Castles of Buffalo

Castles of Buffalo

I have a confession to make. I don’t get downtown very often anymore. Working from home is great, but I admit I miss the action. I only get downtown a handful of times each month. Everytime I do, I get that old familiar feeling. That “I love this town” feeling. I don’t know how to explain it. Downtown Buffalo is just a part of me.

And I think I may be rubbing off on my granddaughter Aoife (pronounced ‘eefa’). To be fair, my son, Aoife’s father, works downtown in the Brisbane Building so that may have had an influence too, but either way Aoife loves downtown.

So, a couple of months ago I had one of my favorite photos of city hall (below) put on canvas. When it arrived, I showed it to Aoife and asked her if she knew what it was. With a big confident smile, she said, “Yes. It’s a castle!” She’s three. So I said, “You’re right, it’s a Buffalo Castle.”

Since then, Aoife loves to ‘go walking’ downtown to see all the Buffalo Castles. I was downtown this morning walking along Main Street, and thought of how Aoife looks with awe at our Buffalo castles. I was inspired to share them with you.

Let’s Get Started with City Hall

Buffalo City Hall. It’s one of the largest municipal buildings in the U.S, at 32 floors and over 560,000 square feet. That aside, it’s an exquisite example of Art Deco design. The architects are Deitel & Wade, and it was completed in 1932. I love this building.

When she’s a little older, I’ll teach Aoife about all the little details that are everywhere on this building. The frieze above the front entryway depicting the history of our city up to the year it was built. The details on the windows. The Native American designs at the top of the building. And the statues on either side of two of Buffalo’s presidents – Millard Fillmore and Grover Cleveland. Those two may or may not be there when she’s old enough to learn about them. But for now, to Aoife, city hall is the original castle. We both love it.

I especially love the way the building presides majestically over Niagara Square and the McKinley Monument. And speaking of that…

The McKinley Monument

This monument is of course here in honor of President William McKinley who was fatally shot at the Temple of Music, an attraction at the Pan American Exposition in September, 1901. The architects were Carrere and Hastings, and the animals were sculpted by A. Phimister Proctor.

From all accounts, Buffalo deeply mourned the death of McKinley and great thought was given to the design of the monument. It has been said that the sleeping lions were included as a sign of strength, a nod to McKinley’s presidency and the turtles (yes, you have to look for them, but they’re there) were included as a symbol of eternal life, which is what the city at the time hoped for President McKinley.

The monument was dedicated in 1907, six years after McKinley’s untimely death. It underwent its first restoration in 2017. The square itself has changed around it many times, but the monument is here to stay. Not necessarily a castle, but Aoife loves the animals and the fountain, so it’s going on the list!

The Statler Building

In the shadow of the McKinley Monument, it’s easy to see the Statler Hotel, one of my other grandchildrens’ favorites. Apparently Miles learned about it in first grade in a social studies class and was awed that one man owned a building so giant (his words). I talked about Ellsworth Statler in another post, including what’s going on in that building now. He had great influence on downtown life in Buffalo back in the day. I guess you could say that he helped to create the downtown vibe that I love so much.

The hotel itself is definitely one of our castles.

Robert H. Jackson United States Courthouse

Just west of the Statler building, is the U.S. Courthouse. Not all of our ‘castles’ are old. This one was built in 2011. At that time, I worked in the Seneca One tower on the 30th floor, and my office overlooked Main Street. So I watched the courthouse being built. Robert H. Jackson is a Western New Yorker who served as a Supreme Court Justice, so it is fitting that the building is named for him.

Not normally a fan of very many modern buildings, I didn’t expect to like this one. But I do. There’s something very pleasing about the design. The architects are Kohn Pedersen Fox Associates out of New York City. The lower glass wall visible in the photo has the entire U.S. Constitution etched into it. Pretty cool. Castle worthy.

Old County Hall

And then there’s this. This building speaks to me, like some do. It gives me a real feeling of history in Buffalo. Built in 1876, it’s the oldest of the downtown ‘castles’. The center clock and bell tower is 270 feet tall – must have been an amazing sight to see in 1876! Especially since the clocks were back lit by gas lamps at night.

