Everybody has their favorite. For some it’s the Guaranty Building. For others, it’s Kleinhans. There are those who would pick the Albright Knox. And still others might pick the Darwin Martin House or City Hall or the Hotel @ The Lafayette. All are shining examples of Buffalo’s wide array of bodacious buildings. But there is one that for some odd reason, never makes it on this list. Yet, in my eyes, it’s one of the most interesting, one-of-a-kind buildings in Buffalo to grace the city’s downtown streets. It’s the Merchant’s Mutual Insurance Company at 250 Main Street.
Huh? The what? Exactly my point. Nobody seems to know about this off the beaten architectural path of a beautiful building. And that’s too bad, because its unique design and the equally unique place it occupies in Buffalo’s history, make it as attractive an addition to Buffalo’s downtown streetscape as any of its more illustrious neighbors.
Fans of Buffalo’s famous buildings swoon over their many architectural styles; Greek revival (Albright Knox); French Renaissance (Hotel @ the Lafayette); Prairie School (Darwin Martin home); art deco (City Hall). The time is now to add Merchant’s Mutual to that list of swoonable styles. Not only because of its style, but also because of the spirit of that style and what that said about Buffalo when it was erected.
Merchant’s Mutual was built in the Mid Century Modern style of architecture – one that, aptly, was popular in the mid 20th century. Erected in 1965, the Merchant’s Mutual building is a perfect example of this design, as characterized by its clean lines, big windows and wall of glass on the street level. Fans of Mad Men would agree, the Sterling Cooper Advertising Agency could easily have been one of its first tenants. The original signage now over 50 years old, still hangs on the building’s side – itself a throwback to an era where vertical signs adorned many of Main Street’s buildings.
What makes the Merchant’s Mutual building equally as important a structure among the city’s famous buildings, is its very pedigree. It was built by architects James, Meadows & Howard, heirs to the firm of Green and Wicks – one of the city’s most illustrious architectural firms that built some of the city’s most revered buildings including the Albright Knox and Market Arcade.
But perhaps what especially makes the Merchant Mutual building so unique among all other downtown buildings, and why it is so deserving of our attention and admiration, is not just its appearance, but what its appearance represents. The downtown Buffalo of 1965 was still a thriving, vibrant place – teeming with stores, traffic and people. The design of Merchant’s Mutual reflected the zeitgeist of that era– bold and big – the way a busy Buffalo saw itself as well.
It’s a mystery to me why the Merchant’s Mutual building, now my favorite in Buffalo, has been under the radar screen as one of our city’s stand out structures. My hope is that with this article, may it no longer be a mystery but a recognized piece of Buffalo’s rich architectural history.