Richard A. Waite in Buffalo - Table of Contents
Richard A. Waite, Architect
Excerpted from The Werner Photography Building
By Jennifer Walkowski, lead author and researcher
Richard Alfred Waite was one of Buffalo’s most prominent architects of the mid to late nineteenth-century. Waite was responsible for many of Buffalo’s most recognizable buildings of the late 1900s, and also achieved international fame as an architect of several major projects across Canada.
Today few of Waite’s masterpieces remain standing in Buffalo, and in fact all of his most prominent public buildings have been lost. Many of his elegant cast iron designs succumbed to later urban development in the twentieth-century, yet the appreciation of Waite as one of the masters of architectural design in the Great Lakes region is growing.
Born in a poor neighborhood in London, England in 1848, Waite and his family emigrated to the United States in 1857, choosing to make their home in the growing City of Buffalo. Waite’s father, Charles, was employed as a partner in the firm of Clapp, Matthews and Waite, a printing house responsible for the Buffalo Morning Express newspaper. Following the untimely death of his mother in 1862, the Waite family suffered a downturn and Charles lost his partnership in the printing company. Given his family’s difficult personal and financial status, young Richard was forced to seek employment working as a brass finisher, rather than pursuing education, as a means to support his struggling family. Richard was forced to give up the dreams of his father who had wanted his son to become an engineer.
By 1866, Richard Waite had moved to New York City. Despite his lack of formal education, Waite would soon be given the opportunity to learn about engineering as an apprentice, securing a position working for John Ericsson, a prominent maritime engineer and designer of the famous iron-clad ship the U.S.S. Monitor.
This experience encouraged Waite to pursue the field of architecture, and Waite would then become employed as a draftsman in the office of architect John Kellum, one of the most prominent architects in New York City during the 1860s. Kellum was especially adept in designing iron-front buildings; a method which applied a decorative cast iron cladding to a brick constructed building. The cast iron was then painted to resemble fine stone, making it a relatively inexpensive surface treatment with unlimited decorative possibilities. Kellum was particularly fond of using classical elements in his designs, which he created for several prominent banks, insurance companies, office buildings and other structures around the city.
By early 1868, Waite returned to Buffalo, bringing his new experiences with engineering and architecture with him. Waite initially was unable to open his own architectural office in Buffalo, and it seemed that Waite’s career was off to a slow start. His fortunes would change, however, with his 1869 marriage to Sarah Holloway, daughter of prominent local contractor Isaac Holloway who had substantial contracts and connections with the City of Buffalo. Through Holloway’s connections, Waite was given commissions to design several schools, firehouses, police stations and other city buildings.
Buildings in Buffalo
Waite’s earliest known project was the Public School 32 on Cedar Street designed in the late 1870s, and eventually Waite was able to establish his own architectural practice in the American Block at 402 Main Street.
In 1872 Waite won a design competition for the new Trinity Episcopal Church at Delaware and Johnson Park, beating out several prominent architects including architectural superstar, H.H. Richardson. Although this building was never constructed, this competition did bring new attention to Waite’s work.
Waite was also hired by the Commercial Advertiser newspaper to prepare an alternate design for the new City and County Hall Building (1870-1876), which was already under construction, after the design of Rochester architect Andrew J. Warner faced growing opposition. Although the construction of the building continued according to Warner’s design, this gave Waite an initial experience with the design of large buildings.
Waite’s reputation was growing quickly in the 1870s, and Waite was awarded the contract to design the German Insurance Building (1874-75, demolished 1957), the largest office building in Buffalo at the time of its design. Showcasing Waite’s training with Kellum, the German Insurance Building, located on a prominent site overlooking Lafayette Square, was a frothy, multi-layered six-story building which introduced the fashionable Second Empire Style to Buffalo. Constructed of brick, what could have been a solid mass of masonry building was lightened with the textural play of cast iron columns, pilasters and arches across the building’s two primary street facades. A stylish mansard roof with elaborate dormer windows and delicate cast iron cresting, created a signature silhouette for the building on the Buffalo skyline. This statement piece of modern architecture in the 1870s cemented the young Waite’s identity as one of Buffalo’s most popular architects.
Soon after the building’s completion, Waite moved his offices to Room 13 of the German Insurance Building, which he would occupy for two decades. In this office, Waite established a small architectural office which would be responsible for his subsequent prominent work. His younger brother William T. Waite worked in the office, but perhaps Waite’s most famous draftsman was Louise Blanchard. Blanchard spent five years working for Waite and learning the architectural trade, before leaving the office to establish her own practice in 1881. After marrying fellow Waite draftsman, Robert A. Bethune, Louise Blanchard Bethune became a partner in the firm of Bethune, Bethune and Fuchs with her husband and became the first professional woman architect in the United States. Louise Blanchard Bethune was responsible for the design of several prominent projects across Buffalo, most notably the elegant and modern Lafayette Hotel (1904, NRE) which faced Lafayette Square catty-corner to the German Insurance Building.
