Welcome to Buffalo: New York’s Other Art Capital
Photos by Carson Poplin
Buffalo’s story has become an all-too-familiar American trope, seen across the country in cities
like Detroit and Pittsburgh: the story of the wealthy manufacturing city that was left reeling when its industry moved out. Buffalo was once home to a booming steel and grain production thanks to its placement on the Erie Canal, but the city’s economy and infrastructure crumbled since the 1950s. Just a few years ago, Buffalo was a skeleton of what it had once been.
More recently it has gone through a sort of revitalization. People are moving there, restaurants are drawing people downtown and hipsters are opening up artisanal bakeries and the like. The especially impressive part is that Buffalo managed to keep the relics from its heyday — and most of those come in the form of the arts patronized by those who got rich the same time as the city.
Some of the most impressive examples of modern art and architecture are here in Buffalo, yet go overlooked in the shadow of larger cities. As the city continues to recover from its previous neglect, so do these institutions.
Frank Lloyd Wright built this six-building complex between 1903 and 1905 for wealthy Buffalo businessman Darwin D. Martin and his wife Isabelle. The couple initially commissioned him for one building, a home for Darwin’s sister. Lloyd Wright finished that project over budget and behind schedule but they hired him to complete the rest of his vision anyway. In the end it was one of the finest examples of Lloyd Wright’s Prairie Style, though much lesser known than Chicago’s Robie House.
Part of that is due to the disrepair it fell in around the same time as Buffalo itself. Darwin died penniless in 1935, and his wife Isabelle was forced to move down the street to live with her daughter, allegedly not even bothering to lock up the house behind her. After being left vacant for some 17 years, some of the buildings were later knocked down to build apartments. In 1992 the Martin House Restoration Corporation (MHRC) raised funds to completely restore the complex to its original state. According to MHRC Executive Director Mary F. Roberts, no other Lloyd Wright site has withstood such degradation and remained standing. Today it is open to tours as the last phase of the interior restoration nears completion.
The Albright-Knox Art Gallery began in 1862 as a museum dedicated to art of our time. In the past 150 years of collecting, it has amassed a very sizable and impressive collection of works by Frida Kahlo, Pablo Picasso, Jackson Pollock, Georgia O’Keefe and others. It’s a collection that any museum would be proud to have, yet there’s no crowding in front of the Van Gogh.
The collection grew to its impressive proportions thanks to a number of patrons with great taste who donated directly to the museum. Allegedly, Willem de Kooning’s “Gotham News” was brought into the museum by one of its namesakes Seymour H. Knox, Jr. still wet and filling the gallery with paint fumes.
The Albright-Knox will continue to collect and display some of the finest examples of modern art for some time. Just Sept. 23 it was announced that the gallery had received a $42.5 million dollar gift to help pay for a much-needed expansion, since the majority of the museum’s vast collection isn’t even on display. Because of this gift, it will be renamed the Buffalo Albright-Knox-Gundlach Art museum (or, Buffalo AKG Art Museum) as it continues to honor its transformative donors.
When you think of the gems of the art deco period, New York City’s Rockefeller Center and Chrysler Building come to mind. However, Buffalo City Hall hails from the same time period (1931 to be exact) and is just as impressive of an example. Interestingly enough, it still survives today because the city of Buffalo was once too broke to demolish its empty downtown buildings.
In the entrance way of City Hall are impressive murals dedicated to the city’s history and industry. The Common Council Chamber boasts an impressive skylight and chairs that seem frozen in time; they still retain the original fittings for men to put their fedoras under their seat while in meetings.
The observation deck is open today for tours and should you be so lucky as to have retired lawyer and current docent and lecturer Harry G. Meyer as your tour guide you will surely be impressed by all of Buffalo’s treasures. From the top you can see other fine examples of early 20th-century architecture including the Electric Tower and the Hotel @ Lafayette.
As the city continues to grow back into its already existing footprint, more and more abandoned buildings will surely be repurposed and the arts and culture scene will continue to grow. It may even eventually get the billing it deserves an art capital, and not just in Western New York.
More by Carson Poplin
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