Thursday, August 27, 2009

Top Shelf Does City Hall

Mark and I were both on vacation this week so we decided to get out and do a couple of things on my list of things to do this summer. One thing we both really wanted to do was get a closer look at City Hall.



Too close! Too close! (Or alternately: I am the viper, I've come to vipe your vindows.)

Buffalo's City Hall is, according to our very nice tour guide, Cindy, one of the most famous examples of art deco architecture in the United States. The cost for building it, including architect fees, was just under 7 million dollars which made it, at that time, one of the most expensive municipal buildings in the country. The design was the work of John J. Wade. Ground was broken in 1929 and building was completed in 1931.

Look, I'm just going to tell you here that this is probably going to be a very wordy, photo-filled post. If that's not your thing, you might want to move along now and save yourself the trouble.

At the time of City Hall's construction, it was typical for buildings like it to memorialize victories in war in some way. The architects and builders of City Hall, however, wanted to commemorate day-to-day life more. The first sign of that is the frieze right above the entrance of the building.

Click on this image (or any others) to get a closer look.

This isn't the world's greatest picture but I'll give you a breakdown anyway. The figure right in the middle is a historian, pen in hand, writing the history of Buffalo, what's already happened and what's to come. Figures surrounding the historian include ironworkers, linesmen, stevedores (CANS!) and lake crews, and other tributes to education and industry in Buffalo.

There are also carvings like this, featured above all the doors leading into City Hall.

I spent a lot of time wandering around the portico because some of the details there were amazing. Cindy, the tour guide, didn't really mention this but a history I read online pointed out that the building is actually a mixture of art deco and classical which come to think of it, she did kind of inadvertently tell us when she pointed out that the very traditional columns had more modern detail at the base.

Cindy kept referring to these things with some kind of technical term but I forget what it was. I prefer to call them "those cool metal things between the windows."

I love all the intricate detail.

Until yesterday I had never set foot in City Hall so it was pretty breath-taking. This photo is taken from the back of the building showing the entrance. One of the coolest things we learned was how the entrance was purposely designed to move from one height to another and then finally, to full height. Once that was explained, you really could almost feel yourself being pushed forward by the initial cramped space. Don't quote me on this but I believe Cindy called that design factor a release.

All the hallways on the first floor had this really beautiful Native American inspired pattern throughout. The pattern goes from one side of the hall, up the ceiling, and over to the other side.

Here's a better look.

Each room on the first floor had little wood carvings of animals (birds, squirrels, frogs, and fish) on either side. Cindy told us they were symbolic but didn't go into any detail and unfortunately, I forgot to ask her about them later. But they were super adorable.

I'm going to carve St. Bernards outside my classroom door.

From there we went upstairs to the mayor's office. As Cindy was explaining some of the stuff we'd see inside - evidently we couldn't be in there too long - the door swung open and out came Mayor Byron Brown himself.

He stopped and said hello, wished us all a good day and went on his way as we moved on to the Council Chambers. Council president, David Franczyk, was in there giving a tour to a group of German exchange students and he welcomed us all right in, sat us down, and completely took over the tour. He was great - loud, friendly, and interesting - but clearly a politician. Heh.

This room had my absolute, very favorite feature in the whole building and that is the gorgeous stained glass sunburst on the ceiling. That and the really cool dealios on the windows make this room a beauty.

They don't show up well here but the carvings on that inside lip are really cool.

Most of the lighting in the room is concealed - they turned off the interior lights for a few seconds and the natural light was wonderful even on an overcast day - and the glass is laid so that no shadows are thrown anywhere in the room. I would love to work in that room every day. Okay, I hate politics so I definitely wouldn't want to work there. But I'd love to sit and read in that room every day. Surely someone somewhere would be willing to pay me to do that.

One last little detail about this room that I thought was pretty cool: Because most men wore hats at the time City Hall was built, every seat in the chamber was built with a hat holder under it.

From there we made our way to the observation deck. It's on the 28th floor of the building although you have to get off at the 25th and walk the last 3 stories because that part of the tower is too thin for an elevator. (The building has 32 stories but only 26 are usable office space.) It's just as well because judging by the weird noises and groanings, I'm not convinced we weren't riding the original 1929 elevator.

Those squeamish about heights could stand inside the building and look out windows situated around the floor. Every window had a photograph of that window's view that marked all the prominent buildings, streets, and bodies of water so you knew what you were looking at. Definitely a nice touch.

Braver folks could walk out on the deck-like structure that wrapped around the interior room. There are planes of glass of some kind and unfortunately it had started raining during the tour so most of my pictures looked like this one.

Uh... Pretty?

