Regular readers of Buffalo Rising and anyone who has spent much time in downtown Buffalo know that the Shelton Square area has seen much better days. Originally created by legendary surveyor and original Buffalo booster Joseph Ellicott as a special reserve for himself and his family, the area we now call Shelton Square was, perhaps not surprisingly, once the second most prominent node in the Baroque radial street pattern that Ellicott envisioned and laid out. His descendents continued to own land in the vicinity throughout much of the nineteenth century, including the site of the Ellicott Square building, named in their honor. In the streetcar era, this was where all the local and interurban lines met—even more so than Niagara Square, it was the center of the Western New York universe. Naturally, then, it was where builders located some of the region’s most architecturally prominent and innovative buildings.
Cruelest of ironies then, that the post-war years turned much of the Shelton Square area into a woebegone, windswept wasteland—scarcely noticed except, perhaps, by dedicated architectural aficionados, and planning students seeking examples of bad urban form. Indeed, the Shelton Square area ignobly became the fulcrum of an “armature of horror” linking two of Buffalo’s most notoriously misplanned corridors: Erie Street and Oak-Elm. (And via them, linked to two more corridors of equal notoriety: the lower west side waterfront, and the Kensington Expressway.)
Armature of Horror: Look away! Look away!
The list of specific indignities inflicted on the Shelton Square area by post-war planners and planning ideas is long, but you’ve already read about them, and perhaps even commented on them, on here: the loss of Erie County Savings Bank; the imposition of modernist, site-blind boxes like Main Place Mall and the Rath Building, that left the Baroque street plan buh-roken; a single-mode transit station; a superblock entirely sacrificed for a parking temple; and plazas devoid of use surrounded entirely by buildings devoid of street-level engagement. Even the great Ellicott Square building, once the largest office building in these United States, once a bustling hub of commerce, is now notably bereft of street-level engagement, leaving its perimeter a dead zone. Buffalo Rising has a long history of squawking about all these conditions.
So we were naturally intrigued when we heard that the UB School of Architecture and Planning would be studying this area this fall. Not only that, the study would constitute this semester’s “top of the line” studio class, involving graduate students of both architecture and planning. I was honored to be an informal advisor to such a studio class in 2013 that studied the proposal to deck a portion of the Kensington Expressway, on behalf of the DOT and the Restore Our Community Coalition (ROCC). Graduate studios of this caliber provide students who will soon be practicing professionally a “capstone” experience and opportunity to integrate all their education and demonstrate all their analytical and graphic training. I understand that prospective employers look at this work in hiring graduates. The final product generally includes a physical model.
Overseeing the studio this semester is Professor Hiro Hata, whose research interests include, appropriately enough for Shelton Square, reuse of neglected spaces and good urban form. (In fact, he is also teaching an undergraduate class this semester in urban form that is re-considering the portion of downtown north of Chippewa and west of Main Street. More about that in a future post, perhaps.) Although the condition of Shelton Square concerns all of us, their formal “client” for the studio is ECC, which is naturally concerned about the perception and quality of the area in and around their downtown campus. In early October, Professor Hata and his student assistant, Will Becker, invited Queenseyes and I for a walkaround of the area (pictures in this post). Along the way, walking through the atrium of the Ellicott Square Building, we encountered activist Attorney Kevin Gaughan, who anted up some ideas of his own.
But the most distinguished Buffalonian we encountered, by far, was in St. Paul’s Episcopal Cathedral: Bishop Shelton himself. Or his portrait, that is. Intriguingly, it hangs in a little-used vestibule in the northeast corner of this most intriguing of buildings. Yes indeed: from inside the church he built, Bishop Shelton casts his everlasting, unblinking gaze over his eponymous square. While he didn’t provide any verbal input for the studio, his stern visage left little doubt about how he views what has happened.
Might Bishop Shelton’s view change for the better in the near future? You bet, if Professor Hata and his students have anything to say about it. And they do. And you can hear for yourself what they have to say—and show—for yourself, this Tuesday evening, because they’re inviting you, the public, to a presentation of their work at ECC City Campus. Appropriately enough, it will be held in the Minnie Gillette Auditorium, named for the late Erie County legislator who, with fellow legislator Joan Bozer, secured both the preservation of the old post office, and the assurance that ECC would retain a city campus. Included in this post are some images taken last week at final reviews. They will give you a glimpse of the high-quality work that was done.
Next up: UB re-visions the Oak-Elm Corridor? Hey, a blogger can dream.
Details: Students and Professor Hata extend a warm invitation to the public presentation of the results of our semester-long urban design studio project, A Vision for Shelton Square. ECC has graciously agreed to host the presentation on Tuesday, December 15th from 5:30-7:30 PM in the Minnie Gillette Auditorium at ECC City Campus, 121 Ellicott Street.