It was time to go to Buffalo.
No, I’d never been.
Because, you know…it’s Buffalo.
The first stop was Buffalo’s passport office. I wanted to see Niagara Falls from the Canadian side of the river and the days of crossing the border with just a drivers’ license are long gone. My passport expired in late August, so I needed to get a new one on an expedited basis.
Security was tight; there were three guards in the postage stamp sized lobby of the passport office. The guards gave me detailed instructions about which line to get in, which chair to sit in, and which window to approach. They probably think that if you’re too stupid to sit in the right place, you’re too stupid to get a passport.
Fortunately, I got in the right line, sat in the right row, and approached the right window. My papers were in order I was told to return in a few hours for my new passport.
Buffalo City Hall. There was a time when an impressive city hall was a point of pride for local governments. Philadelphia, San Francisco, and yes, Buffalo, have city halls that are tourist destinations…for architecture nerds at least.
Auric Goldfinger being sucked out of his jet.
I could see the headline:
Geeky Tourist Dead in City Hall Mishap
High Winds, Lack of Coordination to Blame
High Winds, Lack of Coordination to Blame
Fortunately, we made it back to the ground floor safely.
St. Paul’s Cathedral, designed by Richard Upjohn, the architect of New York City’s Trinity Church. The brown sandstone church sits on a triangular site resulting from Buffalo’s radial street plan, inspired by L’Enfant’s plan for Washington DC. Episcopalians aren’t minimalists when it comes to interior decoration, so there was plenty to take in, including a Tiffany window.
The cathedral hadn’t yet adopted the State College Presbyterian Church men’s room doctrine of lift the handle for number one; depress the handle for number two. As they say, God moves in mysterious ways.
Guaranty Building, right across the street from the cathedral. We had reserved spots on the 2:00pm tour through Preservation Buffalo Niagara.
Louis Sullivan (the form follows function guy) and built in 1896. Along with its slightly older sibling, St. Louis’s Wainwright Building, it’s pictured in many histories of American architecture. Like Buffalo itself, the building has had its share of good years and bad. The building is enjoying good times now and is immaculately maintained by its owner, a large law firm.
I suppose the law firm didn’t want us visiting the document shredding room or seeing the boardroom where partners light Cuban cigars with $100 bills. People are so touchy these days. Our guide made up for the brief tour by suggesting we see the downtown branch of M&T Bank to see its collection of “not always PC” vintage mechanical banks. It was just a block away from the passport office, so after picking up my new passport, we stopped in.
When we’d finished at the bank, it was time to check in to the hotel. We bunked for the weekend at the Hotel Henry Urban Resort Conference Center. Even after staying there, I still don’t grasp the concept of “Urban Resort”.
The building was built from 1872-1880 as the Buffalo State Asylum for the Insane, and provided state of the art mental health treatment (such as it was) for up to 600 patients. It’s an enormous place, designed by H.H. Richardson amid grounds laid out by landscape architect Frederick Law Olmstead, the designer of New York's Central Park. The salubrious atmosphere created by top notch architectural and landscape design was supposed to turn lunatics, the deranged, and chronic masturbators into model citizens, or at least accomplished basket weavers.
I’m not sure how well the place worked as an insane asylum (or “wellness center” as one of the front desk staff members called it) but as a hotel, it has some issues.
For starters, it’s difficult to find the entrance to the property. Signs, apparently, are for weenies.
So, as hotels go, a solid “meh”.
I’m glad I stayed there, but if you want a hotel where they do everything right, you’re better off at a Courtyard by Marriott.
Friday evening we enjoyed tasty non-wingy Italian fare at Trattoria Aroma. Anthony, our waiter, was the life of the party. Shortly before we left, I wanted to ask him about a place to go for breakfast. Who better to ask than a cute and seemingly hip server?
“Anthony, may I ask you a personal question?”
He responded with alacrity: “I’m single and gay!”
As B&M laughed, pointed my way, and said “So’s he!”
I said, um, I just wanted to ask where should go for breakfast.
Anthony wasn’t much help—he said he was in church instead of out for breakfast. Seriously, that was his answer. Fortunately, the folks at the next table were locals and gave us some ideas.
So, the next morning we headed out to the farmers’ market for a look around before stopping in a local sandwich joint for breakfast. Wings weren't even on the menu.
Afterward we zipped over to our 10:00 tour at the Darwin D. Martin House.
Larkin Company, is one of Frank Lloyd Wright’s most impressive commissions from the Prairie Style period of his career.
The pavilion, named for the guy who invented the implantable cardiac pacemaker, was designed by Toshiko Mori, the first tenured woman at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design.
After the video—which attributed Martin’s interest in his home to childhood abandonment issues and needing a big place to house his mustache—we were all outfitted with an earpiece and temporary hearing aid so that we could hear what the docent was saying even if we were at the end of the tour. It was a thoughtful touch considering the fact that I was the youngest person there.
