Young Men's Christian Association Building
45 West Mohawk Street, Buffalo, New York
By Francis R. Kowsky (Home Page)
Art History, State University of New York College at Buffalo
Preservation Coalition of Erie County Board of Directors
Houses demolished for the YMCA
The former YMCA building in Buffalo is architecturally and historically significant for its skillful and innovative siting and design by one of Buffalo's most prominent turn-of-the-century architectural firms.
The building was commissioned in 1901 as a new facility for the second oldest YMCA chapter in the United States. Its architects, Green and Wicks, were chosen as the result of a design competition judged by nationally prominent architectural critic A D. F. Hamlin. In designing the English-Flemish Renaissance style building, Green and Wicks took advantage of the broad property on one of the radiating avenues just off of Niagara Square, a result of Joseph Ellicott's 1804 street plan, and sited the building to dominate the triangular intersection. Its ten-story center tower further distinguished the YMCA as one of the first tall buildings to be constructed in downtown Buffalo.
Green and Wicks were also sensitive to the philosophy of the YMCA movement and incorporated several features into the building in order to encourage single young men to adopt the conservative life style promoted by the association. The Buffalo YMCA was among the first to provide extensive accommodations for lodgers and was the very first to include a spa -- features that later became standard in YMCA building around the country.
Although its siting has been compromised as a result of new construction which altered the city street plan, the YMCA retains integrity of design and materials and recalls both Buffalo's greatest period of urbanization and the history of the YMCA in the United States.
The Buffalo YMCA was a chapter of the international association founded in London in 1844. The original purpose of the Association was to foster the religious welfare of young single Protestant men. In 1851, a branch of the Association was established in Montreal; early in the following year, the first chapter in the United States was formed in Boston. The Buffalo chapter, the third to be organized in North America, opened in June, 1852. Other chapters soon sprang up in nearly every major city in the United States and Canada.
Early in its history, the Buffalo chapter assumed a conspicuous role in this national movement. In 1854, the International Committee, an organization of North American YMCA chapters concerned with the worldwide mission of the Association, came into existence here. The committee celebrated its fiftieth anniversary in 1904 in the then recently finished Green and Wicks building.
The YMCA in Buffalo occupied several buildings before it erected the new Central Building, as the structure under discussion was called. In 1883, the chapter opened a large downtown facility at Mohawk and Genesee streets. This building, now demolished, was an outstanding example in the city of the High Victorian Gothic style and contained a library, classrooms, and gymnastic facilities. These elements reflected the fact that by the 1870's, education and physical culture had assumed a significant place in the YMCA's mission.
With increased membership, the 1883 building soon became unable to meet the demands of the Association, which by 1900 had grown to be the fourth largest in the country. In March, 1900, the Association announced plans to construct a new building in the downtown area. It was hoped that this new structure would be finished in time for the Pan American Exposition the next year. The new edifice would greatly expand the accommodations for educational, social, gymnastic, and administrative activities, as well as contain inexpensive lodgings for Association members.
In April, 1901, the Association purchased a site at the juncture of Genesee and Mohawk streets, between Pearl and Franklin streets. At the time, this area was a residential neighborhood on the edge of the main business district. The location, which formally had been occupied by the home of Philip Becker, three time mayor of Buffalo, was a particularly prominent one, for it overlooked a broad triangular space created by the coming together of Mohawk and Genesee streets. The latter was one of the radial arteries emanating from Niagara Square in the 1804 plan of the city laid out by Joseph Ellicott. The area on front of the building site came to be called Association Square in honor of the YMCA building that dominated it.
Today, Association Square (which can be seen in Green and Wicks's 1901 perspective rendering of the YMCA building) no longer exists, the site has been largely built over by the Buffalo Convention Center. The irregular building site formed by the intersection of the now-vanished streets, is. nonetheless, still recalled by the bent shape of the building's facade, which followed the line of Mohawk and Genesee streets. The main entrance to the building faced the intersection, and the ten-story tower block above it took full advantage of the scenic potential of the location. As such, the YMCA building is one of the major structures remaining in the downtown section that preserves the memory of the original street pattern of the city, much of which has been altered in this area.
The design Competition
In June, 1901, ten architects were invited to submit plans to the YMCA building committee The committee had decided to keep the competition a local one, but had invited A. D. F. Hamlin, a nationally prominent architectural critic, to judge the entries. The competition, therefore, was a particularly significant one, for it took critical measure of the architectural profession in Buffalo at the opening of the century.
Of the ten firms asked to submit plans, eight responded. Hamlin chose the design by Green and Wicks as the best, saying it possessed "a distinct character well suited to an association building." Other entries by Esenwein and Johnson and Henry 0. Holland received favorable mention. Hamlin, who taught architectural history at Columbia University, was described in contemporary newspaper accounts as the leading expert on YMCA architecture. He had previously judged similar, though smaller, projects in Scranton and New Haven.
Green and Wicks's design epitomized the pattern to which most large YMCA buildings conformed in the early twentieth century, a period that saw the construction of nearly 300 Association buildings nationwide. Following the revered example of Robert McBurney's 23rd Street YMCA in New York City of 1869, these buildings provided for the Association's unique fourfold program of religious, social, mental, and physical culture. Like the McBurney building, the Buffalo structure featured a spacious lobby, classrooms and laboratories, a library, an auditorium, and gymnastic facilities.
