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Pan-American Exposition of 1901

Buffalo Architecture at the Time of the Pan-American Exposition

Jack Quinan

The genius of Buffalo's architecture began with the plan that Joseph Ellicott created in 1804 [Fig. 1] for the Holland Land Company, a radial configuration that began at Niagara Square and fanned out eastward in a perfect metaphor for the city's eventual identity as a center for the trans-shipment and processing of goods-especially grain, lumber, beef, and ore- from the western United States to eastern markets.

Map of Buffalo Village, 1804

Fig. 1. "Ellicott's Plan for Buffalo, 1804" Source: Francis Kowsky. The Best Planned City The Olmsted Legacy in Buffalo. Buffalo, N.Y., 1992, Fig. 2.

Aided by the completion of the Erie Canal in 1825 and subsequently by dense railroad lines, Buffalo quickly grew from a village into a city of nearly 400,000 inhabitants. As new businesses swelled the population, industry expanded south and eastward, often following waterways like the Buffalo and Niagara rivers, while neighborhoods moved largely northward. In 1868 William Dorsheimer, a Buffalo-based Lieutenant Governor of New York, persuaded community leaders to bring Frederick Law Olmsted to create a park system for the city. Broadly conceived, Olmsted's parks [Fig. 2] describe an arc that perfectly accommodated the new radial trolley systems and the Belt-Line railroad that would bring the population to and beyond the outer edges of the city. This was the framework into which the architecture of Buffalo would be accommodated.

Map of Olmsted's Parks
Fig. 2. "Frederick Law Olmsted's Park System for Buffalo" Image Source: Francis Kowsky. The Best Planned City The Olmsted Legacy in Buffalo, (Buffalo, N.Y., 1992, Fig.7.

What was Buffalo like in the years immediately preceding the Pan American Exposition? Vintage photographs [Fig. 3] remind us that downtown was dense and bustling, the center of everything in the days before the automobile. Among the hundreds of buildings comprising Buffalo's downtown circa 1900, those forming Shelton Square [Fig. 4a, Shelton Square] were especially distinguished. St. Paul's Episcopal Cathedral (1849-51, 1870-71) by Richard Upjohn, Americas's prominent Gothic Revivalist, stands immediately across Pearl Street from Louis Sullivan's Guaranty Building (1895-1896) [Fig. 4b] a masterpiece of Chicago School rationalism, while George Post's Erie Savings Bank (1893-5), a clever variation on H. H. Richardson's Romanesque, occupied the site subsequently given over to the unfortunate Main Place Mall and tower. With the demolition of Post's bank an outstanding Nineteenth century enclave was lost. Less than 200 feet east of St. Paul's, just across Main Street, stands Daniel Burnham's Ellicott Square Building (1895-6) [Fig. 5], then famous as the world's largest office building and still noteworthy for its interior light court and busy Mannerist surfaces. Three blocks north on Main street stood Leopold Eidlitz's Buffalo Public Library [Fig. 6] whose angular medieval design defeated a competing design by the renowned H. H. Richardson. That all of these architects were from Boston, New York, and Chicago is a testament to the vision of Buffalo's Nineteenth century patrons.

Shelton Square: (left to right) St. Paul's Episcopal Cathedral, Richardson's Guarantee Building and Post's Erie Savings Bank
Louis Richardson's Guarantee Building

Fig. 4. Shelton Square: (above left to right) St. Paul's Episcopal Cathedral, Sullivan's Guaranty Building and Post's Erie Savings Bank. Louis Sullivan's Guaranty Building (right).

Daniel Burnham's Ellicott Square Building
"Daniel Burnham, Ellicott Square Building, 1895-6" Image source: Views of Buffalo [no pagination]

The Buffalo Public Library by Leopold Eidlitz
Fig. 6. "Leopold Eidlitz, Buffalo Public Library" Image source: Quinan post card, "Buffalo Public Library, Buffalo, N. Y."

Green & Wicks, Buffalo (Erie) Savings Bank
Fig. 8. Green & Wicks, Buffalo (Erie) Savings Bank

Albright Art Museum, designed by E. B. Green
Figure 15. Albright Art Museum, designed by E. B. Green.

Dun Building, one Fig. 7. (left) Dun Building, one of several buildings by Wicks & Green.

