Having been incorporated as a city in 1832 (and having a history that precedes this date), Buffalo, New York is an ideal spot for any lover of architecture. Its variety of Neoclassical, Beaux Arts, and Art Deco architecture speak loudly to its history as an industrial capital in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.
A city that is an ideal spot for any lover of architecture, Buffalo, New York's beautiful amalgamation of Neoclassical, Beaux Arts, and Art Deco styles speak loudly to its history as an industrial capital in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Though only incorporated as a city in 1832, it has a strong architectural history that precedes this date by many years. This August, we partnered with Visit Buffalo-Niagara and Explore Buffalo's Masters of American Architecture Tour (with our guides, Elizabeth and Tim) to delve further into the rich history that Buffalo has to offer.
To further capitalize on seeing more of the city's breath-taking architecture, Visit Buffalo-Niagara also partnered us up with the Richardson Olmsted Campus (with docents Sharon and Roseanne) and Frank Lloyd Wright's Martin House Complex (with docent Cynthia Silverstein) to see the best of Buffalo. In doing so, we were able to discover the many gems of Buffalo's architectural past, and delve head-first into admiring their many details firsthand.
Old Post Office
121 Ellicott Street
A visually delectable melding of Victorian, Gothic, Richardsonian, and Romanesque styles, the marvellous pink granite of this turn-of-the-century building was quarried in Maine and carved entirely by hand. Because of this, it took around four years to build, finally opening in the year 1901. At the time of its opening until 1912, it was the tallest building in the city of Buffalo. Designed by architect James Knox Taylor, the old post office — which operated as Buffalo's central post office until 1963 — unmistakably resembles the architectural style of a grand cathedral.
At four stories tall, this building features a seventy-five metre (244 foot) purely ornamental tower over the central entrance. That is, the tower itself stands solely for looks and is not useful to the building's infrastructure in any way. Along with deeply recessed arched openings, ornate gables, carved dormers, quatrefoil ornamentation, and lancet windows, all of these details come as no surprise; Taylor's career-long focus was the design and construction of breath-taking Gothic Revival cathedrals throughout the United States of America. Indeed, these holy places were his true architectural passion and he built them prior to and after the completion of the federally-appointed post office project, which at the time, had a mere $1.5 million budget ($46,368,253 USD or about $61,625,726 CAD in 2019). This is a massive difference in budget compared to the nearby Ellicott Square Building (more on that later), which was more than double.
Within the building, just past two long hallways stretching out in either direction, you will find a large atrium that is opened up to the sky with a glass roof. This massive skylight assisted with lighting during a time when low-watt Edison bulbs would have not done much, in terms of illumination. When standing in this very space today, it's clear that the building is no longer used as a bank.
This is thanks to two legislators — Minnie Gillette and Joan Bozer — who, in the 1970s, convinced the Erie County government to convert the building into a college campus in the midst of talk to tear it down. Because of them, the building is now home to the Erie Community College City Campus, which is open to the public to wander around the main foyer.
Ellicott Square Building
295 Main Street
A remarkable ten-storey Italian Renaissance Revival-style edifice built in 1896, architect Daniel Burnham erected the Ellicott Square Building at a cost of $3.5 million dollars USD, the equivalent of nearly $107 million USD (about $142 million CAD) in 2019. It is believed that Burnham held a bit of resentment toward James Knox Taylor, who designed the old post office (mentioned above), thanks to the fact that he was not chosen as lead on the project. It seems that as a 'retaliation' of sorts, he erected the Ellicott Square Building, which had a much larger budget and went up in about a quarter of the time that it took the former to be built.
The structure went up this swiftly thanks to its use of a steel body and terracotta façade, as opposed to a heavy stone exterior. Capitalizing on the use of terracotta — a building material that uses clay to form a durable, versatile, and fireproof surface — it can be formed into a multitude of shapes, including very intricate designs. This is why the malleable clay could be pressed into moulds and patterns to create columns, pediments, and other details found throughout the entire building. Once fired at high temperatures, just like a clay flowerpot, terracotta hardens to give the look and feel of stone, yet is lightweight and inexpensive. It's important to note that although white and appearing as 'marble' today, the original building was entirely the earthy and natural red colour of terracotta, prior to being painted over in later years.
Upon walking up to the front entrance, you're greeted by a pediment resting above the front doors featuring Mercury (the god of shopkeepers and merchants, travellers, and transporters of goods) and Minerva (the goddess of wisdom, war, art, schools, and commerce). Before them hangs a large chandelier from the peaked overhang; today, two rods hold the light fixture in place against Buffalo's rough winter winds, a law that must be abided for obvious safety reasons.
