The Women’s Movement & Outstanding Architecture at the Hotel Lafayette

The Women’s Movement & Outstanding Architecture at the Hotel Lafayette

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 1880’s  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 1940’s 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.

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