One of Buffalo’s landmark buildings is surprisingly not a local landmark. Iskalo Development Corp. is seeking to fix that by getting its Electric Tower building designated as a local landmark. The distinctive downtown building was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2008. The Preservation Board will review the application on April 5.
“The building presented a brilliant picture when the current was switched on, lighting up every window from basement to dome, and the flashes of the powerful searchlight began to sweep the city. The lighted windows gave the effect of immense shafts of mellow light and these were capped by the pure white lights of the arcs around the dome that rivaled in brilliancy the silvery light of the moon in the sky above. The white marble in the supporting columns completed a picture that, except for the massiveness of the structure, was suggestive of a scene in fairyland.” – Buffalo Morning Express, September 26, 1912
The General Electric Tower, 20 East Huron Street, is a 14-story, 294-foot-tall office building constructed from 1911 to 1912 and designed in the Beaux Arts style by architect James A. Johnson of the firm Esenwein & Johnson. Additions by E.B. Green & Sons were built between 1924 and 1927. The building was constructed under the direction of Charles L. Huntley of the Buffalo General Electric Company. Inspired by the Electric Tower at the Pan-American Exposition, the General Electric Tower was the tallest in Buffalo upon its completion, and the city’s first permanent building to employ electric light for architectural effect. It is constructed of steel framing with reinforced concrete, with street-fronting facades clad in white terra cotta with applied classical detailing.
The building is characterized principally by an octagonal tower, which in 1912 included a four-story wing along East Huron Street. After the 14th story, the tower steps back three times to terminate at a lantern. The first four stories were initially occupied by the Buffalo General Electric Company, with stories five through 13 serving as tenant office space, and story 14 serving as a men’s lounge with a steam room.
Walter D’ Arey Ryan, the father of skyscraper illumination, orchestrated the building’s original lighting systems. Exterior lighting included of arc searchlights and a revolving searchlight in changing colors on the top of the tower; these searchlight “cannons” evoked the image of a lighthouse, with beams visible miles away. On opening day, September 25, 1912, the Buffalo Morning Express estimated that 75,000 people traveled downtown to tour the building and marvel at its illumination.
Two building expansions were completed between 1924 and 1927 according to designs by E.B. Green & Sons. The first was a four-story wing along Genesee Street, and the second was the addition of stories five through seven on both the Genesee Street and East Huron Street wings, with a three-story light well connecting the two. In 1930, when the Buffalo General Electric Company was absorbed into the Niagara Hudson Power Company, the main entrance was moved from Genesee Street to Washington Street. In later years, the building was lit during the holiday season like a giant Christmas tree, fondly remembered by Buffalonians to this day.
In 2003, the Niagara Mohawk Power Corporation put the General Electric Tower up for sale. lskalo Development purchased the office building in 2004 and completed a rehabilitation project in 2007. Now known simply as the Electric Tower, it is best known for hosting the annual Buffalo Ball Drop on New Year’s Eve.
Criteria for Designation
The General Electric Tower, 20 East Huron Street, meets the following criteria for local landmark status, per Chapter 337, Preservation Standards, of the City Code:
- It has character, interest, or value as part of the development, heritage, or cultural characteristics of the city, state, or nation.
The General Electric Building represents the physical development of downtown Buffalo in the early twentieth century.
- It exemplifies the historic, aesthetic, architectural, archaeological, educational, economic, or cultural heritage of the city, state, or nation.
The General Electric Building represents the economic history of the region as former headquarters of the Buffalo General Electric Company, founded in 1892 to furnish electrical power to the region.
- It embodies distinguishing characteristics of an architectural style valuable for the study of a period, type, method of construction, or use of indigenous materials.
The General Electric Tower, inspired by the .ancient Lighthouse of Alexandria and the 1901 Electric Tower at the Pan American Exposition, is an excellent example of a Beaux Arts office building.
- It is the work of a master builder, engineer, designer, architect, or landscape architect whose individual work has influenced the development of the city, state, or nation.
The General Electric Building was designed by prolific Buffalo architects Esenwein & Johnson, with later additions by E.B. Green & Sons. Walter D’ Arey Ryan, the father of skyscraper illumination, designed its original exterior and interior lighting systems.
- It embodies elements that make it structurally or architecturally innovative.
