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Great Streets make for Great Cities

Author: Edward Marriott

In the second half of the 19th century Buffalo was lucky enough to have a foresightful group of civic leaders who were willing to make the substantial investment that the orchestration of Frederick Law Olmsted’s elaborate plans for the city would require  Thanks to their prospicience Buffalo is blessed with many elements of the gracious Grand Manner Design that makes European cities such a joy to visit.  We have grand parkways reminiscent of Haussmann’s designs in Paris.  The once plain streets of Delaware Avenue and Richmond Avenue were turned into grand tree-lined boulevards with gracious vista terminations.  These terminations include Colonial Circle, Ferry Circle, Symphony Circle, and most dramatically the glorious fountain at Gates Circle.

Genesee aerial early 1950’s (courtesy wnyhistory.org)

But long before Olmsted’s arrival in 1868 Joseph Ellicott had already laid the grounds with the radial street plan that helped to inspire Olmsted’s vision.  Joseph Ellicott worked with his brother Andrew Ellicott on the execution of Major Pierre Charles L’Enfant’s design for our nation’s capital.  When Joseph later laid out Buffalo in the early 19th century he also brought elements of the Grand Manner Design embedded in Washington DC’s plan to Buffalo.  Major L’Enfant had spent his childhood at Versailles where his father served as a painter.  Through this circuitous route, downtown Buffalo is blessed with some of the Grand Manner Design elements L’Enfant had learned to love from his childhood at Versailles.  With Niagara Square as both starting point and terminus, a series of radials stretch out in all directions.  They intersect an overlaying grid pattern in a myriad of dynamic points.  Such points of intersection always present the possibility for dramatic architecture. Perhaps there is no better known example of this than in New York City’s Flatiron Building.

1908 radial view

Here we will concern ourselves with the three key radials in Ellicott’s plan that were responsible for shaping Downtown Buffalo.  They have accorded downtown its distinct character.  Those radials are Court Street, Niagara Street and Genesee Street.  All emanating from Niagara Square they once intersected Main Street in dramatic fashion.  In Grand Manner Design streets should offer a sweeping view ending in a fitting terminus.  That was once the case for these three streets.  They presented dramatic views of the city’s most important square, Niagara Square. There stands John Wade’s masterfully designed City Hall Building.  That distinctly-shaped building has become the very symbol of a proud city.  Sadly only one of those great vistas remains today.  That is the intersection of Court and Main where the view of Niagara Square and City Hall from Lafayette Square has been an ongoing source of civic pride.  It is the subject of countless photographs by tourists and visiting journalists.  The Pulitzer Prize winning architecture critic Ada Louise Huxtable once referred to this exhilarating view as “the Greatest Urban Vista in America.”

The Hyatt Corp. announced that the property’s Hyatt affiliation ended after June 1, which could be the perfect time to remove the atrium and restore the intersection of Genesee Street and Main

In the 1960’s and 1970’s, however, Buffalo managed to shatter Ellicott’s elegant design for our city’s core by establishing mega-blocks that vanquished two of the city’s most exciting and distinguished vistas.  One of those is Shelton Square where Niagara Street once intersected Main.  The other is what was once the intersection of Genesee Street and Main now obscured by an awkwardly obtrusive 1980’s style atrium (lead image, and photo above). This clunky structure not only looks out-of-place in its context but totally destroys the lower portion E. B. Green & Sons Genesee Building.  With its chamfered corner this stately building once provided an elegant transition from Main Street into a then impressive Genesee Street Vista.

Shelton Square – image courtesy Buffaloah.com

The award-winning Queen City Comprehensive Plan for our city calls for fixing the basics and building upon our assets by restoring Ellicott’s original design.  Shelton Square may be beyond recovery for the foreseeable future.  However, the recent closing of the Hyatt presents a once-in-a-century opportunity to undo a tragic mistake.  An opportunity to restore a major piece of Ellicott’s historic plan may now be closer at hand than ever before.  It seems much more likely than not that the present ugly and outmoded convention center will be moved within the next decade. That will leave us only one block away from once again opening up Main Street to its glorious view of Buffalo’s actual and symbolic heart.

Unlike at Shelton Square where the buildings all conform perpendicularly to Church Street, buildings at Genesee Street have already been built to include realignment from north-south running Main Street to the angular east-west orientation of Genesee Street. 

The atrium under construction
Genesee looking toward Electric Tower 1920’s (wnyhistory.org)
Genesee Main – 30s (wnyhistory.org)

I have mentioned the chamfered corner of the Genesee building but on the east side we have a transitioning formation in both the Green and Wicks Gold Dome and the Esenwein and Johnson Electric Tower.  They are shaped to conform to a once important thoroughfare that no longer is. 

Furthermore restoration of the Genesee Street Vista will not only provide a view of Niagara Square looking west but also an exhilarating view of the white Electric Tower looking east.

The economic benefit of Ellicott’s creative city framework is evidenced by downtown’s development over the decades.  Almost all of downtown’s most significant structures have been built in clusters around either Niagara Square or one of the three Main Street intersections discussed.

Genesee Street November 19, 1973 (Buffaloah)
1931 Victor (wnyhistory.org)

While Buffalonians are well aware of the architectural treasures their city holds, I don’t think they are as conscious and appreciative of the elegant framework upon which those buildings were constructed.  As a dynamic framework served to inspire Daniel Burnham’s Flatiron Building in New York City the same holds true for our Buffalo City Hall and Electric Tower.  Today cities struggle to distinguish themselves from one another, particularly in their central business districts.  In this competition most cities are handicapped by being forced to place their corporate boxes into the same underlying, insipidly boring grid plan.  In this rivalry downtown Buffalo was once advantaged in a major way and has results that reflect that.

1978 Victor (wnyhistory.org)

Under the banner of urban renewal and in the effort to accommodate the automobile, Buffalo like most other American cities made some shamelessly destructive mistakes.  The task to repair some of them seems overwhelming.  At Genesee Street, however, the possibility of restoring the damage done to a significant piece of our heritage now seems within grasp.  The city government, downtown business associations, preservationists and civic leaders must take hold of the situation now presenting itself in order to bring about the reopening of Ellicott’s glorious Genesee Street Vista.  We must not allow this situation to slip through our hands for another fifty years.  The prospicient actions of a group of civic leaders back in 1868 has given us Olmsted’s rich legacy of distinguished 19th century Grand Manner Design  We owe it to future generations to pass along to them  an unravished view of Ellicott’s great vision as well.

Great Streets have and will make for a Great City!

Written by BRo Guest Authors

BRo Guest Authors

It’s not unusual for authors to come and go. Guest authors range from collegiate interns to writers who will be contributing for a short stint of time. Guest authors might also have a series in mind. Authors are encouraged to submit their ideas to BRO (Buffalo Rising Online), upon which time we will work with the writer towards a productive end.

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