The Dun Building – Tall and Strong

The Dun Building – Tall and Strong

The Dun Building.   It’s one that I’ve been admiring for a long, long time.   There’s just something about it.   For roughly 15 years, I drove toward it on Swan Street on my way to work.   It’s my favorite view of it.   I walked by it daily as well.   And still when I see it, I get a feeling that I don’t quite know how to describe.    

The Dun Building was designed by none other than E.B. Green and William Wicks for the Union Central Life Insurance Company, who placed a contingency on the plan stating that they’d build it if enough Buffalonians bought policies with their company.   Buffalonians didn’t, and the plans were acquired and set into motion by R.G. Dun & Company.  

R.G. Dun & Company was founded in 1841 as a credit check service.   In those days a small business owner would see his local banker to secure funds for simple loans.   These transactions were often completed between virtual strangers, judgments were made in just a few minutes, and the lender frequently lost on the deal due to lack of information about the borrower.

R.G. Dun hired what they called ‘reporters’ to look into the character and record of the borrowers, therefore helping to secure repayment of such loans.   Dun had upwards of one hundred thousand reporters in 1900, offices in most large American cities and indeed many cities worldwide. The Buffalo office was one of its most active.   And it’s not hard to see why. At the time, Buffalo was still growing by leaps and bounds and business was booming. The need for capital would have been great, going hand in hand with the need for credit checks.

R.G. Dun & Company later became Dun & Bradstreet, which still operates globally today.

When construction began, the Dun Building was to be the tallest building in the city, in keeping with the building trends of the late 19th century, a time when cities were becoming more and more crowded.   Up seemed to be the only way to go.   There are a couple of other interesting things about the building that you wouldn’t notice at first glance.   There’s a restaurant space in the basement which has independent entrances, along with approaches from inside the building.   Also, the utilities of the building are located under the sidewalk along Swan Street.  

When it was completed the Dun Building was indeed the tallest building in the city.   But only for a very short time as the Guaranty Building at 13 stories was completed shortly thereafter.

Let’s take a minute to compare these two buildings.    

The Dun Building was completed in 1895.   It is Neoclassical in style, but it has both Greek and Roman influences, as evidenced by the giant arched windows and the highly decorative round windows.   It is an odd shape as well, referred to as a flatiron.

At 10 stories, its is considered Buffalo’s first high-rise building.   But its not considered a skyscraper in the true sense of the word.  

And here’s why.    

In the late 1800’s architects were struggling to learn how to design buildings that were taller, but the weight of traditional wood frame construction was too heavy to go more than 4 or 5 stories.   Major cities had also experienced tragic fires among these wooden structures, with great loss of lives. The job fell to architects to solve these problems.


By 1890 most architects knew that steel frame construction was the wave of the future, but were unsure how to use it, and didn’t quite trust its strength.   These architects were pioneers of a sort, testing the newest technology on the newest type of building to date.

When Green & Wicks set out to build the Dun Building, they started with a steel frame design with load bearing masonry walls ensuring the strength the tall, oddly shaped building needed. They built it in three distinct ‘layers’ if you will.   Some refer to it as a ‘stacked’ design, or a ‘wedding cake’ design. The first two floors were built first, the third through seventh floors followed, and the three uppermost floors came last. The Dun Building is also a very narrow building, and these extra precautions may have been undertaken to withstand the high winds coming off Lake Erie as well.   None of this is in keeping with what we have come to associate with traditional skyscraper design.

By contrast, the Guaranty Building, completed in 1896 by architects Dankmar Adler and Louis Sullivan, is everything a true skyscraper has become.   Tall, drawing the eye skyward with no breaks to interrupt the movement of your eye straight through to the sky. Everything about this building is vertical. It is a total steel frame construction, built with twice the necessary piers in order to emphasize the verticality of the building.  

Almost all skyscrapers to this day follow pretty much the same rules of architecture that were employed in the Guaranty Building.   The base, which normally consist of the first floor or two, and hold somewhat public spaces. Retail, conference rooms and the like.   The shaft, which holds the offices. And lastly, the capital, which is usually the top floor and cornice of the building itself.

Read more about the Guaranty Building in an earlier blog post here.  

The Dun Building and the Guaranty Building are equally beautiful in completely different ways, but it’s the Dun Building that holds my attention longer.   Not because I think it’s architecturally superior, because I don’t think it is.   There’s just something about it.

