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Saturday, October 22, 2011

Appreciating Buffalo's Charms


Recently I had the great honor and pleasure to participate at the National Trust for Historic Preservation conference in Buffalo. For several years leading up to the conference I had been aware of efforts by the city to use preservation of historic building stock as a powerful tool in its re-invention and marketing. Nothing could truly prepare me for what I encountered when I arrived.

Seemingly everywhere I looked there was another great block, a restaurant in a sensitively restored historic building, and so many great people who obviously take a great deal of pride in their home town.



Immediately upon arriving at the Buffalo Niagara International Airport, myself and other conference attendees were made to feel welcome. Many commented upon first seeing the LED signs in the terminal with the message "Welcome National Trust for Historic Preservation." This was only the beginning of the pleasant surprises. A welcome table was set up with some very friendly high-energy people. In the terminal there was at least one portable display for The Roycroft Display - a deft (and relatively inexpensive) move to attract visitors to this important site. My only suggestion is to make a display like this more permanent, not just for this one site, but for other historical and cultural attractions as well.

A 20 min or so taxi ride took me directly to the Mansion on Delaware. This 30,000 sqft townhouse was built in 1867 by George Allison. Second Empire details give this building a handsome view from street level. Inside is even more lush with beautifully appointed common rooms on the ground floor. The building was restored in 2001. In seeking more information about the building and its history, this was not to be easily found. This iconic building, however, was a nice introduction to the charms of Buffalo.

The Mansion

From the Mansion I headed along with a colleague via complimentary shuttle (in a Land Rover) to Tempo. This chic restaurant is located in an impressive Italianate building distinguished by a glass lantern surmounting its roof. Located in the Allentown neighborhood, I later found this was in the middle of many of the finest attractions Buffalo had to offer. The interior was somewhat modern, at least in the front section where we dined. Overall the food was excellent and the wait staff attentive, if not a little over attentive.

That more or less wrapped up the first few hours of the first day. I headed to the Hostel Buffalo Niagara. This became my base of operations for the next three days. This, like many hostels, is located in a historic building near the heart of the Downtown. Interestingly, a commuter railroad line runs down the Main Street directly in front of the hostel building. This has the effect of cutting off one side of the street from another, and also making it impossible to be dropped off by car in front of any given building. After a short drive from the Mansion and then a short walk to the Hostel, I found my suitable if somewhat sparse accommodations for the night.

Shea's Performing Arts Center with "Buffalo" sign shining on my first night

The first full day of activities was on Wednesday morning. I had the pleasure of participating in a panel organized by the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation on the America's Great Outdoors initiative. In order to participate in the conference, however, I had to first make my way there. Along the way I encountered several colleagues from around the country. Incidentally, these chance meetings are one of my favorite aspects of attending conferences. Eventually I made my way to the Convention Center, though was corrected by a friendly gentleman with the valet service of a downtown hotel of the difference between the Conference Center (in the hotel) and the Convention Center (freestanding).

During that first morning I met up with another colleague and headed to Spot Coffee. The outside windows touted this as a "Seattle style" coffee house. Oddly enough, another Seattle style coffee house just like it was across the street - called Starbucks. The Starbucks was in a bland one-story concrete block building. Hard to believe when someone saw the two how anyone would choose Starbucks over Spot Coffee?

Had a quick lunch before heading to the conference session where I presented. This went off really well and I was pleased how well attended the session was. Afterwards everyone headed off to the Shea's Performing Arts Center where the Plenary Session for the conference was held. While walking through the lobby and up to the mezzanine I encountered both an architect responsible for the project and their lead grant writer. Having people so intimately involved in the project present, and to see them take such pride over their work by helping with the event, really showed the level of commitment people in Buffalo had to preservation.

The presentation by National Trust President Stephanie Meeks was a revelation. She identified approx. 15 million people in the U.S. with an interest in preservation. The challenge as she framed it was how do we reach out to these "local leaders" and expand the movement. (The PowerPoint presentation that accompanied her presentation was visually stunning. As an aside, this really should be made available to view, along with an audio stream of the talk, because the two side-by-side tell an amazing story, in a way that a video feed of the speaker alone cannot.)

Following the session many headed to the Fort Statler Hotel that was undergoing a renovation for the opening reception. I went a block away to the Century Grill in a historic building that once housed a Masonic Lodge on the upper floor. After having a delicious dinner of stuffed peppers and sampling a few of the local brews, I headed to a reception by Federal employees on the mezzanine level. Key figures from several agencies were there and available to interact with conference attendees. This was a really nice gesture! Later that night a tour was done of the former Masonic Lodge on the upper floors. This once-grand space is a hall used for conferences, weddings, and receptions. While it retained much of its original charm, a lackluster painting scheme, and the covering up or covering over of historic details took some of the power of place away.