The General Electric Building was among the earliest and best realizations in the United States of the possibilities of electric skyscraper illumination. Walter D’ Arey Ryan, who illuminated Niagara Falls in 1907, the Singer Building in New York in 1908, and the Panama-Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco in 1915, considered the General Electric Building to be among his best works.
- It is a unique location or contains singular physical characteristics that make it an established or familiar visual feature within the City.
The General Electric Tower is among the most familiar and identifiable features of the Buffalo skyline. Sited on a triangular site bounded by Genesee, Washington, and East Huron streets, the General Electric Tower is a particularly successful realization of Buffalo surveyor Joseph Ellicott’s intent to create prominent building sites at the intersections of radial and grid streets.
Even more from the National Register of Historic Places Registration Form prepared by Tom Yots and Daniel McEneny
The General Electric Tower at Genesee, Washington and Huron Streets was previously the site of the home of Major Andre Andrew, the second mayor of the City of Buffalo. Andrew, a major property holder in the city, died in 1834 of cholera. Later the Gruener Hotel and Gardens occupied the location and in a 1901 Buffalo Evening News a1ticle, advertised $1 rooms for Pan-American Exposition visitors. The hotel building was torn down in the spring of 1909. The new owners, the Buffalo General Electric Company, planned to build a new office tower to house its home offices and the offices of its sister company, the Cataract Power and Conduit Company. The building would house additional rental spaces and a ground-level showroom for the sale of electric appliances and decorative lighting.
A building permit was granted to the Buffalo Electric Company on July 26, 1911 for the construction of a steel, brick, and terracotta building. The architectural firm of Esenwein and Johnson was chosen to design an interpretation of the Electric Tower that was showcased at the Pan-American Exposition. The architects had previously designed the Temple of Music at the Exposition, the building where President McKinley had been shot some ten years prior. Esenwein, who had done his architectural training in Europe, and Johnson, who had come to Buffalo from the office of McKim, Mead, and White, where he specialized in ornament, chose the Beaux Art style of architecture for the new tower. The classical style, which has its roots in the Parisian school, the Ecole des Beaux Arts, emphasized the use of symmetry, hierarchy of space, and the use of pictorial details that distinguishes it from its neoclassical counterparts. Disciples of the Beaux Art style studied the great buildings of antiquity and incorporated their designs into modem expressions using the technology of the day.
The architects were additionally inspired by the Pharos Lighthouse in Alexandria, once one of the Seven Wonders of the World and lost in the thirteenth century. The combination of a tower of antiquity and the association with the Electric Tower made for a fine expression of the Beaux Art taste and synergized the two buildings into a modern architectural expression. The use of fine cut and polished stone and marble in the construction of buildings in the Beaux Art style added considerably to the cost. Esenwein and Johnson opted to use glazed white terracotta, which reduced the overall cost. The glazed material enhanced the style by providing reflective surfaces that were further highlighted by electric floodlights designed by Buffalo General Electric lighting engineer W. D’ Arey Ryan.
In 1912, the General Electric Tower consisted of an octagonal tower of fourteen stories plus cupola and a four story wing projecting on the Huron Street side of the tower. Both the tower and wing exhibited belt courses, decorative spandrels, grouped windows with molded window hoods and deep cornices. The tower was further articulated with foliated swags and clusters, pilasters and radiating brackets at the upper levels. The eye was further brought to the top by the three level cupola or lantern on which a11 of these forms were lavished, culminating in a large metal sphere topped by antennae. The street level entry was originally through a· two-story entrance .surround facing Genesee Street and ground level windows in the tower and wing were of the storefront variety, topped by transoms of glass and decorative metal matching the design of the spandrels. These windows allowed for the display of the new electrical appliances promoted by the company. On the interior, the most prominent space was the two-story, centrally located appliance department. A principal open staircase rose to the balcony at the far end of the display area. The walls, columns, and floors were surfaced in polished marble and the balcony’s decorative rail repeated the pattern seen on the exterior spandrels and the window grills in the cupola. When it opened in 1912, the first four floors were occupied by the electric company and its associates, with floors five through thirteen serving as tenant office space and a fourteenth floor men’s lounge with steam room. A still intact octagonal lecture hall space was designed on the entire first floor of the cupola above the lounge.
