Monday, June 15, 2015

Shuffle off to Buffalo

Rob and I went on an architectural tour of five Frank Lloyd Wright designs, ate dinner in an Ethiopian restaurant one night and a Prohibition-era speakeasy the next, took a Harbour tour that included a trip down a lock, did some bird watching, visited a wonderful gallery and took in the Allentown art festival.

When I was a kid, all I knew about Buffalo was what I saw on TV. So I associated it with nightly news about "fire in Tonawanda!" and Mighty Mouse cartoons with Commander Tom. My only other trip was to visit the Albright-Knox gallery back in 2012, a quick jaunt from the expressway with no visit to the downtown. Unfortunately, I didn’t update my opinion of Buffalo until last weekend, but I'll never think of the city in quite the same way again.

Even though we had booked our trip for the purpose of an architectural tour featuring the work of Frank Lloyd Wright, I was surprised by the grandeur of many of the buildings. An art deco masterpiece at City Hall, imposing mansions, and the setting for architectural precedents, including: the first steam grain elevator; one of the first hotels designed by a female architect; the first Frank Lloyd Wright boathouse;  the only FWL gas-filling station (incidentally, the combustible gas was to be stored just above a working fireplace).

Frank Lloyd Wright is well-known and appreciated for his organic architecture and skillful manipulation of light, which we got to appreciate first hand at Martin House, Greycliffe, the Boathouse, Pierce-Arrow filling station, and Blue Sky. Looking at photos is one thing, but inhabiting and interacting with the space is the best way to experience architecture. The way you  feel interacting with FLW designs is something else entirely. Some attribute it to the way he would compress entrances, others point to the direction of the light or the way the natural space extends outside to the inside. I thought Taliesin West was exceptional because of the desert, but Wright was also able to carry off the same transcendence in a northern climate. His dwellings are completely livable, with rooms positioned for the best views and places to make the most of your moments.

gardener's cottage at Martin house
When we visited the Martin House there was mention that the artglass for the main fireplace would be installed within the next two years. I think a return visit, just to see that completed, would be well worth the trip.

Wandering the streets of Allentown for the festival was an experience. Estimates were for 200,000 visitors over the two days, and there were plenty of artists and vendors displaying their craft. It reminded me a lot of our own One of A Kind festival, but held outdoors.

Saturday evening we ate at the Lafayette, a historic building  completed between 1902 and 1926, and one of the first hotels designed by a female architect (Louise Blanchard Bethune). We enjoyed delicious food in a room that had been used as a speakeasy during Prohibition, so I ordered a Sidecar off the cocktail menu in honour of the occasion. Butterwood Sweet and Savoury had wonderful ambience, and if I were visiting on a Tuesday or Thursday night, I could also have participated in a Paint Night.

Sunday morning we were strolling the waterfront looking at the naval exhibits and we happened upon the Miss Buffalo about to depart on a river cruise. Thankfully, the Penn Dixie organization was willing to take two Canadians aboard at the last minute. As we toured along the shoreline we enjoyed commentary about the birds, geology, and fisheries. The three-hour tour included a view of the Buffalo skyline, deserted grain elevators, a wind farm, a traverse through a lock & swing bridge, and a close-up view from the water of the Boathouse. Along the way we saw lots of waterfowl, including terns, gulls, great herons, blue herons, night herons, an egret, and a snapping turtle.

After that, it was off to the gallery to take in the works of Charles Burchfield, Phillip Burke, and sculptures from the Spong Collection.

Although Buffalo is the second largest city in New York State, its numbers are still fairly small with a population of about 260,000. Skillfully restored buildings stand beside others that look in need of quick rescue. Right now, the city is on the edge. lt could be ready for a resurgence or a desperate fall. Hopefully it will manage to continue its upward swing.

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