Buffalo. Art and Architecture.
A Brief History of Buffalo
The history of Buffalo is rich with innovation, extending back to the early nineteenth century. The city’s origins as a thriving transportation and industrial center point to what Buffalo has become today: a longstanding home to creativity, culture and design.
Buffalo’s foundations date to 1804, when Joseph Ellicott completed plans of the Village of Buffalo for the Holland Land Company. Though the village suffered tremendous losses during the War of 1812, the map of present-day downtown remains similar to Ellicott’s original layout. With the postwar reconstruction, Buffalo’s economy and future prospects were revived by the 1820s, due in no small part to its selection in 1822 as the western terminus of the Erie Canal.
The largest undertaking of its time in American civil engineering, the Erie Canal opened in 1825 with fanfare and excitement. Stretching from Albany to Buffalo, the inland canal made it possible to travel to New York City by water, expediting both freight shipments and passenger travel at dramatically lower costs. Generating prosperity and expansion in the various ports along its waterway, the canal had a colossal impact on the socio-economic development of the city of Buffalo, which was chartered in 1832.
Along the waterfront, the most significant innovation of the time was Joseph Dart’s creation of the first steam-powered grain elevator in 1841. These grain elevators could unload 1,000 bushels per hour, radically reducing the port time of cargo boats and securing Buffalo as the nation’s largest grain port. Still towering along the banks of the Buffalo River as a testament to technological innovation, these massive grain elevators served as inspiration for the European founders of modern architecture.
The 1840s also saw the development of another steam-powered machine in the Buffalo area: the railroad. While the canal had offered a fast means of transportation, the railways, which workers had begun to lay in the mid-1830s, were quick to surpass ships in speed. The first railway lines were relatively short, connecting Buffalo to Albany, Black Rock, and Niagara Falls. Initially conceived as a means of passenger transportation, the railroads soon facilitated the trade of lumber, coal, grain, and flour, accelerating Buffalo’s industrial growth. The extension of these lines throughout the late-nineteenth century increased Buffalo’s accessibility to other cities and industrial centers, including New York, and launched an influx of immigrants to the Buffalo area.
Alongside the growth in civic infrastructure and the prosperity of the port, Buffalonians continued to explore different forms of commerce. Brewing was a budding industry in the 1860s, led by the city’s principal brewery, the John Schusler Brewing Company. The Larkin Soap Company set the standard for mail-order companies, becoming the largest of its kind in the world by the 1900s. The soap manufacturer must also be recognized for leaving the city with another important legacy. In need of new administrative facilities, the company’s chief financial officer, Darwin D. Martin, brought to Buffalo the then relatively unknown Chicago architect, Frank Lloyd Wright. Martin had discovered Wright through his brother, whose house had been designed by the young architect. Martin’s enthusiastic support of Wright’s designs made the Larkin Administration Building the first of seven projects that the architect would build in Buffalo.
With the increasing success of its various industries, the city’s population ballooned from 10,000 inhabitants in 1832 to twenty-five times that amount in 1890. By the early twentieth century, Buffalo had become one of the largest cities in the United States. As a railway and transportation hub, Buffalo was second only to Chicago. The city’s New York Central Terminal, designed by Fellheimer and Wagner, was completed in 1929. Inspired by Eero Saarinen’s Helsinki Central Station, the Central Terminal is a magnificent Art Deco skyscraper that dominates the city’s East Side skyline.
Buffalonians, in turn, invested in their growing city through the development of various architectural, cultural, and community projects. The mid-1800s saw the construction of landmark religious and educational institutions, such as St. Paul’s Episcopal Cathedral, which was designed in 1849 by renowned architect Richard Upjohn, and the University of Buffalo, founded in 1846. The Buffalo Gas and Light Company, the first gas company in New York, was also established mid-century, which allowed Buffalo’s streets to be illuminated at night. To offset the increasing congestion of the burgeoning city, landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted and his firm worked from 1868 to 1898 on an elaborate interlocking system of parks and parkways that provided islands of tranquility amid Buffalo’s industrial traffic.
In 1901, the centerpiece of Olmsted’s landscaping, Delaware Park, became the site of the Pan-American Exposition. Attracting nearly eight million people to Buffalo, the fair featured the latest technological innovations, including an Electric Tower that was illuminated by night with thousands of colored bulbs. Unfortunately, the exposition’s optimistic message of modernism and innovation was overshadowed by the fatal shooting of President William McKinley. While the incident cast a shadow over the fair, the Pan-American Exposition remains an important testament to the city’s achievements.
One of the innovations on display at the exposition was a two-horsepower "horseless carriage" driven by entrepreneur and businessman George Pierce. After the fair, Pierce’s newly opened automobile company, the Pierce Arrow Motor Company, became popular in Buffalo and throughout the United States. Though automobiles were initially a prohibitive expense for the general public, car manufacturing soon became an integral aspect of Buffalo’s commerce and trade. The aerospace and steel industries developed alongside the automotive industry in the early to mid-1900s. Curtiss Aeroplane and Motor Company, one of the first aviation related companies in Buffalo, grew to become one of the world’s largest aircraft manufacturers. Relocating from Scranton, PA, the Lackawanna Steel Company also thrived in Buffalo. The company had been brought to Buffalo in part by financier John Albright, who would later donate money for the founding of the Albright Art Gallery.
During both World Wars, Buffalo’s economy prospered with its expanding steel, automotive, aerospace, and ship-building industries, and the city became a thriving hub for retail and wholesale distribution. A number of important architectural and cultural projects were realized as a byproduct of the city’s continued success. Two significant examples include the construction of Kleinhans Music Hall, completed in 1940 by architects Eliel and Eero Saarinen, and the expansion of the Albright Art Gallery, designed by Gordon Bunshaft and renamed as the Albright-Knox Art Gallery in 1962. Regarded as one of the most acoustically perfect music halls in the world, Kleinhans was made possible by the generous gift of clothier and fashion retailer Edward L. Kleinhans and his wife Mary Seaton Kleinhans. The Albright-Knox expansion was financed by donations from Seymour H. Knox Jr. and his family, who had made their fortune in the development of five-and-dime stores.
Buffalo today is indebted to its industrial history, which brought wealth and prosperity to the city and allowed it to grow into a center of art and architecture. From the renovation of the Larkin Exchange Building to the reopening of Hallwalls Contemporary Art Center in the recently restored Asbury Delaware Church, Buffalo’s programs of preservation have revitalized historic landmarks for public use and enjoyment. As Buffalo looks to the future, its next generation continues in the tradition of its civic and industrial leaders to sustain a vibrant civic life through the continual development of new architectural and cultural initiatives.
A City Rises Again: The Preservation Movement in Buffalo
Regret, Reflection and Reaction: The loss of the Larkin Building
A great loss can precipitate pangs of regret, moments of reflection and both considered and passionate reaction. Such was the case in Buffalo in the years after the searing and devastating loss of Frank Lloyd Wright's Larkin Administration Building in 1950. Although the response was not immediate, a change in the consciousness of the community had begun. This change would manifest itself in a series of battles that began in the late 1950s when the Buffalo Lighthouse faced demolition by neglect after it was abandoned by the U.S. Coast Guard. One of the oldest structures on the Great Lakes, the lighthouse, which dates from 1833, had long been regarded as a symbol of the city of Buffalo. The lighthouse was saved in 1961 by the action of a group of community-minded citizens and the Buffalo and Erie County Historical Society.
Around this same time, one of the oldest houses in Buffalo - the George Coit House - was faced with demolition. A clapboard wood-frame house in the Federal style, the Coit House was built in 1815 - almost two decades before the incorporation of Buffalo as a city. George Coit was a prominent businessman during the region's formative days as a western outpost of the then burgeoning United States. In fact, a promissory note signed by Coit and his business partners helped to finance improvements on Buffalo's harbor and made possible Buffalo's selection as the terminus of the Erie Canal. In 1961, the house that bore his name had seen better days and was threatened with demolition by the City for a variety of building code violations. The newly formed Landmark Society of the Niagara Frontier, recognizing its historical significance, stepped in and arranged for the house to be sold to a sympathetic couple that undertook its restoration.
The rescue of the Lighthouse and the Coit House marked the beginning of community activism on behalf of historic buildings in Buffalo.
Beloved Buildings: Shea's Theatre and the Guaranty are Saved
Over the course of the next two decades, a series of beloved landmarks would face peril and potential catastrophe. Although some fell victim to an urban renewal paradigm that embraced demolition as its highest virtue, many were saved through the extraordinary efforts of passionate individuals spearheading ad hoc committees.
In the mid-'70s, this scenario was enacted at Shea's Buffalo Theatre, a 3200-seat theater of real grandeur. Shea's was designed in 1926 by C.W. and George Rapp - two men widely regarded as masters of movie palace architecture -- and included an interior design from the studio of Louis Comfort Tiffany. After falling into disuse and disrepair amid changing tastes throughout the late 1960s and early 1970s, Shea's was surrendered to the City of Buffalo for back taxes in 1974. It almost certainly faced the wrecking ball had it not been for the intervention of a group of concerned citizens who called themselves "The Friends of the Buffalo." Through the efforts of "The Friends," the theater was placed on the National Register of Historic Places and restoration work begun. A successor organization, The Shea's-O'Connell Preservation Guild, was incorporated in 1980 and continues the work of restoring and operating the born-again venue to this day. Today, Shea's Performing Arts Center is host to hundreds of thousands of visitors each year and is the anchor of a revitalized Theatre District in downtown Buffalo.
Yet another beloved Buffalo building - Louis Sullivan's Guaranty Building - experienced a similar decline and rebirth. By the mid 1950s, the building, which dates from 1895-96, was being described as "old and dirty." In 1955, an ill-judged "modernization" project added a fiberglass exterior to the lower floors and a dropped ceiling in the lobby. Later cleaning efforts damaged the intricate terra cotta with harsh sandblasting. The decline accelerated with a fire in 1974 that damaged the interior. Occupancy dropped, and the building was sold at auction. Despite a growing appreciation for the building, and its designation in 1975 as a National Historic Landmark, by 1977 the building's out-of-town owners were planning to demolish it to make the site more marketable. Strenuous objections from preservationists, in Buffalo and around the country, thwarted the demolition plans. Civic leaders, most notably Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, secured a series of grants and loans to restore the building. By September 1982, the $12.4 million project was complete, and the officially re-named Guaranty Building again took its rightful place among Buffalo's premier office buildings.
More Parking: The Metcalfe House is Sacrificed
Another inflection point in the tale of Buffalo's preservation movement occurred in 1979 when Stanford White's Metcalfe House was sacrificed to make room for a parking lot for the employees of the Delaware North Corporation, headquartered next door in McKim, Mead and White's Williams-Butler mansion. Dating from 1884, the James Metcalfe House was built of brick and Medina sandstone and contained interior spaces of great beauty and intricate woodwork. In fact, these spaces were so extraordinary that a deal was made to meticulously dismantle the interiors in order to reassemble them as museum exhibits. The entrance hall, marble-faced fireplace, oak-paneled ceiling and latticework staircase are at home in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City.
Although there was some solace in preserving pieces of the house, this episode became a recurring source of regret among sympathetic citizens when the corporation for whom the deed had been done moved its headquarters to a downtown location. The parking, alas, was no longer needed.
Citizen Activists: The Preservation Coalition is Born
Galvanized by this loss and the continuing disregard for Buffalo's architectural legacy, the Preservation Coalition of Erie County emerged from the ad hoc fights of the '60s and '70s as an organized and sustained force on behalf of the region's built environment. Employing marketing, public relations, public policy research and legal tactics that have become commonplace in the years since, this group of citizen activists took on New York Telephone in 1980 and won a decisive victory to preserve the corporate giant's Buffalo headquarters on Church Street.
Emboldened by this success, the group then rallied neighborhood and community support when the Connecticut Street Armory was damaged almost beyond repair in a fire in 1982. The second largest armory in New York State, the Connecticut Street Armory is a castle-like structure that makes extensive use of native Medina sandstone. Notable for its massive drill hall and beautiful carved oak staircases and woodwork, the Armory - like Shea's, the Guaranty and the Buffalo Lighthouse - was beloved by generations of Buffalonians. No one could imagine the West Side skyline without the Armory's crenellated facade. A genuine people's movement coalesced around this landmark and it was saved and returned to use as an armory and public meeting space.
