Documenting Buffalo's Modernism

Newsletter

By Barbara Campagna

Buffalo has long been known as the home of iconic works of architecture by H. H. Richardson, Louis Sullivan and Frank Lloyd Wright. But Buffalo’s architectural legacy did not end with the demolition of Wright’s ill-fated Larkin Administration Building in 1950. It has an incredibly rich modernist heritage, and some of that heritage is now under siege. As a way to begin to counteract misconceptions about Buffalo’s modernism and bring awareness to the rich sites that dot Western New York, I taught a graduate seminar, “Preserving Modern Heritage,” last spring in the University at Buffalo School of Architecture & Planning. The students’ semester long project was to choose a Buffalo Modern and document it for the Docomomo US Registry. Until this year, only two buildings in Buffalo were listed in the Registry, and one of those had been demolished in 1950! (The New York Central Terminal Railroad Station, an Art Deco masterpiece from 1929 and Wright’s 1906 Larkin Administration Building, demolished 1950, were the only two Buffalo buildings listed.) Seven modern sites were ultimately listed as part of the class, with several more in the wings for later this year.

Photo (above): Larkin Administration Building

Buffalo has no dedicated modernism non-profit and indeed there are only a handful of Docomomo US members west of Syracuse. I co-administer a facebook group, Mid Century Modern Buffalo, started by a colleague of mine, Joe Incao, and we have used this avenue to share concerns and wins with our 450 members. In the past year, advocacy efforts to save two modernist affordable housing complexes from full or partial demolition have led to a public forum on modernism (co-sponsored with Preservation Buffalo Niagara, the Preservation League of New York State and Docomomo US) and two local landmark designation submissions, both which ultimately failed. We have a lot of work ahead of us to better inform Western New York residents and even preservationists about the significance and nuances of modernism.

Photo (right): Shoreline Apartments. Side Elevation of a Rudolph-designed unit facing 7th Street. Credit: Barbara A. Campagna.

Earlier this year I shared our local efforts in the Docomomo US Newsletter regarding landmarking and saving two threatened housing complexes – Frederick Backus’ 1939 Willert Park Courts and Paul Rudolph’s 1972/1974 Shoreline Apartments. Both complexes have been determined eligible for the National Register but better organized neighbors and owners have managed to defeat the local landmarking of both sites, which would have given them the best protection. 

Willert Park Courts was actually approved by the Buffalo Preservation Board but denied by the Common Council because neighbors “were against the designation.” Shoreline Apartments, whose current owners are proposing demolishing five of the original 32 Rudolph concrete buildings and replacing them with “Nouveau Victorian fiber cement board 

suburban rowhouses,” as a local architect and friend has coined these uninspired replacements, received a vote of 4/3 for landmarking but 6 votes were needed to pass. The State Historic Preservation Office is still reviewing the project, which is using state funds, and there is still a chance that this demolition could be put on hold. We are in dangerous territory in preservation law when neighbors can impact a landmark designation because they don’t “like” the buildings and when preservation board members vote for their opinion of aesthetics over criteria.

Photo (above): Norstar's plan to replace the Shoreline Apartments

With these recent losses, the significance of documenting modern buildings while we still have them, becomes even more important. I am very proud of the efforts of our seven students and the variety of buildings they chose to document. Below is a summary of the seven buildings submitted to the 

Docomomo US Registry this past spring. Links to the full registry listings can be found at the end of each summary. The Rudolph Shoreline Apartments will also be submitted to the Registry later this fall.

The Buffalo Evening News Building: Documented and prepared by Aaron Salva

The construction of the Buffalo Evening News Building marked a significant move for the News as it brought back together the production and the administrative sides of business at one location. Designed by Edward Durell Stone on the edge of downtown Buffalo, the concrete headquarters building opened in 1973. At the time of its completion, it was one of Stone’s last works. It was a time for Stone to reflect on his previous work and projects that he was influenced by but there was also the large task to fit it into the context of Buffalo’s rich architectural history. The project melded the influences of Buffalo’s heavy Gothic architecture with the purity and minimalism of the International Movement. Stone reinterpreted Le Corbusier’s five points in one heavy monolithic move. At the time it was an important piece of the Modern Movement in Buffalo but did not receive as much national recognition as his previous work. The complex has remained in use as the Buffalo News Headquarters and remains in fairly good condition. There is no current threat to this complex, but a better level of appreciation of this restrained yet significant structure is desirable.

