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A Buffalo Case Study: Can Architecture Bring a City Back?

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The exterior of Frank Lloyd Wright's <a href="http://www.darwinmartinhouse.org/">Darwin D. Martin House</a> from 1905. All photos by <a href="https://instagram.com/langealexandra/?hl=en">Alexandra Lange</a>.
The exterior of Frank Lloyd Wright's Darwin D. Martin House from 1905. All photos by Alexandra Lange.

Welcome back to Critical Eye, Alexandra Lange's incisive, observant, curious, human- and street-friendly architecture column for Curbed. In this edition of her monthly column, Lange hits the streets of Buffalo, New York, to analyze how urban and architectural renewal can bring a city back from the brink. And ICYMI, catch up on her past columns about architectural gamer paradise Monument Valley, the new Whitney Museum, and the sidewalk-level impact of waterfront development around the Brooklyn Bridge.


I don't mean the Bilbao effect, where a single extraordinary building designed by an out-of-town architect suddenly makes a city present to the wider world. Imagine the opposite of that, where a city's existing landmarks and infrastructure, built over preceding decades (sometimes by the Frank Gehrys of their day) are maintained, upgraded, restored, and repurposed for the 21st century. Where the grain elevators captured in their grace and precision by Charles Sheeler, once thought of locally as eyesores, become havens for extreme sports and small-batch beer. Where a psychiatric hospital, once an experiment in humane treatment, reopens as a hotel, a farm-to-table restaurant situated on the ruins of the hospital's therapeutic conservatory. Where renewal can be visualized by asking What Would Olmsted Do? It's too soon to declare the recovery complete, but all of these things are currently happening in Buffalo, New York.

Architecture serves as both a safety net and growth engine in Buffalo, which, thanks to a booming turn-of-the-last-century economy has one of the best collections of late-19th and 20th century architecture and urban fabric in the country. Louis Sullivan, Daniel Burnham, Frank Lloyd Wright, H.H. Richardson, and the Saarinens (both father and son) all did superlative work here before the second World War, as did native son Gordon Bunshaft of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill in the midcentury. In the terrazzo hallways at Bunshaft's wing of the Albright-Knox Museum, you can see paintings smaller than those seen at the new Whitney—a Kline, a Ruscha, a Rothko—though of equal quality. As the woman at the front desk tells visitors, museum benefactor Seymour Knox liked to buy work "while the paint was still wet."

Buffalo city parks are by Frederick Law Olmsted, Calvert Vaux, and Olmsted's sons—and not just a marquee park or two, but a comprehensive parks system that stretches from what was, in 1868, a rural zone to the north of Buffalo's civic center to the south. Olmsted managed to upsell Buffalo leaders on a network of parkways, landscaped roads, and traffic circles that later spurred the development of Buffalo's most picturesque neighborhoods, with deep tree lawns and canopies of green (at least in summer, when I visited). Buffalo has great bones, both as an urban experience and at the level of individual houses (I fell in love with some of the gingerbread beauties in Allentown's Arlington Park, just north of downtown). Buffalo's quotidian design encounters set it apart from other American cities, large and small, that might claim a better collection of discrete buildings. The quality of architectural experience is threaded through your drive to work, your office environment, and your weekend recreation, all for free or for the cost of a reasonably-priced ticket. For instance, Frank Lloyd Wright's Darwin Martin House hosts $15 yoga classes in Toshiko Mori's minimalist Greatbatch Pavilion. If you happen to be in Buffalo on the day the complex is closed, you can still wander the garden and admire the dramatic rooflines contributed by both Wright and Mori.

There's a term, used mostly by planners, for cities like Buffalo, Detroit, St. Louis, and Cleveland: legacy cities. The textbook definition of a legacy city is an "older, industrial urban area that has experienced significant population and job loss, resulting in high residential vacancy and diminished service capacity and resources." Aesthetics are not incidental to why people stay in, and move to, shrinking cities. The quality of housing and building stock is the legacy of former prosperity—appealing to artists and ordinary people alike. In Buffalo, politicians, local developers, even the Buffalo Olmsted Parks Conservancy have realized this. Person after person on my recent trip mentioned New York State's 20% tax credit for rehabilitation of properties on the National Register for Historic Places—on top of a 20% federal tax credit for such rehabs—as having the most decisive effect on the rebirth of Buffalo's downtown, now thick with early-20th-century buildings converted into offices and rentals. So many projects have been completed downtown that, according to local urbanist and preservationist Chris Hawley, developers are running out of central business district properties to rehab. (The upper floors of the grandiose Statler Hotel currently stand empty; only its ground floor is in use.) So what's next? Hawley points to the industrial buildings on the New York Central Belt Line, still in use by freight rail and Amtrak, a loop which includes the Central Terminal and the former Pierce Arrow Factory designed by Albert Kahn, architect of Detroit's famous Packard and Ford plants.


