In Buffalo, a Real Human Guide Can Show You a Whole New City

A stone mural in Buffalo, New York

Lloyd Alter

When I mentioned to friends that I was planning a vacation in Buffalo, they looked at me like I was nuts. Here I am, in big cosmopolitan Toronto, what possibly would be the fun in that? However I learned in a visit for a conference last year that things are happening in this city just two hours away on the border between Canada and the US, and wanted to take some of my family to see. There is a lot happening in this former industrial powerhouse as it returns to some greatness; as I wrote last year, The real triumph of the city will be seen in Buffalo. As the pre 9/11 mural shows, Buffalo is at a critical point between the US, maker of industrial goods, and Canada, hewer of wood and catcher of fish. The Frowning Fortress that is the American border now came later.

credit: Brad Hahn and Lloyd Alter

When in Buffalo last year I learned of Explore Buffalo, a " a non-profit organization providing tours and other opportunities to discover Buffalo’s great architecture, history, and neighborhoods." I was impressed that such an organization existed; most cities have tourist boards tied to civic government or business. Others have heritage or architectural societies running tours. Here, in a small city that gets a fraction of the number of tourists that others do, has a free-standing independent group that's busy year round. Brad Hahn, its executive director (on the left above) guided us around.

credit: ruin porn

Buffalo, like Detroit, is known for its ruin porn and there certainly is enough of that around. Yet even the most exotic and extensive examples, like Silo City, are being transformed.

credit: Lloyd Alter

What was previously a ruin is now the site for operas, weddings and performances of all kinds. Artists have moved in and transformed silos into backdrops.

credit: Lloyd Alter

Actually if you want to see ruin porn, you will have to work fast. One of the most spectacular ruins was the Richardson Olmsted complex,

Designed by one of America's premier architects, Henry Hobson Richardson, in concert with the famed landscape team of Frederic Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux, the building was completed in the late 1800s as the Buffalo State Asylum for the Insane.

It is well on its way to a restoration into a hotel, conference and architectural center.

credit: Lloyd Alter

The Darwin Martin House used to be a ruin too, until the community got together, raised a pile of money and did a loving restoration of the main house and a total reconstruction of the conservatory and stables.

credit: Lloyd Alter

It's remarkable how well the very modern and white visitor center works so well with the house next store. It certainly is a counterpoint to the warm but dark spaces that Frank Lloyd Wright designed.

credit: Buffalo Library

Buffalo has gone through terrible times, losing half of its population and much of its industry. Huge swathes of the east side are a mess, with terrible poverty, high crime and dilapidated infrastructure. But even in the face of this it has done remarkable things. When the civic government could no longer afford to maintain its parks, they were taken over by the non-profit Buffalo Olmsted Parks Conservancy "whose mission is to promote, preserve, restore, enhance, and maintain the Frederick Law Olmsted-designed parks and parkways in the Greater Buffalo area for current and future generations."

credit: Lloyd Alter

Toronto is huge and booming compared to Buffalo, yet somehow can not afford to have a museum of the City. People have been trying to build one for years and have just about given up, recently launching a virtual one. Yet Buffalo, for all of its troubles, manages to have a lovely one in this relic from the 1905 Pan American exhibition.

credit: Lloyd Alter

There are wonders everywhere, and Explore Buffalo is on them. I was fascinated by this building with its remarkable glass studio on the upper floors; a quick call to Brad Hahn of Explore Buffalo and I learn of a 55 page report describing it.

The Werner Photography Building was specially designed to accommodate the thriving photographic industry as a daylight studio; since the primary façade of the building faced due north providing the clear, even lighting desired by studio photographers to this day, the building was designed featuring a large glass skylight as a primary architectural feature on the primary façade. In the hands of a skilled architect such as [Richard A. Waite], the large copper ornamented skylight became an elegant and signature feature for the Werner Photography Building, a light, airy element which contrasted with the otherwise simple solidity of the masonry building. The depth and modeling of the north façade of the Werner Building are also striking.

Richard A Waite will be know to Torontonians as the architect of the Ontario Legislative Buildings at Queens Park.

credit: Lloyd Alter

After years of getting lost on my own in cities I didn't know, running through roaming charges trying to navigate on my phone, and just wasting a whole lot of time, I have learned that in fact a real human guide can make a big difference in the enjoyment of a trip to another city. And while you expect to find really capable, knowledgable guides in tourist draws like Florence or Rome, It is not something I expected in Buffalo. This city has human energy and drive that is making it great again. More importantly, it has water and electric energy and a temperate climate, fantastic transport connections and and infrastructure waiting to be put back to work. I suspect that as the climate continues to change, it will look more and more attractive every year. And if you go, call Explore Buffalo for the tour.