Righteous Duo Preserves, Adapts Buffalo’s Architecture

If Ani DiFranco left Buffalo, N.Y., she’d be following a trend: The population of the blue-collar town has been shrinking for years. But singer/songwriter has never followed the crowd. With longtime manager Scot Fisher, DiFranco started an independent music label, Righteous Babe Records, and based it in Buffalo. Thirty releases and 13 years later, she and Fisher are still there, and still helping revitalize the local economy. But now, they’ve taken to preserving the city’s architecture, too: The pair are in the process of opening new offices, a recording studio, and a 1,200-seat performance space in Asbury Delaware Church, a landmark structure built in 1876.

Fisher says his foray into preservation began after receiving a sign from above. “A piece of sandstone fell from the church’s facade,” he explains, causing authorities to close the street and discuss demolishing the structure. Realizing he had to act, Fisher started Citizens to Save the Asbury Church in 1996 and began appearing in court. Via a lawsuit, the group succeeded in blocking the emergency demolition of the church, then raised enough money to repair the building to a point where it was considered safe.

Soon after, DiFranco and Fisher saved another structure: an Art Deco jewel that housed an original showroom for the Pierce-Arrow Company, a manufacturer of handmade cars. “There was a guy chiseling terra cotta off the front of the building,” Fisher said, conveying disbelief. Two days later, the pair hired a lawyer and got an injunction to stop the salvaging. The property has been untouched since.

In 1999, Asbury Church faced demolition again, so DiFranco and Fisher began negotiating with the city to purchase the building. The musician and manager had been discussing adding a performance space and recording studio to the Righteous Babe offices, and Asbury seemed an ideal place to begin realizing these plans.

“Ani saw [the church] and said, ‘Let’s buy it,’” Fisher says. They made immediate repairs, spending $63,000 on a new roof before even owning the place. “Ani and I didn’t get where we are by saying, ‘That’s OK, forget it,’ ” Fisher says, explaining their rationale for paying out before they held the property’s deed.

DiFranco wants Asbury Church to be “a great place to play a show and to see a show.” But she and Fisher are also conceiving of the church as an arts hothouse. To that end, Hallwalls Art Center, a gallery and performance space with alumni including Cindy Sherman and Robert Longo, will move into the church, in a space adjacent to the sanctuary. Fisher and the Center’s Executive Director, Edmund Cardoni, plan to hold collaborative events in the future.

As for now, DiFranco and Fisher are still outfitting the space, trying to include those elements that DiFranco likes most in performance venues. Recently, she had speakers and lights brought into the sanctuary for a sound check, but they proved to be “a little over the top,” Fisher says.

Rest assured: The space’s acoustics will be adjusted, its lighting situation figured out. But in the meantime, much of Asbury Delaware Church, including its intact horseshoe-shaped balcony, will remain original and preserved, thanks to the efforts of DiFranco and Fisher.

Categories: Architecture, Cities