In 2019, the most popular building open for Explore Buffalo’s Doors Open Buffalo event was the Electric Tower. More than 3,300 people toured through the building in the eight hours that it was open. We’ll give you a glimpse of some of the building’s interior and history. Special thanks to Iskalo Development for their restoration of this downtown landmark and their support of Explore Buffalo’s tours of the building, including for Doors Open Buffalo.
With its distinctive exterior lighting and as the host of the annual New Year’s Eve ball drop, the Electric Tower is one of the most recognizable buildings in downtown Buffalo. Similar in design to the Pan-American Exposition’s Tower of Light (but not a copy), the Electric Tower had a similar purpose: to promote the use of electricity. While we think of Buffalo as the City of Light at the turn of the century, and electric use did grow quickly in New York State in the early 1900s, there were still about 21% of New Yorkers that did not have electric power by 1921. (Check out this great map of the US drawn with states sized by their electric power use in 1921.
For nearly a century, the Electric Tower was the place to go for everything electric in Buffalo. Not only would you pay your electric bill here, you could also buy electric appliances and lightbulbs (a historic photo shows vacuum cleaners and lamps for sale).
Constructed by the Buffalo General Electric Company in 1912, the building housed the local electric power company’s offices through various mergers and name changes until 2004, with many remembering it as the home of Niagara Mohawk.
If you look at the logo in the lobby, it looks like a map of New York State – but you’ll notice that Long Island is left off the map, because that wasn’t in Niagara Mohawk’s territory.
For nearly a century, the Electric Tower was the place to go for everything electric in Buffalo.
While the building looks like it was all constructed at the same time, only the tower and a short section on Huron were built in 1912. As business boomed in the 1920s, the building was expanded with the wings along Genesee and Huron Streets constructed in 1924 and 1926. Local architect EB Green did a masterful job designing the additions to blend seamlessly with the original tower, designed by the firm of Esenwein & Johnson. When the additions were built, the exterior on the original tower facing the addition was generally left intact and buried inside the building, as you can see in the photo taken while one floor was under construction.
August Esenwein and James Johnson formed an architectural partnership in 1897 that lasted until 1926, and was the most active architectural firm in Buffalo after Green & Wicks. Their office was in the Ellicott Square Building, and they were one of the eight official architects of the Pan-American Exposition: they designed the Temple of Music where Leon Czolgosz shot President McKinley.
Esenwein & Johnson were particularly well known for their use of decorative terra cotta, and the Electric Tower is perhaps their greatest use of that material. The glazed white terra cotta gleams in the sunshine, and brilliantly reflects the nighttime illumination by electric light.
The seventh floor housed the executive offices and features rich mahogany woodwork and other elegant finishes in rooms such as the former boardroom, seen here prior to its renovation by Bank on Buffalo.
Further up the building, inside the lowest tier of the building’s decorative crown was an auditorium for employees. Today, the space is empty except for mechanical equipment, but still has a soaring high ceiling and gives one the feeling of being in an industrial cathedral. The top of the building features spectacular views of downtown Buffalo and out to Lake Erie.
The building has not been home to any power company offices since 2004, when Iskalo Development bought the building, but reportedly people will still occasionally show up here looking for customer service or to pay an electric bill. Iskalo undertook a major restoration of the building, and most notably restored the lobby to its former glory after all the elegant finishes had been covered with linoleum floors, drywall, and drop ceilings in a previous decade.
The lobby features historic photos of the building which are enjoyed by guests on Explore Buffalo’s Turn of the Century Treasures tour, and are well worth the visit when the building can be open for guests once again.
You can discover more local architecture and history by signing up for Explore Buffalo’s weekly email newsletter, which is filled with local history content every Monday, and by following Explore Buffalo on Facebook at facebook.com/ExploreBuffalo. In a typical year, more than 80% of Explore Buffalo’s revenue comes from tours, events, and other public programs, all of which are currently suspended. You can help Explore Buffalo to continue its mission of promoting Buffalo architecture and history during this time by:
- Donating online at explorebuffalo.org/donate
- Buying a gift certificate at explorebuffalo.org/gift-shop (now on sale for 20% off)
- Purchasing an annual Explorer Pass at explorebuffalo.org/explorer-pass (Explorer Passes currently include a 3-month extension, for a total of 15 months)
Also see Explore Buffalo Building Profiles: