Connections: Shuffling Off to Buffalo

Buffalo was once the eighth largest city in the United States, a thriving industrial metropolis

    Going to Buffalo, of all places, wasn’t my idea. But my husband’s notion of trying to see every house Frank Lloyd Wright ever designed is infectious. Chris had learned that Buffalo was the site of a number of Wright houses and other buildings, so going there had been in the cards for some time. It turned out to be a fascinating few days.

    I have sometimes cast a gimlet eye on pieces sent to The Star as “Guestwords” by travelers who write, as if with authority, about places with which they have only a nodding acquaintance. But, if you’ll excuse me, here I go.

    Buffalo was once the eighth largest city in the United States, a thriving industrial metropolis. Today it is unsettling proof of what happens when time — and industry — march on. Miles of deteriorating factories and derelict grain elevators line the Lake Erie shore, and many of the neighborhoods we drove through looked worse for wear.

    The census counted about a quarter of a million people living in Buffalo in 2012. The unemployment rate is high, despite the fact that there are several colleges as well as the highly regarded State University at Buffalo in the city, and despite the fact that the public school system is said to be noteworthy (for all the right reasons, not the wrong). Here’s a stark fact: The median value of houses or condos in Buffalo was $67,000 in 2011, compared to $285,300 in the rest of New York State. In the same year the poverty level was 26.6 percents.

    But Buffalo is home to many architectural treasures from the turn of the 20th century, many of which are national landmarks or on the National Register of Historic Places. It’s probably just as well that the architecture guide we ordered from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology didn’t arrive till after we got home; otherwise, we might have missed our plane back.

    We took a very windy morning’s look at one of downtown Buffalo’s most astonishing office buildings. Designed by Louis Sullivan, and constructed in 1895 and ’96, the Prudential (or Guaranty) “skyscraper” has a “ruddy terra-cotta facade . . . embellished with . . . rich foliate and geometric ornament,” to borrow a description from the book from M.I.T. We only had time to drive by the Art Deco City Hall and another “skyscraper,” this one an octagon known as the General Electric Tower, which is faced with white terra cotta.

    After a bit of misguided wandering about, following the instructions of a robotic Siri — reminder! paper-and-ink maps are still best — we found a boathouse Wright designed in 1926. We searched in vain for his filling station, which is apparently entombed in the city’s Pierce-Arrow Museum.

    The highlight of the trip was touring the Darwin D. Martin complex and Graycliff, Mrs. Martin’s summer estate on a bluff overlooking Lake Erie. The complex includes a two-story principal residence, which exemplifies Wright’s prairie houses; a smaller house, which was built first as a “test”; a gardener’s cottage, and a garage and stable — all of which have been restored at a cost of about $50 million after years of neglect and an earlier renovation.

    The Martin complex main residence is one of only three Wright designed for which there was no budget at all. The sky was the limit. It was reported to have cost $178,000 by the time it was finished in 1906. I don’t know what that translates to in 2013 dollars, but . . . can you imagine? Both opulent and reflective of nature, the house has 394 iridized “tree of life” windows, made with 750 pieces of glass; a 180-foot-long pergola and a conservatory, ruled at one end by a 9-foot, 3-inch statue of Nike, and a fireplace in a reception room, which has bronze powder in some of its mortar.

    It was wonderful to see preservation in action, and it was wonderful to be surprised by the reminder that there are still amazing places out there to discover. Buffalo was more captivating than we expected. And we didn’t even eat any wings.