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My Favorite Buildings: Bird Feathers

After a long hiatus, I thought I should get back into my “Favorite Buildings” series.  I started this series back in the day, when I first started writing for BRO, as a means to highlight the very large collection of wonderful Buffalo buildings that most people tend to take for granted, and that the mainstream media probably don’t even know about.  (Whoa, I sound like Limbaugh saying that.) Not that I am some super, all-knowing guru of architectural knowledge. Anyone who walks down a great Buffalo street and just takes a small portion of their life energy to notice what they are walking past will be rewarded by some great unheralded buildings (I guess walking is the operative word there).  I just get tired of the fact that so many people think that Buffalo’s architectural heritage starts and ends with the Martin House, City Hall, a few mansions, and the Richardson designed State Hospital buildings.
Fact is, Buffalo as well as many other cities are made great by their whole collection of buildings, woven together to compose the urban fabric against which we lead our lives.
So often we hear people describe buildings as worthy of our attention, only because they are designated landmarks due to their unique form, large size, or connection to a famous architect.  Too many people think that the many lesser buildings that make up most of the city, are not really worth anything – just expendable commodities.  In Buffalo, this is a particularly dangerous way of thinking since we often have trouble saving even the great monumental works of architecture. For example, not too long ago, the Buffalo Preservation Board allowed a Civil War era house to be demolished in Allentown – even though all of Allentown is designated as a Historic Preservation District. Most of Buffalo’s precious historical heritage does not even have that seemingly impotent protection.  This pretty much ordinary 150-year-old house was expendable for the sake of a new garage. (Phew, lucky it was not a landmark; we would have had to save it then!)
The point is that we need to pay attention to the importance of the ordinary buildings, as well as the monuments.  I called this story “Bird Feathers” because even though a bird may have a few fancy feathers intended to attract the opposite sex, it is usually the ordinary feathers that allow the bird to fly.
To talk about the little buildings of a city we also need to talk about the great buildings.  So bear with me as I sidetrack a bit here.  With the recent BRO discussion on the proposed move of the St. Gerard’s church building to suburban Atlanta, I have been very torn. If the building stays in Buffalo, it faces a very iffy future or none at all.  In my opinion the people of WNY have a very limited appreciation for the amazing gift of heritage they have been given (with stories like St. Gerard’s proving my position).  However, if the Georgians move the church, a great work of creativity will be saved. Or will it?   The Georgians describe the move of St. Gerard’s as “Moving 900 miles into the future.”  The future of this church, if left to them, will be in a sprawl style subdivision, surrounded by parking.  The building as an object will be saved – sans the incredible interior murals and the surrounding urban fabric within which it was composed.  Is a monument surrounded by parking really being saved?  The truth is that architectural monuments in a city do not exist in a vacuum.  They play off the ordinary city buildings, the streets, the vistas, and the heritage of the place they were created for. Removing the ordinary surrounding urban fabric is the same as removing a major part of the building.  Of course, Buffalo has done its share of removing urban fabric from around its monuments without moving them to Georgia.  Just look at the ECC City campus for a good example.
So in a roundabout way, I am trying to say that preservation is more than saving individual buildings.  Which brings me to this little mixed-use building pictured here, one of my very, very favorite buildings.  It is a 1890s vintage, no-name architect, storefront building on Potomac, just west of Elmwood.  It is about as far from being a landmark as you can get.  But it is most certainly a great building. Buildings like this one are the workhorses of older American city streetscapes.  They are usually built in dense rows of similar types, bringing vitality and commerce to the ground level – often with offices or living quarters above.  Buildings like this were once ubiquitous in Buffalo, especially east of downtown.
Over the last four decades, urban renewal plans have seemingly painted a bulls-eye on these plain-Jane buildings. Their numbers have been decimated with very few intact clusters left, and with most remaining as lone holdouts in decimated neighborhoods.  This particular beauty is very understated and somewhat unique.  It has a wonderfully glassy ground floor storefront, contrasted with a heavy masonry upper level.  The ground floor storefront is actually raised a half floor above the sidewalk to allow for what was originally two additional basement level stores.  This is commonly seen in east coast cities but is very rare in Buffalo.  Another distinctive feature is the wonderful iron stair that punctuates the center of the building.
This is the kind of ordinary building that adds immeasurably to Buffalo’s urbanism, but it is also exactly the type of building most in danger.  Even in this prosperous neighborhood, and even though it is rarely without a tenant, it is not in great condition.  It is also in the rear of a larger commercial building fronting on Elmwood, which means that if could likely be targeted for parking some day.  That would be a tragedy, but it would not be unprecedented.  So take a look and enjoy it now – and cross your fingers that we can hold onto this treasure for a long time.  Its loss would be a loss to all the buildings around it.


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