BUFFALO, N.Y. - The former Delaware Asbury Methodist Church has never looked so good - or conveyed clear, crisp sound so well.
That’s no small achievement, considering the 19th century Gothic Revival-style church and Buffalo landmark narrowly averted a date with the wrecking ball a little more than a decade ago.
As the fate of the abandoned church hung in the balance during the mid-1990s, folk-rock musician and Buffalo native Ani DiFranco and her longtime manager and president of Righteous Babe Records, Scot Fisher, stepped forward to rescue the dilapidated structure, and transform it into a remarkable venue for the performing and visual arts.
Today, the church, since re-dubbed Babeville, serves as the new base for DiFranco’s independent label, Righteous Babe, and an exhibition gallery for Buffalo’s Hallwalls Contemporary Arts Center.
“Initially when we walked in the building, I don’t know what we thought,” DiFranco says. “If we had understood how large this project was going to become, and how many people and organizations it would involve, and the kind of money and crazy strategy and negotiating it was going to take to realize it, I don’t think we would have touched it.
“But we just thought `Yeah, it’s a sturdy building with a couple of leaks in the roof, and we’ll move the offices in there and have shows in here and it would be simple.’ And the next thing you know the north tower is twisted and has to be taken down and reassembled, and the main stained glass is rotted and needs to be taken down and remade. It was just like everything snowballed.”
Designed by architect William Selkirk in 1871, and constructed in 1876, the church sits in the heart of Buffalo at the corner of Delaware Avenue and Tupper Street. After a gradual decline in congregation, Delaware Asbury Methodist Church closed its doors in the early 1980s, and soon fell into disrepair. In 1995, DiFranco and Fisher initiated a grassroots effort to prevent the edifice’s destruction, and then give it new life with a major overhaul.
A $10 million renovation transformed the sanctuary into a bright and airy space, replaced the building’s grand stained glass windows and added a new glass-covered staircase to the backside exterior. A new bar area also went in below the church, while a new energy-efficient geothermal cooling and heating system was installed.
DiFranco notes that, while she envisioned the historic church as a new arts and events facility, the renovation never would have materialized without the enthusiasm and dedication of Fisher.
“He’s been important to the process of my life for 20 years now or something,” DiFranco says. “Righteous Babe records wouldn’t exist without him. I have these grand ideas, but not the skills to realize them. He was the one that translated them along the way. ... It’s his passion, I think too, that drove this and others projects that we’ve done in Buffalo.”
Although houses of worship typically are designed to carry a pastor’s sermon to the back of the room, changing the sanctuary into a multi-purpose venue required a more versatile sound system.
“We hired all kind of consultants and we hung baffling that you could see around the place, and we have the in-house PA that was designed specifically for the room,” DiFranco says. “We’re going to tweak it a little further, but we’re about 90 percent there in terms of having a room you can rock in. But still, of course, it has the character of the space - that beautiful verve without being mush.”
Babeville has hosted a wide range of events since it went live in early 2006, including community fundraisers, chorus shows, a visit by former President Bill Clinton and DiFranco’s first concert performances at the location in September. In addition, DiFranco and Fisher are exploring further creative uses for the main performance room in the future.
“One of the things that we have thought about so far, that sort of maybe will be a phase-three plan for this facility, is to have an audio-visual production facility here so that people can come and make videos, have a live concert film or video, or recording in this room when we get the acoustics dialed in,” DiFranco says.
On a more symbolic level, DiFranco feels Babeville and the effort to bring the site back to life provides a strong reminder of how civic preservation can reconnect a community with its heritage and cultural identity.
“There’s just so many levels at which it is essential that we’re preservationists in a sense, because the character of a city - that is our wealth. It enriches our lives. It makes people want to be here, stay here and come from somewhere else. ... If you destroy the architecture, we lose a sense of our own soul and our connections to history.”