Downtown Buffalo has a concentration of distinguished buildings radiating out from the Art Deco too-muchness of City Hall. (I recommend a walking tour with Explore Buffalo, an 18-month-old organization that proves there's an appetite for archi-tourism here.) Next door to the famous ones are other commercial structures, in brick and terra-cotta (a revived local industry), which would be noteworthy in another town. First among equals is Louis Sullivan's Guaranty Building (1894-95), restored by the law firm Hodgson Russ for use as its principal office. Like most of Sullivan's work, the Guaranty Building is profusely ornamented, its molded surface as gorgeous as jewelry in a close-up, which, despite its minute detail works to emphasize the building's height from a distance. In the lobby (which is open to the public), admire the bronze staircase and elevator cages, the stained glass ceiling, and mosaic walls.

Inside Buffalo's Art Deco City Hall building, details of a ceiling mosaic in the lobby (left) and the Common Council Chamber (right). Photos by Alexandra Lange.

A block away, Minoru Yamasaki's One M&T Plaza, completed in 1966, makes formal reference to the Guaranty building in its arched ground-floor windows, striated slab, and prominent cornice. But it will remind most people of the Twin Towers, also by Yamasaki, which had the same cool delicacy of design extended to monumental proportions. You can see important public works of art here too: Harry Bertoia's leaf-like fountain, commissioned for the location, and Sheila Hicks's Thread Bas-Relief in the lobby, originally commissioned in 1972 by the Wilmington Trust Company. Turn south and you can visit Daniel Burnham's circa-1896 Ellicott Square. Its exterior reminds me of a wedding cake—Burnham's firm could do better—but the skylit interior courtyard is a romantic surprise.

Harry Bertoia sculpture in front of Minoru Yamasaki's One M&T Plaza building. Photo by Alexandra Lange.

The 1880 Richardson Olmsted Complex, designed by H.H. Richardson as the Buffalo State Asylum for the Insane, defines good bones. Standing on its second floor, looking at the enfilade of high-ceilinged rooms stretching north and south (check), one is tempted to tell the architects of its in-progress rehabilitation (who include Flynn Battaglia Architects, Deborah Berke Partners, and Goody Clancy) to stop right there. Seal the peeling institutional green walls, add some high-backed sofas, call it a day: all you need is the space and the light. But that's not what they are doing, of course. In 2016, the complex will reopen as the 88-room Hotel Henry (after H. H.) with a farm-to-table restaurant called 100 Acres, a 500-person conference facility, and an on-site greenhouse. Berke, the design architect, is adding simple, industrially-flavored elements to Richardson's Medina sandstone façade, including a steel-and-glass portico and stair. The building is enormous, half a million square feet in total, but the hotel will only occupy the central building and flanking bays. Wings of patient rooms, which fall away from the complex's landmark towers like a fan, will be redeveloped at a later date. The wings, which are brick rather than sandstone, reminded me of all the officers' housing on Governors Island, ideal for artists' residencies or other small-scale and semi-public uses; an architecture center, a hub for tours, exhibits and programs, will be included in the hotel's public spaces.

The Richardson Olmsted Complex as it looks today. Photos by Alexandra Lange.

When it opens in 2016, the Hotel Henry will be part of a developing cultural district, close to the Albright-Knox Museum and its neighbor, the far less architecturally distinguished Burchfield Penney Art Center, with access to Delaware Park (highly reminiscent of Olmsted's Prospect Park, with a larger meadow), the Buffalo History Museum, and the walkable Elmwood Village. Monica Pellegrino Faix, executive director of the Richardson Center Corporation, describes the whole thing as an "urban resort." Which would sound like an oxymoron except—What am I doing in Buffalo, anyway? Treating it as a landscape worthy of exploration. Some of us would rather trek a mile in urban shoes.