The General Electric Tower was expanded twice, both times by the noted architectural firm of E.B. Green Sons: E. B. Green, for whom the firm was named, was perhaps Buffalo’s most prominent architect, with one hundred and sixty of his buildings still standing in the city and several on the National Register. The first expansion occurred in 1924, when a four-story wing was added to the Genesee Street side of the tower. Although it matched’ the Huron wing in size, shape, and style, the Genesee Street wing was not as heavily detailed. On the interior, the main staircase was removed to create a balcony. In 1926, both wings were enlarged by the addition of three additional floors bringing them to seven stories in height. At that time, a light well reaching from floors five trough seven was installed.
In 1930, shortly after the Buffalo Electric Company was consolidated into the larger Niagara Hudson Power Company, the tower was altered again, giving the building an Art Deco treatment around the newly shaped front entrance and the interior 1obbies. The entry was moved from the Genesee Street bay of the tower to the Washington Street bay and the Washington Street storefront window was moved to the former entry surround on Genesee Street. At that time the new entry bay was surfaced with black structural glass and stainless steel along with white “Niagara Hudson” lettering. On the interior, the balcony was removed and a full mezzanine floor created, reducing the first floor display area to one-story. The elevator lobby, newly created entry vestibule, and interior walls also received a treatment employing black structural glass and stainless steel trim. Highly decorated plaster moldings and ceiling medallions accentuated the Deco theme that was carried into the central display area, being applied to permanent surfaces (columns and walls) and to the display cases. The Deco treatment however was not carried above the first two floors,
After the period of significance, there were several attempts to update the interior, including dropped ceilings and dry walling. In 1992 a major rehabilitation of the exterior surfaces took place under the architectural firm of Kideney Laping Jaeger Associates. All of the terracotta surfaces were rehabilitated and replaced where necessary and some artificial mate1ials were substituted, especially in the weather-vulnerable areas of the cupola. At that time, the Art Deco changes on the entry were removed and replaced with a design closer to the original Beaux Art style.
The Niagara Mohawk Power Corporation announced plans to sell the building in 2003 and it was purchased by Iskalo Development Corporation in 2004. The building has been rehabilitated by Iskalo, which returned the entry vestibule back to its 1930 appearance and exposed much of the original detailing that had been covered over in the late-twentieth century renovations. The interior renovations have been executed with respect to both the Beaux Art and A1t Deco styles of architecture and their detailing.
The octagonal tower consists of fourteen floors grouped in three horizontal sections. The first, consisting of floors one through three, is surmounted by a belt course that continues into the flanking wings. The first floor of the tower features storefront-style display windows on all sides except in the west bay that contains the current entrance doors to the building. The northwest bay of the octagon contains a projecting entry surround that culminates in a balcony at the third floor. This projecting bay contained the original entry doors that were moved to the west bay in 1930. The second floor windows of the tower are in groups of four topped by a segmental arch, except in the west bay where there are five windows, two smaller on either end of three larger windows. The third floor windows of the tower bays are in groups of three, with the center window larger than the flanking windows, except in the west bay that contains four equal sized windows. The central window facing at the third floor northwest balcony contains doors to the exte1ior. Terracotta hoods with foliated swags top each of the second floor window bays, excepting for the west bay that has this feature at the third floor level.
Additional foliated terracotta swags and clusters decorate the original projecting entry surround. The first floor storefront windows in the tower are separated from the second floor windows by decorative metal panels forming the spandrels below the upper windows.
The fourth through thirteenth floors of the tower show aluminum one over one double hung windows in groups of four. Terracotta mullions that form continuous vertical strips running to the base of the fourteenth floor separate the individual windows in each bay. Beneath each window is metal detailing siniil.ar to that below the tower base windows. The comers of the tower bays consist of flat, vertical terra cotta piers which are topped by foliated detailing and rounded piers that form the points of the balcony above the fourteenth floor.
The fourteenth floor surfaces are highly detailed, each bay resting on a projecting flat hood with recessed voussoirs above the thirteenth floor. A foliated swag is centered on each hood. The hoods, themselves, rest on brackets that project from the vertical terracotta mullions of the windows below. The fourteenth floor windows are in groups of five, each window deeply recessed and flanked by pilasters formed of foliated cluster topped by rectangular blocks with projecting flat edges. The pilasters support a parapet with a raised segmental arched section.