After visiting the gardeners’ cottage, the docent took us into the Martin House.
The tour had its high points and its low points. On the plus slide of the ledger, the docent didn’t make up stuff as he went along…for the most part, anyway. He did tell us that the Martins had lots of mirrors for Christian Scientists. (Huh?) The no photography rule was a downer but the hearing aids were helpful. And, in the best idea ever, the docent gave us each a comment card to complete and mail in. I’ve never, ever had that happen at the end of a tour.
We parked in the City of Niagara Falls’ enormous parking garage and paid the equally enormous $30.00 (in advance!) to park.
Niagara Falls is all about mass tourism. There were people of every age, size, shape, color, you name it, around and about. It was quite the change from the Martin House and our small group of ear hearing-aid wearing old codgers.
After our boat ride, we made our way back to the Rainbow Bridge to walk back to the US of A. Interestingly enough, you have to put four quarters in a turnstile in order to leave the Canada. Paper money is not accepted, it has to be four quarters. This creates a bottleneck at the change machines. Perhaps by creating a momentary delay, Canada wants us to reconsider leaving.
Our plan after Niagara Falls was to go to Buffalo’s Pierce Arrow car museum but that was thwarted when we learned that the museum was closing early that afternoon for a private function. (I’m thinking Wingfest, if not a bar mitzvah.)
After we picked up our map of the cemetery, the extremely affable Director of Tourism pointed out the final resting places of some Buffalo notables.
Our first stop was to be the grave of Buffalo dentist Alfred P. Southwick. He was the inventor of the electric chair, and I don’t mean the kind of powered chaise lounge that dentists use. He invented “Old Sparky”, the Julius and Ethel Rosenberg kind of electric chair. Near Dr. Southwick’s final resting spot was that of the electric chair’s first customer, murder William Kemmler. Although the Wiki account of the Kemmler’s execution sounds horrible, when it was over, Dr. Southwick said “We live in a higher civilization from this day.” Oy!
I was quite surprised to find another mourner…ok, visitor, at President Fillmore’s grave. I mean, Millard Fillmore? Seriously?
Our fellow pilgrim was a handsome and genial Ohio State grad, now a lawyer, and in town with his girlfriend/wife/whatever for a baptism. She remained in their car. He never referred to her as anything other than “she” or “her”. He noted that “she wasn’t into this kind of stuff”.
In the meantime, my mind raced to months hence, after he had decided he wasn't into that kind of stuff and had gone on to date someone older, who likes long walks on the beach, Frank Sinatra, bourbon, black coffee, and so on. Not that I know anyone who fits that description.
“How did you guys meet? Do you work together?”
“Actually, we met at Millard Fillmore’s grave.”
But I digress.
We had a great time talking about which historic sites we’d been to and which were still on our lists. He said he was going to The Judge Advocate General's School (aka The JAG School) shortly. We yammered about Charlottesville for a bit and I was reminded for the umpteenth time that there was something about a man in uniform.
here, but the reader’s digest version is that it looks as if its architect (and/or client) smoked WAY too much opium or dabbled in psychedelics. It’s a granite and glass version of that clear plastic canister people use at the drive-in bank, standing on end.
That evening, in lieu of wings, we ate at an Asian place near the hotel. We stopped at a coffee shop-ish sort of place for coffee and dessert. The flirty barista asked if we were tourists. I showed him my photo of the photo of Grover Cleveland’s grandson. Yeah, I'm good at dating.
Leon Czolgosz at Buffalo’s Pan American Exposition in 1901. The McKinley Death Rock, as Google calls it, in its best Joe Friday just the facts tone, is a small monument placed in the grass strip that divides the lanes of a middle-class residential street. McKinley High School is at the end of the block. My guess is that as Death Rocks go, it’s one of the best.
Silo City, which self-identifies as “your average, everyday historic grain elevator complex that doubles as a music venue, theater backdrop, poetry site, and industrial film location”. You can this about Buffalo-nians, they do not hide their abandoned grain elevators under a bushel basket.
The site has its on-site hipster bar/restaurant (thankfully closed on Sunday mornings) not to mention a caretaker/hermit/homesteader in residence. He lives in a ramshackle place that seems too skanky for human habitation.
Explore Buffalo offer tours of the place so that you can learn all about Buffalo’s days as a key cog in the agricultural industrial complex. You have a choice of the grounded tour or the vertical tour. The grounded folks go into the ground floor work areas of a flour mill, two grain elevators, and a malthouse.
The trip down is easier, though it does include a short trip down a ladder.
The other folks on our tour included a Sinead O’Connor look-alike from Nova Scotia, three Buffalo locals, including one who was wearing Buffalo Bills branded shoes.
Jane Jacobs doll with her. I asked her if she would be throwing a Robert Moses doll off the tenth floor and she replied that she liked to keep things positive.
And after two days we had a pretty good idea about Buffalo.
It's a cool place. You should go.
And perhaps order some wings. I hear they’re pretty good.