Though unfortunately visitors cannot take photos within the interior of the Ellicott Square Building without gaining permission from its current owner and signing a waiver, entering inside off the street (as anyone can do) leads you into a stunning world. Like the aforementioned old post office, this building contains a massive glass roof over the concourse in order to allow all of its offices, of which there are sixty, to have natural light shining through. The central electric lights hanging in the atrium were likely installed in the 1930s. As well, the floor that you see on main level today is not the original; it had to be replaced thirty-five years after its construction due to the building's heavy usage. Today, it consists of over twenty-three million rare marble tiles.
Despite being used as offices for many different businesses throughout the years that it has been in active use (it's still used as an office building today), this was also the place where, during the Vietnam War, young men had to report for the draft.
Pearl Street Grill & Brewery
76 Pearl Street
The current home of Pearl Street Grill & Brewery (a restaurant my family and I have been frequenting for years, and one that I would highly recommend!), 76 Pearl Street was originally built in 1870. Its first owner was Mrs. George Palmer, a local dressmaker who eventually sold her business in 1891 to another dressmaker by the name H. O. Putnam. The building remained as a successful dressmaking facility for over fifty years, ceasing only in 1919. As explained by our Explore Buffalo tour guides, this building was also a boarding house for workers in Silo City, an industrial area not far from 76 Pearl Street that was highly active in a time when Buffalo was the budding Queen City (the city was originally given this name due to the fact that it was the largest and most flourishing city along the Great Lakes toward the end of the 1800s and into the beginning of the 1900s).
It was also in 1919 year that R. C. Neal Co. took over, establishing a hardware store within its brick walls, where they continued to operate uninterrupted for the next sixty years. Simultaneously, MacGarry’s Restaurant was in full swing, operating out of the edifice's basement between the years 1927 and 1963. Twenty years later, in 1983, another restaurant named Garcia’s Irish Pub would open; they remained the sole business operating out of the building until 1996. Just a year later, Pearl Street Grill & Brewery began to take form within those very walls.
Today, the building is used in its entirety and open to the public (so long as you grab something to eat or drink). You can see the lovely New Orleans style wrap around copper-roofed patios from outside. These are essentially the only part of the structure, aside from the large tap statues, that are not original to the 1870 construction. The restaurant is visible from the I-190, easily spottable thanks to its hundreds of blooming hanging baskets (pictured above).
Why not stop in for a drink on the patio, where you can fall in love with the view? Lake Erie sunsets, cityscapes, and waterfront vistas are more than you could ever ask for.
Saint Joseph Cathedral
50 Franklin Street
Completed in 1847, the Irish Catholic Saint Joseph Cathedral was formed by Bishop John Timon after the realization that Catholics in Buffalo were ethnically divided. Because most (if not all) other cultures had their own church to go to whilst the Irish folks did not, Bishop Timon erected Saint Joseph's for the people of the city who were among the absolute poorest of immigrants. As they didn’t have much to contribute to the construction of the church themselves, the Irish parishioners contributed their labour in lieu of donating money. Meanwhile, the bishop solicited monetary funds from the Pope in the Vatican, México, and South America.
This symmetrical Gothic Revival cathedral has many French details, including a triple portal, recessed entrances, a stunning rose window, and (was supposed to have) twin towers. Although two towers were originally planned, ultimately, only one was erected.
The church's basement is now the final resting spot of Bishop John Timon, who passed away in 1897.
Louis Sullivan Building (Guaranty Building)
140 Pearl Street
Thanks to the fact that its exterior built of terracotta (for the same reasons that the Ellicott Square Building was built of this material) and that this material allowed for swift construction, the Beaux Arts-style Louis Sullivan Building was completed in just over a year's time; building began in February of 1895 and was completed in March of 1896. Terracotta was a favourite material of its architect, Louis Sullivan, thanks to both its ability for stunning ornamentation as well as because it is fire retardant. This also means that the weight of the building remains within the steel skeleton, not heavily on the outside walls. Thus, it was cheaper to build the Louis Sullivan Building than many other buildings of the time.
Directly above, in a collage of photos I captured while admiring the outside of the building, you can see the intricate detailing of the engravings made within the terracotta façade.
The building was built for Hascal L. Taylor, a local oil magnate who purchased the land at the corner of Pearl and Church Streets in order to build the “finest office building in the country.” And impressive it was; being the tallest building in the city at the time, it towered over Buffalo at a whopping forty-six metres (152 feet) high. The bottom floors were open to the public, and the next ten storeys were reserved for offices, all the way to the top floor with its uniquely rounded windows.
For decades, the structure was one of Buffalo’s finest business addresses, but when looking back on the building's rather tumultuous history from a modern perspective, including its many changes in ownership, it's a miracle that it is still standing. It began when the Guaranty was renamed the "Prudential Building" in 1898, done to acknowledge the refinancing of the establishment, which was provided by the Prudential Insurance Company. Both the Guaranty and Prudential names can be seen above the entrances even to this day, as well as an intertwined 'G' and 'P' on its lower level pillars (see image to the left, as an example).
