Buffalo Architectural History Minute!
1929….. depression in Buffalo or time to catch-up on building projects?
Part 1: Buffalo City Hall
Designed: (1929-31), DIETEL & WADE)
City Hall was built by the John W. Cowper Company, which was the same firm that earlier had built the Statler hotel and The Buffalo Athletic Club. The total cost of the building of City Hall was $6,851,546.85, including architect fees, making it at the time one of the most costly city halls in the country. The building has 32 stories, 26 of which are usable office space, and is 398 feet high from the street to the tip of the tower. The total floor area is 566,313 square feet of which 316,937 square feet is usable for office space.
The tenor of the times notwithstanding, tall Art Deco buildings like City Hall owed much of their form to the practical limitations of the new zoning laws. No longer could tall buildings rise to their full height in one sheer swoop. Rather, to admit light and air to the street below, the facade had to be set back as the building rose.
Hugh Ferris, a noted architectural renderer, did a study in 1922 illustrating the maximum feasible bulk a building could have under the new laws. The final drawing of the study prefigured City Hall in stunning fashion It is of the building as mountain: a massive base chipped away at intervals by setbacks leaving a soaring central tower flanked by two wings. Vertical elements streak upward and light and shadow play dramatic facade. Ferris did many more of these stupefying drawings through the 1920’s, and his visions influenced many American architects, including, most probably John Wade.Other influences on Wade’s design were, probably, the Nebraska State Capitol and the Al Smith Office Building in Albany, NY. Further, during the 1920’s there was also an undercurrent of interest in Mayan architecture. One travel writer, in fact, spoke of City Hall as a “slightly excited Mayan pyramid.”
Mountain, tower, or pyramid, City Hall was definitely the new landmark of Buffalo. Floodlighting made it visible throughout the city at night, and from ships far out in Lake Erie. Powerful searchlights were beamed from the peak to guide aviators to the city. In its decoration City Hall exhibits boisterous ornamentation on its facade and along its hallways. Near the top the building are three-dimensional chevrons (V-shaped elements) of polychrome terra cotta. Below this is a band of terra cotta with an American Indian motif. The band is interrupted at the corners by highly stylized stone eagles.
At ground level, the entrance consists of a colonnade and frieze. In keeping with the modernistic theme, the columns are “attached” to their bases by giant eight sided nuts of granite. (The columns themselves represent bundled reeds, illustrating a political maxim: strength from unity). The figures on the frieze are not wizened Greeks or Roman orators, but burly Buffalonians: stevedores, riviters, truckers and aviators. The central figure in the frieze, the symbol of Buffalo, is a woman. She records history as it unfolds around her
Inside the building is an intricately patterned lobby ceiling. Composed of thousands of terra cotta tiles, it is inspired by the headdress of certain Indian chiefs. The lobby has ornamental pilaster representing four civic virtues and several inspirational murals by William deLeftwich Dodge.
On the 13th floor is the Common Council Chamber. A very large art glass sunburst helps light the chamber. The space is ringed by 12 pillars, the crowns of which depict virtues expected of the chamber’s inhabitants. The symbols were originally to have been busts of prominent Buffalonians. The Council, however, became embroiled in a seemingly endless squabble over just who should be represented. The architect Wade finally interceded and declared that the virtues be substituted. Wags have long noted the absence of symbols for honesty, efficiency and thrift.
Below the glass and metal peak, which is internally lighted at night, is an observation deck. From this point, about 360 feet up, one can see the entire city. Hills rise to the south, and to the northwest, the mists of Niagara Falls can be seen. To the west are Canada and Lake Erie (the sources of Buffalo’s famous snow).
HOLT Architects, P.C.
217 N. Aurora St.
Ithaca, NY 14850
phone 607 273-7600 Ext. 151
fax 607 273-0475