Buffalo: Home to Great Architecture

Wright's Martin House

For fans of great architecture like me, Buffalo‘s collection of signature early skyscrapers and a Frank Lloyd Wright masterwork have long been enough to merit a pilgrimage. A robust industrial past, pioneering landscaping efforts by Fredrick Law Olmsted, and a rapidly re-energizing downtown are icing on the cake.

Buffalonians know this. Everywhere I went in this lakeside city of 260,000, I encountered an enthusiastic and enterprising cadre of architects, planners, preservationists and developers dedicated to bringing what was once the nation’s eighth largest city back to life.

One of those folks is Tim Tielman who, along with a few others, in 1997 purchased the abandoned Buffalo Central Terminal — a 1929 conglomeration of Gustavino tiles, terrazzo floors and huge arched windows — for $1 and back taxes. The conservancy they formed has stabilized the building and set it on a still-winding path to revitalization. They’ve created a master plan for the terminal’s eventual development and offer occasional public openings to whet everyone’s appetite.

I met Tielman, who conducts architectural tours as part of his Campaign for Greater Buffalo History, Architecture, and Culture, for a walk through downtown’s greatest hits. An opinionated urbanist and preservation purist, he’s an unabashed fan of this fortuitously situated seat of Erie County.

“Geography is destiny,” he said, before sweeping through a brisk history of the city. Thanks to the opening of the Erie Canal in 1825, he explained, Buffalo quickly became a transfer point between the East and the Midwest. A sophisticated network of rail lines made it the nation’s second biggest transportation center (after Chicago), and the harnessing of the hydraulic power of the nearby Niagara Falls ushered in its industrial age. In 1901, the world’s first “electrified city” hosted the Pan-American Exposition.

Tielman pointed out vestiges of that industrial heritage. Seventeen hulking grain elevators can be seen at various points along the waterfront, while cobblestone streets and red brick wharf buildings hold their own under the looming “skyway” that ribbons the area.

“Plenty was demolished,” Tielman said, “but a lot survives.”

Upjohn and Sullivan. Photos by JoAnn Greco

Chief among them is the 1895 Guaranty Building, by Louis Sullivan, the father of the skyscraper. An ornate terra-cotta clad celebration of verticality, it’s a pointed response to the work of rival Chicagoan architect, Daniel Burnham, represented here by Ellicott Square (1895). Although of similar height to the Guaranty, Burnham’s structure appears squatter. “That’s because he’s still essentially stacking two- and four-story buildings on top of each other,” said Tielman. “Sullivan was more interested in inventing new forms.”

The equally spectacular lobbies of both buildings are open to the public. Sullivan’s interior is encrusted with painted iron and elaborate mosaic ceilings, while Burnham’s offers a skylit interior court.

Crossing the street from the Guaranty Building, we ducked into St. Paul’s Cathedral, Richard Upjohn’s 1849 contribution to a city of wonderful churches.

Tielman next led me to Niagara Square, in actuality one of the city’s many circles since Buffalo was keenly influenced by L’Enfant’s D.C. plan. From the steps of the Art Deco City Hall (1929), I noted a veritable history of architectural styles ringing the circle. Across the way was the elegant, Italianate State Office Building (1928), to the left, the curving glass tower of the just-opened U.S. Courthouse, and, to the right, the Brutalism of the 1971 City Court, a windowless hunk of concrete much unloved by denizens.

Saying my goodbyes to Tielman, I moved a few miles north of the downtown core to Parkside, an Olmsted-planned neighborhood of lovely green boulevards and Queen Anne homes. First on my agenda was Wright’s Darwin Martin House (1905), rivaled only by Fallingwater in scope and mastery among his residences.

Neglected for years, the sprawling complex is nearing completion of a 10-year, $50 million restoration that includes the re-construction of a conservatory and carriage house and the 100-foot long pergola linking them to the main building. (All three original structures were demolished in 1962, decades before the complex was awarded landmark status.)

Featuring 400 art glass windows, countless yards of intricately layered wood moldings, and hearths adorned with gilded mortar and glass mosaics, the six structures on the site offer prime examples of Wright’s Prarie-style, which emphasized low-slung lines and seamless indoor-outdoor connections with nature.

On my last day in Buffalo, I walked north of downtown along Delaware Avenue toward the neighborhood of Allentown. My 20-minute stroll took me past two churches (more dark glamour, one turned into an art center by singer and native Buffalonian Ani DiFranco, the other a tour-de-force of stained glass by Tiffany and LaFarge ), an eclectic collection of turn-of-the-century townhouses, and a  thriving retail strip.

I ended up at a final must-see, Kleinhans Music Hall, designed in the late 1930s by the father-and-son team of Eliel and Eero Saarinen. All luscious swoops and creamy curves, the home of the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra was made to be photographed. As the sun set, it looked especially picturesque under the shadow of yet another great church, this one designed in 1891 by the local firm of Green & Wicks.

Throughout my stay in Buffalo, every time I spied a building that particularly spoke to me — the stolid, orange-hued Dun Building (1894), the charming, light-filled Market Arcade (1892), the stately, porticoed Albright-Knox Art Gallery (1905), the gold-domed, neo-classic Buffalo Savings Bank (1901) — it turned out that to be the work of this duo.

Buffalo drew the country’s best architects to come from elsewhere to achieve the apogees of their career.  But in the end, it seemed, the quiet standouts were by Edward Green and William Wicks, Buffalo’s home boys. Now, that’s what they mean by “sense of place.”

6 replies on “Buffalo: Home to Great Architecture”

  1. While you were downtown, you missed my favorite building, The Niagara Mohawk Electric Building. What about the Liberty Bank Building? There are so many more buildings that were missing from your article… If you had gone to South Buffalo, you would have seen the Botanical Gardens and Our Lady of Victory Basilica. Speaking of churches, what about St. Stanislaus or Corpus Christi near the Central Terminal. Buffalo has more great architecture than any of the other 3 cities where I’ve lived.

  2. This is great, but Buffalo still suffers from a moronic, inept mayor (and business leadership) who can’t seem to truly understand the power of the city’s architecture. Entire neighborhoods, churches, etc. are being demo’d because the mayor cannot come up with a strategic plan (oh, and there is also the issue of him being in bed with church developers to construct plastic, suburban homes to the tune of $300k (they sell for $50k)).

  3. While the Darwin Martin complex is the best known of FLW’s houses in the city, Buffalo is home to five original FLW homes, plus several projects like the boat house and Blue Sky Mausoleum that have popped up in recent decades from his roster of previously unbuilt designs. Buffalo is one of those places where you can stumble upon the grandest of architecture in the seemingly unlikeliest of places… in addition to the masterworks mentioned in the article, there are true gems hiding around nearly every corner. A wonderful place to visit or to live!

  4. We Buffalo area residents are proud of our diverse archietectuaral prowess! Being one of the main hubs of commerce in the 1800s left us with the Erie canal and archetectural geniuses like Wright, Sullivan and many more give the area great value! The new Federal Building is also a great addition!

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