The Birge Mansion on Symphony Circle was completed in 1897. It was designed for prominent Buffalo wallpaper magnate George K. Birge in the Georgian revival Style. It served as the family home until 1938 after which it housed a convent and subsequently the Elks club.
By the 1970’s the elegant building had become abandoned and fell into serious disrepair (top photo). It was in imminent danger of demolition with the usual pronouncements that the building was too far gone, renovation was not economically feasible, etc. etc. etc.
Against all odds a group of investors stepped forward in the early 80’s to save the building. If my memory serves me, their task was not easy and the massive renovation project had many fits and starts ultimately resulting in the successful restoration after many years of effort.
It is shocking to think that this beautiful building, sitting at such a prominent location in the city could have sunk so low. For years the city’s elite attended the symphony directly across the street at Kleinhans Music Hall with this reminder of the dreadful plight of their city staring them down.
With visions of abandonment like this on a major public square it is no wonder that Buffalo’s civic image was ripe for national ridicule. It is frightening to think that this beautiful circle could so easily have lost this treasure to parking or even worse a weed patch. Today the building sits proudly upon its raised terrace looking out on a beautifully restored public circle and an equally beautiful restoration of Kleinhans Music Hall.
In recent years the house had started to slip into decline once again but, history was not going to be repeated in today’s Buffalo. At last report a law firm had purchased the building for use as their offices and plan to perform a second renovation which will add back many architectural details such as interior banisters that had been lost when it had reached its lowest point. Be sure to check out the web site Buffalo as an Architectural Museum for some great interior views of the house. When looking at its dramatic two-story oval-shaped rotunda it is hard to understand how architectural assets like this could ever have been so little valued. Yet even today many major battles are required to save Irreplaceable Buffalo buildings.
More and more often it seems that these battles result in successful renovations adding tremendous value to the city. Also more and more often we see renovation as a first option, needing no battle. Buffalo is certainly a different and better place than it was in the 1970’s. But even with the successes, even with the proof that renovation is a superior alternate to demolition, Buffalo’s continuing economic stagnation, neglectful ownership, and lack of appreciation for the city’s true wealth continue to threaten many buildings. Thankfully each successful renovation makes the next project easier to accomplish.