventilating system, which changes the air every 8 minutes, and an indirect lighting system, insuring both cleanliness and comfort are features. It also has a vacuum cleaning system.
Describing the interior spaces, the article continues:
The auditorium can be expanded to seat 2,000 people. The assembly rooms when thrown open will accommodate 1200 people. The large art glass windows in the auditorium are among the finest in Western New York. The building contains the following rooms: auditorium, pastor's study, reception room, music room, nursery, welcome room, business office, junior room, parlor, 17 (sic) classrooms, primary room, reading room, dining room, kitchen, serving room, assembly room, gymnasium, sexton's room, and boiler room.
The total cost of the new church was $109,469.39, including interest on the loan. Through aggressive fund raising efforts begun dedication week, the debt was paid off in 7 years.
The new church membership totaled 1,050. Membership in the Sunday school classes was 1200. At the time it was built, Plymouth Methodist was easily accessible to its congregants by three trolley lines, the Grant, Hoyt, and Connecticut, which all passes by the church doors.
50th anniversary: By 1925 the church membership had grown to 1500, making it the largest Methodist congregation in Buffalo. A "Courier Express" article of October 4, 1926 describes a 50th anniversary celebration. Among the events was a Sunday school parade with over 1,000 participants in which each class had an elaborate float.
Centennial: October 25, 1950 marked the beginning of an eight day celebration commemorating Plymouth Methodist's centennial founding. It's slogan was "Remembering Yesterday: 1850 -- Act Today, 1950, to Guarantee Tomorrow." The originators of this theme were already concerned about the church's future, for in the preceding 25 years the membership had dropped by over half from 1,500 to 718.
From July 1967 to May 1968 the West Side Teen Center used the church basement on Friday and Saturday nights . Neighbors complained to Police about excessive noise and vandalism. Allegations of racism arose because black teenagers were attending dances at the church in a neighborhood which was still predominately white.
Closing: By October 28, 1968 the congregation had dwindled to 155 members due to the change in ethnic/racial/religious composition of the neighborhood. The congregation authorized its Board of Trustees to close the church and sell it. The last service of the founding congregation occurred on Thanksgiving Sunday 1968. About 125 people attended the final service.
Shaw Memorial A. M. E. Zion Church: After the dissolution of the congregation, in 1970 the Western New York Conference of the United Methodist Church donated the property to the Western New York Conference of the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church in America, in order to assist that church in ministering to its inner city members. The Shaw Memorial A. M. E. Zion Church congregation then occupied the property. By 1982 that congregation's membership had also shrunk -- to about 50 active members. The church requested that the SUNY School of Architecture conduct a feasibility study to show possibilities for reuse of the property.
That study erroneously concluded that any reuse of the church would be hampered by a deed restriction limiting the use of the property to activities of the Methodist church. To be sure, there is such a restriction in deed liber 457/170, but the study overlooked that deed liber 654!358 of September 24, 1892 removes that restriction. The study nevertheless recommended the reuse of the church as an arts center. The irony of that fact is that 14 years earlier, according to a "Courier Express" article on October 28, 1968, a purchase offer of $35,000 was made to the Plymouth Methodist Church by the Ashford Hollow Foundation for the Visual and Performing Arts. Artists Larry and Rod Griffis hoped to use the building as an inner city art and theatre center in conjunction with the State University of Buffalo.
Since 1982 the Shaw Memorial congregation has also disbanded, its members having joined other congregations. And while the parsonage is currently occupied, the church is vacant and the Western New York Conference of the A. M. E. Zion Church is presently offering the property for sale.
(This application was written in 1989. The abandoned building was purchased on August 7, 1995 after many months of negotiations by the Karpeles Museum. The enormous building needed over $2,000,000.00 in extensive rebuilding- Ed. note)
Porter Avenue: The Streetscape
Plymouth Methodist Church is situated on a triangular plot of land bounded by Porter Avenue, Plymouth Avenue and Jersey Street. An integral part of the Porter Avenue streetscape, the church is within a short walking distance of some of Buffalo's finest and most treasured landmarks.
