Restored Classic Architecture Offers a Window to Buffalo's Past
By RICK MCGINNIS Special to the Star
Thu., Aug. 24, 2017
BUFFALO, N.Y.—There are families picnicking on the lawn and crowds of young people wandering between the food trucks in Larkin Square on the first really warm Tuesday of the year. It’s a bustling Food Truck Tuesday on the square, in the shadow of the looming factory and warehouse buildings that were once home to the Larkin Soap Company — a former industrial site being redeveloped on the working-class south side of Buffalo.
Wander down Swan St. toward the railroad tracks and you’ll find a short brick wall by a parking lot with a plaque next to it. This is all that’s left of the Larkin Administration Building, an early masterpiece built by architect Frank Lloyd Wright in 1904 and demolished by the city in 1950, and this reverentially preserved pier of red brick gives you some idea of how Buffalo came to regret this decision. They feel pretty bad about losing the Larkin Building here, but not too bad — after all, they still have five or six more Wrights in and around Buffalo, which is five or six more than most cities.
The Graycliff Estate on the shore of Lake Erie outside Buffalo, was designed by Frank Lloyd Wright to please Isabelle Martin, the wife of his friend and patron Darwin D. Martin. Frank Lloyd Wright came to Buffalo on the invitation of Darwin D. Martin, an executive of the Larkin Soap Company. Besides the Larkin Building, Wright also designed homes for Martin and his sister and one for Walter Davidson, another Larkin executive. The Darwin D. Martin Houseis now a museum in the Parkside neighbourhood of Buffalo, restored to its original layout after a tragic period of neglect that saw it abandoned for years and partially demolished.
The best way to take in the whole of the Martin House complex is from the spectacular glass-walled visitor’s centre designed by Toshiko Mori and completed in 2009. The interior of Wright’s classic “Prairie Style” house is mostly finished, with the fireplace mosaics — delicate glass tiles featuring a mural of wisteria flowers — just restored to the house this summer.
“Returning the Martin House to its original configuration was of paramount importance to experiencing Wright's design genius for the estate,” says Mary Roberts, executive director of the non-profit that has overseen the rebuilding of the Martin Complex. “Our community has invested heavily in developing, restoring and promoting our architectural heritage, and demolitions of important buildings such as Wright's Larkin Administration could never happen today.”
Hotel Henry, newly opened in the Richardson-Olmsted Complex in Buffalo, N.Y., was designed by architect H.H. Richardson in 1870, and became a leading example of Richardsonian Romanesque, the architectural style that would influence Toronto's Old City Hall, among many other buildings.
As lovely as the Martin House is — and with its stained glass, oak and brick interior, it’s a showcase of Wright’s particular idea of esthetic living — it has to be remembered that Martin’s wife, Isabelle, hated the place, which led to another commission for a summer house for the Martins, a 20-minute drive down the shore of Lake Erie from Buffalo.
Isabelle’s biggest complaint about her city home was the lack of light, so Wright gave her two walls of windows on the main floor of Graycliff, which give a view of the lake right through the house as you approach it from the drive. It’s a Wright house for sure, but built with a lighter touch and a tighter budget. The restoration, begun in 1999 and ongoing, is less pristine than the Martin House, which makes it feel homier, as if the family has just moved out after decades of hard but fond use.
House museums like the Martin complex and Graycliff are a reminder of just how wildly prosperous Buffalo was in its heyday, when not only Larkin Soap but the steel mills and grain silos and docks made the town hum with commerce. It was a profoundly middle-class city, where the homes of managers and executives lined the leafy parkways planned by Frederick Law Olmsted, the designer of Central Park, while the city’s tycoons lived in mansions on Delaware Ave.
Food Truck Tuesday in Larkin Square on Buffalo's south side, one of the many ventures pioneered by the Zemsky family to revive this working class and industrial neighbourhood. That prosperity is all over the downtown, which has one of the finest collections of architecture in any city this size — a greatest hits collection, from Louis Sullivan’s Prudential Building and Daniel Burnham’s Ellicot Square Building to the gold domed Buffalo Savings Bank, the nearby Electric Tower, the beautifully restored Market Arcade on Main Street and a magnificent art deco City Hall.
Buffalo’s post-war decline kept most of it intact, which has been a gift now that the city is reviving itself with walkable districts like Elmwood Village and countless architectural tours.
They’ve even revived projects that Wright never lived to see built, like his mausoleum for the Martin family in Forest Lawn Cemetery, a boathouse for a rowing club on the Black Rock Canal and a gleaming, copper-roofed filling station. Designed to help Wright out when he was having trouble with both money and the law, it was finally realized inside a new extension to the Buffalo Transportation/Pierce Arrow Museum by founder, car collector and local boy-made-good James Sandoro.
James Sandoro, founder of the Buffalo Transportation/Pierce-Arrow Museum, in front of the filling station designed by Frank Lloyd Wright but never built until Sandoro got permission from Wright's estate to complete the plans in his car museum in downtown Buffalo. A final gem was recently added to Buffalo’s architectural showcase with the restoration of the Buffalo State Hospital complex, just near the world-class Albright Knox Art Gallery, which was designed by Henry Hobson Richardson in 1870 and completed in 1895, nine years after his death.
If the Richardson buildings seem familiar, it’s because his unique style — dubbed Richardsonian Romanesque — became the choice for countless municipal buildings all over North America, including Queen’s Park and Old City Hall in Toronto.
Partially demolished and abandoned for decades, restoration of the mental asylum began a decade ago, and the first phase was completed this spring with the opening of the Hotel Henry under the peaked towers at the centre of the complex. Asbestos was painstakingly removed while the windows were restored and the roof repaired, but the hotel — which calls itself an urban resort — decided to retain the grand, institutional proportions of the original building, resulting in rooms with stunning high ceilings and hallways wide enough to use for public events.
Buffalo's Market Arcade, built in 1892 and one of the best preserved examples of what would become the modern shopping mall.
The building will also house the Lipsey Buffalo Architectural Centre, and while work remains to be done on the rest of the complex, visitors and hotel guests can take a photography or “Past, Present & Future” tour that includes the abandoned parts of the complex — an incredible bit of urban exploration that’s usually only possible by sneaking past locked doors. It’s the sort of bold move you’d expect from a city that knows it has a lot to show off.
Rick McGinnis was hosted by Visit Buffalo Niagara, which didn’t review or approve this story.
When you go:
Get there: You can drive, take the train or even fly, but the cheapest way to get to Buffalo is probably with Megabus, which goes to Buffalo from Toronto up to a half dozen times a day, for as little as $18 each way.
Get around: Explore Buffalo, explorebuffalo.org, offers over 70 tours of Buffalo landmarks and architecture on a wild variety of themes, led by enthusiastic and well-trained guides. Taking at least one of their tours is a great way to introduce yourself to the city and its history.
The abandoned barbershop in an empty wing of the Richardson-Olmsted Complex in Buffalo. The former mental asylum has been partially restored and reopened as a luxury hotel, but the rest of the building is open for tours while it awaits redevelopment.
Do your research: Visit Buffalo Niagara’s website, visitbuffaloniagra.com, which is packed with information on the city, including an exhaustive section on architecture in the town.