Following the building falling into further hard times with the onset of the Great Depression, the subsequent decades caused the building more harm than good. Eventually, there was a fire in 1974 that left local city planners feeling that perhaps it should be torn down. However, it was saved thanks to a couple of dedicated local politicians, who were able to secure enough federal money to stabilize and sell it off to a corporation willing to bring it back to life.
Flash forward to 1998, the Guaranty Building was purchased by Hodgson Russ law firm, who worked diligently to restore it to the beautiful edifice that it once was. Today, the lower level is home to a free museum that is open to the public, showcasing the history of the building from its inception to the modern day. Just walk over to the nearest security guard when you enter, and ask if you can enter (they'll have to open it up for you). You won't be disappointed!
Saint Paul's Episcopal Cathedral
139 Pearl Street
When incorporated on February 10th of 1817, Saint Paul’s Episcopal Cathedral was a shining beacon of hope to Buffalo parishioners just several years after the village of Buffalo Creek (the city of Buffalo before it became an actual city) was burned to the ground by the British during the War of 1812. Though built almost congruently with the aforementioned Saint Joseph Cathedral, the structure of this holy place is asymmetrical Gothic Revival, but like the former, still remains a captivating focal point in the city today.
Its exterior walls are constructed from Medina sandstone (quarried in Orleans County, New York); this sturdy exterior would come to survive the church's gas explosion and consequential fire in 1888. It wasn't until two years later that the damaged structure would be restored by Robert Gibson in an effort to revive the beauty of the space to its former glory. During this reconstruction, it was realized that it was cheaper to buy the entire sandstone quarry for repairs (just $301 at the time, which is roughly $8,485 USD or about $11,255 CAD in the modern day). Once it was rebuilt, the church was able to sell off what was left of the quarry.
Within, the sixty-nine ethereal stained glass windows (one of which was supplied by Tiffany & Co.), gilded angels, Mexican marble High Alter, 1878 alter cross, 1908 gallery organ, and oak bishop's throne are just a handful of the things that leave visitors breathless. On the outside, one can spot its one (non-functioning) flying buttress, dripstone moulding, lancet windows, pointed arches, majestic spires, and the Great Tower housing fourteen bells.
While visiting the cathedral, you can walk to the park just outside of its historical walls, home to Homeless Jesus. This sculpture of Christ sleeping on a park bench is a place where locals can leave winter clothing donations for the less fortunate to pick up, absolutely free of charge. This incredible initiative is just one of many things that makes the city of Buffalo such a wonderful city to visit.
Richardson Olmsted Campus
444 Forest Avenue
Not included on the Explore Buffalo tour, nor located in the immediate downtown area, the Richardson Olmsted Campus is nonetheless a must-see while visiting Buffalo. In fact, I think that this National Historic Landmark just may have been my favourite building in the entire city, thanks to the fact that this jaw-dropping 145-year-old property, containing 51,097 square metres (550,000 square feet) of buildings was once home to the enlightened treatment for people with mental illness, developed by Dr. Thomas Story Kirkbride. As we drove up to the expansive building, I found myself remarking that this Richardsonian Romanesque state-of-the-art 'Buffalo State Asylum for the Insane' appeared to be a castle.
The well-known American architect Henry Hobson Richardson, father of the Richardsonian Romanesque architectural style, spearheaded the design of the asylum's beautiful buildings, while the grounds were designed by American landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted. The Complex itself operated as a self-sufficient community, featuring its own blacksmith, bakery, and a railroad line. There was a farm located on the northern half of the site, designed along with the expansive walkways and paths by Olmsted. Patients also had a chance to frequent the Buffalo State Asylum's parlours, dining rooms, libraries, and music rooms throughout the various men's and women's wards, and enjoy the Complex's well-maintained and stocked patient library (which housed over one thousand books).
Flash forward to the present day, and this $101.86 million CAD ($76.5 million USD) stabilization project has allowed for the central buildings to be turned into the Hotel Henry, named after the architect who designed the structure: Henry Hobson Richardson. Today, you can book a night in a rehabilitated (not 'restored') patient room, wandering through the halls that are now a delicate mixture of the clean and open-air constructs of the modern day, fused with the intricate detailing and sturdy construction of America's past architecture.
Regardless of how you choose to explore the interior of the Campus, you're bound to find yourself falling head-over-heels for both its exterior and interior architecture. You can book your public tour with the Richardson Olmsted Campus by clicking here, or make a reservation to stay at the Hotel Henry by clicking here.
Still want to learn more about the history of the Buffalo State Asylum for the Insane? Click here to read my full article on the institution-turned-hotel.
