Buffalo Tales- Part 1: The Queen City of the Lakes

While the focus of my trip back East was my Dad’s birthday, I did manage to squeeze in a side trip to Buffalo. I went to college in Buffalo, and have a long-standing love affair with the place.  Buffalo’s unique history has resulted in an incredible collection of buildings and landscapes unrivaled by any other American city its size. Most date from the first half of the 20th century, Buffalo’s golden years. Like many rust-belt cities, the second half of the century was difficult; the city lost half its population;( in 1900 it was the 9th largest city in the US, today its 69th). So, like Detroit , Cleveland, and others in the area, Buffalo has much that has been abandoned. Its part economics, and part just numbers- imagine San Francisco suddenly having 400,000 fewer people living here. So, this duality; the glorious past that is lovingly maintained and thriving, and that which has been abandoned, at least for now, is the subject of these two posts.01_buffalo


Its 1901, Buffalo is at the height of its glory, and it shares its wealth and beauty to the world in the form of 1901 Pan-American Exposition, seen below. Buffalo is a center of industry, it is superbly located at a confluence of land, water, and rail, it had produced two presidents, and , not surprisingly, had become a place of great wealth. With this wealth, came the natural desire to create landmark buildings. And this desire called on the best architectural and planning minds of the day. These were great years in Buffalo, with the only pockmark (and perhaps a portent of things to come),  the assassination of President McKinley at the Exposition.


Extraordinary buildings were built during the early part of the century here, chief among them the Prudential Building, one of the first American skyscrapers- that is a steel supported structure with a “curtain wall” hung from it, in this case, sumptuous red terra cotta. It was designed by Frank Lloyd Wright’s old boss: Louis Sullivan. It straddled two worlds when it was completed in 1896- announcing the coming modern age with its height and technological prowess, yet at the same but reinterpreting the lavishly decorated buildings of the 19th century, and anticipating the decorative Art Nouveau movement in art and design that was just blossoming. The lacy finery, seen here at a column capital, is extraordinary. This is one of the icons of early 20th century architecture.


All the Star-chitects of the day built in Buffalo. Below the renowned late 19th century Boston-based architect H.H. Richardson’s slightly eerie, and now abandoned, State Psychiatric Hospital. His renown included the rare honor of having an entire style named after him; Richardsonian Romanesque. This style featured muscular masonry and picturesque tops, perhaps  welcome imagery for one visiting an interred relative: in turn; solidity and hope.  For its time, the building was considered extremely progressive in its planning for such a use.

22_statehospital2Below we see two more images, first Daniel Burnham’s contribution, (Chicago’s great architect)- this is the glorious floor of the atrium in his downtown Ellicott Building. And Frank Lloyd Wright, admiring his work, as only he could, in this case the new Larking Soap Building, a breakthrough in office building design. Sadly, the building was demolished in the 50’s. 07_ellicott1wrightinchair4

With the abundant riches of the city, much was spent on the cultural edifices of the day. Fredrick Law Olmstead, the preminent 19th century Landscape Architect, (Central Park, Stanford)had created a pastoral network of parks and parkways in the city, seen below. And,cultural landmarks soon grew around them; one of the finest Art Museums in America- the classical temple of the Albright-Knox, and the great Finnish father and son team Eero and Eliel  Saarinen’s Kleinhans Symphony hall, seen at night.


The architectural icons weren’t just limited to institutional endeavors. Frank Lloyd Wright, after designing the Larkin Building, returned to design the home of the company’s owner, Darwin D. Martin. This represented the pinnacle of his prairie style homes, albeit plopped into the middle of a northeastern city.

11_martinhouse1This whole robust period in Buffalo was summed up by the ultimate expression of civic pride, City Hall. And they didn’t skimp, erecting a mountainous art deco edifice. Completed in 1931, and one of the largest in the country ,it capped an incredible period of growth, prosperity, and progressive planning and architecture in Buffalo.

In Part 2, I look at the present and future- “Buffalo: Ghosts and the Shrinking City”. Here’s the link:

Buffalo Tales : Part 2