Buffalo Architectural History Minute!
1929….. depression in Buffalo or time to catch-up on building projects?
Part 2: Buffalo Central Terminal
Designed: (1929), FELLHEIMER AND WAGNER
The Buffalo Central Terminal stands heavy, muscular, and mostly vacant on the city’s East Side. It was built by the New York Central Railroad (NYC) at the zenith of American railroading. Standing roughly mid-way on the NYC’s New York-Chicago route, it was the largest wholly-owned building in the huge NYC system. The Terminal was designed primarily by Alfred Fellheimer who had long experience with railroad structures. Prior to forming his practice with Steward Wagner Feliheimer was engaged with firms that designed stations and terminals in St. Paul, Schenectady, Utica, Detroit and Grand Central Terminal in New York City.
The Terminal owes its appearance to the Art Deco movement that swept the nation in the 1920’s. Here it is melded with proven patterns in public buildings. The organization of the mass including the off center tower and cathedral-like vaults has its origins in 12th century Romanesque churches. In a railroad structure, this motif was strikingly executed in the influential Helsinki Central Station by Eliel Saarinen, completed in 1914.
The 15-story buff-colored brick and stone Terminal tower housed railroad offices. It is 271 feet high. The peak of this tower was also powerfully lighted and was visible up to 15 miles away. Passengers entered the Terminal through the tower lobby. Inside, they found an interior that ranked with City Hall as a prime example of Art Deco. The concourse was massive (225′ x 66’and 581/2” high) and Art Deco details were everywhere: metal and frosted glass sconces, metal finials in fleur-de-lis patterns atop pilasters flanking the 18 ticket windows metal grillwork in exuberant geometric patterns, and seductive light fixtures at the apexes of the domes at either end of the concourse. The floor of the concourse contains four shades of marble. Marble rises along the walls to a height of 15 feet, where it is met by the Guastavino tiles of the barrel vault. These tiles curbed acoustical problems caused by the vastness of the space and the movement of trains and people. Adjacent to the main concourse was the waiting room. It had walls and ceiling of stucco setting it apart from the other major spaces of the Terminal. It was decorated with plaster bas-relief medallions of New York State scenes.
The pinnacle of the Terminal’s Art Deco interior was the combination dining room/lunch room/coffee shop. It was 100’x 56′ and could seat 250 in ebullient pressed-metal splendor. The lavish eatery was centered on a rounded W-shaped lunch counter. The counter of black Carrara glass reflected the red, green, black and ivory trapezoids of the interior. Black and gold-veined marble lined the walls. Silver and bronze grillwork formed the dividers separating the three sections. Extending from the Terminal proper are two wings: one over the train concourse, which was 14 tracks (or 7 platforms) wide; the other a mail and baggage building. The train concourse shares the ambiance of the other public spaces, while the baggage wing is utilitarian in aspect. The Terminal opened to much fanfare on June 22, 1929. A midnight, full service with 200 passenger trains a day began. The year 1929 saw a total of 91,420 NYC trains in and out of Buffalo.
Soon, in October, 1929, the stock market crash ushered in the Great Depression. Within four years, NYC’s passenger revenue plummeted 60%. There was some recovery during WWII. After the war the automobile and airplane steadily siphoned off passengers and revenue. By 1955 there were only 99 daily trains left. By 1956, 406 NYC stations were put up for sale. Taxes and maintenance costs prevented the sale of the Buffalo Terminal (at $1 million, only 1/14 of the original cost). The first plans for a shopping, plaza and office tower came in 1959, but amounted to nothing. In 1979, Central Terminal was sold for $75,000. There were no tenants in the office tower and the last passenger train came in October, 1979, In 1984 the Terminal was placed on the state and national Registers of Historic Places. That didn’t help the cash-strapped owner who began removing and selling off whatever he could. The magnificent restaurant was lost during this period. Tax default followed. The city sold it to a new developer in 1986.
In 1997 BCT property was transferred to Central Terminal Restoration Corporation. After almost 20 years of neglect and abuse, efforts begin to preserve this landmark. by 2003 After the removal of 350 tons of debris, asbestos abatement in the main concourse, roof repairs, and enclosure of 4000 windows, terminal is re-opened for tours. two years later Buffalo Central Terminal sees record breaking numbers of visitors – including 20,000 in September alone, due to our first ever Train Show, the Buffalo Brewfest, and the annual Picnic on the Plaza Oktoberfest. Although currently the structure is available to rent for private parties and public functions, the building still needs huge amount of work. the only space which is truly inhabitable is the main concourse. The restoration Corp. is still actively searching for any permanent tenants or large capital infusions to begin a new life to this massive forgotten giant
as always also posted on https://holtarchitects.wordpress.com/2012/08/13/buffalo-architectural-history-minute/
HOLT Architects, P.C.
217 N. Aurora St.
Ithaca, NY 14850
phone 607 273-7600 Ext. 151
fax 607 273-0475