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Explore Buffalo Building Profile: The Buffalo AKG Art Museum

A longtime staple of Explore Buffalo’s tour season is the Lincoln Parkway walking tour. The bulk of the tour focuses on several private residences built for prominent families of Buffalo’s past.  However, guests are introduced to the parkway with the magnificent exterior architecture of the Albright-Knox Art Gallery, soon to be known as the Buffalo AKG Art Museum.  Explore Buffalo staff member and docent, Suzanne Ernst, provides an overview of this group of buildings. 

The Albright Gallery (1905) E.B. Green

In 1900, a wealthy industrialist named John J. Albright made a generous donation to the Buffalo Fine Arts Academy to build, in his words, “a permanent and suitable home exclusively devoted to art.” Albright arrived in Buffalo in 1883 and played a significant part in the city’s growing steel industry.  He helped relocate the Lackawanna Steel Company of Scranton, Pennsylvania to Buffalo.  It later became a part of Bethlehem Steel, a major contributor to Buffalo’s economy for many years.

Aside from bringing economic prosperity to the city through his industrial pursuits, Albright was also a philanthropist of education and culture.  He sat on the board of directors for the Buffalo Fine Arts Academy and served as the organization’s president for a time.

E.B. Green of the architectural firm of Green & Wicks was chosen to design the new art gallery.  Green had been working in Buffalo since the late 1800s, designing residences for the city’s wealthy families on Delaware Avenue as well as Buffalo’s first high-rise building, The Dun Building (1895). The Green & Wicks firm was also busy designing several buildings for the 1901 Pam American Exposition soon to take place in Buffalo.  In fact, the art gallery was originally intended to be an attraction at the Pan-Am, but delays in construction made that impossible.  Green & Wicks later went on to design other well known Buffalo landmarks like the Buffalo Savings Bank (now M&T Bank’s Gold Dome at Fountain Plaza).

Green carefully designed the gallery in the Neoclassical/Greek Revival style. 

Green carefully designed the gallery in the Neoclassical/Greek Revival style.  Greek Revival was common in art gallery designs in the 19th and early 20th Centuries when architects intended for these buildings to be viewed as “temples” of art.  The Albright Gallery was based on the Erechtheon, a temple that sits on the Acropolis in Greece.

Construction on the gallery was completed by 1905.  At the time of its opening, the Albright is thought to have had the most exterior columns on an American building second only to the United States Capitol Building. In another connection to Washington D.C., the marble used for the building came from the same quarry as the marble used to build the Washington Monument on the National Mall.

In addition to the stately ionic columns on the portico, eight caryatids, or draped female figures, serve as decorative pillars.  The supportive statues represent architecture, music, sculpture and painting.  They were designed by renowned sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens, best known for his Civil War memorial sculptures like that of Abraham Lincoln in Lincoln Park in Chicago and General Sherman in Central Park in New York.  It is thought that Mr. Albright paid $75,000 for the caryatid commission.

Though the gallery opened in 1905, Saint-Gaudens’ beautiful sculptures were not added until decades after the gallery opened (wooden stand-in figures were installed on the portico, initially).  Six of the caryatids were finished before Saint-Gaudens’ death in 1907 with the other two finished by his studio afterward.  Due to lack of funding, partly due to the decline in John J. Albright’s fortune, the statues on the north side of the portico were not installed until 1922 with the south portico’s figures installed in 1933.

The Knox Wing (1962) Gordon Bunshaft

As the gallery’s collection and reputation in the art world grew, so did the need to extend the physical building.  As early as 1942, E.B. Green had drawn up designs for an extension.  However, it was not until 1957 that Seymour H. Knox II made a generous donation to make the extension a reality. 

Like Albright, Knox was a wealthy philanthropist.  While Albright was self-made, Knox inherited his millions from his father who had amassed his fortune in the Five and Ten Cent Store industry. Similar to Albright, Knox was interested in the arts and also served as president on the board of the Buffalo Fine Arts Academy. Knox ultimately donated 700 works of art to the gallery.

By the time of Knox’s monetary donation for the new wing, E.B. Green’s plans were thought outdated and therefore unusable.  Knox chose the firm of Skidmore, Owings and Merrill of New York City for the job.  The chief architect for the project, however, was a native Buffalonian.  Gordon Bunshaft graduated from Lafayette High School before studying architecture at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.  Early on in his career with Skidmore, Owings and Merrill, he popularized the International Style in the U.S. with his design of the Lever Building in New York City.  The International Style is a sleek, plain design without ornamentation or interruption. It is also known as a glass-box style.

The glass-box design was chosen for the gallery extension, but Bunshaft was careful to pay respect to E.B. Green’s 1905 building.  The sleek black panels that make up the exterior walls are actually laid out to mimic the straight Ionic columns that line the 1905 building.  The building sits upon a plinth of marble, another tribute to Green’s Greek Revival design. The Knox wing pays respect to the past while connecting both classical and modern themes.

The Gundlach Addition (2022) Shohei Shigematsu

In 2018, it was announced that investor Jeffrey Gundlach would make an exceptionally generous donation to the gallery to fund a third extension to the campus.  As of November 2019, Mr. Gundlach has promised a total of $62.5 million to build an 30,000 additional feet of gallery and community space. 

Shohei Shigematsu of OMI North America has been chosen to design the addition set to open in 2022.  More information about plans for the new spaces can be found on the gallery’s website. Looking at the designs, one might imagine that Shigematsu is continuing the tradition that Bunshaft started: paying respect to the work of his predecessor.


Sources:

Chuck LaChiusa, Buffalo as an Architectural Museum, The Albright-Knox Art Gallery

Newell Nussbaumer, Groundbreaking: The Buffalo AKG Art Museum

Albright-Knox Art Gallery, AKG360 Expanding Our Museum

Photo Credits: Brad Hahn, Olivia McCarthy


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:


Also see Explore Buffalo Building Profiles:

Fontana Boathouse

The Hellenic Orthodox Church of the Annunciation

The Clement House

Blessed Virgin Mary R.C. Church

Buffalo’s Armories

St. Anthony of Padua Roman Catholic Church

Old Post Office

Holy Angels Church

Electric Tower

Kleinhans Music Hall

Blessed Trinity Roman Catholic Church

First Presbyterian Church

Photo Credits
Brad Hahn
Olivia McCarthy

Written by Explore Buffalo

Explore Buffalo

Explore Buffalo is a nonprofit organization with a mission of promoting Buffalo and Western New York history, architecture, and neighborhoods through quality education to learners of all ages. Explore Buffalo's volunteer docents lead a wide range of guided tours by foot, bike, bus, kayak, and boat to explore our city's history and architecture; in 2019, more than 25,000 people participated in an Explore Buffalo tour or program. Learn more at explorebuffalo.org

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