Last week , my cousin offered me a pretty cool opportunity. She offered to turn the tables and take me on a tour of the building where she works. Since I’m always up for a tour of just about any building, I jumped at the chance.
Her building is the Fidelity Trust Building, now known as Swan Tower. I’ve walked by it literally hundreds of times, and I admit I had no real expectations going in.
We set it up for this past Wednesday and as I parked I realized I had a clear view of the building. I stepped out of my car and immediately snapped a few photos. I had never really looked closely at it, but I thought, “it’s nice”.
As I approached, I looked at it with fresh eyes, I noticed for the first time the attention to detail. I should have known. The architects were Green & Wicks, a very talented, prolific architectural firm here in Buffalo. One of the best. My eye was drawn up to the protruding cornice, the egg & dart and the dentil moldings, the ionic columns. The list of architectural details is long and I won’t bore you with it. Instead I’ll share my photos.
My cousin met me in the lobby of 290 Main. There are two addresses, 284 & 290, but she took me right back outside to begin the tour. She explained that the corner used to be known as ‘The Weed Block’ before this building was built, named for Weed & Company Hardware, located within the block. Below is a photo of the Weed Block Building that used to be on the site of the Fidelity Building.
Photo from “Weed Block Building, Buffalo’s 125th Anniversary World Port Celebration”, 1832-1957, Sept. 21-30, 1957.
Side note regarding the Weed Block Building. It was apparently a mix use boarding house and office building. Grover Cleveland moved into ‘room F’ of the Weed Block Building in 1873. His law firm Cleveland and Bissell (at the time) moved in to the same building the following year. Cleveland never owned a home during the nearly three decades that he lived in Buffalo. He instead lived in several boarding houses. This was one of them.
Wikipedia also reports that Millard Fillmore practiced law out of the Weed Block Building as well.
We entered the Fidelity Trust Building through big brass doors and then a revolving door at 284 Main. Both sets of doors are beautiful I might add.
Now I know why we went back outside. To re-enter through 284.
Upon entering, I instantly became a tourist in my own city. I’m pretty sure my mouth was open as I took it all in. I almost forgot to breathe I was so blown away. So unexpected! If it wasn’t for the modern cubicles I would have thought I had stepped back in time. The ceilings are nothing short of magnificent. And the columns. Seriously.
There are still some remnants of the bank for which this building was built. For example, the brass bars, or cage if you will, in the photo below most likely enclosed the internal vaults, and the heavy brass doors that were undoubtedly there for security.
The mezzanine level is just as beautiful. We visited every floor. Some were more interesting than others, but I did notice that the decoration stopped above the mezzanine floor. Which was typical in a building of this sort. There were smaller details in the upper floors, but the ornate ceiling designs were mostly on the first and the mezzanine floor, the somewhat open ‘second’ floor, which overlooks the first floor.
The exception was a conference room on the true second floor above the mezzanine level, which seems like the real second floor. Confusing? It is when you’re inside.
It feels like the buildings on this block sort of wrap around each other, and it’s tough to figure out when you’re inside. Some are joined on the inside, some are not, and we found that they do not meet in the center. There is a courtyard of sorts in the center. From this view below, you’re hard pressed to figure out which building is which.
Let’s change gears over to a short version of the story of Fidelity Trust.
In May of 1893, well known Buffalonian John Albright, along with George V. Forman, John Satterfield and Franklin Locke, founded the Fidelity Trust Company.
The Fidelity Trust Building was completed in 1909.
In 1925, with $35 million in assets, Fidelity Trust Company merged with Manufacturers and Traders Bank which had $64 million in assets, and happened to be headquartered just across Swan Street from the Fidelity. Manufacturers and Traders Bank was founded here in Buffalo in 1856 by Pascal Pratt and Bronson Rumsey.
Photo from “Views of Old-Time Buffalo”, p. 32. Shows the former M & T Bank in the left forefront, and The Fidelity Trust Building to the right. This is the M & T Bank Building whose marble ruins are at Wilkeson Point.
The two banks came together to form Manufacturers and Traders Trust Company, or M & T, which has maintained a strong presence in Buffalo to this day, although they no longer have a location in the Fidelity Building.
In 1926 the western three story addition was added to the Fidelity Building, and interestingly enough was designed by E.B Green & Sons, William Wicks having passed.
The Ellicott Development Company acquired the building 1989, and they have referred to it as Swan Tower ever since. They completely renovated the building including the meticulous restoration of those amazing hand painted ceilings. So glad they did!
What a treat this building turned out to be! Thanks for the tour Cousin Barb! Just goes to show that you can’t and shouldn’t judge a book by it’s cover. Check out The Fidelity Trust Building (Swan Tower) at the Northwest corner of Main and Swan Streets. If you run into Barb, tell her I said hello!
Several years ago now, I took a job with an accounting firm. I started on the first day the firm opened in their new building. The reason I mention this is because they had just left the Brisbane Building. Everyone talked about it as if it was the oldest, draftiest building the city has ever seen. They were happy to be out of it.