Picture this. It’s 1876. When it gets dark at night, it gets really dark. Not like today with street lights ablaze and illuminated buildings everywhere. It got really dark back then. The nightly lighting of the clock tower became an evening destination for the citizens of Buffalo. Rich and poor alike would take their evening walks or carriage rides to the Old County Hall to behold this clock tower. It still impresses today.

I devoted an entire blog post to this building because it’s one of those that makes me wish time travel could be a thing so that I could shoot back to 1880 or so to see the clock tower lit up without the distraction of all the other lights in the area.

While walking near this building Aoife asked me who the ‘people’ were on top of the tower. Good question. They respresent Justice, Agriculture, Mechanical Arts, and Commerce. That explanation, of course, meant nothing to her, but it meant a great deal to the people of Buffalo in 1876. Enough that they would put them high above us on pedestals to guard over the city. This, is a Buffalo castle.

The Guaranty Building

As we walked away from the Old County Hall, Aoife looked up and said, “Oh Nana, I like those circle windows.” She was, of course, looking at the Guaranty Building. Good eye, kid.

As we approached the Guaranty Building on the opposite side of the road, on Church Street, I started to tell Aoife the story of this building. How it was built in 1895-96, how it was the tallest building in Buffalo at the time, and how it was designed by a very famous architect named Louis Sullivan. Aoife couldn’t have cared less about that. Did I mention that she’s three?

In the meantime, we had crossed Church Street and stood at the base of the corner of the building looking up at the tree of life carving which drew our eyes up to the cornice. That she was interested in. Along with the other Art Nouveau details in the terra cotta exterior, and she was also impressed with the gargoyles. We went into the lobby, where we gawked at the Tiffany-like ceilings, the mosaic walls, and the bronze elevator cages. All are simply gorgeous.

As we walked away from this Buffalo treasure, Aoife said, “That was definitely a castle.” I agree.

St. Paul’s Episcopal Church

Right across the street from the Guaranty Building is St. Paul’s Cathedral. If all those spires don’t make you think of a castle, I don’t know what would!

This church was built in 1851 and was designed by Richard Upjohn, who was well known for his English Gothic church designs. Beautiful inside and out, it is definitely one to go take a look at. I am always struck by how, no matter where on the street you are looking at this building, it appears that you are looking at the main entrance (which is actually on Pearl Street).

The Ellicott Square Building

Now, I don’t really think the Ellicott Square Building resembles a castle, but Aoife sure does enjoy all the faces on the facade. I’ll admit that after I pointed out the Medusa heads lining the cornice of the building, they scared her a little bit. So I told her they were little girls welcoming her into their building. She accepted it.

That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.

The architect was Charles Atwood of Daniel Burnham and Company, one of the most prestigious architectural firms in the U.S. What a fantastic example of Italian Renaissance design this building is!

But to me, it’s the interior of the building that puts it on Aoife’s list of Buffalo castles. Whenever I walk into the atrium, I can’t help but look up and around the room. The staircases, the Italian marble mosaic floors, the elevators! It’s still stunning after all these years. 124 to be exact, having been completed in 1896. At that time it was the largest office building in the world. In the world!

It’s definitely castle worthy.

The Old Post Office / ECC City Campus

Back out on the street, I take Aoife through an alley over to the Old Post Office. She takes one look and states, “I think this one is a castle, Nana.” I agree. What do you think?

It was completed in 1901, and had three government architects, Jeremiah O’Rourke, William Aiken and James Knox Taylor. It’s a mix of styles between Victorian Gothic and Richardsonian Romanesque.

And to a kid this one is perhaps the most castle-like of all. It’s a real stunner! And like city hall, there are a lot of details to look at here. Gargoyles, eagles, lynx and bison. And, like the Ellicott Square Building, the inside is amazing! In Aoife’s words, “Woah…”

One M&T Plaza

As Aoife and I head back to Main Street, we see One M&T Plaza. She tells me she doesn’t think this one is a castle. But the closer we get, I can see the wheels turning. And I think she’s changing her mind.

Then we see it. The fountain. That puts her over the edge. It goes on the list. It’s a castle to Aoife because of the fountain. Ah! To be three and have your only responsibility be the discovery of everything around you. That fountain made her so happy.

I’m beginning to think Aoife does have a great eye, because this fountain was designed by Harry Bertoia, and I’ve heard his larger sculptures now sell for upwards of a million dollars! It is a beautiful fountain, and its curves are a nice contrast to the modern, straight lines of the building.

So One M&T Plaza was designed by Minoru Yamasaki and was completed in 1966. He was finishing up this building while starting his next job, the World Trade Center (Twin Towers) in New York City. I don’t have to tell you what happened to that building. Let’s suffice it to say that I am grateful that we still have this building to show off to our grandchildren.

One M&T Plaza is the Buffalo Headquarters of M&T Bank here in Buffalo. And I gotta tell you, they have been Buffalo boosters since their inception in 1856. They’ve stayed true to Buffalo all this time. And they continue to do so. No, I do not work for M&T. I just happen to think that they’ve been good to Buffalo.

The Hotel Lafayette

As we head into Lafayette Square, Aoife points out the Hotel Lafayette and says, “I pick that castle, Nana.” I was wondering what she meant, when she went on to say, “It’s a good one! Just look!”

She’s right. Just look at it.

Completed in 1904 (with two additions to follow), it’s an awesome building. And it was designed by the first working woman architect in the country, Louise Blanchard Bethune. She was a Buffalonian! And apparently she was quite a woman. She reportedly would be shouted at in the streets for riding her bicycle, something that was considered unseemly for a woman in the 1880s and 90s. Can you imagine? No, I can’t either. I would have been in trouble all the time back then!

Read my post here for more about Louise. She was really an interesting woman.

The Hotel Lafayette is now a mix of apartments and hotel rooms, banquet halls, a coffee shop, full service restaurant, and a working brewery. That’s a mouth full. The Lafayette is excellent, inside and out. Castle worthy.

The Rand Building

The Rand Building is, to me, a beautiful building that I don’t think gets enough respect. In fact, I wrote a post about it, where I give my humble opinion about why it doesn’t get the respect I think it deserves. Because I think this building is cool. Strong, solid, and true.

It was built for the Marine Bank and named for George F. Rand Sr., who was at one time the President of Marine Bank here in Buffalo. It was completed in 1929 and was the last commercial building to be built in Buffalo before the stock market crash and the depression began. True to its time period, it’s a decent example of Art Deco design. But you’ve got to really look at it to notice all the subtleties of the design.

I love it, and so does Aoife. Come to think of it, so does Aoife’s father, my son. All fans of the Rand. It’s a castle.

Coincidentally, the next commercial building to be built downtown post depression (1959!) was the Tishman Building, which is now the Hilton Garden Inn, pictured here, to the left of the Rand.

Buffalo Savings Bank / Goldome Bank / M&T Bank

This is probably Aoife’s least favorite Buffalo Castle. I don’t have a clue why. What child wouldn’t be impressed with that shiny gold dome atop this incredible neoclassical, Beaux-Arts style building?

Well, Aoife apparently. She told me that she likes it, but she doesn’t love it. To be fair, we didn’t go inside. That would have elevated its status, I’m sure. The inside is nothing short of magnificent. I love it.

It’s a Green & Wicks design and was completed in 1901 as the Buffalo Savings Bank. It was billed as the working man’s bank. You see, up until this point, banking was reserved for the rich. It gave regular people incentive to save their money for whatever it is they desired. Cool.

Interesting side note: the dome was not originally gold. 24-carat gold leaf was added when Goldome Bank took over the building. The cost to cover the dome with 140,000 sheets of gold leaf was $500,000. More than it cost to build the original building!

It’s a Buffalo castle! I don’t care what Aoife says!

My Impressions of Buffalo Castles

Well, I’m exhausted! Aoife wore me out ‘going walking’ looking at all the Buffalo castles. You know, there’s a reason why people have babies when they’re young! I’m just kidding. Aoife was exhausted too! But not too tired to pose with Daddy at the Soldiers and Sailors Monument in the center of Lafayette Square.

Photo Credit: Kristen Zelasko

Sometimes I think it’s a good idea to look at something through someone else’s eyes. And sometimes it’s great to see things through the eyes of a child. We walk, ride and drive around the streets of downtown Buffalo and totally miss the amazing architecture all around us.

These buildings that Aoife and I have deemed ‘castles’ are not by any means a complete list. These are just some of our favorites.

Take an urban hike. Look around. Really see our city. Choose your own castles. If you’ve got children or grandchildren, take them with you and look at the city through their eyes. It’ll be like seeing it for the first time. And they may surprise you with their insight and their opinions. Even Aoife, at three, offers these. The way she fell in love with the fountain, or the Hotel Lafayette. It was pretty cool to see.

Get out and enjoy your city Buffalo!

*Get the book! They make great keepsakes or gifts for friends and family.  Click here or on the photo below. They make great gifts!

*All photos in this post are mine unless otherwise noted.

The Ellicott Square Building & Its Namesake

The Ellicott Square Building & Its Namesake

As long as I can remember the Ellicott Square Building has always just been there.  Over the years, I’ve eaten lunch here.  I’ve shopped here. I’ve paid my monthly parking fees here.  I’ve even passed through the building in order to warm up on my way to or from someplace close by. What I mean is, I knew it was beautiful, but I was always too busy to really take notice.

Let’s take notice now.

To do that, we’ll start with its namesake.  It was named for Joseph Ellicott, who was an agent for the Holland Land Company, who owned all of Western New York at one time.  In 1804 Ellicott laid out the streets of Buffalo. While doing so, he purchased the piece of property that the Ellicott Square Building stands on. The plot was originally much larger and spanned from Swan Street to Eagle Street (now South Division), and from Main Street all the way out to Jefferson Avenue.

Joseph Ellicott, photo from

The original property itself had a half moon shape that jutted out into Main Street.  Ellicott had planned to build his family estate on the property, with the mansion sitting in the half moon.  But that plan never came to fruition, and he never developed the property.

Map of Buffalo Village showing part of Ellicott’s original 100 acres.   Map from “Discovering Buffalo, One Street at a Time: Can’t You Hear the Whistle Blowing on Exchange Street?”

Ellicott divided the rest of Buffalo into lots and sold them at a fair price, with interest, to homesteaders, businessmen and investors alike.  Ellicott was a fair man, and he was reportedly lenient with people who had trouble paying their mortgages, and at times accepted goods for payment when necessary.

It could be said of Ellicott that he foresaw the success that Buffalo would one day enjoy, and he worked hard to contribute to that success.  He in fact, was one of the first supporters of the building of the Erie Canal along with such local leaders as  George Coit  and Charles Townsend, among others.

On a side note, the city and the highway commissioners later decided that Main Street needed to be re-routed to cut straight through that half moon section of Ellicott’s land.  He responded by changing his will, so that the 100 acre plot that was to be donated to the city for a park, would remain with his family members. Had that not happened, the Ellicott Square Building most certainly would not have been built.

Joseph Ellicott passed away in 1826.  He never married or had children, but the rest of his family members inherited the property.

Fast forward almost 70 years, to 1895.  Ellicott’s family members and their heirs still own part of that original 100 acre property. Namely, the part that the Ellicott Square Building sits on today.  At that time, it was already a thriving city block, known as “Ellicott Square”.  

Buildings on the thriving “Ellicott Square” before the Ellicott Square Building was built in 1895-96.   Both Photos from Picture Book of Earlier Buffalo, Severance, Frank H.

The Ellicott Company (Joseph’s family & their heirs) wanted to erect an office   building that would span the entire block.  They commissioned the Daniel H. Burnham Company, specifically Charles Atwood as the architect to do the job. The result was the Ellicott Square Building, which opened in May of 1896.  

The razing of buildings aside, which was commonplace in Buffalo at the time, you can understand the vision they had in designing the Ellicott Square Building.  They looked at it as merging all the existing buildings into one cohesive, and very efficient, working building.

When completed it was the largest office building in the world.  It indeed spans the entire city block.  It is 10 stories of steel frame construction with the capacity to support 10 more, had 60 offices, 16 counting rooms and 40 retail spaces.

The exterior is terra cotta, granite, iron and brick facade.  The elaborate cornice was removed in 1971 when it began to crumble.  The building was painted a uniform grey at that time, as the building materials had not worn to the same color.  There are still medusa heads lining the roof of the entire building.

