Wednesday, May 9, 2012

A walking tour of downtown Buffalo

Earlier today, I taught a digital preservation workshop for the Western New York Library Resources Council (WNYLRC).  I couldn't have asked for better hosts or for a better group of attendees, but by the end of the day I was absolutely drained.  I didn't want to spend the late afternoon and early evening vegetating in front of the TV in my suburban hotel room, so I headed into Buffalo -- a city I've driven through on countless occasions but have rarely had the chance to explore -- to check out the city's built environment. 

It's painfully evident that Buffalo has suffered hard times -- vacancies abound downtown and the East Side, the neighborhood separating downtown Buffalo from the suburb in which my hotel is located, is home to a striking number of boarded-up buildings and urban prairies.  However, it's also plain that Buffalo is an architectural gem.  Its downtown is home to a striking number of buildings that any city would be proud to claim as its own.

 Case in point:  the Electric Tower, formerly known as the Niagara Mohawk Building.  This white terracotta Beaux-Arts beauty was designed by James A. Johnson and was completed in 1912.

 This vacant former Waldorf Lunch building at 5 East Huron Avenue is much more modestly sized, and it may not look like much in the harsh sunlight of late afternoon . . . .

 . . . . However, when you get close to it, you see all kinds of fascinating details: a stunning typeface, subtle contrasts between matte and shiny metal, sleek Art Deco lines that would be right at home in Miami's South Beach neighborhood.

 Downtown Buffalo is home to a significant number of Art Deco buildings, most notably its City Hall (see below), but the former Buffalo Industrial Bank building at 17 Court Street is one of my favorites.  This not particularly good photo doesn't do it justice.

 It's only when you start examining its decorative details that its beauty snaps into focus.  Look at the frieze depicting the "gods of industry" between the second and third stories . . . .

 . . . . And this decorative metalwork at street level.

 The Liberty Building at 424 Main Street sits diagonally opposite the Buffalo Industrial Bank Building.  Designed by British architect Alfred Bossom and finished in 1925, it's unusual in that it's a) neoclassical in style and b) has two replicas of the Statue of Liberty sitting atop its roof.

 Both replicas were sculpted by Leo Lentilli.  One faces east, and the other faces west.

 As noted above, Buffalo City Hall, which dominates Niagara Square, is an Art Deco masterpiece.  It was designed by John Wade with the assistance of George Dietel and completed in 1931.  Owing to the strength and position of the late afternoon sun, I wasn't able to get a good picture of the building's front (you'll find a good one here), but even the back is spectacular.

Everywhere you look, interesting details pop out, among them the columns at the front entrance and the friezes by Albert Stewart.

The decorative tiles on the building's tower are stunning.

The statue of former Buffalo mayor and U.S. President Grover Cleveland that stands at the building's northwest corner was festooned with flowers; interestingly, the statue of former U.S. President Millard Fillmore situated at the building's southeast corner lacked any decoration.
The Buffalo City Court building immediately southeast of City Hall.  My first reaction upon seeing it:  "People of Buffalo, you have my sympathies."  The building, which was completed in 1974, exemplifies the much-reviled Brutalist style of architecture, and it doesn't harmonize well with City Hall, most of the other buildings that face Niagara Square, or the elegant white memorial to President William McKinley, who was assassinated in Buffalo in 1901.  However, as I walked around Niagara Square, it kept catching my eye.  As an abstract form, it is kind of interesting; I'm just grateful that I don't have to work inside it.

 Even though the curved exterior of the Michael J. Dillon U.S. Courthouse, which opened last year and is a certified "green" building, echoes the curvature of Niagara Square (which is more a traffic circle than a square), it also seems badly situated: it flanks the northwest corner of City Hall.  It's a nonetheless a refreshing change from the bland neoclassicalism of all too many newer federal government buildings, and in a different setting it would be nothing short of stunning.
A few blocks southeast of City Hall stands another architectural masterpiece:  The Prudential Building (formerly the Guaranty Building), which was designed by eminent Chicago architect Louis Sullivan and his colleague Dankmar Adler.  Completed in 1896, it is an early and superb example of the steel skeleton skyscraper.
Two of the building's exterior walls are covered with terracotta tiles, and the decorative elements incorporated into these tiles are astoundingly beautiful.

An unanticipated burst of rain brought my sightseeing to an abrupt end, but also brought a delightful surprise as I was driving back to my hotel.

I love spending time in Great Lakes cities -- I grew up outside of Cleveland and find the architecture and geography of all of the Great Lakes cities familiar and comforting --  I wish I could spend some more time here.

1 comment:

C in DC said...

Next time you're in the area, you should find the Frank Lloyd Wright houses and go to the Albright Knox Art Gallery.

(I grew up in Erie Co.)