New York Central Terminal
National Register of Historic Places, September 1984
Buffalo Landmark, 1979
The New York Central terminal is a six-story main terminal with a twenty-story office tower at northwest corner. The terminal was designed as a passenger station by the prominent New York City architecture firm of Fellheimer and Wagner. Fellhiemer and Wagner formed a partnership in 1921 and possessed the reputation of railroad design specialists. The building's erection was a solution to the problem of the train traffic congestion that was prevalent in the city, and the terminal consolidated and organized train traffic. The Buffalo terminal served the New York Central, Michigan Central, Grand Trunk, Toronto Hamilton & Buffalo (TH&B), Pennsylvania and Canadian National lines, and later served Penn Central and Amtrak.
The New York Central Terminal is an Art Deco building that is approached facing the north elevation in which a twenty-story octagonal tower on the western corner ascends the complex. The tower is eighty feet in diameter and two-hundred and seventy-one feet tall. There is a buttress at each corner of the octagon, and these buttresses continue up the tower, gradually stepping back to create an octagonal crown which is accented by stylized stone finials. The crown of the tower orginally was illuminated at night and was visible from fifteen miles away. The main terminal building which houses the concourse is a six story, rectangular, barrel-vaulted structure. It is three-hundred feet long, two-hundred and twenty-five feet long, and one hundred feet high. Besides the tower, the building is characterized by large rounded arches beneath its barrel-vaults on the east and west elevations. These arches are flanked on either side by pylons and these facades are almost entirely fenestrated for the allowance of natual light in the interior concourse. The entire building has a granite base, grey brick facing and limestone trim. The building sits upon a one-story steel and reinforced concrete station plaza. This plaza is perceptible by a stone ballustrade around its perimeter and is accented by obelisks which originally held light fixtures. Many obelisks are now missing after years of neglect. The plaza measures one-hundred feet long and six-hundred feet wide. The main thoroughfare that connects to this plaza gradually slopes on an incline to make the plaza twenty feet higher than grade level and is level with the main floor and same height as the passenger bridge. Since the building is raised on the plaza, there is no stairway leading to the passenger bridge (now demolished) and this originally functioned to expedite passenger movement to the trains. Further, the functionality of the plaza is marked by its original use as a street-car terminal. Street-cars ran to the east of the building - out of the way of automobile traffic and entered underneath the plaza where there was room to turn around, and passengers arriving by street-car utilized a seperate entrance at ground level. Additionally, this area beneath the terminal also housed baggage facilities, a parking garage, and a trucking center - all out of view from the grand terminal.
Ground broken March 29, 1926. Completed and opened June 22, 1929.
The surrounding physical context of the terminal has changed little from 1929 until present. This area of Buffalo was widely developed and dense by 1929. Polish immigrant houses and small-scale commerical buildings still surround the complex, although in a blighted state much different now from when this neighborhood was booming in the 1920s.
Buffalo as a transportational hub commenced with the completion and opening of the Erie Canal in 1825. The Erie Canal connected the Great Lakes to the Atlantic Ocean for the first time. In little over a decade, Buffalo's transportational value was supplemented by its first steam railroad in 1836 and Buffalo had a population of about eight-thousand people at this time. Despite the Civil War and financial panic of 1873, railroads contined to prosper in Buffalo. By 1862, Buffalo's population had grown to a hundred thousand people and possessed eight major railroad companies. During the latter half of the nineteenth century, Buffalo experienced industrial growth only second to Chicago because of its access both to railroads and cheap electricity provided hydraulically by nearby Niagara Falls. Industries like wheat, coal, iron and cattle flourished in Buffalo and resulted in record industrialization, especially in flour and steel mills. By the turn of the twentieth century, the population reached three-hundred thousand, and Buffalo was solidified as a preeminent transportational hub. Buffalo was linked by rail to every part of the country and possessed seven-hundred miles of track within the city. By 1923, there were five railroad passenger stations which served fourteen different lines. This resulted in congestion, delays, and passenger inconvenience. It was decided to build one large terminal two miles outside of the city center that could accommodate two-hundred trains and ten-thousand passengers daily. The present location on Curtiss and Paderewski streets was selected, and it was claimed that it made for minimum delay because the wide and uncongested thoroughfares made the station easily accessible.
The building is a steel frame structure with a granite base, with brick masonry accentuated by limestone. The building rests on an elevated plaza that is one story high and is constructed of steel beams reinforced with concrete. The spacious interior of the building is sound-proofed by its structural system. The foundation pillars of the building are set in alternating layers of asbestos and lead sheets and are called "vibration mats." The interior is further sound-proofed because the walls and ceilings are faced with tile that is sound-absorbent. Additionally, the concrete base of the building is lined with two-inch-thick cork slabs.
The interior lobby is located in the office tower and possesses dark-grey Botticino marble on its floor and walls. The passenger concourse is the largest space inside the building and this room runs east-west. It is decorated with sky-blue and buff-colored Guastavino tile and light and dark-grey Botticino marble. The ticket offices in this space have Botticino countertops and wainscoting, and bronze-finished frames and grille freizes. The large floor area in this space is covered in terrazo tiles of cedar, Tennessee pink, Botticino and Red Verona. The floor pattern has a dark border and sectional stripes which sunder the massive floor space.