Downtown Buffalo was ultimately the creation of scores of architects but among them, Edward B. Green and his partner, William Wicks, dominated local practice for more than fifty years and had a decisive impact upon the character of the city. At the time of the Pan American Exposition they had completed the Merchant's Exchange (c1887), the Granger Block (c1887), the D. S. Morgan Building (1894), the O'Day and Rockefeller Building (1890), the Hollister and Evans Block (1890-91), the J. N. Adams Dry Goods Store (1891), the Dun Building (1894-5) [Fig. 7], the Market Arcade (1892), the Bank of C Commerce (1894-5), the Buffalo Real Estate Exchange Building (1895-6) and the Buffalo Savings Bank (1900-1) [Fig. 8]. Most of these were sturdy, confident Classical buildings often rendered in warm Roman brick with richly articulated terra cotta details, though Green was equally adept in Gothic, Tudor, and eventually Art Deco design modes.

The Pillsbury or "Great Northern" Grain Elevator
Fig. 10. "Max Toltz with D. A. Robinson, Pillsbury or Great Northern Grain Elevator, 1898" Source: Quinan post card
Nineteenth century grain elevators in Buffalo.
Fig. 9. Nineteenth Century grain elevators in Buffalo.

The industrial Buffalo extolled by Reyner Banham in A Concrete Atlantis (Cambridge, Mass., 1986) is a city of monolithic concrete grain elevators and reinforced concrete-framed "daylight factories" that post-date the Pan American Exposition. In contrast to the smooth curves of the concrete grain silos of the Twentieth century, their predecessors [Fig. 9] were dark, angular and ungainly in proportion, and somewhat frail owing to their metal frames and high-maintenance brick construction. The lone survivor of the type is the Pillsbury or "Great Northern" elevator [Fig. 10] of 1898. In the days before reinforced concrete industrial construction in Buffalo was dominated by the R. J. Reidpath company, architectural engineers whose segmentally arched windows, bull-nosed brick detailing, economical wall construction and overall fine sense of proportion is still visible in the Larkin industrial buildings on Seneca Street. Sadly, the artifacts of Industrial Buffalo are disappearing at an astonishing rate and must be ferreted out in isolated pockets such as Chandler Street where the Buffalo Weaving and Belting Company still operates.

H.H. Richardson, The Dorsheimer house
"H. H. Richardson, William Dorsheimer House, 1869-71" Source: Quinan slide
Pratt Mansion, by McKim, Mead and White
Fig. 12. "McKim, Mead & White, Pratt Mansion, 1895-6" Source: Quinan slide

Residential Buffalo developed in a series of rings determined by the advances in transportation systems across the Nineteenth century. Joseph Ellicott's city was modest in size and was negotiated on foot, horseback, or horse-drawn carriage. By mid century, however, horse drawn trolleys expanded the perimeter of the city by about two miles and promoted the development of the neighborhoods north and east of Allentown and in South Buffalo. In the 1880s the development of the Belt-Line Railroad and the electrification of trolleys in the 1890s spurred new suburban neighborhoods four and five miles from the city center. Throughout the century Delaware Avenue, one of Ellicott's original streets, remained a street of imposing mansions, some designed by such distinguished practitioners as Boston-based H. H. Richardson (the Dorsheimer [Fig. 11] and Gratwick houses), New York City's McKim, Mead and White (the Butler, Pratt [Fig. 12], Root and Metcalfe houses), and Joseph Lyman Silsbee of Chicago (the J.M. Bemis House [Fig. 13] and numerous other houses on Linwood and Delaware Avenues) while most fell to such distinguished local architects as Green and Wicks, Edward Kent, George Cary, C.W. Swan, and C.R. Percival.

Joseph Lyman Silsbee's J.M. Bemis House
"Jospeh Lyman Silsbee, J. M. Bemis Mansion, 1883" Image source: Quinan slide

Richardson's William H. Gratwick Mansion, demolished in 1919, was a stunning essay in monumental stonework wherein medieval forms are disciplined by functional considerations. McKim, Mead and White's work is representative of their embrace of Beaux-Arts Classicism tempered by a loyalty to the American Colonial style. Silsbee was a passionate devotee of the Queen Anne revival in which complex but sensibly organized forms were arrayed in a rich surface of cut shingles, carved accents, and decorative glazing. Frank Lloyd Wright said of Silsbee, his first employer, that "he drew like a dream."

