Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Buffalo : Architectural Tour

Who knew downtown Buffalo was so beautiful?  We certainly didn't until we read in the Globe and Mail travel section about the plethora of historic buildings that have been preserved there, many of them in the Beaux Arts or Art Deco styles.  A little research revealed that the group "Preservation Buffalo Niagara" held daily architectural walking tours and suddenly another impromptu road trip was planned.

The tour started in the 1892 Market Arcade which now houses Buffalo's Visitor's Center amongst other tenants.  The Beaux Arts styled building was modeled after European covered indoor shopping arcades in Naples and London.  The exterior features matching terracotta facades on both entrances of the building highlighted by a buffalo head at the top of the rounded arch and pink marble Corinthian columns decorated with flowers and leafs.  Each of the three levels in the interior are stepped back to provide better lighting from the frosted glass skylight that spans the entire ceiling.

The roof of the Buffalo Savings Bank (1901), now occupied by M&T Bank, has a dome that is made of terracotta tiles covered with gold leaf.  Looking up at the dome from inside the bank, you can see a beautiful work of art displaying each of the signs of the zodiac. The murals on the four pillars supporting the dome promote Industry, Arts, Power and Commerce.  A large gilded bowl, with legs shaped like a phoenix with a woman's head, sits on top of the station where bank deposit slips are filled out.

This bank also owns an impressive collection of antique mechanical toy banks dating back to the mid 1800s.  Some motion is triggered when a coin is deposited into each bank.  Manufacturers competed to see who could come up with the more complicated actions.  Examples include a giant that pops his head out of a castle tower, a soldier who shoots the coin into the bottle, a dog that opens his mouth and wags its tail and a small chick that emerges from the mother hen.  I wish we could have seen these banks work.

The production of these cast-iron toy banks were a way to re-purpose factories that were originally producing arms for the American Civil War.  Some of the banks reflected racial stereotypes.  In one, a white policeman catches the black robber coming out of a house and when a coin is deposited, the policeman swings around and bops the robber on the head.  Another shows a "Chinaman" lazing on a chaise.  When a coin is deposited, the man shows his poker hand and salutes while a rat runs across his feet.

Electric Tower (1912) features an octagonal tower made of glazed white terracotta that steps back three times at the top like a wedding cake.  The Buffalo General Electric Company had its headquarters here and sold light bulbs and electrical appliances from this location.  It's decorative symbols featuring aspects of electricity production are considered to be early influences for Art Deco design.  Historic photos show that it was modeled after similarly structured European buildings.  The tower is the location for the New Year's Eve ball drop and is lit up in festive colours during holidays such as Christmas, Valentines Day, Halloween.  When the Sabres make the playoffs, it is lit in blue and gold in tribute.

 Liberty Building (1925) is home to the Liberty Bank which was originally named the German American Bank but renamed due to negative connotations that resulted from WWI.  To emphasize its new name, two 36ft tall Statue of Liberty sculptures were placed on the rooftop peaks.  The statues are lit up at night and face East and West overlooking the Great Lakes.  In 2010, a daredevil walked on a tightrope strung across the two towers of the building.

 The French renaissance styled Hotel Lafayette (1902) was considered grand and luxurious in its day. It included modern amenities such as elevators, radios and hot and cold running water and a telephone in every room.  Dignitaries and other important guests frequented the hotel.  It was one of the few buildings designed by a female architect - Louise Bethune.  After years of disrepair, the hotel has recently reopened after being restored and renovated to reflect some of its former glory.  The lobby features a wall of old styled slots where guests' room keys and correspondence used to be kept and the beautiful elevators.  The bar has distinct Art Deco elements in its decor and furniture.

The Buffalo City Hall (1931) is a renowned example of Art Deco architecture with its colorful chevrons and other decorative features at the top of each tower.  The sculpture and fountain in front features lions representing strength and stability and turtles spouting water representing stability (slow and steady wins the race).  Inside can be found mosaic tiled ceilings, large murals and a bust of John F Kennedy.  Tours are given at noon during the week day and there is an observation deck that provides a good view of the city.

The Prudential Building (1894 - formerly Guaranty Building) is built by architect Louis Sullivan, who designed various other buildings in Buffalo.  The 13 floor structure with a tall (for the times) steel frame was considered one of the first skyscrapers and its shape became the prototype for future such buildings.  It is covered red terracotta with beautiful ornamentation of flowers and swirls carved into it, culminating in a tree-like structure with sprawling leaves and vines at the top corners.  Inside can be found elegant ceiling lights, elevators, and gas lamps that the men used to pull down to light their cigars with.

 The 10 stories high Italian Renaissance styled Ellicott Square Building (1896) was considered the largest office building in the world at the time of its construction.  While the building has beautiful exterior made of granite, terracotta and grey brick, its breathtaking magnificence is in its interior.  In its central courtyard can be found a stunning glass skylight with steel frame, swooping grand staircases and a marble mosaic floor "depicting sun symbols from civilizations around the world".  The Robert Redford baseball movie "The Natural" was filmed here and currently it is a favourite location for weddings.

The Gothic revival styled old Post Office building (1897) features a 244ft tower at its center with gargoyles protruding from its walls and a majestic eagle perched atop its entrance.  The first letter sent from the post office was to President McKinley inviting him to attend the Pan-Am Expo.  Unfortunately for him, he accepted and was assassinated at the event.  The building was saved from demolition and restored in the 60s and is now used as a community college.

St Paul's Cathedral (1851) was built by an English gothic architect who really wanted to incorporate a flying buttress but had no real structural need for one - so he threw in a small decorative one over the entrance.  The cathedral is made of Medina sandstone which apparently was not easy to supply.  In order to ensure there was enough of it to complete the project, a congregation member bought the Medina Sandstone company and kept it until construction was complete.  The Gothic styled church has pointed lancet windows, a beautiful Tiffany stained glass window and another traditional stained glass window that incorporated imagery depicting industry in the form of smoke stacks.

Finally we saw the Frank A. Sedita City Court building that was in the Brutalist style known for its rough, block-like appearance, lack of ornamentation and extensive use of concrete.  This style is well named because looking at this building, the term "brutal" pops into your head as you imagine working in this stark, windowless environment.  Apparently this was intentional to protect the court rooms and judges chambers from outside distraction.  This building stood out in contrast to all the other beautiful flashy buildings surrounding it.  After a while it grows on you as it seems to exude a raw, defiant power of its own.

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