The Preservation Coalition went on the offensive in the early '80s in an attempt to slow the practice of demolition and preclude future battles over the city's rich repository of buildings by lobbying on behalf of legislative protection of entire historic districts. A large swath of the city's downtown core was the first such district so designated. Christened the Joseph Ellicott Historic District in honor of the city's founder and Holland Land Company executive Joseph Ellicott, the designation made it much harder for building owners and developers to knock down buildings at will.
Broadening the Vision: Securing the Central Terminal
Along with a change in tactics in the early '80s on the part of Buffalo's preservation community came a growing recognition of the merits of vernacular architecture, the city's industrial heritage and the roadside attractions of suburbia. This change in consciousness caused the Coalition to look for members, supporters and allies in new places and to identify innovative arrangements to own and operate historic properties.
The battle to save Buffalo's historic Central Terminal illustrates this point. Abandoned by the New York Central Railroad as the Buffalo hub of its operations in the late '70s, the Art Deco terminal endured a succession of unsympathetic and avaricious owners who stripped the once grand monument of its stunning décor and ornamentation. Outraged by this flagrant plundering of a building that held a special place in the hearts of several generations of train travelers, the Preservation Coalition bought the building from the City and in turn spun off a sister organization charged with safeguarding the building until a suitable re-use could be found.
The Central Terminal Restoration Corporation has overseen the securing and partial restoration of the terminal and today it is used regularly for parties, exhibits and other special events. Towering over the residential neighborhoods of the city's East Side, the Central Terminal remains a beloved beacon and is often referred to as "Buffalo's best-loved landmark."
Fighting the Good Fight: St. Mary of Sorrows, Graycliff, and the Roycroft Inn and Campus
Many battles have been fought since the formative days of the organized preservation movement in Buffalo in the early '80s. The Cyclorama Building, originally constructed in 1888 to house a 400 foot long, 50 foot wide painting of Niagara Falls that provided an early form of mass entertainment for Buffalonians of the day, was restored and given new life as an office building. The Roycroft Inn was restored and removed from the National Trust's list of the Eleven Most Endangered Places in the United States. In 1995 the National Trust bestowed a national Preservation Honor Award on the visionary partners, including the Margaret L. Wendt Foundation, Landmark Society of the Niagara Frontier and the Village of East Aurora, who saved the Inn. Today the Inn welcomes 160,000 visitors every year and the surrounding campus is the focus of a multi-year, multi-phase restoration effort on the part of the Roycroft Campus Corporation. Frank Lloyd Wright's Graycliff Estate, home to a group of Piarist Fathers for many years, was saved from demolition through the grassroots initiative of a group of concerned citizens who continue to oversee its restoration and revival as a house museum. The magnificent St. Mary of Sorrows Church found new life as the King Urban Life Center, home to a charter school, pre-school program and technology center for an underserved and at risk neighborhood population. Buffalo's Old Post Office has been converted to use as the downtown campus of Erie Community College.
Other Voices: Hamlin Park and the Michigan Avenue Heritage Corridor
Other voices emerged throughout the 1990s representing neighborhoods, cultures and constituencies that had previously not had a seat at the preservation table in Buffalo. Hamlin Park, a predominantly African-American neighborhood on the city's near East Side, was granted historic district status, becoming the largest such district in the region. An effort to preserve and restore the Michigan Street Baptist Church, the oldest continuously-operated African-American Church in Buffalo, as well as the nearby Nash House and its trove of papers, mementos and documents from the Civil Rights era resulted in the creation of the Michigan Avenue Heritage Corridor. The Heritage Corridor links the Church and Nash House as well as the Colored Musicians Club, a home and refuge for local and visiting jazz musicians for more than 70 years. In linking these historic sites, the Corridor attempts to commemorate the roles the Underground Railroad, the Civil Rights Movement and Jazz played in shaping the American experience.
Frederick Law Olmsted on Buffalo: "The Best Designed City in the Country"
In the late 1800s, visionary citizens brought Frederick Law Olmsted to Buffalo. It was here that Olmsted, inspired by Joseph Ellicott's radial street layout, designed his first system of parks and parkways, and proclaimed Buffalo to be "the best designed city in the country, if not the world." During the 1901 Pan American Exposition, Buffalo was celebrated not only as the City of Light, but the City of Trees.
