BUFFALO — In an ideal world, the Hotel Lafayette would have been completed before the start of the Pan-American Exposition here in 1901. But completion of the seven-story French Renaissance-style building, designed by Louise Bethune, the first woman architect invited to join the American Institute of Architects, was delayed. It opened three years after that world's fair. In the '40s, elegant Art Moderne touches were added to the foyer, bar, and ballrooms. But by the 1970s, the brick and white terra-cotta building in the heart of Buffalo's business district had become derelict.
It would remain an urban eyesore for the next four decades until favorite son and developer Rocco Termini, using the original specs, spent $43 million on renovations, giving the grande dame a much-needed facelift. It reopened last May as the Hotel @ the Lafayette. Walk inside the Pan American Grill and you'll find the long wooden bar and century-old red herringbone quarry tile flooring. The brass on the chandeliers in the Crystal Ballroom is once again sparkling, the marble wainscoting in the lobby looking as originally intended. Another highlight is the vintage Art Deco lounge, across from the upscale restaurant, Mike A's, that serves pre-Prohibition-era drinks popular during the exposition.
"It took 270 employees, working six days a week, to do the renovation over a course of a year," says Termini, a Buffalo native who has never lived outside the city.
When the hotel opened in 1904, Buffalo, at the western terminus of the Erie Canal and the eastern end of Lake Erie, was one of the most prosperous cities in the country. If you wanted to ship a commodity such as grain from the Midwest hub of Chicago to New York, it had to go through Buffalo.
The city's wealth and the vision of several residents helped lure the finest architects and landscape designers. A dozen years after Frederick Law Olmsted created Central Park in New York, he was in Buffalo designing six parks and wide elm-lined parkways connecting those green spaces. At Olmsted's suggestion, a young architect named H.H. Richardson (best known for his design of Boston's Trinity Church) was hired in 1869 to craft a massive space for the Buffalo State Asylum for the Insane. In 1895, Louis J. Sullivan, considered by many to be the father of the modern skyscraper, designed his palazzo-style Guaranty Building on the corner of Pearl and Church streets. A decade later, his disciple, Frank Lloyd Wright, would create one of the most ambitious projects of his lifetime, the Darwin Martin House here.
With the advent of the railroad and the automobile, the usefulness of the Erie Canal began to diminish and many of the cities on the waterway fell on hard times during the latter half of the 20th century. By 2008 a report by the US Census Bureau found Buffalo to be the country's third poorest city, with more than 30 percent of its population under the federal poverty line.
So you would expect the city to be on the brink of collapse but a weekend trip proved otherwise. Buffalo was brimming with energy, from neighborhood sidewalks crowded with al fresco dining options to a farmers' market selling local produce to the impressive collection of modern art at the Albright-Knox Museum.
Even more remarkable is that after years of dormancy or neglect, monumental architectural feats like the Darwin Martin House, the Buffalo State Asylum for the Insane, and Hotel Lafayette are springing back to life thanks to the latest round of local visionaries. People here are passionate about preservation. They know that these historic gems could be on the other side of the wrecking ball, like the Wright-designed administration building of the Larkin Co., which is now a parking lot.
"Incremental changes over the past decade have added up to Buffalo being a considerable cultural city," says Thomas Herrera-Mishler, president of the Buffalo Olmsted Parks Conservancy.
We met outside the twin towers of the former asylum, renamed the Richardson Olmsted Complex. The sprawling 14-building site designed by the then 30-year-old architect displays his Richardsonian Romanesque touches. Medina sandstone is stripped of any fancy detail, raw and rugged in its design. Topped by Gothic-looking towers, it has the look of a foreboding fortress and is not in the least bit inviting.
Inside, a broad communal hallway is bordered by a row of small rooms. In the $75 million redesign, this part of the building will be converted into a boutique hotel, set to open in 2015. Other sections of the property will be used as architectural and conference centers. A parking lot in the front of the towers will be relocated, so that the original front lawn designed by Olmsted will reopen to the public next spring.
The restoration of the six buildings that make up the Darwin Martin House has already taken two decades and cost close to $50 million. This includes the reconstruction of Wright's originally designed carriage house, conservatory, and 180-foot-long pergola that connects the gardens to the main house. Wright designed every detail of the site, from the furniture to the garden boxes to all of the windows. One glance at the main house with its oversized chimney, the elongated building emphasizing the horizontal plane, and the ribbon of windows on the second floor, and you realize this is one of the finest examples of his Prairie Style architecture.
Walk inside the Darwin Martin House and you look directly at the statue of Nike at the other end of the pergola. The Roman brick interior blurs the space between interior and exterior, accentuating Wright's emphasis on living in harmony with nature rather than being closed off from it. Light pours into the art glass windows in the Reception Room, some of the numerous windows Wright patterned in his "Tree of Life" motif with green, brown, yellow, and gold pieces.
Looking across the lawn at the Darwin Martin House, you can't help but be thankful that the structure is still standing. Herrera-Mishler summed it up: "Thanks to the indomitable spirit of certain groups of people in this city, these important buildings still stand."
Stephen Jermanok can be reached at www.activetravels.com.