When the Guaranty Building, 26 Church Street, was finished in 1896, it was ranked not only as Buffalo’s finest advanced-design office building, but one of the finest in the country as well. Designed by one of the most important architects of the 19th century, Louis Sullivan of Chicago, the building reflects the optimism and prosperity of the United States at the time. Architectural historians consider the Guaranty Building one of the greatest architectural achievements in office buildings by Louis Sullivan.
A local oil magnate, Hascal L. Taylor, planned to build on the site what he envisioned would be the largest and best office building in the city, but he died before the plans were announced. The Guaranty Construction Co. of Chicago acquired the plans and built the building between March 1895 and March 1896. At 152 feet, the 13-story structure was the tallest in the city. It was renamed the Prudential Building soon after completion because of the refinancing provided by the Prudential Insurance Co. Both names can be seen above the entrances.
A forerunner of the style that would be known as "skyscraper," the Guaranty was one of the first steel-supported, "curtain-walled" buildings in the world, eliminating the need for thick walls in order to support height. The original structure was in a "U" shape, with an open court to the south for natural light, faced in white glazed tiles to reflect as much light as possible.
The piers between the windows have strong vertical lines that draw the eye upward to the imposing cornice. Sullivan used intricate terra cotta ornamentation, with geometric motifs and naturalistic design of flowers, seedpods and the spreading branches of a tree at the top of the building to make the exterior attractive. Terra cotta, similar to fired clay, gives the look and feel of stone but is comparatively lightweight and inexpensive. It was one of Sullivan’s favorite building materials.
For years, the Guaranty Building was one of Buffalo’s most prestigious business addresses, but the Great Depression brought hard times. Although recognized as an architectural masterpiece as early as 1940, by the mid 1950s the building was described as "old and dirty" and occupancy was declining.
Well-intentioned efforts at modernization resulted in aesthetic and structural damage. In 1955, a fiberglass exterior was added to the lower floors, a dropped ceiling was put in the lobby, and cleaning by harsh sandblasting damaged the intricate terra cotta. A fire in 1974 damaged the upper floors and the building was sold at auction. Despite its designation in 1975 as a National Historic Landmark, by 1977 the building’s out-of-town owners were planning its demolition in order to make the site more marketable.
Objections by preservationists stymied the demolition plans. Instead, a series of grants and loans were obtained to restore the building. By September 1982, with a $12.4 million renovation project complete, the Guaranty Building once again became a prestigious business address. The law firm of Hodgson Russ LLP, a leading force in the earlier preservation effort, purchased the building for its principal offices in 2002.
"Louis Sullivan’s Guaranty Building," from the Web site of the Hodgson Russ law firm, Feb. 17, 2003, "Hodgson Russ Begins Renovation of Historic Guaranty Building," April 27, 2006; Sharon Linstedt, "Guaranty Building Undergoing $12 Million Interior Renovation," Buffalo News, May 15, 2006, pp. A-1-2. Also see Chuck LaChiusa, "Buffalo as an Architectural Museum: The Guaranty Building".
Photos by Chuck LaChiusa