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How Buffalo turned architectural heritage into an engine for reinvention

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Visitors can marvel at architectural gems, see ace adaptive reuse, and drink beer brewed inside a grain silo

The Darwin Martin House by Frank Lloyd Wright is one of his masterpieces, and a highlight of any Buffalo visit.
Biff Henrich

During a visit to Buffalo, New York, last week, I was told that it was the easternmost Midwestern city. Which, based on a tour of its architecture and historic buildings, seemed like an accurate description. It’s blessed by masterpieces from some of the biggest names in American architecture—on display in large-scale photos at the airport, just to remind tourists of the treasures that await—including masterworks by Louis Sullivan, Frank Lloyd Wright, and Henry Hobson Richardson.

But more importantly, through clever development, generous historic tax credits, and small-scale, private urban planing, the city has, like other cities in the center of the country, turned its architectural heritage into an engine for reinvention. Buffalo’s past has always been present; in many neighborhoods, its hard not to trip over a gorgeous old home or commercial building. But now, it’s seen as the future, a tool to help turn the city into an even-better place to live and a great place for architectural tourism.

“It’s a city built on design and architecture,” says Mary Roberts, the executive director of the Martin House Complex, the city’s Frank Lloyd Wright gem. “And we continue to build great new buildings.”

Downtown Buffalo
Drew Brown

Curbed’s architecture critic, Alexandra Lange, wrote of how the city’s amazing architecture has also become a canvas for creating something new. We went back to see how some of the city’s architectural gems have fared or been re-imagined as Buffalo continues to redevelop. It’s becoming an even more enjoyable stop for tourists of all stripes, especially those who appreciate architecture and design (and should be even easier to navigate now that ride-hailing services such as Uber and Lyft are finally coming to town for the first time).

The conservatory of the Darwin Martin House

Darwin Martin House: Wright’s vision, without limits

“A well-nigh perfect composition.” Even for an architect as vocally proud of his own designs as Frank Lloyd Wright, his Darwin Martin house stands out in his body of work. Designed in 1903 for a Buffalo businessman who was, at the time, the highest-paid executive in corporate America, this multi-building estate is as stunning as its reputation suggests. When it opened, a local paper supposedly described it as a home designed by Jules Verne.

Stunning glasswork, including more than 400 art glass windows, is everywhere, Japanese artwork (a Wright “suggestion”) lines the walls, and a unique walkway and indoor garden are jaw-droppingly beautiful. The Martins made money no object, and Wright took full advantage, seeing this as the commission that might make his name. The highlight color, found amid the paint and plaster, is gold, and even something as seemingly pedestrian as the gutters were intricate and aesthetically perfect; in order to maintain perfect horizontal lines, Wright took the added step of installing a series of slanted gutters within the exterior set, one of many liberties he took with the client’s money. “Take care of the luxuries, and the necessities will follow,” Wright once said.

Fireplace detail in the Martin House

Like many of Buffalo’s architectural treasures, this home almost didn’t make it. It went through multiple owners in the middle of the 20th century (a local dean once used it as a residence, and a series of apartment buildings were placed amid Wright’s then deteriorating work). But the nonprofit involved in rescuing and restoring the home has brought it back to its glory after a $50 million restoration.

The art glass fireplace, just re-revealed this summer, was originally made by a Chicago artisan in a pattern of wisteria blossoms. Hand-patterned and hand-cut, with every piece painted in liquid gold, it sparkles in the afternoon sunlight (it should, after it took two years to fully restore). The gilded fireplace is one of the last pieces to be restored; Wright’s original landscape design for the site will be tackled next year. It will bring another layer of a masterpiece back to life, and showcase Wright’s ability to meld indoor and outdoor space. Already, locals in the surrounding Parkside neighborhood walk through the grounds regularly, neighbors waving at tour guides as they cross the street.