The Buffalo YMCA, however, was one of the first, if not the first, Association building to provide extensive accommodations for lodgers. The introduction of dormitory rooms and dining facilities was a development in YMCA architecture that began in the late 1880's. Experiments in this direction took place in the 1887 YMCA in Milwaukee, as well as in buildings designed for Schenectady and Hartford at about the same time. The $500,000 West Side YMCA in New York City, planned by McBurney in the 1890's, had only two dormitory floors. The Buffalo building, which was one of the early skyscrapers in the city, provided over sixty rooms for lodgers in its towered section, as well as a restaurant on the top floor. In its living accommodations, the Buffalo building was prophetic of many big city YMCA's in the coming years, most notably the eighteen-story Chicago YMCA Hotel which opened in 1916 and contained 1800 rooms.
The conservative eclectic character of the Buffalo YMCA -- which was originally intended to have been constructed of red rather than tan-colored brick -- was also typical of YMCA architecture. For together with regarding its buildings as essential tools for carrying out its fourfold mission, the Association wished its structures to convey the image of social respectability. The Association Spa, a cafe adjoining the main lobby and serving nonalcoholic beverages every night until midnight, was another sign of the Association's attempt to foster conservative social standards. Intended to attract young men away from tavern going, the Spa was the first such facility in any YMCA building.
Designed in the English-Flemish style, situated at a prominent downtown corner, and equipped with the most modern facilities, the Buffalo YMCA building was one of the outstanding examples of its type in the nation.
The Central YMCA building in Buffalo, New York, is a steel-frame structure clad in tan-colored brick with windows, doorways, and decorative details, such as quoins and stringcourses, composed of white sandstone. A continuous base of gray granite supports the building, which is designed in the English-Flemish Renaissance style.
The building, the block plan of which approximates a right angle triangle, comprises three main sections. The tall central section housed on the ground floor a large lobby space. On the upper floors were classrooms, offices, dormitories, and a restaurant. The four story eastern section contained an auditorium, swimming pool, and classrooms. The four-story western portion, or Franklin Street Annex, as it was called, contained two gymnasiums and the Boy's Department.
Virtually nothing remains of the original interior finish or fixtures of the building, which has been vacant since 1978. Long before that time, unsympathetic remodeling had denatured the interior. With the exception of some of the dark oak paneling in the former tenth floor restaurant, no evidence exists today of the original finish or detailing of major interior spaces which were spoken of in contemporary accounts of the building.
The exterior of the building preserves most of its original appearance. The main tower section, which overlooked the former juncture of Mohawk and Genesee streets, is ten stories high. The primary entrance to the building is at the base of this section of the building. The original two-story stone portico of Tuscan columns that marked the portal is presently encased within a modern masonry shell. The central section of the five-bay tower has stone bay windows rising as a unit from the third through the eighth floors. This central feature is crowned with an ornamental shield. A string course molding separates the eighth from the ninth floor of the tower. The tenth floor is capped by another stone molding above which rises the steep-pitched slate roof. A large round-arched stone and brick dormer rises flush with the plane of the facade in the center of the tower and reaches to the ridge of the roof. Smaller round-arched dormers stand at either side of the central dormer. The windows in the tower section, as nearly everywhere else in the building, are simple rectangular openings with sash frames.
The four-story eastern wing of the building is designed with an exterior of three levels. Rising through the full height of the center of the facade of the eastern wing (which originally faced Genesee Street, is a slightly projecting pavilion that terminates in a stone and brick gable. The crown of the gable is decorated with a blank round-headed stone arch. Two obelisks terminate piers at either side of the pavilion. In the roof there are four round-headed brick and stone dormers rising flush with the plane of the wall, two on either side of the central pavilion. The fenestration of the central section of the pavilion has been bricked up.
The narrow east facade of the eastern wing has a tripartite projecting bay terminating in a sloping metal shed roof which replaces the original curved roof. The gable of this narrow elevation is treated as a round arch.
The wing on the western side of the main entrance, known as the Franklin Street Annex, is also four stories high. The main or south facade of this section (which originally looked onto Mohawk Street) rests on a basement level of granite and is five bays wide. There is a string course on the first floor that continues across the front of all three sections of the building. Another similar continuous string course is above the third floor. The fourth floor consists of a series of four round-headed brick and stone dormers. The western bay is treated as a slightly projecting pavilion terminating in a gable with a flat-headed window in the center.
The Franklin Street facade of the western wing is nine bays wide and four stories high. It rests on a high granite basement. String courses are above the first and fourth levels, as on the main facade of the building. The fourth bay from the south end is defined by stone quoins and is slightly sunken from the plane of the facade. At the base is a small doorway. The roof line consists of a steep sloping slate roof with four asymmetrically grouped dormers in the north portion and two brick gables with windows and a window between the gables on the south end.
The north face of the main body of the building is without architectural character, for it was not envisioned by the architects to be visible once adjacent buildings were constructed. The north elevation of the tower, however, was given an architectural treatment. It continues the design of the other faces of the tower in a series of identical floors. The roof of the tower on this side has three round-headed dormers centered in the roof. A large chimney stack rises above the central dormer.
At the time of its construction, the site of the YMCA building fronted on Busti Avenue (now Genesee Street), one of the broad avenues which radiated from Niagara Square as part of Joseph Ellicott's original 1904 plan for the city of Buffalo. In 1976, the Buffalo Convention Center was built immediately across Genesee Street from the YMCA, and at that time the street pattern was altered. Because of the proximity of the Convention Center it is no longer possible to photograph the main elevation of the YMCA; however, it retains its original appearance with the few exceptions already noted in the text.
(Twelve sheets of drawings for the YMCA building by Green and Wicks are in the Buffalo and Erie County Historical Society.)