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My Favorite Buildings

http://archive.buffalorising.com/city/archives/upload/2006/03/steel1ubibyhih-thumb.jpg
This is one of my favorite buildings but, it is not particularly unique or out of the ordinary for a building of its time. Even so it adds so tremendously to the street that it creates one of Buffalo’s most memorable and urban corners. It is off the beaten path of the Elmwood Village anchoring a small commercial corner in a mostly residential area. It has always sported a unique collection of shops. Most people will be familiar with this building as the long time home of the Lexington Whole Foods Coop. The Coop occupied this corner and built a strong business leading to its recent expansion in new quarters on Elmwood. As I searched through images for this piece it occurred to me that I had no pictures that showed the entire building. Perhaps that is because it is not so much the whole of the building that makes it so special as it is the details. Elements such as the big open glassy storefronts with recessed entries, the overhanging bay windows giving a sense of space and protection to the street, and the exquisite masonry add up to a great city building.


Probably its greatest feature is the beautiful masonry and rich color. Long golden yellow Roman brick set with the very tight mortar joints (a level of craft that is virtually unachievable today) is set off by pink stone (or is it terra cotta) accents. Ordinary yet high quality buildings such as this treasure give the city its special character. It is a building that stands out from the surrounding wood frame houses yet is entirely comfortable on its site.
As wonderful as this building is, it is likely that it could not be built today. What is certain is that people would complain that it was to big, that it would increase traffic,that it would not “blend in” with the surrounding wood frame houses, or that the commercial storefronts were in conflict with the residential streets among other arguments. We have heard all these complaints with the unveiling of the recent Elmwood hotel proposal. These types of arguments are often based on emotional self interest with little in the form of objective analysis. Our cities were originally built with a jumble of uses, building types, and people in close proximity. This diversity is what we cherish in our cities and yet today our urge is to separate and sterilize. We think that we don’t want messiness and inconvenience of any type. What we end up with is blandness. We lose the very quality that we think we are saving. Let us hope that we don’t sterilize ourselves out of the opportunity for new and contemporary buildings which may contribute to our city streets in the way that this one does.
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  • dt buff

    When on earth was this photo taken? I almost didn’t recognize the building due to the businesses inside. Steel I agree with you as well. This is nice to have in the hood. I am sure that houses sat on this lot before the build. You da man!

  • westcoastperspective

    Good point that this would building would be decried if proposed today! A mix of uses is what makes a city, well, a city! Buffer zones are for the ‘burbs.
    Beautiful detailing!

  • Lou

    I would love it if a building like this were built today.
    I love Roman Bricks…and the detail that they put into the brick laying, as well as the cornices.
    People are begging for quality but dont know how to ask for it anymore so when people ask for details they get clapboard and cement. I have to admit I dont understand why they dont understand what we are asking!

  • DJK

    I live across the street on Ashland, and the presence of this building on the block is part of the reason I bought my house. There’s a density in this neighborhood “node” that creates greater opportunity for public interaction, even with the Co-op and The Place gone. Sure, parking is a little tougher than it is on Norwood, but it’s a pleasant tradeoff.
    It’s also important to note that this building is closer to my house then the proposed Elmwood Village hotel is to residences on Granger, and my natural lighting is not compromised in the slightest!

  • mj worthington

    In my east side neighborhood growing up, we had houses, stores, factories, churches, bars, pocket parks all within walking distance. Traveling out to my uncles house in OP as a young boy, I couldn’t understand the suburnban housing developments with nothing but houses in sight. I was bored out of my mind from the lack of variety and stimulation. I still don’t see the allure to this day.
    Most anything but surface lots can add to the diversity and value of a neigborhood. Go out to Suburia to she what the Utopia’s of the early 20th century have created. The extreme separation of zoning has created an asphalt mess full of having to drive everywhere and traffic snarls as all traffic is funneled to a few roads and everyone has to cross everyones elses path.
    Obviously you do not want a slaughter house next door (thier was one next to my aunt’s house on Clinton St. growing up, not all that bad 😉 ) but citizens need to be a little more open minded to new development. Get rid of the massive exposed surface lots, and may uses can be positive ones.

  • Perry Fisher

    mj worthington you bring up perhaps the single most important reason that the wonderful mix of functions in our old urban neighborhoods is so difficult to achieve today, and why a proposal for a building of this scale might be controversial in a residential area now: zoning.
    New York City’s first zoning resolution wasn’t passed until 1916, and not until the 1920’s did the Department of Commerce publish a State Zoning Enabling Act.
    The “slaughterhouse next door” scenario you describe had become all too common and cities had to do something. But like most things in this country, zoning was taken to an extreme, particularly in the mind-numbing suburbs, which, like they do you, bore me out of my mind.

  • gabe

    One of my favorite intersections in the enitre city!
    These buildings offer an intimate, unique sense of place that is illegal to build today. The NIMBYs should pack up and move to suburbia if all they can stand is the uniform blandness of nothing but 2 story houses in their neighborhood.

  • Michele

    The Eckhardt building on the corner of Broadway & Fillmore is in pristine condition,
    The owners are willing to lease it for only $8 ( YES $8) a square foot, Check out the slide show on http://www.broadwayfillmorealive.org

  • BuffaLou

    I still say that a builder could use roman bricks just as easily as regular bricks.
    Builds could use cobblestones and other masonry. They do it all the time with stone fences, fireplaces and housing fronts.
    You know I have those plastic medallions for each of my chandeliers and they look great painted up. I also have those non-wood mouldings and they look great painted up too.
    The truth isnt that these buildings cant be built anymore. The truth is that companies dont want to spend the money anymore, especially in Buffalo (which isnt the case in places with more expensive real estate)
    There may be zoning issues but I have yet to see anyone bring zoning issues or building codes into the public discussion. If the public or the builders really wanted to do something of great quality…I struggle with the thought that they would be refused.

