Once the terminus of the Erie Canal, Buffalo N.Y. had more millionaires than any other city at the turn of last century. It was also the 8th largest city in the US, and one of the first to be completely wired for electricity. Two US Presidents, Millard Fillmore and Grover Cleveland, spent time here. And one, William McKinley, was assassinated here. Frederick Law Olmsted designed parks and roadways, industry flourished. The “Amazon.com” of its day – the Larkin Company – employed thousands. Frank Lloyd Wright was hired to design homes, office buildings and even a gas station. And the Pan American Exposition was held here in 1901, though the celebration was marred by the assassination of President McKinley. Then came the Depression and this industrial city was hit hard, never really recovering in the 60’s and 70’s when other wealthier areas of the US demolished grand old buildings to make way for the ugliness of “Urban Renewal”. In the long run, this was to Buffalo’s advantage. Now, exceptional architecture, a burgeoning medical research and development sector, waterfront development and repurposing of these iconic buildings is attracting a growing number of history and architecture buffs to New York State’s westernmost city.
The city’s rise began in 1825 with the opening of the Erie Canal, which opened trade with the heartland. By the end of the 19th century the city’s grain silos and steel mills had become architectural pilgrimage sites for European Modernists like Erich Mendelsohn and Bruno Taut, who saw them as the great cathedrals of Modernity. In their vast scale and technological efficiency, they reflected a triumphant America and sent a warning signal to Europe that it was fast becoming less relevant.
Yet it is the parade of celebrated architects who worked here as much as the city’s industrial achievements that makes Buffalo a living history lesson. The city is an unexpected architectural destination, a virtual museum of masterpieces of America’s most celebrated architects. Buffalo has one of Frederick Law Olmsted’s finest park systems and is one of the only cities in the US to have the work of America’s three “fathers of architecture” — Henry Hobson Richardson, Louis Sullivan and Frank Lloyd Wright. Daniel Burnham’s 1896 Ellicott Square Building, with its mighty Italian Renaissance façade, towers over the corner of Main and Church Streets. Just a block away is Louis Sullivan’s 1895 Guaranty Building, a classic of early skyscraper design decorated in intricate floral terra-cotta tiles. Across town, Henry Hobson Richardson built his largest commission: the 1870 Buffalo State Asylum for the Insane, composed of a pair of soaring Romanesque towers flanked by low brick pavilions. Light and air poured in through tall windows; spacious 5.5m-wide corridors were designed to promote interaction among the inmates, an idea that would be refined by Modernists in their communal housing projects decades later.
But it was Wright who made the decisive leap from an architecture that drew mainly on European stylistic precedents to one that was rooted in a growing cultural self-confidence. While Frank Lloyd Wright began his career in Chicago, two of his most important early commissions were in Buffalo, two of the great pillars of American architecture, the 1904 Larkin Building and the 1905 Darwin D. Martin House. In total, Wright’s Buffalo-related buildings and projects add up to a surprising twenty-two between 1903 and 1932.
Although torn down in 1950, the Larkin Building, designed as the headquarters of the Larkin Soap Company, remains one of the most influential designs of the 20th century. Wright invented floor-to-ceiling glass doors, double-pane windows and toilets affixed to the walls for this monument to American business. Massive, forbidding brick piers anchoring the exterior signalled a break with classical historical styles. The light-filled atrium piercing its five floors, with managers visible at their desks at the bottom, turned the traditional office hierarchy on its head.
The Martin House, a Prairie House complex of five buildings on a vast suburban lot, is the domestic counterpart to this vision. No European architect had come close to imagining such a fluid world. A composition of low brick structures, terraces, pergolas and gardens in which man and landscape were in tune, the design celebrated a democratic ideal of family life in which traditional social barriers, and the walls that reinforce them, were finally torn down.
Yet Wright’s genius lay in his ability to accomplish this feat while conveying a profound serenity. The low roof and broad cantilevered eaves both beckoned to the horizon and provided shelter. The grid of wood beams in the living room, set just below ceiling level, visually broke down the space into discrete rooms while maintaining a sense of openness. Above all this architecture represented freedom both from Europe’s traditions and from the feelings of cultural inferiority that had defined American architecture since the earliest days of the republic.
This departure from recycled European precedents is reflected in the city’s late-19th-century urban planning as well. Buffalo’s original plan from the early 19th century was loosely based on Pierre Charles L’Enfant’s 1791 plan for Washington DC, an Americanized version of Paris’s system of radiating boulevards. Its civic core, dominated by a mountainous City Hall, reads as an isolated fragment of a City Beautiful plan that was never fully realized.
