How Buffalo Transformed Its Famous Architecture for a New Era

Historic restorations, repurposed structures, and a hotel in an old psych ward have helped make the City of Good Neighbors an increasingly exciting place to visit.

How Buffalo Transformed Its Famous Architecture for a New Era

Frank Lloyd Wright’s Darwin Martin House recently underwent a $50 million restoration.

Photo by Biff Henrich

Tucked away on residential streets, between rows of nondescript buildings, are Buffalo’s architectural masterpieces. Until recently, these historical gems went almost entirely unnoticed, but thanks to a renewed interest in preserving the Queen City, they’re finally getting the attention they deserve.

A century ago, when Buffalo was at its economic peak, stately mansions lined the avenues and buildings by famed architects popped up all over town. However, urban sprawl and a misdirected effort at modernization eventually hit the city hard, and by the 1960s, people were leaving Buffalo in droves. Many of the mansions were demolished to make way for parking lots and chain stores, and the construction of masterful buildings came to an abrupt halt.

“There were some bleak times,” says Jessie Fisher, executive director of Preservation Buffalo Niagara, referencing the urban renewal practices of the 1960s and ’70s, when the local government approved demolition of almost any building to help market neighborhoods for redevelopment. The tactic rarely worked, and certain areas were left with a gap-toothed appearance that lingers today.


The Martin House’s original conservatory was rebuilt as part of the first-ever reconstruction of Wright buildings.

Photo by Noah Kalina

Lately, though, Buffalonians have begun to reinvest in their hometown history. Achievements like the $50 million restoration of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Darwin Martin House and the $100 million Hotel Henry development have not only saved historic structures previously slated for demolition but also turned them into engines for Buffalo’s economic resurgence. “Buffalo is like a 40-square-mile architectural museum,” says Fisher. “Except for Chicago, it has the greatest collection of work by various architects. That level of a collection, especially in a city like Buffalo, really sets us apart.”

It’s a fact no longer lost on developers. As money flowed back into Buffalo following the 2008 recession, companies—spurred on by historic tax credits—began to look at the city’s older buildings as areas of opportunity.

In the past few years, several structures on Chandler Street have been transformed, and at least a half-dozen historic properties across the city have been converted to hotels. Areas like Grant Street, the West Side, and Niagara Street have also seen an uptick in investment, helping to save works by such renowned architects as Frank Lloyd Wright, Minoru Yamasaki, Louis Sullivan, H. H. Richardson, Marcel Breuer, and Louise Blanchard Bethune.


The grain elevators at Silo City now serve as a cultural venue for concerts, readings, and more.

Courtesy of Silo City

Even unglamorous structures have become desirable. In 2015, derelict grain elevators on the banks of the Buffalo River became RiverWorks, an adult playground of sorts with rock climbing in the silos, a zip line, and live entertainment in a 5,000-person arena. Additional grain elevators down the street now function as Silo City, a cultural venue for concerts, poetry readings, and theatrical performances, while an abandoned industrial space in the First Ward recently opened as The Cooperage, a mixed-use space with apartments, shops, a 5,000-square-foot brewery, a distillery, and a gymnasium with rock climbing and zip-lining. In Black Rock, a neighborhood that had seen little to no investment in decades, local developers turned a series of empty buildings into a new culinary destination in 2015, welcoming outposts of Tappo Pizza and Thin Man Brewery. Across the street is Buffalo Cider Hall, a cider brewery and tasting room that opened in the fall of 2018, and next door to that, plans are in the works to convert a deserted lot into a members-only pool club by the summer of 2020.


The Hotel @ The Lafayette occupies a building designed by the first female professional architect in the United States.

Courtesy of The Hotel @ The Lafayette

Many of Buffalo’s more historic properties have been repurposed as hotels. In 2012, a building designed by Louise Blanchard Bethune—the country’s first female professional architect—emerged as Hotel @ The Lafayette, complete with 57 individually designed guest rooms and suites. The former Buffalo Psychiatric Center, designed by H. H. Richardson, became Hotel Henry in 2017, while the downtown Harlow C. Curtiss building opened as the Curtiss Hotel the same year. Despite the rapid pace of rehabilitation, local preservationists believe there’s still work to be done. Buffalo’s park system was designed by Frederick Law Olmsted—the man behind Central Park in New York City—yet a handful of his lush boulevards were replaced with thruways in the 1960s. Community groups continue to call on government officials to return the city grid to its former glory.

In the meantime, Fisher remains pleased with the progress, especially because it’s opened up so many new spaces for locals. “The architecture is so very accessible for those who live here and for visitors,” she says. “You can stay in Richardson’s world-class architecture, interact with the grain silos, and tour some of the most amazing buildings by respected architects.”

With each new project comes an additional chance for people to engage with Buffalo’s history, making the city richer in more ways than one. “Where else in the world can you do things like this other than Buffalo?” Fisher asks rhetorically. “Absolutely nowhere.”

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