Too bad because you might be surprised at how beautiful Buffalo and the surrounding area look from above. I'm not at all an architecture aficionado so when people talking about the architecture of Buffalo it goes in one ear and right out the other, but wow, some of the buildings in view really are intricate and interesting and of course, the lakes and rivers are extremely scenic.

Here are a few of the best I got from the observation deck.

One really neat thing about City Hall: It was built with the future in mind. Buffalo was, in the 20's at least, a growing city and the architects knew that City Hall might eventually need to expand. Most of the interior walls were designed to be moved and the exterior is capable of having more floors added. During an interview in 1927, architect John Wade drew an image of what City Hall might look like in 2427 AD, based on the original design.

If you've never taken a good look at City Hall, I'd encourage you to do so. The tour was free so I wasn't expecting that much but it was interesting and there's plenty to look at pretty much everywhere you turn. Definitely a neat day in Buffalo.

One last note. I made the "I am the viper" joke to amuse myself since I doubt no one but Lee will get it (if you do, kudos to you sir or madam!) and I'm not really sure Lee will read this. But for the record, all the windows in City Hall open inward so they can be washed from the inside. I think those guys are probably power washing the building itself.


Anne said...

I was in this school program for weird kids (they called us "gifted", eh, potayto potahto) when I was younger and they decided our brains needed lots of stimulation related to the architecture of the city. I remember that sunburst distinctly and thinking it was the most beautiful thing I'd ever seen and I couldn't wait to have one in my house someday. I was like 9, my plans were grand.

TheSharpie said...

This post really makes me want to visit City Hall now. Very entertaining post! There are several Frank Lloyd Wright houses in the Buffalo area, so the city seems to have quite a bit of archetectural (is that even a word? The spell check didn't underline it so I guess so.) history.

Becky said...

I'm thinking maybe I should have stayed with the tour group rather than getting distracted and wandering off. Some other time. Anyone can go up to the observation deck on their own too. The view is fantastic!

sherine said...

Hey nice article... reading it was like walking around and see the place itself... i loved the metal work.. as such steel buildings and metal are in demand now-a-days...

Lee Andrew said...

That was totally worth reading just for the viper reference.

Bowl of Pork said...

I am the viper, I've come to vipe your vindows.


**large breath**


Bowl of Pork said...

Oh, and.... Go Joe!

Pookie said...

stevedores (CANS!)


I'm so glad you enjoyed the tour and wrote this post! My second major in college was urban design/architecture studies so this was right up my alley. Skyscrapers from that era were my favoritest thing to learn about. This one looks so awesome! I love the mix of deco and classical, and the Native American designs incorporated into the deco details is wild. And I agree with Anne -- I'm all about having a sunburst like that in my house! :D

(I think the metal thingies between windows are called spandrels, but I could be confusing terms I learned ten years ago, so don't quote me on it.)

Heather B. said...

Sharpie, I tried to tour one of the Wright houses a while back but all the tours for the day were sold out and I haven't gone back yet. But evidently a lot of the buildings throughout the city are considered really great examples of different architectural styles and times. I might have to read a book or something.

Becky, I will admit that I pulled some of the facts in this post off the internet rather than from the tour. That said, I was pretty impressed at how thorough the tour was considering it was a freebie.

Sherine, thanks! Despite your kind words, I'd still encourage you to check it out yourself if and when you can :)

Pookie, I believe spandrels is correct. I kept thinking spangles but was pretty sure that was NOT correct.

Lee and Matt, it would've been worth sticking the Viper reference in there even if I was the only one who got it... but I'm glad you guys got it too! We're awesome.

There were a ton of really neat things that I either didn't photograph or didn't write about so again, anyone who's in the area should take an hour one day and wander around, even if it's on a self-guided tour. Thanks for the nice words, everyone!

Schnookie said...

I got the CANS! and the Viper -- and laughed out loud at both! All architecture tours should incorporate those jokes! :D

And thanks so much for posting about this. I didn't realize they had tours of City Hall, otherwise I think we might have taken one when we were visiting Buffalo. It's just amazing to me how fancy (for lack of a better word) public architecture was 80 years ago. Can you imagine that much ornate detail (and stained glass!) in a public building nowadays?

Patty (in Dallas) said...

What a great building! Such beautiful detail. I feel like I should at least tour my own City Hall now.

TheSharpie said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
TheSharpie said...

Why do you need a book on architecture in the Buffalo area when we all have access to Wikipedia now?

Seriously, if you find a good one please post it on here. I've only been paying attention to architecture as art for a few years but I find myself enamored with it as a medium. It express both the functional side of a culture's life as well as the more artsy side all at once. When I was in Philly last year I did a free walking tour of the historical area and our tour guide pointed out some interesting archetectural features that showed the focus of our nation during the 1700s and (very) early 1800s.

john said...

I find it interesting that the engraving above the door shows a man with battering ram. Won't they let him into city hall?