I, of course, was fascinated. I’d seen the building, but had never been in it. I’d spent years attending the Thursday in the Square concerts that used to take place in Lafayette Square, right in front of the Brisbane Building. I would look up and wonder what those beautifully curved glass windows have witnessed over the years. Just who they’d seen, and what they’d heard.
Let’s travel back in time to before the Brisbane Building was built.
The Arcade Building, pictured below, occupied the space where the Brisbane is now. It was built in the 1850’s after a fire devastated the entire city block. Housed in the Arcade, the largest office building in the city at the time, was the Buffalo Fine Arts Academy (the organization that became the Albright Knox Art Gallery), Shea’s Music Hall, and T.C. Tanke Jeweler’s, among other businesses. It was built for George and Albert Brisbane. Wish I could have seen this one.
Photo from Albright Knox
Unfortunately, in December of 1893, The Arcade Building was also devastated by fire.
As a side note, during the 19th century, fire was a recurring theme in Buffalo’s city center. It was in the last years of the 1800’s that architects and builders began to pay special attention to the possibility of fire and took steps to prevent total loss through the use of more ‘fireproof’ building materials.
Construction of the Brisbane Building began in 1894 and was completed in 1896. It was designed in the Beaux Arts style by architects Milton E. Beebe and Son, a firm that was quite prolific in the Buffalo area. The building was originally named the Mooney and Brisbane Building because it was built for James Mooney of Buffalo and James Brisbane of New York City. Mooney’s brother Henry was also a partner. By 1906, James Brisbane had assumed full ownership, thus the name became simply The Brisbane Building.
It is a U-shaped building which was quite common for its time in order to bring natural light into the offices. The first two floors filled in the ‘U section’ and the second floor was covered with a beautiful skylight to bring in even more natural light. The entire building has large windows for the same reason. Although the building was built with electricity, electric lighting was not what it is today. We use Edison bulbs for ambiance nowadays, but back when the Brisbane was built, they didn’t quite cut it for lighting up offices, hence the shape of the building, and the large size of the windows.
When The Brisbane was completed, it was the largest mixed use ‘mercantile and office’ building in the city. It was designed to house a large retail establishment on the first floor and the second floor contained sixteen retail spaces for smaller stores, with an open center court covered by that skylight I mentioned a minute ago. (See below.) The remaining five floors were offices.
Photo from Architectural Portfolio of Some of the Buildings Erected by M. E. Beebe & Son, Architects Buffalo, N. Y.
In 1908 the building tenants included three of the largest name brand stores of their day. They were Kleinhans Men’s Store, Seymour Knox’s largest location of his Five and Ten Cent Stores (which he later merged with his cousin’s chain of stores to become Woolworth’s), and Faxon, Williams and Faxon, the largest grocer in WNY.
Many of the tenants stayed for years. One of the most notable was Hunt Real Estate founder Stanley Hunt, who ran his business out of the Brisbane Building for 47 years, and only left in 1960 when he purchased the nearby Hurst Building. Being that he was in real estate, pretty sure that was to be expected. I only wonder why it took so long. Could be that he was just happy in the Brisbane Building.
When the city fell on hard times, so did the Brisbane. In 1986, the building was bought by Stanley Hunt’s son, C. Stuart Hunt, when it was in desperate need of renovation as well as tenants, having just lost the building’s anchor tenant, Kleinhans (talk about a long time lease).
Stuart Hunt, along with his team oversaw the very thorough and very expensive renovation, complete with new roof and windows, all new mechanicals, the creation of new suites, and a renovation of the lobby. It really is a tribute to his belief in Buffalo that he undertook such an extensive project at a time when businesses were still leaving the city. In 2010, while undertaking more capital improvements, the original Main Street entrance was uncovered. It has since been restored, and is quite beautiful.
Photo Credit: Matthew Zelasko
Perhaps following Hunt’s lead, the area around the Brisbane has been coming alive in the past fifteen years or so as well. Rocco Termini purchased and renovated the Hotel Lafayette, and transformed the former AM&A’s warehouse building into loft apartments. The area has also seen the addition of several very popular restaurants and breweries. Within short walking distance are Big Ditch Brewery, Deep South Taco, Tappo Italian Restaurant and the Lafayette Brewery which is right across the street, just to name a few. Sometimes all it takes is one person to start the ball rolling.
View from the bottom of the “U” across Lafayette Square
It hasn’t happened overnight, but the future of the Brisbane Building is looking bright. It’s buildings like this one with both history and beauty that will help Buffalonians continue to treasure the past while looking forward to the very promising future ahead.
To this day, I have no explanation for the disdain of the Brisbane Building by my accounting firm colleagues. I even have it on good authority that the building is definitely not drafty, and I’ve seen the offices. They’re lovely. I guess I’m glad they brought this building to my attention though. It’s become one of my favorites.
See it for yourself. Check out The Brisbane Building at Main, Clinton and Washington Streets, on Lafayette Square. Don’t forget to look at the restored Main Street entrance, you’ll be glad you did.