Photo (above): Exterior View. Credit: Robert M. Metz, Buffalo Evening News Photo Collection, date: January 6 1973

To read Aaron’s full Registry fiche, click here

Willert Park Courts: Documented and prepared by Nicholas Batson

Willert Park Courts, now officially titled the Alfred D. Price Courts, were part of this housing experiment at this point of the city’s history, 1939. The housing project was designed for African Americans from the start and remained as such throughout its years of occupancy. Frederick C. Backus, a local architect, was brought in to design the project. His design called for ten buildings containing close to 175 residential units, situated mostly parallel around a central courtyard. This was one of the first public housing developments to incorporate such an arrangement and a wide use of green space. To give the design an aesthetic other than the brick façade, Backus worked with Robert Cronbach and Harold Ambellan from the Federal Arts Program to design sculptures with the theme of work and working class life (“Art, Sculpture”). The tinted concrete panels, situated at the entrances of each building, added a different look to the project and made it one of the first in Buffalo to involve sculpture in housing design (“Art, Sculpture”). The complex is significant culturally, historically, socially and architecturally as the first housing complex for African-Americans in Buffalo and as an early International Style design. The complex is threatened with demolition. Despite receiving approval for local landmark designation by the Buffalo Preservation Board, the Common Council denied its designation because its neighbors “were opposed to it, although they do want to see the artwork embedded in the walls preserved.”

Photo (above): NW Aerial view of the original design for Willert Park Courts. Credit: United States Housing Authority; Center for Urban Planning, State University of New York at Buffalo, Date: 8/12/39

To read Nick’s full Registry fiche, click here

The Buffalo & Erie County Public Library: Documented and prepared by Joseph Tuberdyck

The current Buffalo & Erie County Public Library opened in 1964 on the site of an earlier 1887 library structure. It was designed by local architects, James W. Kideney & Associates. The library continues to be used as the central circulation and research library for Buffalo and Erie County. Due to its ongoing good maintenance, the exterior materials of white Vermont marble and polished dark granite are in good shape with no signs of significant damage or cracking of the material. The interior was well designed and renovated making this building a suitable and defined space. The marble and granite façade helped to give the overall appearance of the well- known international style of modernism balanced by substantial glass curtain walls with stainless steel framing. To maximize the footprint of the two-block site at Lafayette Square, the building was constructed over Ellicott Street forming a modern portal like tunnel through the building. Despite continual laments that this brand of refined modernism removed the earlier Victorian Gothic library designed by Cyrus Eidlitz, the library is well used and in no danger.

Photo (above): Buffalo an d Erie County Public Library, Credit: http://buffaloah.com/h/library/tc.html

To read Joseph’s full Registry fiche, click here

The Albright Knox Art Gallery – the 1962 Addition: Documented and prepared by Abdul Engin

The need for additional space increased over the years, because of the expanding collection of the academy. They decided to build a new addition as a south wing of the existing building. Gordon Bunshaft, who was a design principal at the biggest architectural firm in the U.S. at that time, and the firm, Skidmore, Owings and Merrill (SOM), was engaged to design the new addition in 1958. Bunshaft was also a Buffalo native. The original building, designed by local architect E. B. Green in 1900 for the Pan-American Exposition, reflects the Beaux Arts architectural style with many Greek architectural features and ornaments. Even though both the original and the 1962 Knox addition buildings were designed and built in different eras and in different architecture styles, visually, there is little discrepancy between the two buildings. With the effect of landscape, both buildings have a perfect harmony in contrast, not contradiction. The 1962 Knox Addition building is one of the most important examples in Buffalo of modern architecture era with its unique design by the use of rectilinear forms, glass and steel. Also, it is a significant technical example of “Glass Box Modernism”. This addition and the Albright-Knox Art Gallery are a beloved cultural feature of Buffalo and under no threat.