Standard plan, 2 family wood frame home
Fig. 14. Standard plan, 2 family wood frame home

Buffalo has a wealth of Victorian domestic architecture but the greatest portion of the fabric of the city consists of a standard plan two story, two-family wood frame and gable roofed structure [Fig. 14] inserted into the new, trolley-serviced neighborhoods, especially north of the downtown area, by developers. The Parkside neighborhood is hardly typical as it was designed by Olmsted with curving streets to wrap the northeast segment of Delaware Park, but while Jewett Avenue was treated as a gateway from Main street to the Park and features many substantial houses, the lesser streets, such as Russell, are populated with the standard developers' housing.

H. H. Richardson's State Mental Hospital
Fig. 16. "Richardson, Buffalo State Hospital, 1870-96" Image source: Quinan slide

The Pan American Exposition stimulated the development of the Olmsted boulevards that led from E. B. Green's First Presbyterian Church at Symphony Circle along Richmond Avenue to Bidwell and Lincoln Parkways and into the park itself. Here a second wave of ealthy patrons built pretentious homes to the designs of local architects, a sign, perhaps, that fortunes were leveling and visions were dimming. Nevertheless, as George Cary and E. B. Green designed the New York State Building (now the Buffalo and Erie County Historical Society) and the Albright Art Museum [Fig. 15], respectively, in concert with the Fair, the city's cultural institutions were clearly leaving the old downtown and moving to the Olmsted-defined fringe, a region in which the far-sighted William Dorsheimer had assisted H. H. Richardson in obtaining the commission for the State Mental Hospital 16b], with landscape by Olmsted, in 1870.

Ellicott's Buffalo, Industrial Buffalo, Victorian Buffalo, Classical Buffalo, Olmsted's Buffalo, ethnic Buffalo, Downtown Buffalo; the city is the usual synthesis of the ideas and visions and creativity of many minds over time, but its uniqueness lies in the quality of the work up to 1900 and its exceptional rate of survival.


  • Fig. 1. Ellicott's Plan for Buffalo, 1804 (image from Francis Kowsky The Best Planned City The Olmsted Legacy in Buffalo, (Buffalo, N.Y., 1992, Fig. 2)
  • Fig. 2. Frederick Law Olmsted's Park System for Buffalo (Kowsky, Fig. 7.)
  • Fig. 3. Vintage Photograph of Downtown in the 1890s (source?)
  • Fig. 4a. Shelton Square (Richard Upjohn, St. Paul's Episcopal Cathedral, 1849-51; Louis Sullivan, Prudential (Guaranty) Building, 1895-6; George Post, Erie County Savings Bank, c1890 (from Prudential and Erie Savings Bank in Post Card views)
  • Fig. 4b. Louis Sullivan, Prudential (Guaranty) Building, 1895-6 (from Prudential post card view)
  • Fig. 5. Daniel Burnham, Ellicott Square Building, 1895-6 (from Views of Buffalo)
  • Fig. 6. Leopold Eidlitz, Buffalo Public Library (from Quinan post card)
  • Fig. 7. E. B. Green and William Wicks, Dun Building, 1894-5 (Quinan slide)
  • Fig. 8. Green & Wicks, Buffalo Savings Bank, 1900-1 (Quinan slide)
  • Fig. 9. Nineteenth Century Grain elevators in Buffalo (Photo courtesy of the Buffalo and Erie County Historical Society)
  • Fig. 10. Max Toltz with D. A. Robinson, Pillsbury or Great Northern Grain Elevator, 1898 (J. Q. Post Card)
  • Fig. 11. H. H. Richardson, William Dorsheimer House, 1869-71 (Quinan slide)
  • Fig. 12. McKim, Mead & White, Pratt Mansion, 1895-6 (Quinan slide)
  • Fig. 13. Jospeh Lyman Silsbee, J. M. Bemis Mansion, 1883 (Quinan slide)
  • Fig. 14. Common two-family wood frame house (Quinan slide)
  • Fig. 15. Green & Wicks, Albright Art Gallery, 1900-5 (Quinan slide)
  • Fig. 16, Richardson, Buffalo State Hospital, 1870-96 (Quinan slide)

  • © 2001 - Jack Quinan

    Jack Quinan, Ph.D., is Curator of the Frank Lloyd Wright designed Darwin D. Martin House on Jewett Parkway in Buffalo and is adjunct professor of architecture at the Frank Lloyd Wright School of Architecture, Taliesin West, Scottsdale, Arizona. His 1987 book, Frank Lloyd Wright's Larkin Building: Myth and Fact, (Cambridge, Mass.: AHF/MIT Press,) is considered by Wright scholars to be a classic.