Thursday, December 17, 2009

David Steele's Buffalo Rediscovered

American society is propelled by a powerful desire for change and replacement. We consume the new and toss off the old . . . Although cities can not be so easily hauled away to the dump, they can become removed from our collective national consciousness. These used-up cities become forgotten places. One such forgotten place is Buffalo, New York. - David Steele
Buffalo is one of America's most remarkable cities. At the turn of the 20th century, it was a boom town. Built, like Chicago, on railroads, grain and steel, the "Queen City of the Lakes" was the 8th largest city in the U.S. Also like Chicago, it's population peaked in the 1950's, but it's fall from grace was more dramatic. The opening of the St. Lawrence Seaway diverted the lake shipping and, over time, Buffalo's key industries withered and died. By 2008, it had lost over half it's population.

Yet much of the architecture has remained. And Chicago architect David Steele, who grew up in Buffalo and studied architecture there, has a great new book, Buffalo: Architecture in the American Forgotten Land, that documents the richness of that architecture in striking black-and-white-photographs. If you've shuffled off to Buffalo on Friday, December 18th, you can meet the author and have him sign a copy of his book, from 4:30 to 7:00, with a presentation at 5:15, in the Council Chambers of the Buffalo's Art Deco City Hall, whose 393-foot height is almost as tall as the tip of the dome Daniel Burnham proposed for the new city hall in his 1909 Plan of Chicago.

Frank Lloyd Wright's great Larkin Building may have been demolished in 1950, but the house he designed in for Darwin Martin not only endures, but it's undergone a major restoration and has a new, glass-walled visitors center designed by Toshiko Mori. There's also the twin towers of H.H. Richardson's State Asylum for the Insane (not to be confused with his State Capitol, which serves a similar purpose)(pictured above, photo not by Steele), Adler & Sullivan's stunning Guaranty Building, and Daniel Burnham and Charles Atwood's Ellicott Square, which for nearly two decades after its 1896 completion was the largest office building in the world. There's also modernism, not only the aforementioned City Hall, from 1930, but Eliel and Eero Saarinen's Kleinhans Music Hall, and the spectacular, abandoned Art Deco Central Terminal, two and a half miles from downtown. (The photo below, by Dave Pape, was taken during a 2007 fundraiser. Steele's book, however, covers more than just the most famous buildings. It's truly a walking tour of the fabric of a great city, from streetscenes, to churches and shops, to Buffalo's striking homes, in an encyclopedia of styles. Although the city has about 15,000 abandoned homes, and about an equal number of vacant lots, much survives. In a recent USA Today article by Rick Hampson, local preservation activist Harvey Garrett's explains why so much quality architecture survives:
"Buffalo was rich at just the right time" — 1870-1914, when great architecture was still relatively inexpensive — "and poor at just the right time" — after 1950, when many older buildings in cities with better economies were demolished.
Steele describes his handsome book as "a love letter to Buffalo's built environment," but it's also a striking documentation of how architecture defines the character of a city over time. You can see the photographs here, and buy copies of the book here, hardcover $45.95, softcover $31.95 here.

Also, from 2008, New York Times architecture critic Nicolai Ouroussoff on Saving Buffalo's Untold Beauty, here.


Dennis McClendon said...

Surely you mean to say "Daniel Burnham and Charles Atwood's remarkable Ellicott Building."

Lynn Becker said...

Absolutely. Definitely. Definitely, that's what I meant. Apologies to the late Mr. Atwood and thanks for the correction.

Unknown said...

The Hotel Lafayette should be mentioned in this article since the first accredited female architect designed it and when Hammister is finished with it, I certainly hope it will be beautifully preserved and revitalized.

Carl Malone said...

David's ego is larger than the City of Chicago, but to his credit, this piece does contribute to the better good.