Author: Explore Buffalo Master Docent Denise Prince, who is a proud employee of SUNY Erie’s City Campus.
This week, many university students are writing final exams and papers during their last week of classes of the semester. While distance learning is something no student expected, it is the graduating seniors who are experiencing one of the most drastic changes. Graduation ceremonies, many originally scheduled for this weekend, will not take place: at least not in person. Virtual ceremonies have been organized, but graduates will not experience the same pomp and circumstance as classes before them. This week’s building profile on SUNY Erie’s City Campus, formerly known as the Old Post Office, is dedicated to them. Denise Prince, a proud employee of SUNY Erie’s City Campus, Explore Buffalo docent, and author of the tour based on Lauren Belfer’s City of Light novel shares the story and details of one of the grandest buildings in Buffalo.
The Buffalo Post Office (121 Ellicott Street) opened on March 20, 1901 with a dedication ceremony attended by the Postmaster General, the highest-ranking official to visit from Washington DC, and by many local businessmen. The Postmaster General symbolically mailed the first letter from the 1901 Post Office. Addressed to President William McKinley, the letter was penned by Buffalo postal employees who wrote, “Our Pan-American obligation to show the Western world a high standard of postal service must be honored.” They were no doubt anticipating the opening of Buffalo’s majestic Pan-American Exposition in May 1901. The Post Office contained a large postal sorting floor on the first floor, and a variety of federal offices including the Justice Department, Bureau of Internal Revenue, Department of Treasury, and Department of the Interior throughout the six-floor complex.
Those present at the dedication ceremony were justifiably proud of the new federal government building. The magnificent exterior is covered in pink granite quarried in Maine, with rusticated stone on the first floor and clean cut dressed stone on upper floors. Massive granite eagles, proud symbols of the American government, stand guard on the four corners of a cornice surrounding the 244 feet tall tower which dominates the main entrance on Ellicott Street. Another carved eagle keeps a watchful eye atop the central doorway. Although home to federal offices exclusively, a tribute is paid to our local totem in the form of a sculpted bison head found between window bays flanking the main entrance. Massive oak doors with elegant screens of quatrefoils greet the visitor passing through each of three arched entryways.
The interior is equally as impressive and boasts fine materials such as terrazzo floors and groin vaults which spring from marble columns lining the first-floor entrance corridor. Mahogany frames surround former postal service windows. Glazed brick and terra cotta moldings line corridors lighted in some instances by large, Gothic style pointed transoms. Leaded and stained glass is found in the front stairwell windows and in former courtrooms on the fourth floor. Interior stairwells in the back of the building feature marble treads and risers with decorative wrought iron balusters and newel posts. There is no doubt, however, that the single most impressive interior feature is the enormous five-story high frosted glass skylight that lights the atrium with a wonderful luminosity on sunny days.
The single most impressive interior feature is the enormous five-story high frosted glass skylight that lights the atrium with a wonderful luminosity on sunny days.
The Old Post Office served its purpose well for more than half a century until a modern post office opened on William Street in 1963 and a new federal office building opened on Delaware Avenue in 1971. The Old Post Office was left largely empty as federal offices and departments abandoned the grand building. In 1970, with plans to vacate the Old Post Office well underway, local Congressman Thaddeus Dulski* promoted re-use of the building. Leveraging his position as a member of the House of Representatives, he contacted the General Services Administration (GSA) regarding grant money for historic preservation. Dulski was informed that federal grants were awarded to buildings listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Just two years later in 1972 the Old Post Office was indeed added to the Register. After that significant designation, plans to reuse the building languished until two Erie County Legislators, Minnie Gillette and Joan Bozer, joined forces in an effort to save the building which by this time – perhaps surprisingly – many considered an eyesore. The exterior was covered in soot from decades of air-pollution and the building’s best days seemed to have long since passed. Its Victorian Gothic appearance was distinctly not modern, nor of the moment. People wanted it bulldozed.
The exterior was covered in soot from decades of air-pollution.
Thankfully, Gillette and Bozer persevered and after a decidedly uphill battle their vision for the structure prevailed in a vote by the Erie County Legislature in 1978. They envisioned the old office building being repurposed to serve as a college campus. Under to the Surplus Property Act, Erie County purchased the Old Post Office from the Federal Government for the princely sum of one dollar, while the following renovation and restoration work cost roughly fourteen million dollars. The Old Post Office became home to the City Campus of Erie Community College in 1981, and the College has resided there (with some expansion to neighboring buildings) since that time. Commonly known as “ECC,” the College has re-branded itself recently as SUNY Erie. The Old Post Office conversion into City Campus was long considered Buffalo’s greatest example of adaptive reuse – the reuse of an existing structure for a purpose other than which it was built. The size and scale of the Old Post Office adaptive reuse project has faced competition in recent years with the conversion of a portion of the former Buffalo State Psychiatric Hospital into Hotel Henry, an urban resort and conference center with a mod vibe. Both projects were conceived in an impulse to preserve our distinguished built environment and architectural legacy. We can thank visionaries like Gillette and Bozer with the tenacity to make their dreams our reality.
*NOTE: The federal office building that opened on Delaware Avenue in 1971 was re-named “Thaddeus J. Dulski Federal Building” in 1986 after a bill sponsored by Dulski’s successor, Congressman Henry Nowak.
Photo credits: Brad Hahn | Denise Prince, author
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