Frank Lloyd Wright's Martin House Complex
125 Jewett Parkway
Another location not included on the Explore Buffalo tour, nor located in the immediate downtown area, the Martin House Complex is still a must-see while visiting Buffalo, as it showcases a masterpiece of the famous American architect, Frank Lloyd Wright. For this particular tour, we were able to explore the entirety of the house's main floor, in addition to its pergola, conservatory, and parts of the newly restored gardens.
Upon parking, walk over to the Eleanor & Wilson Greatbatch Pavilion (an all-glass visitor's centre that's impossible to miss) to begin your pre-booked tour. This modern building was added during the Martin House's restoration, designed by Japanese architect Toshiko Mori.
As you walk toward the main house from the Greatbatch Pavilion, past the dreamy porte-cochère, you are instantly overwhelmed with the beauty of the home. As Wright was the pioneer of what came to be called the Prairie School movement of architecture, this modern take on residential homebuilding elicited an intimate yet free and spacious take on a family's personal space, thanks to its clean horizontal lines, fluctuating ceiling heights, inclusion of various building materials, and use of windows to allow the interior of the home to flow fluidly with the exterior gardens.
We began by entering the reception area, a sitting room of sorts that features wisteria-themed stained glass windows and a jaw-dropping sunburst fireplace made of Roman bricks and gilded mortar (the gold paint found coating the recessed space between the bricks can be found throughout the entire house). This would have been the space in which the family entertained guests during the time that they lived there, from 1905 to 1935. It's also in this space that you catch your first true glimpse of the home's entirely Wright-designed furniture on the tour, which the architect utilized to reflect the nature of both the home and the land it was surrounded by.
As you exit back into the reception room through the back, you enter the kitchen, a spacious and cleanly modern culinary retreat. The kitchen is complete with a series of ice boxes built right into the wall as you walk in (the equivalent of a modern day refrigerator), long counters, an abundance of cupboard space, and massive windows allowing for sunlight to flow in and for a view of the beautiful garden stretching out just on the other side of the pane. Another perfect example of the nature on which the house is built upon becoming one with the interior design.
Moving across the house to the opposite side of the main floor, we found ourselves in the dining room; once again, the Wright-designed furniture stole the show, along with the prominent dental crown moulding along the ceilings. As with most of this open-concept home, the dining room flows seamlessly into the living room and then into an adjoining library, much like one would expect to see in a house built within the last decade. The long horizontal lines found throughout the entire area pull the eye from one end the room to the other, regardless of which end that you stand at.
Central to this space, the living room's series of doors opens up onto a massive veranda, which is encompassed by an absolutely ethereal semi-circular garden. When standing just inside of the living room, opposite the entry to the veranda, your attention is captivated on the inside of the house by the Wisteria Mosaic Fireplace; this 360° focal point is made up of tens of thousands of individual glass tiles, all coming together to welcome onlookers' eyes to rove across it.
As you trickle back into the central hallway, you once again come to face the 143 square metre (1,540 square foot) pergola just beyond the back of the house, separating the mansion of a home from its 254 square metre (2,655 square foot) conservatory. This outdoor, thirty metre (one hundred foot long) stretch is at the centre of the complex, connecting the back entrance of the house to the front entrance of what was intended to be Martin's wife — Isabelle Reidpath Martin's — personal gardening haven. Though its lush greenery was not the type of gardening that Mrs. Martin was hoping for, visitors today can nonetheless appreciate the beauty of it.
Thanks to the help of various monetary sources — including the proceeds of tours and gift shop sales — a critical part of not only Buffalo, but America's architectural history, has now been salvaged for the enjoyment of generations to come. The Martin House Complex is still present today in all of its former, majestic glory.
Still want to learn more about the history of Frank Lloyd Wright's architectural masterpiece? Click here, to read my full article on the Martin House Complex.
A couple of hours in the city of Buffalo could not be better spent. Though this is only a small peek at Buffalo's rich history, Explore Buffalo's Masters of American Architecture Tour was exactly what I needed to gain a better understanding of what the city has to offer. Should I come back to the city for a longer period of time, I'll definitely be getting their Explorer Pass to gain unlimited access to all of their tours across the city — not just downtown, but around Buffalo as a whole.
Of course, our private tour with the Frank Lloyd Wright's Martin House Complex and group exploration of the Richardson Olmsted Campus are two places that will be forever engrained in my memory. The opportunity to delve more deeply into both of these buildings is well worth the additional time, both because of their richly detailed interiors and past, as well as the fact that both are situated outside of the downtown core. If you're already making the (short) drive out to see them, you may as well immerse yourself within them and their neighbourhoods as fully as possible!
If you have any questions about Buffalo's amazing architecture, or about the area in general (including if you are just looking for any further suggestions on things to do while visiting), let me know in the comments and I'd be happy to help you out!
To read more of our posts on the city of Buffalo, click here.
Prairie Whispers (music track on "Restored to Glory: Frank Lloyd Wright's Martin House" video) by Alexander Eurke has been used with permission.
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