Designating a building as a local historic landmark is typically considered a honor.
But not for Buffalo Academy of the Sacred Heart.
Administrators of the all-girls school on Main Street in Amherst tried to fight the historic designation for fear the status would be an additional cost burden, but the school lost the battle Tuesday despite bringing 200 Sacred Heart supporters to Town Hall to plead their case.
In the end, the Town Board, by a 3-2 vote, designated the school at 3860 Main St. a local historic site.
“We are grateful for the outpouring of support from our Sacred Heart community, but disappointed with this decision by the Amherst Town Board, as we believe it was unjustified and unnecessary,” said Elizabeth Barczak Horrigan, board chair of Sacred Heart.
The controversy has been brewing for months.
The issue stems from tensions between neighbors and Sacred Heart over the new gymnasium under construction at the rear of the campus and whether it was in keeping with the historic nature of the academy and surrounding neighborhood.
The gymnasium eventually won town approval.
But through the process, neighbors asked the town’s Historic Preservation Commission to consider the 80-year-old school building for local landmark designation to ensure future projects live up to its historic character.
The commission recommended the 1930s-era school receive the historical tag and the Town Board agreed.
“I’m glad that they approved it,” said Sheree Lemendola, who lives behind the academy and applied for the historic designation. “It’s a beautiful building that we value and we’re looking forward to coming back together as a community over time.”
The public hearing was attended by at least 200 people, who packed Council Chambers Tuesday night and spilled out into the hallway, prompting concerns by the building commissioner about overcapacity. Most of those in attendance were Sacred Heart students, parents, teachers and supporters opposed to granting the landmark designation.
“Welcome to the Amherst Town Board,” Supervisor Barry A. Weinstein said at the beginning of the meeting. “I’ve never seen so many people.”
The public hearing went on for well over an hour, as both sides presented their arguments.
“It would make taking care of our school more costly and cumbersome,” Horrigan said of the landmark designation. “Whenever we would have to change a light fixture, change a window or paint the exterior we’d have to apply for a certificate of appropriateness.”
David McNamara, Sacred Heart’s vice chair, said the board was setting a bad precedent by granting landmark status to a building without consent of the owner.
Kevin Madoo, chairman of the town’s Historic Preservation Commission, said the town doesn’t need the owner’s consent, only the exterior of the building is of concern and there is no cost associated with designating the school a town landmark.
“We in no way want to hurt the mission of the academy,” Madoo said. “We want to maintain the character of the building.”
Twenty-five people spoke during the public hearing, and one by one they stepped up to the podium to plead their case.
“It would be a great benefit to the community and a great benefit to the owners in the end,” said Tom Yots, executive director of Preservation Buffalo Niagara.
“For us, it’s not a honor, but a burden that will create a hardship for us,” said Sister Diane Gianadda, with the Sisters of St. Francis of Holy Name Province.
Each of the Town Board members said a few words before making their decision.
Council Members Guy R. Marlette, Mark A. Manna and Steven D. Sanders voted in favor of the landmark designation. Weinstein and Council Member Ramona D. Popowich voted against.
“I really commend both sides of this for the professional manner and respect they’ve shown,” Marlette said.
“I think that’s just a misplaced fear that you’re going to have a lot of red tape to go through,” Manna told Sacred Heart supporters.
The Sisters of St. Francis of Penance and Christian Charity founded Sacred Heart in 1877 in a convent located on Washington Street, then moved to its current location at 3860 Main St. in 1930 as interest in women’s education increased and they outgrew its original site.