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While out for a walk the other day, I came upon one of the many buildings in Buffalo that makes me wish time travel was real. To be able to go back to the turn of the twentieth century when Buffalo was preparing for the Pan American Exposition. To walk the city streets during Buffalo’s ‘heyday’ is a recurring topic of my daydreams.
The building I found myself in front of that day was The Hotel Lafayette. I would love to have witnessed the building of this hotel. The reason why will become clear when you read the story behind it.
Like the Coit House, there is some discrepancy over the year the building was built. City records have the year at 1900, but it is documented that the hotel was not yet ready for the Exposition in 1901. It would seem that it was completed in 1902, but financial problems delayed the opening until 1904.
The building itself was built for Walter B. Duffy, a Rochester capitalist. The well respected Buffalo architectural firm of Bethune, Bethune & Fuchs was engaged to design it.
It seems that behind every great building, there is an interesting personal story. In this case, it is not the owner of the building that is of interest, but rather the architectural firm.
In particular Louise Blanchard Bethune. Who was she? Only the first professional woman architect in the country! That’s right, Buffalo was home to the first woman who worked as an architect in the U.S.
Let’s take a closer look at Ms. Bethune.
Louise Blanchard Bethune – Photo Credit Unknown
Jenny Louise Blanchard was born in 1856 in Waterloo, NY., less than four miles away from Seneca Falls, the birthplace of the Women’s Suffrage Movement, which began eight years prior to her birth. Her parents were both educators. It seems likely that these two facts no doubt played a role in her desire for higher education and a career. Not something most women aspired to at the time.
The family moved to Buffalo when Louise was a child. She graduated from Buffalo Public High School in 1874 and immediately embarked upon two years of preparation to attend the newly opened Architecture Program at Cornell University. But, in 1876 she was offered and accepted an apprenticeship with Richard Waite, one of the most well respected architectural firms in Buffalo. She also accepted a part-time apprenticeship with the firm of F. W. Caulkins. She studied in her spare time as well.
In 1881 she started her own firm. Robert Bethune, a former colleague from Richard Waite, joined her shortly thereafter. The two were married later that year, and her firm became Bethune & Bethune.
The 1880s was a perfect time to open an architectural firm in Buffalo. The city was growing by leaps and bounds. Money was plentiful, and much of it was being spent on building.
Louise and Robert’s firm was thriving. They were like most architects of the day and didn’t specialize in any one particular architectural type, they merely gave the paying customer what they asked for. And they did it well.
In 1888, Louise was honored with being the first female member of the American Institute of Architects, and one year later was named the first woman Fellow of the AIA. She was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame in 2006.
In 1891, William Fuchs joined the firm as the third and final partner.
Although Louise preferred designing schools (her firm participated in the designing and building of 18 schools in the area) she felt a strong responsibility to not specialize in any one area of architecture in order that it be known that women could be proficient in all facets of building design. The firm, therefore, undertook all types of design, from residential to commercial, to even factory design.
Louise was the principal designer of the Hotel Lafayette and it is considered some of her best work.
The French Renaissance building is outstanding both inside and out. With its interior of marble and mahogany, 225 guest rooms, hot and cold running water in every bathroom, and telephones in all the rooms, it was indeed grand for its day. The New York Times said this of the hotel when it opened, “one of the most perfectly appointed and magnificent hotels in the country”. It is both interesting and somewhat disappointing that the same short article ended with “Many well-known men participated in the opening of the hotel.” with no mention whatsoever of the woman architect.* We’ll chalk it up to baby steps.
Two additions were done not long after the hotel was built, in 1916 and 1924 respectively, by the also well-known Buffalo architectural firm of Esenwein & Johnson. The additions complimented Bethune’s design nicely, and are almost unnoticeable. In the 1940s the hotel underwent a number of interior updates. It’s fortunate for us that the outside of the building was left original, and interior updates were minimal enough that many of the original architectural appointments were left somewhat intact.
Fifty years after its opening, it was still being run by the Duffy family, but eventually, the out of town ownership allowed the hotel to decline and fall into disrepair. Some parts of it were left vacant for years.
The hotel changed hands in 2011, and it underwent a 45 million dollar renovation by developer Rocco Termini. It reopened in 2012. It now has 92 apartments (it’s become cool to live downtown again) in addition to 57 hotel rooms, restaurants, banquet facilities, a working brewery, and retail space.
While walking through the first floor, looking at the fixtures, the mahogany woodwork, the vintage-looking murals, and the elegant ballrooms, I feel a bit like I’ve gone back in time”.
Then my cell phone buzzes in my back pocket and I’m immediately brought back to reality.
Sharon Cantillon/Buffalo News
I am grateful though. Grateful that this building still stands as a testament to all it represents, the gilded age of Buffalo, the fledgling women’s movement in the country at the time, the vision Buffalo possessed by entrusting a woman to design many of its buildings including this one, the changes our city has undergone since then. And finally, the intelligence and determination to preserve beautiful buildings like The Hotel Lafayette.
See it at the southeast corner of Lafayette Square, at Washington and Clinton Streets. Beware of ensuing daydreams.
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*“Buffalo Hotel Opened”, The New York Times, June 2, 1904.