Is it possible to fall in love with a city more than you already are? The City of Buffalo, New York had been on my mind constantly for the past few years, but even more so after reading Alexandra Lange’s essay “A Buffalo Case Study: Can Architecture Bring a City Back?” Years ago, when I was looking at colleges, I stopped briefly in Buffalo, but didn’t pay much attention to my surroundings—yet the city stuck with me for reasons I would come to discover on a recent trip.
Reading about Buffalo and the celebrations planned across the country to mark the 150th birthday of Frank Lloyd Wright, made me want to jump on the #FLW150 bandwagon and plan a trip to both Chicago and Buffalo—and so I did. I wanted to not only see Frank Lloyd Wright’s architecture, but to experience great architecture in general, something both of these cities know a thing or two about.
When I told people I was headed to Buffalo for the second leg of my trip, much of the reaction I got was what I had expected. Most people paused, a few shrugged and all proceeded to ask “Why would you go to Buffalo? What’s there?” What most of these people didn’t know then (now they do thanks to my enthusiasm for the city) is that Buffalo is one of the most architecturally significant cities in the country. With buildings and sites designed by almost every major architect practicing in the 19th and 20th centuries, Buffalo should be on every architecture buff’s list. It is one of those places that everyone needs to experience at least once in their lifetime.
With a roster of distinguished architects like Henry Hobson Richardson, Louis Sullivan, Frederick Law Olmsted, Frank Lloyd Wright, Eero and Eliel Saarinen, Gordon Bunshaft, Minoru Yamasaki and Daniel H. Burnham among many, many others, it’s easy to see why Buffalo is considered an architecture paradise. It’s like opening a chapter in an American architecture history textbook, but instead of flipping through pages, all one has to do is walk the city.
Shortly after landing in Buffalo and checking into my AirBnB in Elmwood Village—one of the city’s most architecturally distinct neighborhoods—I grabbed my used, almost-torn copy of Buffalo Architecture: A Guide and hit the ground running. I walked for miles at a time, stopping to look at any building that captured my attention.
I was too in love with Buffalo to think about the pain my knees and feet were in after walking all over Chicago just a few hours prior. I wanted to see all the buildings I had studied in my architectural history courses in college and recall that feeling of falling in love with a city that has undergone so many changes (and more underway).
I strolled down Delaware Avenue, a National Historic District lined with phenomenal Gilded Age mansions that reflect a time when Buffalo had more millionaires per capita than any other city in the country—and wow, what gorgeous mansions there are in Buffalo! Mansions designed by the illustrious firm of McKim, Mead & White and Charles Pierpont M. Gilbert among others, are all found on Delaware Avenue. (Porter Avenue also has some outstanding houses that you should see) I stopped to look at one of the city’s most dramatic buildings, Max Abramovitz’s Temple Beth Zion, a concrete building with scalloping walls completed in 1967. This striking modern building features windows by Ben Shahn, which I unfortunately did not get to see.
After drooling at the work of Max Abramovitz’s at Temple Beth Zion, I walked toward downtown, admiring along the way the early twentieth century commercial buildings on Main Street. I stopped to marvel at Minoru Yamasaki’s elegant M&T Bank Building with Harry Bertoia’s fountain in the plaza. I continued walking until I arrived at Louis Sullivan’s profusely ornamented Guaranty Building, one of Buffalo’s most exquisite architectural gems—a masterpiece of American architecture. On Fridays, the nonprofit organization Preservation Buffalo Niagara leads tours of the building, but if you are unable to make it to one of these, there’s a small exhibit in the lobby that interprets the building and places it nicely in context to the architecture of its time. Tour or not, go inside the lobby and stare at every single detail, from floor to ceiling—it’s a life-changing experience.
Another building in Buffalo worth your time is the Kleinhans Music Hall by Eero and Eliel Saarinen. Located in the Allentown neighborhood, this swoon-worthy building is as magnificent from the exterior as it is from its interior. A total work of art in the smack middle of one of Buffalo’s most vibrant residential neighborhoods.
Of course, Buffalo also has a decent collection of buildings by Frank Lloyd Wright including the most impressive house I’ve seen to date on the East Coast—the Darwin Martin Complex. A multimillion dollar restoration has just been completed (and more preservation work is underway) of the Martin Complex which consists of the Martin House, the Barton House, a Carriage House, the Gardener’s Cottage, the Conservatory and Pergola.
My trip to Buffalo also took me to the Albright-Knox Art Gallery where the art on display is just as wonderful as Gordon Bunshaft’s incredibly elegant 1962 addition to the Greek Revival building by Green and Wicks. As most of us know, the Albright-Knox has been in the news lately and not for good reasons since a partial demolition of Bunshaft’s addition is being proposed by the gallery. Already iconic even without having been built, Gordon Bunshaft’s sleek “black box” beautifully looks onto Green and Wick’s building from 1900-1905. It is graceful and deserves much more respect than what it is being given by the Albright-Knox.
As I walked out of the Albright-Kox, I spotted the eerie towers of Henry Hobson Richardson’s Buffalo State Hospital—one of the architect’s largest works completed in collaboration with Frederick Law Olmsted who designed the landscape.
I wanted to experience the city through the eyes of the many architects, planners and landscape architects that left their legacy in Buffalo. With that in mind, I hopped on two buses and headed to Forest Lawn Cemetery in the northwest part of the city to see Frank Lloyd Wright’s Blue Sky Mausoleum.
Founded in 1849, Forest Lawn Cemetery is designed as a rural cemetery in the tradition of Cambridge’s Mount Auburn Cemetery (1831). And as with many of the cemeteries built around this time, Forest Lawn is also a cultural institution with a robust program of lectures and tours that highlight the monuments and sculptures in its grounds, some of which were designed by well-known architects and artists such as Richard Upjohn, Stanford White and Harriet Whitney Frismuth.
Nestled among the grand Victorian houses of Elmwood Village is this contemporaneous design by Adam Sokol Architecture Practice. Dubbed “The Birdhouse,” this project simultaneously announces a departure of what’s already in Buffalo as well the arrival of what’s to come to this great city. Completed between 2006-2011, The Birdhouse is a bold addition to this colorful neighborhood.
But what about Brutalist architecture, you ask? Oh, there are some fine examples of the Heroic style in Buffalo, including the Buffalo City Court constructed between 1971-74 and designed by the Buffalo firm of Pfohl, Roberts and Biggie. Massive, windowless and according to my guidebook, designed to “protect the courtrooms and judges’ chambers from outside distractions,” the Buffalo City Court is one of a handful of brutalist buildings in downtown Buffalo that are worth admiring, I certainly did.
If Brutalism isn’t your thing, but Art Deco is, Buffalo is home to many Art Deco buildings, but none more spectacular than Dietel and Wade’s Buffalo masterpiece, The Buffalo City Hall—a mammoth of a building with 32 floors of Art Deco gloriousness. Walk around it, go inside and stare at all the details that embellish every square inch of one of the city’s grandest buildings.
I came to Buffalo in search of the architecture of Frank Lloyd Wright, but left with so much more love for a city that is continually reinventing itself. The city is undergoing a renaissance thanks in part to the resiliency of its people and of course, for its great architecture. There’s just so much to love about Buffalo that I’ve barely begun to scratch the surface when it comes to exploring its built environment. I hope to be back soon and see all of its magnificent church interiors, something I did not get to do this time around.
Shameless plug, but if you want to see more of Buffalo’s architecture, head over to my Instagram and take a gander, I’ll be posting more photos as the weeks go by.