Historically, the New York Central Terminal served an economical purpose. The railroads in Buffalo during the early twentieth century employed over twenty-thousand people, not taking into consideration all of the auxiliary industries that the railroads served. The building's erection was a solution to the problem of the train traffic congestion that was prevalent in the city. There were delays in local freight shipments because of this congestion and it was very expensive to transport goods via significantly scattered tracks and freight houses. Delays and inefficient transport were both detrimental to business. The building consolidated and organized train traffic, and its permanence was implied in its dedication which said that this "civic monument" was "large enough to take care of the city's traffic for years to come."
Today the New York Central Terminal is not only the only extant vestige of Buffalo's transportational past but a monumental testament to the once vibrant Broadway-Fillmore neighborhood that it is located in. The Broadway-Fillmore neighborhood is a historically Polish neighborhood that has experienced blight, neglect and a substantial loss of population over the past thirty years, just as the terminal itself has. Preservation efforts on behalf of the building's owner, the Central Terminal Restoration Corporation, have brought people back to the building and this has resulted in a spill-over benefit of people returning to the neighborhood. Traditional and annual Buffalo event venues have been moved from their various locations and are presently held at the terminal, and with great success. The building has experienced a renaissance since the Central Terminal Restoration Corporation's efforts. In little over a decade, the structure went from neglect to being featured on national television on the show "Ghost Hunters," in 2010 and will be open to the nation once again in 2011 for the National Trust for Historic Preservation Convention. The building may even have a tranportation future again as a high-speed rail hub.
The New York Central Terminal stylistically is Art Deco, typical of this expansionist and machine-driven era of the 1920s. The choice of Art Deco for the New York Central Terminal represented a modernist reaction to the traditional neo-classical and Beaux-Arts styles that were prolific in earlier train stations. There is little ornament, and where ornament does occur it is not ostentatious. The building was supposed to visually represent "a sheer mass effect, an impression of sturdiness and power felicitously symbolizing the railroad corporation that built it and the city that it serves," as described in its dedication program from opening day in 1929. The interior materials are also quintessential Art Deco in choice such as marble, brass grilles, glass panels, and polychromatic mosaic tilework. Other interior features are highly stylized and include waterfountains, telephone booths, concession stands, clocks and lighting fixtures. The New York Central Terminal is unique within its cityscape. It is located two miles outside of Buffalo's downtown and therefore is the only high-rise in the area, and its presence dwarfs the one and two story Polish workers' cottages that envelope it. The terminal was designed by the prominent New York City architecture firm of Fellheimer and Wagner. Fellhiemer and Wagner formed a partnership in 1921 and possessed the reputation of railroad design specialists. Hallmarks of the firm's railroad design principles that are perceptible at the Buffalo terminal include effective resolution of transportation and site problems, efficient use and treatment of interior spaces, and simple visual cohesion of large structures. The firm also believed in financial self-sustainability in their designs, and this was achieved by incorporating the office tower and commercial space throughout the building. The New York Central Terminal was Fellheimer and Wagner's first commission where they were not forced to design within a dense urban fabric, and therefore the terminal at Buffalo was their first opportunity to design a station on a grand scale. This freedom resulted in Fellheimer and Wagner's use of modern materials of reinforced concrete and steel to create an artifical elevated approach to the station which evoked a sense of prominence and monumentality.
The terminal is one of only two grandiose examples of the Art Deco style in the city of Buffalo, the second structure being Buffalo City Hall built in 1929-31 by Dietel and Wade. The New York Central Terminal served as the prototype for Fellheimer and Wagner's masterpiece - The Union Passenger Terminal which is located in Cincinnati, Ohio. The design elements that originated at Buffalo's Central Terminal designated Fellheimer and Wagner's "formula" for an exceptional train station. The design elements were created to foster the functionality of the structure, both on the inside of the building and on the exterior. These key elements included seperate entrances for pedestrians and vehicular traffic, a clear circulation pattern, liberal space for both freight and rail traffic, and a multi-service passenger concourse. All of these features were included in the Cincinnati terminal and in the firm's future projects.
The New York Central Railroad was one of America's largest railroads and extended from New York City's Grand Central Station to Chicago's La Salle Street Station. The New York Central Terminal in Buffalo was the midpoint between these two cities and this palatial complex is a modern example of a large-scale passenger station during the apex of rail travel in the early twentieth century. The Buffalo station is an outstanding work of the architectural firm of Fellheimer and Wagner, railroad station specialists and perfections were made at the Buffalo station that the architects incorporated into their future works. The New York Central Terminal is also one of two colossal examples of Art Deco architecture in Buffalo, and its high architectural integrity and intact physical context make this building an asset to Buffalo's transportation past and the community that it resides in.
Buffalo Central Terminal Dedication Program. June 22, 1929
Kowsky, Francis R. Historical and Architectural Overview. City of Buffalo: Broadway-Fillmore Neighborhood. May 2004
New York Central Terminal Nomination Form. National Register of Historic Places Inventory, United States Department of the Interior, National Park Service. Completed by Claire L. Clark, Sept. 7, 1984
Depicted item: New York Central Terminal walk-through of interior in the late 1980s at the nadir of the building's neglect., source: Video credit: Richard Gilbert via Buffalocentralterminal.org