City Hall is one of the country’s largest and finest Style Moderne public buildings. Designed by John J. Wade and completed in 1932, is a spectacular 32-story tower with flanking, 14-story wings carried out in a kind of Art Deco classicism of exceptional quality.
Olmsted, as much social reformer as landscape architect, had visited Joseph Paxton’s Birkenhead Park near Liverpool, a pioneering project designed to better the lives of the city’s working class. When he returned to New York, he expanded on that vision in his designs for Central and Prospect Parks, which he conceived as realms of psychological healing that could also break down class boundaries.
In Buffalo he realized an even grander ambition, creating a vast network of parks and parkways that he hoped would have “a civilizing effect” on the “dangerous classes” populating the American city. Olmsted managed to upsell Buffalo leaders on a network of parkways, landscaped roads, and traffic circles that later spurred the development of Buffalo’s most picturesque neighbourhoods, with deep tree lawns and canopies of green. Buffalo has great bones, both as an urban experience and at the level of individual houses.
The park has cherry blossoms!
It didn’t last of course. By the 1950s Buffalo’s economy had already embarked on its long path to disintegration. The completion in 1959 of the St. Lawrence Seaway, which created a more direct route to the Atlantic Ocean, made the Erie Canal obsolete and deprived the city of its commercial lifeline. Economic decline was exacerbated by race riots in 1967 and white flight to the suburbs. By the mid-1970s the inner city was being abandoned.
Even so, many of the city’s most revered monuments survived. Despite the destruction of some surrounding structures, the main house at the Martin complex remained intact. Richardson’s asylum closed in the mid-1970s, and though one of its wings was demolished to make room for a new hospital next door, the bulk of the building still towers over Olmsted’s park.
When a group of private citizens took control of the Martin House in 1992, their ambitions were relatively modest: to restore the main house, one of three structures that had not yet been demolished. As time wore on, the group began to see the entire complex as a singular vision that could not be understood unless it was fully brought back to life. In the early 1960s the conservatory and pergola had been ripped out to make way for an unsightly apartment complex; in 1994 the group raised the money to purchase the structure, tear it down and rebuild the elements of Wright’s complex that had been destroyed. A few years later they bought the small gardener’s cottage that anchored the northwest corner of the site as well. The project’s overall cost soared to more than $50 million from $10 million. But the structural and exterior work is now complete, the interior work is well under way, and now, for the first time in decades, you can fully glean the genius of Wright’s work in the Martin House.
Puffles and Honey took five minutes away from the Frank Lloyd Wright homes to explore the other architecture of Buffalo.
One of Buffalo’s most iconic buildings and a National Historic Landmark, the 140-year-old Richardson Olmsted Complex is Richardson’s largest and arguably greatest work. Designed by one of America’s premier architects, Henry Hobson Richardson, in concert with the famed landscape team of Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux, the building was completed in 1895 (after Richardson’s death in 1886) as the Buffalo State Asylum for the Insane, later the Buffalo Psychiatric Centre.
Designed in 1871, the Buffalo Psychiatric Centre is one of the most distinctive looking buildings in the city. With its castle-like towers and brick pavilions, the building has had a long and storied history, especially in the years it was an active insane asylum. This was the largest building/complex of Richardson’s career and his first in his signature style: Romanesque-influenced. The grounds, originally undeveloped farmland, were designed by the famous landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted. The complex was comprised of a central building with five pavilions flanking it and set back in a “V” shape (11 buildings total) connected by two-story curved corridors. The Centre incorporated a system of enlightened treatment for people with mental illness developed by Dr Thomas Story Kirkbride, in part by providing pleasing surroundings. Over the years, as mental health treatment changed and resources were diverted, the buildings and grounds began a slow deterioration.
In 2006, the Richardson Centre Corporation was formed with a mandate to save the buildings and bring the Complex back to life through a State appropriation for this architectural treasure. A $56 million make-over, funded both publicly and privately, will transform the Richardson Olmsted Complex into a cultural amenity for the city. The three main buildings will house a hotel and conference centre along with the Buffalo Architecture Centre (BAC). The remaining buildings have been stabilized pending future opportunities.
The tall office building was made possible by three advances in the building trade. Of primary importance was the invention of the elevator, for without it there is a physical limit to the number of stories a person can climb. A sturdy method of construction was also necessary to allow for upward building. Masonry load-bearing walls could only support a limited number of floors but the Bessemer converter process used in steel production made high quality steel commercially available and revolutionized building practice by allowing steel frames to carry heavy loads to unprecedented heights. Lightweight materials, predominantly terra-cotta, were used to sheath these frames. The final requirement for a skyscraper was that it be fireproof. Terra-cotta and brick were frequently employed for encasing steel building members to ensure protection, thus replacing highly flammable timber framing.