Photo (above): Albright - Knox Addition, source: Courtesy Joe Incao for the Mid Century Modern Buffalo Facebook Page

To read Abdul’s full Registry fiche, click here

Temple Beth Zion: Documented and prepared by Madelyn Mcclellan

Following the destruction of the earlier synagogue from fire, the congregation hired New York City architect Max Abramovitz to design a new temple. Opening in 1967, this building received both national and local praise for its beauty and progressive aesthetic stature. The architectural mindset at that time was focused on the need to find a modern aesthetic to represent traditional forms and cultural values. Locally, the design was not well received, initially. Because the congregation had such presence within Buffalo, the new construction gained quite a bit of local press and attention. Even though the local media attention was relatively unbiased, the public opinion, upon release of the rendering in the newspaper, was quite negative. After the building was constructed however, people were able to experience the simplistic grandeur and the local opinion changed. The Temple Beth Zion is a building very representative of the brutalist movement in symbolic intent and material use. Monolithic concrete walls with exposed aggregate and fastener holes reference typical simplistic, unadorned brutalist material approach, and allowing the symbolism to read through the form. The ten scallops along the exterior facade represent the 10 commandments and the slight outward angle represents arms raised in praise. Meanwhile, the rough face of the concrete reminds the congregation of its roots in antiquity. The complex remains a beloved symbol of the congregation and is not threatened.

Photo (above): Delaware Avenue Entrance Credit: Buffalo Historical Museum, Date: 1967

To read Madelyn’s full Registry fiche, click here

Buffalo Metropolitan Transportation Center: Documented and prepared by Leah Kiblin

The Buffalo Metropolitan Transportation Center represented a major element in Buffalo’s re-development and represents New York’s commitment to the improvement of transportation in the area. The Buffalo Metropolitan Transportation Center was described as a “hinge building” by Cannon Design, architects of the termina, at the heart of physical regeneration in Buffalo. Suited to handling more than 800,000 passengers a year, the building was designed to be the epicenter of the city’s commercial passenger service. Although construction was delayed during the winter months due to Buffalo’s January 28th blizzard (known as the Blizzard of ’77) and severe winter weather conditions the Buffalo Metropolitan Transportation Center was opened in the summer of 1977. The Buffalo Metropolitan Transportation Center is the first use of taut skinned aluminum plate in Western New York. It also deviates from the design trend of fixed windows of the period with all windows being fully operable. This design reduces the dependency on mechanical heating and cooling systems while simultaneously creating a stronger connection with the outdoors. The building is in fair condition, requires substantial maintenance, but continues to be used as downtown Buffalo’s bus terminal.
 
Photo (above): NFTA Metropolitan Transportation Center Photo Credit: http://buffalorising.com/2013/05/then-and-now-buffalos-bus-stop/, Date: May 1, 2014

To read Leah’s full Registry fiche, click here
 

One Seneca Tower (former HSBC Center): Documented and prepared by Dillon Galvis

The building was constructed in 1972 specifically for Marine Midland Savings Bank’s Headquarters. The architects, Skidmore Owings and Merrill (SOM) were commissioned to erect the tallest building in Buffalos Skyline, which ultimately topped out at 40 stories. It remains the tallest privately owned building outside of New York City. Today, the building’s profile defines the downtown Buffalo skyline. Its location and height allow for amazing views of Lake Erie, the Buffalo River, and the entire region. The modern Brutalist building was built for the purpose of a bank, and did not take much consideration of the surrounding context of the site. The building has a conflicted relationship with Main Street, which is articulated through a barren tunnel at the base of the building. The building’s entrances are all set back from the surrounding streets, with little protection for poor weather conditions. Its most recent primary tenant, HSBC, moved out in 2013, leaving the building 95% vacant. Its owners are in bankruptcy. There is some hope that the Pegula family who recently won the bid to purchase the Buffalo Bills football team, and also own the Buffalo Sabres hockey team, may consider moving their operations here, having just leased one of the floors. This building’s ongoing vacancy is one of the blights on Buffalo’s current renaissance.

Photo (above): Arial View of One Seneca Tower Credit: http://www.gizmodo.com.au/2013/11/zombie-towers-5-vacant-or-foreclosed-skyscrapers-across-the-us/ Date: November 23, 2013

To read Dillon’s full Registry fiche, click here


Barbara Campagna has been a preservation architect for 25 years and at the forefront of the green building movement for over ten years as a leading voice for the integration of historic preservation, green building practices and understanding modernism. She started her firm, BAC/Architecture + Planning, in 2011 and holds faculty appointments at the University at Buffalo School of Architecture & Planning and FIT at the State University of New York. Barbara is now the Acting Chair and Assistant Professor for the Sustainable Interior Environments graduate program at FIT.