  • Perry Fisher

    Isn’t a major argument raised against the proposed hotel/retail building on Elmwood that it would represent “spot” re-zoning? I don’t live in Buffalo, but that’s my understanding.
    Many citizens and citizens’ groups in cities across the country see that as un-wise urban practice.

  • STEEL

    Lets not make the mistaken assumption that great quality only equals copying historic forms. We should also not assume that copying historic forms equals high quality. We keep in mind that the high quality historic copy is extremely rare and is ultimately intellectually dishonest. Part of the beauty of this building is in its age and the fact that so many people have used it over the years. Just think 100 years ago horse buggies pulled up to this structure. Events like that make this building beautiful
    Also the cost of Roman brick can be 3 times more that normal modular brick. The thin mortar joints that make these walls look so great are nearly impossible to produce without the most accurate brick shape and highest quality mason. All of which is rare and very expensive. People are not willing to pay for these things. Yet even if you clear these hurdles you will have an angry mob clamoring for the building to be smaller.
    The result is shallow imitation of historic forms with plastic siding and Styrofoam cornices.
    What you will be left with is a cheap rendition of a historic building which does not have the elegance of material and proportion and will be drastically reduced in size. As beautiful as this simple building is the NIMBYs would squash any attempt at making a quality contemporary building in favor of a poorly scaled cheap historic copy…If anything at all.

  • Perry Fisher

    There is nothing “ultimately intellectually dishonest” about a “high quality historic copy.” That is one of the most empty arguments of 20th-century architectural pomposity. The eighteenth and nineteenth centuries are full of high quality historic copies that we are desperately trying to preserve today.

  • STEEL

    No they are not historic copies that we are trying to save they are actual historic buildings that have existed for many years. The fact that they were of a revival style at the time of their construction speaks of their time and their society. Our time and society are vastly different than 100 years ago.
    I think it is intellectually dishonest to construct a building and pretend that it is 100 years old. That should be reserved for Disney.
    Actually in many cases historic buildings are not even of a revival style. The glass storefronts on this building for example are very modern. They take advantage of the technology that allowed for very large pieces of glass and long spans over large openings in the wall. They certainly are not a storefront that you would have found in Colonial America. Would you suggest that these storefronts should copy some other period rather than serve their function with the latest technology available?

  • gabe

    Perry, well said.
    I guess we should consider the White House and Capitol cheap historic imitations of imperial Greco-Roman architecture.

  • STEEL

    Gabe
    They are historic they are about 2 hundred years old and they are hardly cheaply built. I am not sure why you would base your premsis on a red herring argument like that.

  • Perry Fisher

    Steel, your logic is ludicrous. There is no point arguing with you about this, but I wish you’d stop lecturing people in such a stentorian voice. A new “high quality historic copy” cannot be hundreds of years old until it IS hundreds of years old.
    Just for example, St. Gerard’s Church in Buffalo: a copy of St. Paul’s Outside the Walls in Rome. The people and church and architect who built it were “intellectually dishonest”? (What does that phrase mean anyway?). Should St. Gerard’s be dispensable, or is is o.k. because it has been a historic copy for a century or more? What does that phrase mean anyway?

  • STEEL

    Well I read back through my posts and see nothing lecturish about them. They are all couched in terms of my opinion. And yes revivalist architecture from 100 years ago is valid because it is that old and is reflective of the thinking and technology of that time.
    Getting back to my original post and the original thesis (which you may agree with me on) Even if this building was proposed…today…exactly as it is built with its high quality craft and historic details… (something nearly impossible to achieve today..I am in the biz so I do know something about this)….even if this exact building was proposed on a street like this the NIMBY’s would come out of the woodwork to defeat it.

  • Perry Fisher

    Steel, don’t get me wrong, your posts do a great service and I enjoy them as much as any other reader.
    The lecturing I refer to is in your answers to people like Lou, and me, and quite a few others who believe it is still possible to build buildings that people enjoy looking at, and being in, and these are more likely to be structures that employ classical principles and historical references. (Have you read The Old Way of Seeing?)
    You always launch into an architecture school Modernism Indoctrination 101, as though you think that one’s wish that we could build like an earlier era is a rejection of everything modern and a moral flaw.
    Your defense of modernism is fine. The problem, in my opinion, is that modernism is a hard sell because so much of it is just not appealing to most people. Architecture in the so-called modern period has been so theoretical that the result has been that it has more often than not failed the people miserably. Architects, however, still behave as though they dealing with the uninformed masses, who simply cannot understand their buildings. So architects keep on talking to each other, arguing Colin Rowe, while engineers produce so many of our new buildings.
    Is it any wonder that the salt workers in France for whom LeCorbusier designed houses tacked on flower boxes and shutters as the years went on? People do not wish to live in machines.
    As far as the NIMBY-ISM in so many areas goes, at least a part of this is also the failure of modern architecture and design, in my opinion. People in established neighborhoods of wonderful old buildings have an understandable desire to keep them as is, because this country is forever tearing up, and tearing down, and re-developing. So much new building is so ugly that people’s first reaction to an announcement of a proposal is , “Oh, my God! What are they going to put up there!?”
    Buffalo more than most places needs new buildings, and the economy that promotes them. No one denies that. Let’s just hope in the blind desire for development it doesn’t become just a cold-weather Anyplace, U.S.A.
    Please keep your posts coming.