The architect who developed the best-known and most distinctive architectural treatment for tall commercial buildings was Louis Sullivan. His buildings, like a classical column, had a base consisting of the lower two stories, a main shaft in which verticality was emphasized by piers between the windows (occasionally joined by arcading at the top) and – the crowning glory – an elaborate and boldly projecting terra-cotta cornice. Besides this basic organization, Sullivan’s buildings can easily be identified by their distinctive low-relief ornament composed of lushly intertwining vines and leaves combined with sharp-edged geometric figures.
Louis Sullivan’s Guaranty Building in Buffalo is one of the finest early skyscrapers in the country and regarded by many to be one of his most beautiful. Threatened with demolition in 1977, luckily it got a stay of execution thanks to action by the city. The restoration of the Guaranty Building was completed in 1983. This is a building about which architectural historians get dreamy.
There is an interesting Chicago connection with the Guaranty Building. It was intended to be named after Hascal L. Taylor, the Buffalonian who commissioned Adler and Sullivan, a Chicago firm, to build what he wanted to be “the largest and best office building in the city”. Unfortunately, he died in November of 1894 just before construction plans were to be publicly announced. The Guaranty Construction Company, of Chicago, which was to construct the building for Taylor, bought the property and completed the project in 1896. It was renamed the Prudential Building about two years after it was completed at the time of refinancing though the Prudential Insurance Company. The Guaranty name was re-adopted with the building’s initial restoration in the 1980s.
This was a milestone building — an early skyscraper which departed from the standard construction technique using load-bearing walls. Instead, it incorporated an inner structure of steel support and applied exterior curtain walls. An early example of Sullivan’s belief that form should always follow function, the building’s narrow piers separate the windows and give an upward thrust to the structure, allowing the tall form to soar. Sumptuous red terra-cotta tiles cover the façade, exuberantly and lavishly decorated with Sullivan’s intricate organic designs.
The Prudential signs which were mounted for a century over the building’s two entrance doorways have been saved and are displayed as historic artefacts.
The Guaranty Building is more known for its exteriors than interiors, but that doesn’t mean there’s nothing to love about the interior. If you take a step into the lobby, you can glimpse the metalwork, the gorgeous mosaic tile frieze, and the amazing skylights. The lobby is still magnificent, but now includes a reception area, an enormous conference room that can seat eighty, and several more intimate spaces. Everywhere you look, you find original materials – frame wainscoting, heavy doors, handsome woodworking, original marble and pieces of authentic history. A previously abandoned elevator shaft is being reworked to bring all of the original elevators back into service.
Sullivan’s Guaranty Building was one of the first steel-supported, curtain-walled buildings in the world, and its thirteen stories made it, at the time it was built (1895-96), the tallest building in Buffalo. With the Guaranty Building, architect Louis Sullivan created the archetype of the modern skyscraper, a column holding up or “scraping” the sky.
Sullivan’s lively reddish brown terra-cotta ornament adorns the piers, spandrels, tympani, columns, and arches of the building, giving the structure an exuberance and personality that remind one that Sullivan’s father was an Irish dancing master. The designs seem to be derived from American nature forms and perhaps from the Celtic Book of Kells. The main motif is a kind of oval pod or seed shape, which Sullivan used to suggest man’s potential for spiritual and creative growth. The pod is sometimes superimposed on a rectangle and connected to it with stem-like filaments. It recurs profusely in the interior of the building, in the stairway balustrades, the elevator cages, the letter drops, and the Tiffany-like art glass ceiling. The swirling lines and the opalescent glass also reveal Sullivan’s interest in Art Nouveau. No photograph can prepare you for the tactile quality of the superb ornament by George Elmslie that covers the building’s entire surface like dark red terra-cotta lace; it is intricately alive. The subtle and studied relationship of ornament to structure through surface and scale is almost unparalleled.
While the façade of the Guaranty Building derives its organization from Renaissance palazzos, what sets Sullivan apart from his peers is his conscious attempt to develop a distinctly American architectural tradition. Also, the soft, salmon coloured terra-cotta embellishments of the building’s exterior are not entirely decorative, as the terra-cotta provides a layer of fireproofing for the building’s innovative steel structure; a problem of early American tall building design that is, here, elegantly resolved through decorative detailing.