Guaranty Building: Sullivan’s masterpiece

Speaking of important buildings nearly lost, Louis Sullivan’s Guaranty Building (now called the Prudential Building), an early skyscraper design that shows the Chicago School architect at the peak of his daring creativity, may be the city’s most important charity case. In the early 2000s the law firm Hodgson Russ, the city’s biggest, bought out the building, and after years of restoration (which has cost nearly $20 million) now has arguable the most beautiful office space in Buffalo.

A new museum and interpretive center at ground level that opened earlier this year, tells the story of Sullivan and the building’s pioneering design. The exhibition even shows how the skyscraper was brought back from the brink; a scale model, created in part with drone photography, puts the original dimensions and design into perspective (before the lightwell was filled in by a later restoration, the Guaranty had the typical U-shape of buildings of its era). Although the building was never abandoned, it has struggled, facing owner bankruptcies, redesigns, and renovations that both modernized the space and hid the building’s historic glory.

The interior of the Guaranty and the entrance to the new interpretive center.
© 2017 Kim Smith Photo

“Can you imagine the karmic blot on Buffalo’s soul if we destroyed this and Wright’s Larkin office building?” says Terrence Gilbride, a partner at Hodgson Russ who oversees the firm’s stewardship of the Guaranty, in reference to the storied building torn down in 1950.

It’s been money well-spent. Following the intricate ornamentation that snakes up the building’s sides like ivy recalls the experience of tracing patterns at masterworks such as Alhambra. The interior lobby, lined with tile mosaics, elevator cages, and intricate staircases, showcases craftsmanship from another era that feels destined to fill an Instagram feed.

Albright-Knox

Albright-Knox Art Gallery: Classic meets modern

It’s a striking contrast: a classical 19th century take on a temple standing next to an obsidian-black modern structure across the courtyard. This is the Albright-Knox Art Gallery, one of the country’s greatest collection of 20th century art, as well as a sort of architectural face-off that poses the past against the modern.

The institution’s collection, which runs from the post-Civil War period up through contemporary masters, is housed within the work of two architects: E.B. Green’s temple-like Beaux Arts edifice, and a modern wing by Gordon Bunshaft, the famed Skidmore, Owings & Merrill architect, added in 1962. The contrast is a bit jarring, but provides a welcome variety of display space. Inside the main lobby of the Green building, a recent display of contemporary sketches felt at home in the soaring interior.

According to deputy director Joe Lin-Hill, the organization has long required more space to show off its extensive collection, as well as improve its operations and visitor flow. A current expansion plan by Rem Koolhaas’s OMA to replace Bunshaft’s building with a glass-walled lobby has been criticized by some architects and community members.

Joe Cascio

Hotel Henry: Reclaiming Richardson’s sprawling design

At the site of one of the largest historical restorations, hoteliers are trying to find a new life for one of the city’s more sizable architectural gems. The 500,000-square-foot Richardson Olmsted Complex, a small city of red medina sandstone that once served as the Buffalo State Asylum for the Insane, a large hospital and treatment center for patients with mental illness, was designed by Henry Hobson Richardson, and surrounded by a Frederick Law Olmsted-designed landscape.

The campus, which was abandoned by the hospital in 1975, was later rescued by the state, but has remained unused. Since 2006, the Richardson Center Corporation has been working for more than a decade to restore and put this massive structure back into productive use. The first example, Hotel Henry, just opened this April, taking over 180,000-square-feet of the middle tower, as well as the first brick-clad residential wings to the east and west, to create a modern 88-room hotel. (Eight more buildings remain, which may be turned into stores or artist’s studios.)

Early image of the Richardson Olmsted complex
Image courtesy of Frank Kowsky

Hotel Henry’s uniqueness isn’t just about the location, it’s about adaptation. To build within a purpose-built landmark, the architects and designers, including Deborah Berke, needed to creatively repurpose the interior—nearly half the space wasn’t revenue- generating when they first looked at floorplans, an unworkable economic situation for a hotel. One of the main entrances has been renovated with a double-height modern glass wall, which includes an outdoor balcony. Long hallways became pop-up meeting spaces, and on the upper floors, showcases for the old wooden post-and-beam ceiling supports.

