Sandstone Heritage – St. Paul’s Cathedral, Buffalo, NY
Episcopalians built massive church with stone from Hulberton
BUFFALO – In 1849, the congregation of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church was told by prominent church architect Richard Upjohn to build its new church out of limestone.
The church was wealthy and had 1,000 members. But it wasn’t that wealthy. Limestone was costly because the stone is so difficult to quarry.
“The church vestry didn’t think we could afford limestone,” said Martha Neri, the church archivist.
A church member swayed Upjohn to use Medina sandstone in designing the building. Sandstone is softer, easier to quarry and the stone was prolific about 50 miles down on the canal in Orleans County. Upjohn agreed.
St. Paul’s would need a lot of stone for the cavernous Gothic revival church in the heart of Buffalo. Henry Streater represented the church and went looking for sandstone. He found it in Hulberton.
Streater bought about 3.5 acres at $80 an acre from Samuel Copeland, according to St. Paul’s church records. It was the first quarry in Hulberton.
I walked into St. Paul’s on Sunday for the first time. I nearly fell over walking into the sanctuary.
This place is overwhelming with its high ceiling, stained glass and curved columns made of sandstone.
Upjohn earned fame for the Gothic revival style with his design of New York’s Trinity Episcopal Church in 1846. That style has windows that are shaped to look like praying hands.
“You see those windows and you know it’s a church,” Neri told me.
The Gothic revival style also is mysterious and romantic – “There’s something unpredictable around the corner,” she said.
The church opened at 128 Pearl St. in 1851, but wasn’t quite done. The 300-foot-high spire was finished in 1870, and used stone from a different Hulberton quarry owned by Alfred Squire. (The carriage step owned by the Squire family is in front of a house on East State Street in Albion, now owned by Joe and Debbie Martillotta. Mr. Martillotta rescued the carriage step a few years ago.)
St. Paul’s is a tremendous showcase for Medina sandstone. Even the pulpit is made of sandstone.
I’ve been trying to build a database of Medina sandstone sites on the National Register of Historic Places. St. Paul’s made the list in 1973. But that designation was upgraded in 1987, when St. Paul’s was named a National Historic Landmark. (There is one National Historic Landmark in Orleans County – The Cobblestone Society Museum.)
I showed up unannounced at St. Paul’s on Sunday. I just ran the half marathon in Buffalo. I smelled. I was disheveled, wearing jeans and an old green sweater from Dale’s Market in Albion.
St. Paul’s parishioners are a well-dressed group, but they didn’t seem put off by my appearance. I asked about the church’s history, and was directed to Neri, who then gave me an hour-long recount about Medina sandstone and its use in the church.
Neri has been coming to St. Paul’s for 25 years. The Williamsville resident loves the cathedral atmosphere inside St. Paul’s.
“Here I find refuge and renewal,” she said. “It’s quiet and sophisticated. It’s elegant and majestic. It says, ‘God is awesome.’”
The church is part of a cluster of buildings that are gaining national prominence, drawing tourists to Buffalo. The Guaranty Building, designed by Louis Sullivan, is next door and is also a National Historic Landmark. It’s one of the first steel-supported, curtain-walled buildings in the world. When it was built in 1895-96, it was the tallest building in Buffalo.
Just last month the Society of Architectural Historians held its conference in Buffalo and a tour of St. Paul’s was on the must-see list for the 600 attendees.
Although Upjohn, the church designer, initially favored limestone, Neri said the Medina sandstone has proven remarkably durable and was an excellent choice for the cathedral. On May 10, 1888, the church was nearly destroyed by fire. Only the outer Medina sandstone walls and spires remained.
The church today has about 150 members. There are Sunday services at 9 and 11:15 a.m. Boys and girls choirs draw families to St. Paul’s, giving the church a new generation to continue its mission in the future.
Neri believes the church is on an upswing, and will appeal to more people as part of Buffalo’s heritage movement, where several historic buildings have been renovated in recent years. More people are moving to the downtown loft apartments, Neri said.
I told Neri about the plans for a Medina Sandstone Hall of Fame, and my dream to have quarrymen memorial sites in Medina, Albion and Holley – communities where the immigrants worked in quarries to unearth and shape the stone that is so prominent in some of the region’s finest buildings. Neri said we should be proud of the quarrying heritage in Orleans County.
“You guys are important,” Neri told me. “Where would we be without you?”