At the turn of the 20th century, Buffalo, New York was the eighth most populous city in the United States. Harnessing hydro-electric power from nearby Niagara Falls, Buffalo became the first city in the United States to have wide-spread electrical power- earning it the nickname ‘The City of Light’. After the city played host to the 1902 Pan-American Exposition, it quickly became a hub of industry and commerce.
Buffalo’s location on the Erie Canal made it one of the most important shipping ports in the country, and the future looked golden. While fate had other plans for Buffalo’s future, the remnants of the city’s glory age can still be seen when walking down the streets of present-day downtown.
Buffalo is home to some of the most architecturally significant gilded age and art-deco buildings and parks in the United States, featuring architects such as Frederick Law Olmsted, Frank Lloyd Wright, and the first female architect in America- Louise Blanchard Bethune. The art-deco period is known for its incredible attention to detail, rich colors, and powerful geometric designs. Buffalo, perhaps surprisingly, is one of the best places in the country to dive in and see the workmanship and love that this architectural period left behind.
Come along on my walk in downtown Buffalo to see five architectural masterpieces that still dot the cityscape today.
1. Buffalo City Hall
An iconic building in Buffalo’s skyline, Buffalo City Hall is a 31-story Art Deco building that was completed in 1931. The building is one of the tallest municipal buildings in the United States, at an impressive (for a city hall) 378 ft. tall. At the time of construction, the project cost an estimated $6,851,546.85- around $94.1 million in 2014 dollars. The extravagance of the 1930’s can be seen by taking one of the daily free tours through the building, where you can hear the history of the murals, art-deco panelling, sculptures, and ornate fittings that make this property so inspiring. Don’t miss the viewing deck at the top which offers panoramic views of the city and Lake Erie.
(Tours run Monday-Saturday at noon. Meet in the lobby. No reservations needed)
2. Electric Tower
In 1912, famed Buffalo architect James A. Johnson went to work on a building inspired by the famed electric tower at the city’s 1902 World’s Fair. The tower had been a central focus on the grounds and had become a world famous icon of the event- towering high over the black-and-white photographs and postcards that attendants brought home as mementos to show off to their friends and family. The original was not built to last and was destroyed shortly after the Exposition, but Johnson wanted to re-create the tower that had become a symbol of Buffalo’s success. Considered a foreshadow of the art-deco style, the stunning white terra-cotta building is 13 stories tall and features an octagonal tower. The Electric Tower is now home to the Buffalo Ball Drop on New Year’s Eve- the second largest event in the United States.
3. The Guaranty Building
Buffalo’s Guaranty Building was one of the city’s first skyscrapers, and was designed by one of the most famous architects of the time- Louis Sullivan. Sullivan is often credited as the “father of skyscrapers” and is well-known for his work on the World’s Columbian Exposition and the Sullivan Centre in Chicago. The Guaranty Building was completed in 1896, a steel framed structure that was finished in terra-cotta blocks and embellishments. The building was modernized, unfortunately, in the 20th century and the once great office building fell into such a sad state it was nearly demolished in the 1970’s. Thankfully the Guaranty Building was saved, restored, and still stands today as a testament to the history of American architectural design and the modern-day skyscraper.
4. The Old Post Office
This historic building on Ellicott Street in Buffalo, can easily go unnoticed- which is a tragedy for all those passing by. Now home to Erie Community College, the Old Post Office functioned as its namesake from 1901-1963. Construction began on the building in 1897, costing a whopping 1.5 million. It was designed by Architect James Taylor, who supervised the construction of dozens of federal buildings from 1897-1912. The Old Post Office is highly ornamental, with beautiful touches such as Buffalo sculptures lining the exterior. Walking inside the building is almost magical, because what you find is so completely unexpected. The interior feels more like an opera building than a post office (or community college) featuring a stunning covered court yard.
5. Hotel Lafayette
Built between 1902-1911, the Hotel Lafayette has a history that mirrors that of the city itself. The historic hotel was designed by Louise Blanchard Bethune, the first female American architect, and at the time it was one of the finest 15 hotels in the country. It was once the preferred hotel for visiting politicians, with the likes of Presidents Woodrow Wilson and Franklin Roosevelt staying in the luxurious rooms. The Lafayette offered guests elevators, as well as hot and cold water and telephones in their rooms. At the time, this was pure luxury. When Buffalo’s economy fell into hard times, so did the Hotel Lafayette- and up until a few years ago had turned into a run-down dilapidated property. A $35 million renovation was completed in 2012, restoring the property to its former glory. The details are extraordinary, with art-deco elements, marble floors, original murals and wood panelling all restored to the delight of all those passing through.
I was very lucky to stay at the Hotel Lafayette during my time in Buffalo, and will be sharing my review very soon!
Want to take your own walk in downtown Buffalo to explore these gems? Use this handy map to chart your course!