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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