The Main Street side and the Washington Street side are mirror images. Minerva, the Roman Goddess of wisdom & war, and Mercury, the Roman god of travel & commerce appear above the elaborate entrances on both of those sides of the building.

The interior is nothing short of magnificent.  The building is referred to as a square doughnut design because the first two floors are open to an incredible skylight, which admittedly needs work both inside and out. The courtyard underneath the skylight is beautiful with elegant staircases on either end leading to the second story retail spaces and offices above.  

The elaborate elevator doors were added in 1926 and the panels show the history of Buffalo, the top four panels depicting pre-industrial Buffalo, and the bottom four show a more modern industrial Buffalo.  The almost unbelievable mosaic floor was added in 1930, created from 23 million individual pieces of Italian marble. It was designed by Winthrop Kent & James A. Johnson, and includes compass points in the center of the court, with depictions of sun symbols from civilizations around the globe spanning out to the four corners.

The Ellicott Square Building was billed at the time as the place you could get two days worth of work done in one day.  You see, the idea of having so many retail shops in one office building, referred to now as mixed use, was a very new idea in 1896.  It was a time when most office workers went home for their noontime meal. Or left in the afternoon for a haircut and a shave. Or to pick up that special something for that special someone.  All that took time away from their work.   In the Ellicott Square Building, all of those places were now contained within the same space.

Ellsworth Statler (of the famed Statler Hotel chain) had a restaurant in the building.  He advertised heavily and brought people in to the 500 seat restaurant by placing $5 gold coins in five random bowls of ice cream each day. He contributed to the changing dynamic of downtown Buffalo by keeping people downtown during the lunchtime hour. His restaurant operated in the building until 1940.

I should add here that the reason I am writing about the Ellicott Square Building is by the suggestion of my Aunt.   She worked in the building in the early 1970’s and fondly remembers her time there working in such beautiful surroundings.  She remembers being very conscious of the quality of the building materials used to make it last as long as it has. She also fondly remembers eating at Brinkworth’s restaurant in the southwest corner of the lobby.  Apparently their soups and their open faced Reuben sandwiches were as memorable as the surroundings.

Restaurants were only a part of what was going on in the building in 1896.  Brothers Mitchell and Moe Mark opened the world’s first dedicated movie theater in the Ellicott Square Building in October of that year. Previous to this theater, movies were only shown in traveling shows in lecture halls and vaudeville theaters. This was the first cinema designed as a moving picture theater.  It was reportedly very opulent, with a white & gold color scheme, was carpeted in rich velvet and featured elaborately carved woodwork. People who paid the fee, which in the beginning was 3 cents, would be shown a series of short clips that were roughly one minute long.  In the first year alone, Mitchell Mark stated that 200,000 people came through its doors.

Statue of Mark Twain (aka Samuel Clemens, who lived in Buffalo for a short time) in the courtyard.

While inside the building now, with my eyes wide open, I feel the rich history here.  I feel the Italian tile floor beneath my feet, the beautifully worn marble on the stairs, the intricate wrought iron work on the railings, the huge skylight, the brass elevator doors…and the energy.  The place is bustling. But there are people sitting at the tables, relaxing, taking it all in as well.

They are enjoying lunch at one of four food stands (delicious food I might add!).  There is a barber shop (it’s considered cool to go to a barber shop these days), doctors, lawyers, a dentist, a gym, real estate companies, a bank, several shops, NYS offices, and the list goes on and on.

Ironically, the present owner of the building is the Ellicott Development Company, which is owned by Carl Paladino, who is no relation to Joseph Ellicott or his heirs.

It’s pretty cool that today, almost 125 years later, this building is still incredible and still being used for the same basic vision the Ellicott Company had when they first built it.  A mixed use office building with retail space to serve the people who work in the building and the surrounding downtown area.   My aunt with her story of working in the building, made me think about how many people have passed through the revolving doors at the entrances and have spent time enjoying the wonders that are the Ellicott Square Building.   Aunt Judi, let’s go to lunch there together soon!

Check it out next time you’re downtown, maybe grab a bite to eat on your lunch hour, or do a little shopping, or get a haircut, or…

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