His system of parks and parkways in Buffalo was the first of its kind in the nation and represents one of his largest bodies of work. Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the System consists of six major parks, their connecting parkways and circles, and several smaller spaces. Today, it comprises 75 percent of the city's parkland.
The Buffalo Olmsted Parks Conservancy is a not-for-profit, membership-based, community organization that began as the Friends of the Olmsted Parks in 1978. Formed as an advocacy organization, the Conservancy became the first not-for-profit organization in the nation to manage a park system in July 2004 when it entered into an agreement with the City of Buffalo and the County of Erie to manage the Olmsted system.
In 2000 the Conservancy defended Front Park and Porter Avenue from an encroaching transportation project. In 2003, it successfully advocated that the Scajaquada Expressway be replaced with a calmer, more beautiful parkway. In 2004, it explained the value of implementing a revolutionary urban parks management plan that is now in place. Victories like these and the overall improvement of the state of the Olmsted Parks and Parkways system are among Buffalo's proudest preservation achievements.
Re-defining Preservation: New Partners Emerge
The preservation movement continues to evolve in new and sometimes unexpected ways in Buffalo. Groups have emerged that address a variety of concerns that re-define "preservation" in a sometimes broad and far reaching manner, while others limit their definition to a narrow scope, asset type or neighborhood. Affordable housing, neighborhood aesthetics, heritage assets, small business development, and a variety of quality of life issues all fall under this emerging definition. The Campaign for Greater Buffalo History, Culture and Architecture, as its name suggests, concerns itself with a wide range of issues, including planning, zoning, neighborhood development and protecting heritage assets. The Industrial Heritage Committee limits its purview to the city's grain elevators and waterfront heritage. The Elmwood Village Association, Allentown Association, Kleinhans Association, Grant-Ferry Association and other like-minded community groups share many of the concerns of the traditional preservation movement as well as an economic development agenda. Revitalize Buffalo is comprised of a group of young professionals determined to help build a "smarter, cooler" Buffalo inspired in part by New Urbanist planning principles and Richard Florida's "Creative Class" theories. Each of these organizations contributes to a passionate and often contentious conversation about the future of our community.
Re-born in Buffalo: The Martin House Complex
Among the highest profile and broadly embraced preservation initiatives in recent years has been the effort to restore and reconstruct Frank Lloyd Wright's Darwin D. Martin House Complex of 1905-07. Considered by many scholars to be the finest example extant of his "Prairie Style," the Martin House fell into disrepair after Darwin Martin's death in 1935. His family was unable to maintain the property and abandoned it in 1937. For 17 years it stood vacant and suffered extensive damage from vandalism and weather. Although an architect purchased it in 1954, ostensibly saving it from imminent demolition, historic elements in the main House were altered and the pergola, conservatory and carriage house were demolished in 1962. No other Wright site has withstood such extensive degradation and remained standing.
In 1967, the Martin House was purchased by the University at Buffalo to serve as the university president's home. The University's ownership gave the Martin House a scholarly persona as it served as a Center for Canadian/American Studies, the University Archives and as headquarters for the University's Alumni Association.
The Martin House Restoration Corporation was incorporated in 1992 with a clearly focused mandate to restore this National Historic Landmark, rebuild the missing elements, restore the gardens and grounds and open the complex to the world as a historic house museum. Restoration seemed to be a daunting project, given the condition of the site. The community, three levels of government, many local foundations, and corporate leaders, rallied around the fundraising effort to restore the Martin House. While the roof was restored in 1998, active restoration of the Martin House did not begin in earnest until 2003. Rebuilding of the long lost pergola, conservatory and carriage house was completed in Fall 2006, along with substantial restoration of the Martin House to its condition as of 1907, when the Martin family was firmly in residence.
This $50 million dollar restoration is a testament to the importance of this complex - the only residential complex designed by Wright in the course of his 70-year career - and a tribute to the passion that Buffalo has summoned to resuscitate this once dying beauty. With the missing buildings back in place, the restoration of the Martin House, including the re-installation or recreation of 394 pieces of art-glass, continues.
