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History of The Lafayette: Part One

The Hotel Lafayette was recently added to the National Register of Historic Places.  Developer Rocco Termini is in the initial stages of converting the historic property into a mix of banquet and restaurant space, a boutique hotel and apartments.  Though faded, the structure was recognized as the most important extant design of Louise Bethune (1856-1913), the first female in the United States to be officially recognized as a professional architect by the American Institute of Architects (1888; Fellow in 1889) and the Western Association of Architects (1885), the two professionally accepted organizations during late-nineteenth century.  The original Lafayette Hotel was just half the size of the building than stands today as a series of additions were completed after it opened (entry image and below: original footprint). 

The Lafayette is significant as one of the finest examples of a grand early-Twentieth Century hotel in the City of Buffalo and a remarkably intact example of the French Renaissance style of architecture.  Nationally, the period of significance has been set from 1902, the beginning of Louis Bethune’s involvement in the building’s design, until 1929, when the last alteration to the building was completed in harmony to the original Bethune design.  Locally, the building’s period of significance begins in 1900, when the foundation was laid in preparation for the Pan American Exposition, until 1946, when the hotel underwent a series of interior updates during the World War II period. 

Lafayette1911Two.pngThe Hotel Lafayette is a seven-story building designed in the French renaissance style with richly decorated facades on Washington, Clinton and Ellicott Streets made of vitreous red brick and semi-glazed white terra cotta.  The principal building was constructed between 1902 and 1911 by the architectural firm of Bethune, Bethune, & Fuchs of Buffalo, with two smaller, sympathetically designed additions by the Buffalo firm of Esenwein & Johnson in 1916-17 and 1924-26. 

Hotels in Buffalo at the Turn of the Twentieth Century
Downtown Buffalo had an array of transient accommodations at the dawn of the Twentieth Century.  Many were located near the southern side of the business core, near the railroad stations.  Most predated the Civil War, including the Mansion House (c. 1840, owned by Philipp Dorsheimer, friend of Abraham Lincoln) at Main and Exchange Streets and the United States Hotel, (c. 1840) on the Lower Terrace at Pearl Street.  There were also accommodations further up town, such as the Tifft House (1865), located on Main Street just north of Lafayette Square.  The grandest hotels in downtown Buffalo, all of which were more than ten years old in 1900, were the Genesee Hotel (1882) at Main and Genesee Streets, the Broezel Hotel (1889) at Seneca and Wells Streets and the Iroquois (1889) at Main and Eagle Streets.  The latter was the premier hostelry in the city.  Unfortunately, all of these hotels have been demolished. 

DSC_0721d.JPGThe approach of the 1901 Pan-American Exposition produced a great increase in hotel rooms to accommodate the anticipated crowds.  Much of the increase, however, resulted from the remodeling of existing buildings.  Practically every significant apartment building erected during the preceding decade was converted into a hotel, and several remained apartment hotels after the close of the exposition.  One such example is the Lenox Hotel of 1896 at 150 North Street.  Temporary hotels were also built, and several existing downtown hotels received additions.  Most notably, the Iroquois Hotel was enlarged by a three-story, steel-framed Mansard roof  perched atop the original load bearing walls.  At the same time, the principal spaces of the ground floor were completely rebuilt.  Many schemes for new hotel buildings were also floated, but only one, the Hotel Lafayette, came to fruition, and that was after the Exposition closed.

Early Plans for the Hotel Lafayette, 1899-1901
The Hotel Lafayette had an unusually long gestation period.  In early 1899, plans were first noted for a hotel at the southeast corner of Washington and Clinton Streets, then occupied by the Eglise Francaise St. Pierre (1844), a small brick building commonly known as the “French church.”  The architect for the project, that might have included a theater, was H. H. Little.  By the fall of 1899, another local firm, Bethune, Bethune & Fuchs, were noted as architects for the hotel, which was now projected to be twelve stories tall and contain 300 guest rooms and to have no theater.