Other architectural masterpieces are nestled in residential neighborhoods. Which is lucky, because Buffalo's neighborhoods are an abiding attraction best encountered by slowing down on your way somewhere else. If I were a millennial thinking of moving to Buffalo, it wouldn't be the landmarks that would convince me, but the green, tight-knit neighborhoods and charming wood-frame houses. Frank Lloyd Wright's Darwin D. Martin House (1903-05), for example, is in the rather grand Parkside area. Martin was secretary of the Larkin Soap Company, one of the country's largest retailers in 1900, until their mail-order business was undone by department stores. The Larkin company hired Wright in 1904 to design its Administration Building, a radical precursor to today's daylit, open-plan office buildings. It is still hard to believe the Larkin Building was torn down in 1950. Only a wall remains. Locals say the building's disappearance had a galvanizing effect on the Buffalo preservation community analogous to the demolition of New York City's Penn Station.


If the Buffalo preservation scene has a blind spot, it concerns architecture built after its industrial peak. In 1937, then little-known Finnish architect Eliel Saarinen, working with his son Eero, won the commission for the Kleinhans Music Hall near Symphony Circle, one of Olmsted's original park elements. It would be among his first completed American buildings. Kleinhans is rather plain from the outside, albeit precisely detailed, with a Japanese-style portico, aluminum-framed doors, and stepped ledges that suggest the tiers of seats inside. Inside, the building opens up. The auditorium and smaller hall are clearly Eliel's work, their horseshoe shapes lined in rhythmic Neo-classical wood paneling and filled with golden light. The lobby is Eero on the make: a double-height space with curving lines in which the floor melts into the stairs, which then melt into a long plaster dome. Charles Eames—in that period, working at Cranbrook—contributed fruit-wedge-shaped sofas set on mirror-polished metal legs. As the building's National Register application puts it, "The interiors seem to be in motion." The complex concrete geometries of the TWA Terminal, designed two decades later, were first sketched here. Kleinhans is really an extraordinary feat, though it (along with Bunshaft's black-and-white Albright-Knox, crisp mid-century perfection from 1962) tends to get discussed after the local work of Richardson, Sullivan, and Wright.

Kleinhans and the Albright-Knox are in no danger, however, unlike Paul Rudolph's 1974 Shoreline Apartments, a few blocks north of City Hall. As Mark Byrnes reported for CityLab in June, one section of this affordable housing development has already been torn down, and the rest are in ragged shape. As with so much of Rudolph's work, it is appreciated more by outsiders than locals, even local architecture enthusiasts, , though there is a small band of people rallying support for Shoreline's continued existence and maintenance. As Barbara Campagna, a local architect leading the fight to preserve Shoreline, wrote for DOCOMOMO,

It is easy to blame the buildings and grounds for the vacancy rates and crime in modern public housing developments. But a walk around the site today, shows blocks full of buildings in various states of repair with little thought given or planning to the expansive land on which it sits. The private balconies and garden courts are desirable features in high-end condos all over town and the 9.5 acres of mostly ill-used land would be desirable in any city. A good architect and landscape architect, with the ability to respect Rudolph's intent while recommending native and sustainable land use approaches, could do wonders with this complex. It was obvious from even a brief walk around the Shoreline complex how its good intentions had been undercut by neglect. Openings that were supposed to allow flow through the site were fenced off, making open space unwelcoming or even unusable to residents while impeding Rudolph's classic modernist idea of building a village from scratch.

Presented by the Buffalo Niagara Convention & Visitors Bureau and Paget Films. Tag your own photos of Buffalo architecture with #thisplacematters and get re-'grammed by @curbeddotcom.


Buffalo's East Side has also been slower to appreciate, and to attract restoration dollars. The East Side was historically the immigrant destination in the city, once home to America's second-largest Polish neighborhood. Today, it is majority African-American. Buffalo's empty, 17-story Central Terminal, trainless since 1979, looms above the area as a reminder of the city's peak population: 580,000 people in 1950. Some East Side blocks that were once home to rows of houses now just contain one house, singular, flanked by weedy lots. What once was an urban fabric is now, in many places, tatters. In the 1950s, the intersection of Broadway and Fillmore was considered Buffalo's second downtown, with streetfront retail that included the fabulous Art Moderne Eckhardt's department store. These blocks are likely eligible for the National Register, and could also take advantage of the 40% combined tax credit. When I was touring the Richardson-Olmsted Complex, Pellegrino Faix talked about Buffalo's architectural rebirth as a "string" of three buildings: Guaranty, the Martin House, and now the Hotel Henry. Is it too much to hope that the Central Terminal be added to that classification?