A Righteous Restoration: Ani DiFranco's Church Project
Other notable preservation success stories include the former Asbury Delaware Methodist Church. This downtown landmark dating from 1871 was saved from almost certain demolition by the vision and passion of Buffalo-born singer/songwriter Ani DiFranco. DiFranco and business partner Scot Fisher stepped in after fixtures and furnishings had been removed from the church and its steeple had begun to crumble and pose a hazard to passersby, necessitating the closure of the surrounding sidewalk. Extensive structural repairs to the interior and exterior and an interior renovation have transformed this 19th century house of worship into a 21st century arts complex, home to Righteous Babe Records, Hallwalls Contemporary Arts Center, a small jazz club and a 1200-person performing arts hall. Babeville, as it is now called, represents an innovative public-private preservation partnership of the first rank.
Saving the Gateway to the West: The Erie Canal Harbor
Another signature success of the preservation movement can be found along the city's waterfront at what is now known as Erie Canal Harbor. The redevelopment plan originally proposed for the site by New York State was unsympathetic to the historic nature of the property. A generic esplanade and marina was planned on ground that was once home to the city's Canal District and Central Wharf. Here was the original terminus of Erie Canal -- the Commercial Slip that connected the historic waterway to the Buffalo River, Lake Erie and the American heartland. Provoked by the State's disregard for the historic significance of the site, the preservation community rallied opposition to the plan, convening a series of "Community Conversations" that eventually turned the public against the plan and convinced local and state elected officials to rescind their support in favor of a history-oriented program.
In fall 2007, the Erie Canal Harbor project welcomed the first visitors to the historically significant waterfront that includes excavation of the ruins of the Canal District as well public space reconstructed on the footprints of historic buildings, recreation of original bridge designs and streets repaved with street cobblestones from the 1800s. The site also features interpretive elements to educate visitors about the original Canal and how it helped shape the course of American history.
A Towering Challenge: Restoring the Richardson Complex
Among the greatest challenges facing the Buffalo preservation community is the fate of the Buffalo State Hospital, a long dormant state-run asylum that served thousands of mentally ill patients for nearly a century. Designed by Henry Hobson Richardson and listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the complex has severely deteriorated since patients were moved into more modern facilities in the mid-1970s. The massive Richardson Complex, as it is now known, is highlighted by twin Gothic towers that rise above the city's Elmwood Village. Built between 1870 and 1896, the Complex was Richardson's first major commission and the first example of the style that came to be known as Richardson Romanesque. Buffalo's preservationists have long decried New York State's disregard for the facility and have waged an ongoing legal battle to force the State to maintain and restore this American treasure.
After years of fits and starts, the long-stalled renovation has begun with the allocation of $76 million in State funding and the naming of a board to oversee the project. In addition to the renovation board, a companion board has been appointed to create a Buffalo architecture center in one of the Richardson Complex's tower buildings. The architecture center is intended to serve as an interpretive center for the region's numerous architecture attractions and as a visitors center for cultural tourists of all kinds. Taken in its entirety, the restoration of the Richardson Complex would represent the culmination of nearly 50 years of preservation activity in the Buffalo region. It would provide a capstone to the dreams and aspirations of several generations of Buffalonians.
Going Mainstream: Adaptive Re-use and the Re-birth of Downtown
Long considered by many to be the province of romantics and an impediment to progress, the preservation movement in Buffalo today has been embraced by a significant portion of the city's establishment. Philanthropic organizations such as the Margaret L. Wendt Foundation, the John R. Oishei Foundation and the Baird Foundation are among the most noteworthy supporters of restoration projects such as the Roycroft Inn, the Graycliff Estate, the Martin House, Hull House, the Nash House and Old Fort Niagara. The Buffalo News has become a champion of Buffalo's architecture. The paper's publisher is a key financial supporter of the Martin House and the chairman of the newly-formed Richardson Complex board. The region's tourism promotion agency, Visit Buffalo Niagara, is aggressively marketing Buffalo as an architecture tourism and American heritage destination. Even business interests who once cast a scornful eye on historic districts and preservation projects have adopted the use of historic tax credits and begun aggressively transforming a variety of former departments stores, warehouses, manufacturing plants and churches into commercial and residential space. Twenty-somethings and empty-nesters alike are returning to the city's core. Businesses that once fled to the suburbs are doing the same. The wheel, it seems, has begun to turn thanks in no small part to the vision, determination and commitment of Buffalo's preservation community.