Porter Avenue: Porter Avenue begins at the Niagara River and terminates at Symphony Circle. Although only 1.1 miles in length, Porter Avenue fronts an enormous variety of buildings: 2 churches, a college, elementary school, public library, 2 parks, pumping station, entry to an international bridge, small commercial and residential buildings, and Victorian mansions. Among the more notable landmarks on Porter Avenue and in the vicinity of Plymouth Methodist Church are:
- Grover Cleveland High School - Corner of Jersey Street and Normal Avenue at the six point intersection of Porter Avenue. Built 1913. Original site of the State Normal School.
- D'Youville College - Porter Avenue between Fargo and Prospect Avenues. D'Youville College was the first women's college in Western New York. It was established in 1908 by the Grey Nuns. The mansard roofed main building originally housed Holy Angels Academy and was built in 1874.
- Holy Angels Roman Catholic Church - Porter Avenue between West and Fargo Avenues. A brick Gothic Revival church.
- Frederick Law Olmsted West Public School -West Avenue behind Holy Angels Church. Built 1905. Originally part of the Holy Angels Academy complex which included the main building of D'Youville College and the Holy Angels Church.
- Engine #2 Firehouse - Corner of Jersey and Plymouth Avenues, adjacent to Plymouth Methodist Church and prior site of the church. The Second Empire style firehouse is one of the oldest extant firehouses in Buffalo. Built c.1873, additions 1897, 1917.
- Peace Bridge Entryway - Porter Avenue and Monroe Drive. The bridge built 1925-27 was named for one century of peace between the U.S. and Canada. Originally part of Front Park, this was the site of the 1844 Fort Porter which served as a customs and guard house and was demolished for the bridge.
- Colonel Francis G. Ward Pumping Station - Porter Avenue at D.A.R. Drive. Less than a mile from the Plymouth Methodist Church, the station, on the edge of the Niagara River, is located at the western terminus of Porter Avenue. Designed by the Buffalo architectural firm of Esenwein and Johnson, 1912-16, it was at its completion the largest municipal pumping plant in the U.S.
- Kleinhans Music Hall - Symphony Circle and Porter Avenue. Built 1938-40 by the international partnership of Eliel and Eero Saarinen, Kleinhans is world renowned for its architectural style and acoustical excellence. Eero Saarinen is best known as the architect of the TWA Terminal at Kennedy Airport.
- First Presbyterian Church -Symphony Circle and Pennsylvania Avenue. Built 1889-91 (tower 1897) by Buffalo's premier architects Green & Wicks, the church features stained glass windows by Tiffany.
- Birge Mansion - Symphony Circle and Richmond Avenue. Built in the late 1890's in the Georgian Revival style by the Boston architectural firm of Little and Brown. The Birge Mansion and carriage house's recent renovation has been nothing short of spectacular after years of neglect and vacancy.
- Victorian mansions at 369 and 412 Porter Avenue. Sited in the book DAUGHTERS OF PAINTED LADIES (by Elizabeth Pomada and Michael Larsen, E. P. Dutton, New York publishers), these two houses exemplify the currently popular colorist movement which highlights Victorian ornamentation through the use of a multiple color scheme. 369 Porter Avenue is painted 18 different colors.
The Plymouth Methodist Church is obviously located on a street unusually rich with examples of Buffalo's finest architecture. But what made Porter Avenue the recipient of such finery? Perhaps this can be answered with the name of one man -- Frederick Law Olmsted, America's greatest landscape architect.
Olmsted, best known as the genius behind New York City's Central Park, created Buffalo's parks and parkway system which linked the parks via avenues, parkways and landscaped circles. The avenues impressively wide, the parkways filled with 6 to 8 rows of trees were created to serve the need for open spaces within residential neighborhoods, while at the same time providing a route of access from one park to another. In 1982 Buffalo's parks and parkways system were listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Porter Avenue was incorporated into Olmsted's plan as part of the link which connects Front Park, Columbus (originally Prospect) Park and Delaware Park. A stroll down any of the avenues -- Porter and Richmond or parkways -- Bidwell and Lincoln will surely convince even the most casual observer that these prestigious streets contain some of Buffalo's most distinguished, imposing and eclectic edifices.