On July 15, Governor Cuomo announced that a $44 million Western Workforce Development Center would be built on Fillmore, on the East Side, in order to train residents for the new-model manufacturing jobs in the region—most notably Elon Musk's SolarCity, which is projected to be the world's largest solar-panel factory when it opens in 2016 on the site of a former steel plant.

Meanwhile, Buffalo Olmsted Parks Conservancy is working with various community groups to improve the East Side landscape infrastructure in hopes of improving the neighborhoods' amenities, partly by restoring their original parks and parkway connections to the West Side. "We ask ourselves WWOD: What would Olmsted do?" says Brian Dold, Planning and Design Manager for the conservancy. "We think about his parks within the modern context. It's not preservation for preservation's sake." On the East Side, the City of Buffalo restored Humboldt Basin, a 500-foot wading pool that is the centerpiece of what is now known as Martin Luther King Jr. Park, making it usable as a splash pad in summer and ice rink in winter, as well as the adjacent Shelter House. "Capital investment is huge, but we feel a big part of what makes a great community is well cared for public parks and streetscapes," says Dold.

Last year, New York State DOU, the Department of Transportation, and the University at Buffalo did an economic impact study on bringing back the Humboldt Parkway, which once connected MLK Park to the system's crown jewel, Delaware Park, via a 200-foot-wide, three-mile road shaded by six rows of maple trees, making it possible to travel from the east to the west side in a park-like setting. By 1963, the trees were gone and the roadway depressed, creating the Kensington Expressway, which local activists would like to deck over. The large houses with front porches on either side speak to the street's former incarnation, though now they look at nothing.

Doug Swift of RiverWorks hopes to build a beer garden here in the old grain elevator ruins. Photo by Alexandra Lange.

Last, but certainly not least, there's the Buffalo River.

Picturesque grain elevators dot the riverfront, concrete cylinders that were beloved by European modernists as a taste of architecture to come. A 20-year clean-up effort has made it into a recreation space, from Canalside—where part of the former Erie Canal opened last winter as New York's largest outdoor ice rink—past elevators and factories that are still in use. (You can buy a t-shirt, inspired by the General Mills factory, that reads "My city smells like Cheerios.") A 171-acre masterplan for the shoreline along Lake Erie, designed by Perkins+Will, will include a mixed-use community alongside new parks and open spaces, all of which has relied on feedback from the public in its planning process.

At RiverWorks, you can get married, watch roller derby, play pickleball, go ice skating, attend a concert, and drink beer made in one grain silo in the geometric, picturesque ruins of another. (Placemaking projects in Buffalo tend to come with a side of sports and/or beer.) The silos are perhaps the best example of adaptive reuse: The smooth, cylindrical towers, innovative construction in their day, are now canvases for art installations, theater performances, and, if RiverWorks's Doug Swift has his way, rock-climbing and other extreme sports. Swift says he was inspired by New York City's Chelsea neighborhood, where Chelsea Piers, Chelsea Market, and the High Line converge. When you've got space, waterfront, and empty buildings, why not?

In Buffalo, I got the feeling that people across the breadth of the city, and across class lines, appreciate the city's architecture and understand it as a tangible asset. The citizens don't need to build a new museum, they need ways for people to live, work, and play in the urban fabric they already have. Buffalo's population may never reach 580,132 again (the 2014 estimate is 258,703, a barely discernible decline from the last census in 2010), so the challenge for the next decade is spreading those historic tax credits further afield. Buffalo should keep restoring attractions, like the Olmsted parks and parkways, that are free for all, to link the prosperous and the up-and-coming as they were intended to do. Listening to its legacy gives Buffalo a different kind of architectural ambition than it had as America's eighth largest city, but it is no less worthy of admiration.

· All Critical Eye posts [Curbed]
· Writer Uncovers Pearls Of Architecture Among Blight of Buffalo [New York Times, archived by Preservation Buffalo Niagara]
· Where are Legacy Cities? [legacycitiesbydesign.org]
· Buildings & Sites [Preservation Buffalo Niagara]
· Bertoia Skips Town [Buffalo Rising]
· Shoreline Apartments [BeImaged Photography]
· The Slow Death of a Brutalist Vision for Buffalo [CityLab]
· $44 million job training center coming to Buffalo's East Side neighborhood [The Buffalo News]
· Waterfront officials say changes to Outer Harbor plan 'will reflect much of the feedback' they have heard [The Buffalo News]