​Buffalo’s Architectural History 

Throughout its architectural history, Buffalo has served as an important experimental laboratory for implementing new styles, structural methods and building materials.

The 1890s-1910s were particularly prosperous for Buffalo, bringing famous architects such as H.H. Richardson, Louis Sullivan and Frank Lloyd Wright to design major buildings in the city. In the business district downtown, Louis Sullivan’s Guaranty Building (1895) was one of the nation’s first steel-framed skyscrapers, marking a pivotal moment in the history of American architecture. At the northern edge of the city, H.H. Richardson designed the massive Buffalo State Asylum (1880) in what became his signature Richardsonian Romanesque style on a sprawling 100-acre campus designed by landscape architects Olmsted and Vaux, who also designed the city’s extensive park system (1868-1896). Frank Lloyd Wright completed several of his early Prairie style designs in the city, including the massive Darwin R. Martin House Complex (1907), the William Heath House (1905), the Larkin Administration Building (1906) and the Graycliff Estate (1929).

These stylistic innovations made a lasting impact on neighborhoods such as the Elmwood Village, Allentown and Parkside, which serve as a veritable textbook of American residential architecture from this time period. Walking down these streets one can see a dense collection of excellent examples of Victorian styles such as Queen Anne, Italianate, Second Empire, Stick Style and Shingle style houses, as well as later examples of the Colonial Revival, Bungalow, and Prairie styles. Many of the city’s religious buildings, such as the Union Meeting House (1827), St. Paul’s (1851), and Trinity Church (1888) attest to the high quality of architecture scattered throughout the city as these neighborhoods developed over time. 

The city also contains some of the best examples of late nineteenth and early twentieth century industrial architecture in the world. Buffalo was home to the invention of the grain elevator, which henceforth shaped the area’s industrial character, entrepreneurial wealth, and position in the national economy. Photographs of Buffalo’s grain elevators were circulated amongst architects such as Walter Gropius, Erich Mendelsohn and Le Corbusier, who pointed to the seemingly simplified, geometric forms of the silos as inspiration for modern architectural movements in the interwar years. The city is also home to one of Albert Kahn’s first automobile factories, as he designed the Pierce Arrow automobile complex in 1906, two years prior to his more famous design for the Highland Park Ford Plant in Detroit.

As the birthplace of large scale hydroelectricity and its long distance transmission, the area also set a precedent for modern powerhouse design. The brick industrial building known as Terminal A was the first place to receive electricity in the city on Niagara Street, and was originally designed by the nation’s first female AIA registered architect, Louise Bethune, in 1896-1898. Other powerhouses such as the Adams Powerhouse complex designed by McKim, Mead and White (1895) used neoclassical arches and large windows to reassure a nervous population that electricity would have a benign institutional presence in the city. 

Several examples of architectural styles from the interwar period are also present in Buffalo. The Central Terminal on the city’s east side represented the latest Art Deco design for rail stations when it was completed in 1929. Buffalo’s City Hall (1931) is another example of excellent design from this era and is one of the only city halls in the nation designed in the Art Deco style. Eliel and Eero Saarinen designed the Kleinhan’s music hall (1940), which is still one of the best examples of their work in America today. 

The city also contains several examples of more contemporary architecture, attesting to the continued commitment to embracing new design and building styles. Public housing projects were often constructed according to modern architectural theories, such as the International style Willert Park Court (1939) and the Brutalist-style Shoreline Apartments (1974). Several architectural styles from the 1960s and 1970s are represented in the city, including One M&T Plaza (1966), Temple Beth Zion (1966), the Brutalist-style City Court House (1974), and HSBC Tower (1969-1972). Embracing this rich history of design and innovation, the city has been gaining momentum as a destination for architectural heritage tourism. Buffalo has been increasingly engaged in efforts to build its future by activating this architectural past as one of its best assets. 

​The city also contains several examples of more contemporary architecture, attesting to the continued commitment to embracing new design and building styles. Public housing projects were often constructed according to modern architectural theories, such as the International style Willert Park Court (1939) and the Brutalist-style Shoreline Apartments (1974). Several architectural styles from the 1960s and 1970s are represented in the city, including One M&T Plaza (1966), Temple Beth Zion (1966), the Brutalist-style City Court House (1974), and HSBC Tower (1969-1972). Embracing this rich history of design and innovation, the city has been gaining momentum as a destination for architectural heritage tourism. Buffalo has been increasingly engaged in efforts to build its future by activating this architectural past as one of its best assets. 

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The Washburn Crosby elevator complex, now General Mills, in 1926.

In his seminal book on the subject, architectural historian Reyner Banham referred to this particular group of grain elevators as “the most internationally influential structures ever put up in North America, because of their effect on the architectural vocabulary of the generation of the founders of modern architecture.”

This particular image was published by Erich Mendelsohn, an important German architect, in his book Amerika: Bilderbuch eines Architekten. Mendelsohn was not the first European architect to publish influential images of Buffalo’s grain elevators, but he was one of the only ones to visit them in person. During his time in Buffalo he became captivated by the grain elevators, stating: “I took photographs like mad. Everything else so far seemed to have been shaped interim to my silo dreams , Everything else so merely a beginning.”

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The corner of Church Street and Pearl Street in downtown Buffalo, c. 1895. 

The Guaranty Building is under construction in the background, located adjacent to St. Paul’s Church. The church was designed by Richard Upjohn, one of the founders of the American Institute of Architects, in 1851. The Guaranty Building, also known as the Prudential Building, was designed by Louis Sullivan and Dankmar Adler in 1895-1896. The steel-frame of the building, which was one of the first steel framed skyscrapers in the world, is visible during the building’s construction in this image.