Sessions on Friday started with an 8am presentation by the Partnership for Sustainable Communities. This is a multi-agency Federal initiative to support efforts to make more sustainable communities, including historic communities that by virtue of their layout and design are more sustainable than most suburban or ex-urban areas built over the past half-century. The setting could not have been more perfect. Panelists sat near where the altar would have been at St. Paul's Episcopal church, and the audience of 300 or so sat in the pews. There was something transcendent about hearing officials from the Federal government talk about the importance of sustainability and preservation in such an exalted environment.


The Theodore Roosevelt Inaugural National Historic Site

After the morning session, I caught a cab and made a fast break to the Theodore Roosevelt Inaugural site that was about a mile away. Upon arriving I was dazzled not just by the house, but by the warm reception from the staff. Inside there were even greater surprises. In the past decade the house underwent a multi-million dollar expansion. This included a complete rethinking of the visitor experience. While the focus had previously been on preserving the house and furnishings as a period piece in house museum style, the vision was changed to interpret the moment of greatest significance when Theodore Roosevelt took the oath of office there. Overall the whole experience was a revelation about how a historic site like this can be run in a way that connects visitors with history in powerful and meaningful ways.

Detail of audio-visual display

Panorama of room where TR took the Oath of Office

It just happened that this day during the conference that the nearby 20th Century Club was open. I made a point of dropping in there. This women's club was founded in the early 20th century for upper class residents who faced a stigma sending their daughters on to college. Apparently this meant their families did not have the resources necessary to support them. The spacious and handsomely appointed rooms inside incorporated classical references with more contemporary features. The grandest room by far was the room on the 2nd floor at the top of the stairs. This gave access to all other rooms in the club including the library, a conservatory, and a large ballroom on the 2nd floor. As if that was not enough, the third floor had a ballroom as well that recently underwent a sensitive restoration. Overall the impression that the hall gave was one of opulence and old prestige. The 200 women who associate with the club today have an enormous task to maintain the building left to them. In so many ways they have taken on that role with heroism and courage.


Panoramic view of the main room on the 2nd floor of the 20th Century Club


I decided to walk back to the Convention Center. Along the way I ran across the Buffalo Club. A marker outside that was dedicated in 1967 read:
The Buffalo Club. Founded 1867, with Millard Fillmore, 13th President of U.S., as its first president. Another U.S. President, Grover Cleveland, was a member from 1881-1908. In 1901, after President McKinley's assassination, the Club was used as headquarters by his cabinet and Vice-President Theodore Roosevelt. 
The Buffalo Club

Following the morning session at St. Paul's I attended several more sessions, including one that highlighted efforts by the Buffalo Olmsted Parks Conservancy. The efforts over the past two decades to preserve several Olmsted parks through a public-private partnership with the City of Buffalo and Erie County were indeed inspiring.

That night alumni and students with the Cornell University historic preservation program met at Bambino Bar & Kitchen. Originally built as a cement casket manufacturing facility, later this building was overtaken and used for transient housing. Following an impressive restoration led by the present owner who is also a contractor, this has become a hip, welcoming, and exciting destination for downtown Buffalo. That night I was able to befriend the owner of the building who just happened to be at the bar. Once again this story of ordinary people doing extraordinary things with historic buildings was a great inspiration.

As I headed back to my hostel one last time, all I could feel was appreciation for those people who are helping to revive this great American city. Buffalo may not be on the map of many people right now as a vibrant and thriving historic destination. I suspect that will change in the years ahead through the bold action of local preservationists. As historic preservation seeks to expand itself in relevance as a movement in the years ahead, hopefully the experience and success of local leaders in Buffalo bodes well for the movement as a whole.

One final thought really struck me. Just as Buffalo was on the cutting edge of all things in American life at the start of the 20th century with its industrial muscle, the Pan Am Exposition, and the tragic history of the death of President McKinley and the elevation of Theodore Roosevelt to the Presidency; perhaps the arc of history is positioning Buffalo to be a leading American city in the 21st century due to efforts by committed individuals to transform this place for the better through historic preservation. I look forward to many more happy visits to see the continued fruits of the labor of these citizen-preservationists and the results of their efforts to make a beautiful, thriving, and historic city great once again.

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