A three stage cupola tops the tower, with each level stepping back in size. The first two levels are enclosed, while the third is open. Each level of the octagonal cupola shows the points of the octagon finished with round pilasters topped by fo1iated capitols supporting a squared-off cornice featuring a dental molding and decorative medallions. The metal windows in the first two levels contain patterns that match the decorative panels beneath the windows in levels four through thirteen of the tower. The arches above the windows are treated similarly to those above the thirteenth floor with recessed voussoirs and foliated swags. Each-level of the cupola opens on a terrace that holds the floodlights that illuminate the top of the tower.
The final level of the cupola is surfaced in fiberglass panels, which have replaced the original terra cotta units and is topped by a roof formed by bands radiating up from the points of the cornice that meet at a foliated wreath. This is topped by a .metal sphere (resting on metal brackets) from which projects antennae. The sections between the radiating bands are filled with clear transparent material.
Seven-story wings radiating from the tower along Genesee and Huron Streets form the remainder of the building. The first four floors of the Huron Street wing were built with the tower in 1912. The first four floors of the Genesee Street wing were added by E. B. Green in 1926 and floors five through seven of both wings were added by the same architect in 1927. The wings are clad in white terracotta on the street facades and painted brick at the rear. The classical detailing of the tower is carried into the wings, although there is more detail present in the original Huron wing than that in the Genesee wing. Both wings show double hung aluminum windows (two over two in the Genesee wing and one over one in the Huron wing) in groups of three, with those on the Huron Street side featuring decorative spandrels mimicking those in the tower. The windows occur in five bays on Genesee Street and six on Huron. Projecting, flat terracotta piers separate the bays. The tower belt course (above the third floor) continues into the wings and a second belt course occurs above the sixth floor.
Flat terracotta hoods top the windows below each belt course as well as those below the projecting layered cornice above the seventh floor. A flat roof covers each wing. Glazed transoms, some of which have been altered or removed, top the storefront windows at street level. The Genesee Street wing abuts directly to the tower, while the Huron Street wing connects through a three-story hyphen that extends from the tower and is finished with one less window than the corresponding tower bay.
The Entry Lobby and Mezzanine
During the original construction phase, the entry lobby and mezzanine of the Electric Tower were designed in the classical style and functioned as both a public office building lobby and retail space. This function continues until the present, though the entry lobby and mezzanine have been altered through several periods of construction: The original finishes of the classical period were largely removed in 1930, when these public spaces were reconfigured and given an Art Deco redecoration. Although some of the details. from this 1930 remodeling have been retained, much of the. Art Deco redecoration disappeared in subsequent modernizations to the lobby and mezzanine after the period of significance.
In 2004, the Iskalo Development Corporation purchased the General Electric Tower and renovated the lobby and mezzanine level, using harmonious designs from the Art Deco period of significance. Their choice was influenced heavily by the Art Deco fabric that had remained intact behind various drop ceilings and false walls. The current design most closely reflects the 1930 period of significance in its use of the Art Deco treatments and retains the usage of public office building lobby and accompanying retail space.
The current entry at Washington Street opens into a small, elongated hexagonal space serving as an enclosed vestibule. Wall surfaces are of black structural glass and the doors, grilles and recessed lighted display cases are trimmed in stainless steel. A mosaic of the Niagara Mohawk symbol, including an outline map of New York State, is centered in the terrazzo floor, while the decorative plaster ceiling reflects the circular symbol with radiating chevrons. A matching deep plaster cornice leads from the top of the glass surface to the ceiling. From this space, one can proceed straight ahead to the former retail display area or to the left into the elevator lobby giving access to the tower offices. Remnants of the 1930 Art Deco redecoration have been restored and incorporated into the elevator lobby. A black glass dado is surrounded by green marble sheeting in parts of this space and polished beige marble tiles in others. The original floor was lost in a previous remodeling by Niagara Mohawk and the floor now is resurfaced with marble tiles that complement the color and design of the Art Deco floor in the adjacent vestibu1e. A deep plaster cornice of angular Art Deco detailing surrounds the space. Decorative paneled doors with stainless steel hardware and an Art Deco mail receptacle remain from the 1930 redecoration, while the elevator doors and surrounds are from a more recent reworking of this space. The original secondary stairway started as an open stair at this point, and became enclosed from the mezzanine level and above. The stairway is now closed off from the elevator lobby by glass doors for fire code compliance and, as before, remains enclosed to the top floor.