The hotel rooms offer dozens of configurations due to the difficulty in standardizing the enormous, challenging layout. A warren of open space on the ground floor have been turned into an office center and cozy restaurants (including 100 Acres, named after the farm that patients used to tend to as part of their therapy). The new Lipsey Buffalo Architecture Center, set to open later this year, is being built on the ground floor, adding an additional way to dig into Buffalo’s past.

Looking out onto the surrounding neighborhoods and landscape, including the nearby campus of Buffalo State University, it appears like this complex can also tie together this section of the city.

“We truly believe that the development of this campus at the Hotel Henry can positively impact the neighborhoods around us,” says Diana Principe, one of the partners behind the hotel.

Riverworks: Industrial ruins turned waterfront party

Architectural renovation and adaptive reuse isn’t all about restoring masterpieces. Sometimes, it’s just about kicking back by a former industrial storage shed and drinking beer brewed inside a repurposed grain silo.

Since opening in 2015, the Riverworks facility, its converted storage sheds and the former Wheeler-GLF grain elevator, has turned abandoned buildings into a place to enjoy (and as the multistory Labatt’s cans suggest, maybe have a few drinks when you stop by). The complex is staggeringly large: thousands can sit inside the 60,000-square-foot main facility, (which hosts everything from roller derbies to concerts), riverfront docks rent kayaks, and towering, empty concrete silos have been transformed into rock climbing walls. Hockey games take place in the winter during colder months. According to Sean Green, the facilities athletic director, the owners are looking at how to add zip lines to allow guests to zig-zag above the riverfront.

Riverworks revels in bringing life to the old facility. The beer garden is just multicolored plastic chairs within some crumbling concrete shells (nicknamed Stonehenge). Movies are projected on the line of old silos (Buffalo has the largest extant collection of such structures in the world). And signs of future growth are just across the river, as new apartment developments suggest this area, like the city’s downtown, has just begun to blossom. If that’s not enough, earlier this May, the owners added a $2.2 million brewery system inside a couple of the silos, making the post-industrial playground even more self-sustaining.

Larkinville: Urban renewal through placemaking

Oftentimes, stories of renovation stop at architecture and forget the broader community complex. This new strip of restaurants and public spaces, including the Larkin Square plaza, have all used placemaking and historic buildings to create a small, lively neighborhood. The space hosts concerts and a weekly food truck rally that brings in dozens of vendors. A public mini golf course on the main drag, Swan Street, features holes designed by locals, including one devoted to historic preservation.

Named after the Larkin Soap Company that used to have a large factory onsite, Larkinville is a name that only took shape a few years ago (the area was once called the Hydraulics, a reference to its industrial past). Leslie and Howard Zemsky kickstarted started the redevelopment in 2002 with the Larkin Development Company’s renovation of the old Larkin Terminal Warehouse, now home to a number of companies including KeyBank (Howard is a local business leader who heads Empire State Development, one of the state’s public-benefit corporations.) It’s a family affair. Their son, Harry, runs Hydraulic Hearth, a pizza and cocktail place across from Larkin Square that houses Buffalo’s smallest art gallery (a converted telephone booth).

“Buffalo lost a generation that was moving out, and now the millennials want to move in,” says Leslie during dinner at Hydraulic Hearth.

“Our parents generation saw the decline and have the nostalgia associated with that, it isn’t what it used to be,” added her son. “Those that came in the age in the ‘80s, the decline had already happened. There was possibility in these old buildings and old neighborhoods. That describes the generational shift.”

One of the 11 holes in Larkin Links, the neighborhood’s “nano golf course”
Patrick Sisson

Right now, the family is at work on refurbishing a vintage 1937 diner car to open Swan Street Diner, another restaurant. During a visit last week, Larkin Square was packed. While walking down Swan Street, warehouse conversions were spotted up and down the street, as well as a string of architect’s offices. Perhaps these businesses can help architecture maintain its role as an engine for the city’s continuing reinvigoration.