The Dun Building was purchased in 2013 by 110 Pearl LLC, an affiliate of Priam Enterprises.   It remains a thriving office building, with Sato Brewery (which should be on everyone’s list of things to do) in the basement.   And to this writer, the building adds an interesting   figure in our city’s skyline. There’s that feeling again.

Now this is going to sound strange, but hear me out.   The feeling I get when I see it is that it’s almost like the Dun Building represents Buffalo itself.   Both were built during a time of huge growth, both were beautifully designed, and both were built to withstand the test of time.   And both have.   Each in their own way.   And I get all this while merely walking by.   There’s just something about this building.

See it for yourself   at the southwest corner of Pearl and Swan Streets, standing tall and strong against the elements.

The Dun Building is a City of Buffalo Landmark and is located within the Joseph Ellicott Historic District.  Thank you for taking the time to read about it!

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The Guaranty Building: Buffalo’s First Skyscraper

The Guaranty Building: Buffalo’s First Skyscraper

The year is 1895.  Buffalo is booming. Hascal Taylor, a Buffalo businessman commissions the Chicago based architectural firm of Dankmar Adler and Louis Sullivan to build the “largest and best office building in the city”.  

They design a skyscraper with a steel framed construction, which is all new in 1895.  They plan to wrap the steel frame in fireproof, decorative terra cotta. Taylor loves it and plans are made to begin building.  

Unfortunately, Taylor passes away shortly before construction begins. The Guaranty Construction Company, also based in Chicago and who was contracted to build, acquires the site and builds the building anyway.  Hence the name Guaranty Building. It is completed and becomes the tallest building in Buffalo. At thirteen stories, it is our first skyscraper.

In 1898 the Guaranty Construction Company defaults on their loan, and the Prudential Insurance Company refinances the mortgage. The building is renamed The Prudential Building. Both names still appear on the building today.

     Photos by  Robert Kirkham/Buffalo News

Adler and Sullivan were pioneers in steel frame construction. With the invention of the elevator in the 1850’s, and the general crowding of urban areas, architects were looking for ways to build higher.  Steel frame construction was the way to go, and Adler & Sullivan lead the way in the new field of designing skyscrapers in the 1890’s. The Guaranty Building is a perfect example of their genius.

Dankmar Adler –   photo from

Louis Sullivan – photo from Wikipedia

Adler was the engineer who made the building work, while Sullivan had the artistic vision.  They believed that form follows function, and they lived it through their work. Sullivan designed each piece of terra cotta on the outside of the building, depicting a seed (tree) of life motif and emphasizing the verticality of the building, drawing your eye upward. Inside, he designed  the bronze elevator cages, the art nouveau lobby skylight (now backlit), the mosaic tile design on the walls, right down to the brass door handles.

It is said that every architecture student in the country studies this building. And it’s easy to see why. Sullivan is widely regarded as one of the top three architects the US has ever seen.   H.H. Richardson & Frank Lloyd Wright being the other two. Both have important examples of their work here in Buffalo as well.   But those are topics for other posts.

The Guaranty Building is one of Sullivan’s best works.  It’s incredible that it barely survived the demolition frenzy the country embarked upon in the 1960’s, 70’s and 80’s.  And lucky for us, it was saved from the wrecking ball by preservationist Jack Randall, with the help of Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan in the late 1970’s after it suffered damage on several floors due to a fire.  

It was renovated and reopened for tenants in 1982-83.

In 2002, Buffalo’s largest and oldest law firm, Hodgson Russ bought the building and renamed it the Guaranty Building.  They began an extensive restoration that included the creation of an interpretive center on the first floor showing the history of the building complete with a model of the original building, a video highlighting its history, and terra cotta molds used to restore worn or damaged exterior tiles.  Not to mention the exterior work on the terra cotta, done by Boston Valley Terra Cotta, a local firm, the foundation work, and the ongoing maintenance of keeping the building in top shape.

Buffalo has a treasure trove of beautiful buildings in its downtown district.  The Guaranty Building is hiding in plain sight at the southwest corner of Church and Pearl Streets.  If you have the chance, get up close to it in order to really see the detail of Sullivan’s work. Stand at the corner and look up at the tree of life, you’ll be amazed at the detail!

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