Panels in the lobby were removed revealing the original Niagara Mohawk symbol (New York State Map) etched in black glass and repainted due to damage from the mastic that held the fiberboard panels. All of the wall surfaces and piers are of tan marble and some of the marble have been replaced with a lighter toned marble to differentiate from the original. The mezzanine balcony has been reopened as an octagonal space above the center of the lobby. The piers rise to capitals from the Art Deco period with a combination of geometric and curved edging. The cornice in the room, approximately twelve feet from the floor, is made up of rows of vertical ribbing topped by deeply cut horizontal striping. Centered in the floor of this room is an octagonal inlay of black, green, red, tan and white marble. The former retail space was been enclosed into office space off the central hall, though the space remains open on the interior, and can still function as an open retail space.
The mezzanine level, built originally as a balcony open to the first floor .was enclosed in later years. The balcony has been reopened as an octagonal opening surrounded by a metal decorative rail between the columns that continue up from the first floor. The windows ln the tower area are within the segmented arches above the first floor storefront windows on the exterior. Fiberboard covering was removed to expose the original wood surrounds and window seats. The remainder of this floor is finished as enclosed tenant office space, except for a unique all glass conference room that extends unobtrusively out into the balcony area.
The Second through Thirteenth Floors
The second through thirteenth floors have served as office space since the tower’s original construction. Each floor opens into small elevator lobbies with varying levels of finish that lead to open tenant spaces consisting of structural columns, suspended ceiling systems and non-load bearing walls forming office enclosures. The use of these floors has changed under the tenancy of Niagara Mohawk and its renters throughout the buildings history, which is consistent with the intended function. Since 2005, some of these floors have been stripped of their non-historic finishes, revealing the brick wall surfaces along the perimeter. The developer has created new office spaces for tenants that showcase the buildings construction methods and uses pleasing contemporary materials to suit the needs of the twenty-first century office.
A rectangular light court begins at the fifth floor and is covered by a glass skylight at the top of the seventh floor. The well is surrounded by windows at all three levels and at the fifth floor level, glass doors lead to an interior terrace. The interior floor plans of the wings on floors three through six are large open spaces that were finished by tenants over the history of the building. They remain open today. The seventh floor contains the original executive offices and features dark walnut trim and doors on enclosed offices. Centered in this space and opening onto the light court is an executive conference room with a high level of finish. Walls and doors are dark stained quartered oak with deep moldings and rails in the paneling and doors. Hardware is solid brass with highly decorative locksets. A carved white marble mantel is flanked by rounded arched recessed bookcases. A decorative plaster ceiling in the Adam style is lighted by indirect lighting directed from a deep wood cornice. A small white ceramic tile bathroom with original pedestal sink and urinal as well as original tiled wall and floor surfaces is directly accessed from the conference room.
The wings terminate at the seventh floor, leaving the octagonal tower in which office space is provided on the remaining floors. The relatively small (2,700 square feet) tower floors provide panoramic views and excellent natural light to the office spaces in them. The thirteenth floor contains a second conference room finished to a relatively high level. This elliptically shaped room has full height walnut finished paneling, curved cabinetry and doors and a carved wood mantel over a marble faced fireplace. A deep plaster cornice follows the elliptical shape of the room.
The Fourteenth Floor and Cupola
The fourteenth floor is the last full floor of the tower. The elevators terminate at the floor below and the elevator machine room is on this floor. The remainder of the floor is divided into spaces for a former photography lab and includes sinks and tables used for this purpose. The exterior walls of this floor are lined with a continuous row of single pane windows that differ from the groups of four double hung windows on the lower floors. The original use of this floor was a men’s lounge and steam room.
The spaces above the fourteenth floor are in the cupola and lantern of the tower. The “fifteenth” floor space is reached by a broad, open stairway from the floor below and appears to have been built as a lecture hall or auditorium. Banks of semicircular poured concrete risers step up facing a poured concrete stage. The presence of several steam radiators would indicate that the room was used year round at sometime. The eight tall windows that fill the wall space on each side of the octagon contain metal grillwork forming eighteen lights per window in a roman pattern matching that of the spandrel decoration below the windows on lower levels of the building. A door leads to a terrace that surrounds this auditorium level and holds floodlights for illumination of the exterior of the lantern. A winding iron staircase leads from auditorium room to the open spaces in the diminishing sized upper areas of the lantern. This stair and a ladder give access to the very top of the building.
Get Connected: Iskalo Development, 716.633.2096