Waite designed a wide variety of buildings following the German Insurance Building. Although the massive Pierce’s Palace Hotel (1876-78), another masterpiece of Second Empire cast iron design, was destroyed by fire in 1881 shortly after its construction,
Waite had many other buildings throughout the city. The five-story W.H. Glenny & Sons Building (1877, contributing building to NPS certified local Joseph Ellicott Historic District, 1979) located at 257 Main Street is the last remaining cast iron fronted building in Buffalo.
Waite, with the help of his brother-in-law John A. Holloway, constructed three small mansard roof cottages on Pennsylvania Street (extant in modified condition), one of which served as Waite’s own home for over twenty-five years.
Waite also designed several stately Second Empire mansions including the Farrar House at 506 Delaware Avenue (1877, contributing to Allentown Historic District, NR 1980) and the Frank Hamlin House at 420 Franklin Street (PHOTO) (1877, contributing to Allentown Historic District).
Waite also designed one of the city’s rare examples of the Stick Style in the George Williams House at 249 North Street (1877, contributing to Allentown Historic District).
Waite returned to his love of brick construction in the Phillip Becker Mansion at 534 Delaware Avenue (1887-88, contributing to Allentown Historic District) which was designed in a vaguely Queen Anne and Italian Renaissance style. Becker was then serving as Mayor of the City of Buffalo.
In 1885, Waite also designed the spectacular Walden-Myer Mausoleum located in Buffalo’s Forest Lawn Cemetery (1850, NR 1990) which featured a unique spherical globe pinnacle crowning the stone building.
While Waite was a popular residential architect, he also continued his work on larger civic buildings, and the architect would soon gain an international reputation. He turned to the Richardson Romanesque style for his design for the new Buffalo Music Hall (1885-87, demolished) which served as a concert venue and was noted as a social center for the German community.
Waite soon gained the attention of Canadian officials by designing several commercial buildings in Toronto, and was hired to design the Ontario Parliament Buildings (1886-1892) in Queen’s Park, Toronto.
While his career took off in Canada, Waite also continued his work in Buffalo. In 1889 Waite was charged with the design of the White Brothers Livery Stable on Jersey Street in Buffalo. What could have been a simple, utilitarian building, in the hands of a master like Waite, became a unique building with a rusticated first floor, gabled corner bays and a decorative panel inscribed with the owner’s names flanked by horse heads.
Waite also designed the Grosvenor Library (1892-95, demolished) at the corner of Franklin and Edward Streets. The stately Italian Renaissance styled brick and stone building featured a prominent round corner tower.
Waite also was charged with the design for the Women’s Education and Industry Union Building (1892-94, demolished) which stood at the corner of Niagara Square and Delaware Avenue.
During this same period, while Waite at the height of his career designing and constructing the Grosvenor Library and Women’s Education and Industry Union, he was also hired by Mrs. Frederike Giesser to design the mixed-use commercial and residential Werner Photography Building at 101-103 Genesee Street in 1895.
Although the architect had a large and thriving office at the end of the nineteenth-century, it was remarked that it was “Mr. Waite’s safe rule to undertake no more than he can personally perform or supervise,” indicating his high level of involvement in all his office’s projects.
Waite continued to receive several large commissions including the Canada Life Assurance Building (1895-96) and the Grant Trunk Railway Building (1899-1902) in Montreal, Canada, but his career had reached its zenith in the 1890s and projects were harder to come by after the turn of the century. Personal and financial troubles forced Waite to sell his Pennsylvania Street home and relocate his office into a less expensive space in the German Insurance Building which he himself designed.
Waite relocated briefly to New York City about 1905 to work as a map draftsman, perhaps as a chance to start over. On January 7, 1911, Richard A. Waite died of pneumonia at the age of 62, and was returned for burial in Buffalo’s Forest Lawn Cemetery (1850, NR 1990).
Today, few of Waite’s buildings remain standing in Buffalo and Toronto, and glimpses of his architectural genius are relegated largely to photographs. As building technologies and architectural tastes changed, steel framed skyscrapers and modern development replaced his more diminutive Second Empire and Victorian-era buildings.
The Glenny Building at 257 Main Street remains as the sole heir of Waite’s mastery of cast iron architecture, and although he was dubbed a “dreamer in iron” by his own son, Waite’s numerous cast iron buildings have now been lost. Several of Waite’s residential works remain, protected by the Allentown Historic District in Buffalo, and the Ontario Parliament Buildings also remain in Toronto. Buffalo is fortunate to retain one of the few examples of Waite’s commercial architecture in the Werner Photography Building at 101-103 Genesee Street, which although a relatively modest yet unique example of the architect’s work, remains largely intact and serves as a reminder of one of Buffalo’s greatest architects.