#2 .... Buffalo's Best - Table of Contents



The people of Buffalo have come to adopt two unofficial symbols. One is an animal (the bison, of course), the other is a building: City Hall. Soaring, colorful, and tough, it has become part of the city's psyche.

Art Deco

Much of the emotional impact of the building is due to its Art Deco styling. Art Deco was at the height of its popularity in the late 1920's and early 1930's, when City Hall was conceived and built. The Chrysler Building and Rockefeller Center in New York are well known Art Deco buildings of the same period.

Art Deco got its name from the Exposition Internationale des Arts Decoratifs held in Paris in 1925. Futurism was a keynote of the Expo. Indeed, anything imitating past styles was expressly forbidden. Soon, jewelry, furniture, trains and planes were given modernistic lines; even toasters sported streamlining.

Buildings started taking on fantastic shapes. Lively ornamentation, in geometric patterns, was applied inside and out. Inspirational paintings and sculpture bespoke the wonders and promise of the machine age.

The jazzed-up buildings were a popular success and seemed to sum up the spirit of the age. When asked to describe Buffalo's City Hall stylistically, architect John Wade referred to it as simply as "Americanesque, 1927." At other times he called it Babylonian.

The tenor of the times notwithstanding, tall Art Deco buildings like City Hall owed much of their form to the practical limitations of the new zoning laws. No longer could tall buildings rise to their full height in one sheer swoop. Rather, to admit light and air to the street below, the facade had to be set back as the building rose.

Illustration by Julie Lewitsky

Hugh Ferris, a noted architectural renderer, did a study in 1922 illustrating the maximum feasible bulk a building could have under the new laws. The final drawing of the study prefigured City Hall in stunning fashion It is of the building as mountain: a massive base chipped away at intervals by setbacks leaving a soaring central tower flanked by two wings. Vertical elements streak upward and light and shadow play dramatic facade. Ferris did many more of these stupefying drawings through the 1920's, and his visions influenced many American architects, including, most probably John Wade.

Other influences on Wade's design were, probably, the Nebraska State Capitol and the Al Smith Office Building in Albany, NY. Further, during the 1920's there was also an undercurrent of interest in Mayan architecture. One travel writer, in fact, spoke of City Hall as a "slightly excited Mayan pyramid."

Mountain, tower, or pyramid, City Hall was definitely the new landmark of Buffalo. Floodlighting made it visible throughout the city at night, and from ships far out in Lake Erie. Powerful searchlights were beamed from the peak to guide aviators to the city.

The Observation Deck

Below the glass and metal peak, which is internally lighted at night, is an observation deck. From this point, about 360 feet up, one can see the entire city. Hills rise to the south, and to the northwest, the mists of Niagara Falls can be seen. To the west are Canada and Lake Erie (the sources of Buffalo's famous snow).

At the time of City Hall's completion fears were voiced that the observation deck would be a tempting stage for suicide artists. Over the years there have been occasional attempts, some successful.

Perhaps the most macabre leap was that of Robert Leroy Wayne Jackson in 1976. Jackson plummeted some 300 feet before impaling himself on the flagpole over the building's entrance.


In its decoration City Hall exhibits boisterous ornamentation on its facade and along its hallways. Near the top the building are three-dimensional chevrons (V-shaped elements) of polychrome terra cotta. Below this is a band of terra cotta with an American Indian motif. The band is interrupted at the corners by highly stylized stone eagles.

Central Figure of Eastern Frieze
Illustration by Tom Toles

At ground level, the entrance consists of a colonnade and frieze. In keeping with the modernistic theme, the columns are "attached" to their bases by giant eight sided nuts of granite. (The columns themselves represent bundled reeds, illustrating a political maxim: strength from unity). The figures on the frieze are not wizened Greeks or Roman orators, but burly Buffalonians: stevedores, riveters, truckers and aviators. The central figure in the frieze, the symbol of Buffalo, is a woman. She records history as it unfolds around her

Various other bas reliefs adorn the exterior, many depicting pioneers and the ubiquitous bison.

Inside the building is an intricately patterned lobby ceiling. Composed of thousands of terra cotta tiles, it is inspired by the headdress of certain Indian chiefs. The lobby has ornamental pilaster representing four civic virtues and several inspirational murals by William deLeftwich Dodge.

On the 13th floor is the Common Council Chamber. A very large art glass sunburst helps light the chamber. The space is ringed by 12 pillars, the crowns of which depict virtues expected of the chamber's inhabitants. The symbols were originally to have been busts of prominent Buffalonians. The Council, however, became embroiled in a seemingly endless squabble over just who should be represented. The architect Wade finally interceded and declared that the virtues be substituted. Wags have long noted the absence of symbols for honesty, efficiency and thrift.

"Buffalo's Best"is produced by The Preservation Coalition of Erie County
The Coalition sponsors educational tours, lectures and special events and actively seeks to preserve the architectural heritage of Erie County. Write for information and newsletter.

This card is made possible with public funds from the New York State Council on the Arts. Series editor: Timothy Tielman.

1996 Preservation Coalition of Erie County

Related site: Buffalo City Hall
Page by Chuck LaChiusa

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