Hailed as the largest commercial building when constructed, the Ellicott Square Building features an incredible interior with mosaic floor, wrought iron railings and double-staircases and spectacular glass ceiling.
The Ellicott Square Building was built in 1885-86 to commemorate Joseph Ellicott, founder of Buffalo. Like Louis Sullivan and H. H. Richardson, Daniel Burnham’s architectural production defined the stylistic trajectory of his time, and he enjoyed many important commissions in the late 19th century. However, unlike Sullivan, Burnham was much more comfortable working in established stylistic traditions, and was significantly less interested in developing a unique American style of architect. This is clearly seen in his Ellicott Square Building, which, like his earlier Rookery Building (1886) in Chicago, is constructed around an interior court with glass-covered concourse. The detailing of the buildings terra-cotta exterior is academic French Renaissance in derivation, while the interior court includes an ornate mosaic floor made from 23 million pieces of imported Italian marble depicting sun symbols from civilizations from around the world. The centre contains a disc showing points of the compass, surrounded by a chain, symbolizing the strength of business organizations in the US.
The elaborate terra-cotta exterior, now painted gray, which in its essential lines follows Richardson’s Marshall Field Wholesale Store in Chicago, was conceived by Charles B. Atwood (1849 – 1895), the designer-in-chief of the World’s Columbian Exposition and master of “all artistic matters” in the Chicago-based firm of D. H. Burnham and Company. A cornice was removed and the exterior painted in 1971.
The Hotel Lafayette sits at the intersection of Clinton and Washington Streets on Lafayette Square. It is distinguished by a distinctive white glazed terra-cotta decorative trim, contrasting with its dark red brick exterior. Few alterations have been made to the exterior since the building’s construction.
Louise Bethune was the first woman in the United States to be recognized as a professional architect by the American Institute of Architects. The Lafayette Hotel in Buffalo is her masterpiece. In a prime downtown location, at the intersection of Clinton and Washington Streets on Lafayette Square, this is a gloriously beautiful building both inside and out.
Like so many buildings in Buffalo, the Lafayette suffered a heartbreaking decline and was subjected to many ill-conceived modernizations through the course of a century. However, a wonderfully ironic reality emerged – multiple layers of inappropriate building materials installed over years have somehow protected the original building for the moment of real restoration. Behind the ordinary drywall were gorgeous wood panelled walls. Above the dropped ceiling was fabulously intricate plaster work. Under the linoleum were sweeping mosaics of stone and tile. In a word, “Wow!”
The Lafayette Hotel was first dedicated in 1904 and a series of additions followed. The original exterior and interiors are in the classical French Renaissance Revival style, but major reconfiguration and lobby remodelling was undertaken in 1941. The restoration team decided that for the remake of the building, both the French Renaissance and Art Moderne (1941 renovations) elements of the hotel would be restored.
A much-anticipated feature was the reopening of the Crystal Ballroom, which was abandoned decades ago. Unbelievably, its original elegant chandeliers (featuring an “L” for Lafayette) are still hanging, and the Corinthian capitals of its columns and pilasters and its ornate crossed-beam ceilings are intact.
The original lobby finishes — including marble wainscoting, trompe l’oeil wall surfaces to match, columns painted in Numidian scagliola (an imitation marble), and polychromatic terrazzo floors — have all been restored.
Maybe a little cake too!
Now we’re talking!
Much of the original configuration has been restored. The main floor has communal spaces, the second floor has thirty hotel suites, and the upper floors have been converted into 123 market-rate apartments.
While the coffee and pastry were excellent, one does not have dinner at Hotel Lafayette if one wants dinner to the same excellent standard, so after a long day, little Puffles and Honey went to Oshun Oyster Bar.
Where to sit, what to order?!?
Across the intersection from the restaurant, at the corner of Washington and Genesee Streets, is the General Electric Tower building, a historic office building and skyscraper, designed and built in 1912 by James A. Johnson. Based on utopian reconstructions of the Lighthouse of Alexandria, and inspired by the Electric Tower at the Pan-American Exposition, the General Electric Tower is, ultimately, a tribute to light, and to the electrical power that transformed lighting conditions around the world.
The Tower exhibits a unique octagonal plan, featuring an octagonal tower which steps back three times to terminate in a large lantern, complemented by a gleaming white terracotta exterior that emphasizes the nature of light in architectural form. It is designed in a Neo-Classical Beaux-Arts style, and is nicely complemented by additions built in 1924 and 1927. It is notable for the way in which light plays across the façade, creating a dialogue of solid and void through the reflectance of the terra-cotta façade as it is counterpoised by the extensive fenestration, which appears dark in comparison.