Although one of the most prominent architectural offices in Buffalo, Bethune, Bethune & Fuchs had little experience with planning and designing such a complicated building type as a grand hotel.  Their choice as designers for the project may have been due to the fact that two of the promoters of the scheme, Charles A. Pooley and Joseph A. Oaks, were also directors of the Jav-O Cereal Coffee Company.  In 1898, Bethune, Bethune & Fuchs had designed their factory (demolished) on Grote Street.  The following year, the firm had also designed a house (demolished) for Joseph Oaks at 281 Parkside Avenue. 

The developers anticipated that the new hotel would be ready in time to receive visitors to the Pan-American Exposition.  This major international fair celebrating the arrival of the United States as a world power after the Spanish American War, was set to open in the spring of 1901.  However, the architects’ limited experience in hotel design and the short construction schedule made this deadline problematic.  In April 1900, the investors abandoned the Buffalo firm and replaced them with Henry Ives Cobb, a Chicago architect with a national reputation. 

Cobb’s design called for a nine-story building with an additional story at the corner and a two-story rotunda for a lobby.  By the summer of 1900, under Cobb’s direction, the church was demolished and two walls of the hotel’s foundations were built.  However, soon after, financing collapsed and all construction ceased.  At the opening of the Pan-American Exposition in early 1901, there was only a large hole in the ground at the corner of Washington and Clinton Streets where the hotel should have stood.

The Initial Building, 1901-1904, by Bethune, Bethune & Fuchs
In the summer of 1901, two of the original promoters, Charles J. Spaulding and Joseph A. Oaks, revived the hotel project.  Bethune, Bethune & Fuchs were once again engaged as architects and visited many of the finest hotels in the country before completing their plans.  Financing was still a problem until the summer of 1902, when Walter B. Duffy of Rochester stepped in to fund the entire project as an investment.  One of the most prominent distillers in the nation, Duffy was the millionaire producer of Duffy’s Malt Whiskey.  With funding secured, the plans were completed and filed on September 6, 1902.  Work began at the end of that month.

The final design was for a fireproof seven-story, steel frame and concrete building that contemporaries described as in the French Renaissance in style of architecture.  This style of architecture was introduced to France in the sixteenth century, as the developments in Italian High Renaissance architecture moved into Northern Europe. 

BethuneCorridor.pngWhen the hotel opened for business in 1904, the one-million-dollar structure was touted in the national press as “one of the most perfectly appointed and magnificent hotels in the country.”  The principal entrance was at the northwest corner, facing Lafayette Square.  From here, one entered the main lobby, which occupied the northwest corner of the first floor, extending 72 feet on Washington Street and 84 feet on Clinton Street.  (This grand Neo-Classical lobby was replaced in 1942 by the present Art Moderne style lobby.  Part of the original lobby was remodeled for commercial space.)  The carriage entrance was at the middle of the Washington Street façade.  All of the principal public rooms on the ground floor were richly decorated, and received natural light from enormous windows overlooking the street and from large skylights located in light courts.

Thumbnail image for DSC_0723d.JPGThe principal exterior material was dark red vitreous brick, supplied by John H. Black of Buffalo; it was trimmed with a generous amount of semi-glazed ivory white terra cotta manufactured by the Excelsior Terra Cotta Co.  The first and seventh floors were almost entirely sheathed in terra cotta, which was also used extensively at the corners through all floors.  The marquises over the entrances facing Lafayette Square, the carriage porch on Washington Street, and the numerous window balconies were of decorative wrought iron made by August Feine of Buffalo.

When it opened, the building extended 122½ feet on Washington Street and 147 feet on Clinton Street.  (The original east end of the building was just beyond the vertical band of terra cotta in the center of the present north elevation.)  The new hotel, however, did not remain this size for long.  The popularity of the Hotel Lafayette led to its being expanded and remodeled several times in its heyday. 

Source: National Register of Historic Places Registration Form, prepared by consultants Martin Wachaldo & Frank Kowsky and Daniel McEneny, New York State Historic Preservation Office.

Next:  The Lafayette Grows

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