Guaranty Building - Table of Contents

Guaranty / Prudential Building
28 Church Street, Buffalo, New York
Building Owner's Home Page - Hodgson Russ, LLP

Guaranty Building
By Irene E. Ayad

1894-1896  Dankmar Adler and Louis H. Sullivan
198 1983    Restoration and modernization, Cannon Design, Inc.
2002-2003  Restoration Flynn Battaglia, Architects
2004           Interior design and restoration, Gensler, Washington.

The Guaranty building, located in Buffalo, New York, is one of the city’s first and best-known skyscrapers. Built between 1894 and 1896, the structure was designed by the Chicago-based firm of Adler & Sullivan. The building is usually considered Louis Sullivan’s finest example of the steel-framed tall office building developed in Chicago the previous decade.

The Guaranty building was commissioned by Hascal L. Taylor (1830–1894),  a local entrepreneur, who had excelled in the oil business. It was Taylor’s dream “to build the largest and best office building in the city.” The new structure was to bear his name.

In 1890, Taylor had purchased land at the corner of Pearl and Church Street, in downtown Buffalo, with an eye toward modernizing the city’s central district. The location was well suited for an office building. Church Street, then one of Buffalo’s widest streets, afforded easy access to nearby civic centers, hotels, and retail. Taylor, unfortunately, died before the building was completed. Following his death, several different companies owned the property. The first two owners were the Guaranty Construction Co. and the Prudential Insurance Company. Both names appear on the entrance friezes. Since 1982, the property’s official name is the Guaranty building.

The thirteen-story building is 164 feet tall and measures 116 x 93 feet. Its rectangular, blocky shape resembles the Renaissance palace format characteristic of the early Chicago skyscrapers. The structure rests on a steel frame comprised of Gray columns, which had been invented by James H. Gray, a former employee of Adler and Sullivan.  Unlike other column types, the Gray columns provided “greater lateral stiffness against wind loads.” On the street elevations the load-bearing columns alternate with thinner non-loadbearing steel members that act as armatures for the terra cotta cladding.

The metal frame is sheathed in fireproof ruddy, unglazed terra cotta tiles and brick. Since the 1860’s, Chicago architects had begun to favor terra cotta for exterior cladding. Sullivan wrote a panegyric praising its fire resistance capacity as well as its plasticity that allowed it “to be shaped with marvelous readiness into every conceivable delicacy…”

“All things in nature have a shape, ” Sullivan wrote, “a form, and an outward semblance, that tells us what they are.” His observation would serve as the premise for the design of the Guaranty building, which he organized into three distinct levels: a ground floor and mezzanine, multiple office floors, and an attic beneath a projecting cornice. Based on the building’s programmatic needs, this tripartite arrangement is clearly articulated on the two street facades. For Sullivan the ground floor was a place “to step into.”  The phrase captures the close relationship between the building and its urban corridor. 

With its inviting arched entrances and large plate glass showcases, the street level was set aside for retail and banking. (The basement included a storage area for bicycles and a restaurant.)

Above the mezzanine ten identical tiers suggest the office floors. The windows and lentils are recessed to preserve the primacy of the vertical piers, the dominant architectural feature, which rise without interruption to the top of the building. This vertical emphasis is central to Sullivan’s idea that the skyscraper must be “…every inch a proud and soaring thing.”

All this is capped with an emphatic cornice.  A row of small, circular windows light the attic story, which was reserved for storage and mechanical equipment.

With an upscale clientele in mind, the elven-foot tall office spaces were well appointed. They included vaults, a marble washstand with hot and cold running water, and a ventilating system. The seventh floor provided a full bathroom as well as a barbershop.

The plan of the office floors was u-shaped with two wings embracing a light court (now filled in).  A central corridor linked the wings with the midsection, which housed the bank of four elevators and an adjoining staircase. A major concern in designing the office plans was to create flexible and well-lit workspaces. Each room had two tall plate glass windows measuring about 7 feet. Rooms were almost square assuring that light could reach the rear wall “so tenants,” Adler explained, “did not have to pay for dark spaces.” Non - loadbearing partitions could be easily rearranged to suit the tenants’ needs.

The Guaranty building’s rich ornamentation vividly illustrates Sullivan’s interest in and imaginative use of decoration. “Structure and ornament should enhance the value of each other,” he wrote in Architecture and Ornament, “they should not be two [separate] things…” Sullivan’s unique ornamental language, some of which was delineated by George Grant Elmslie, the chief draftsman in his office, combines delicate floral motifs with intricate geometric patterns. These cover not only every terra cotta tile but also the metalwork and enliven the building’s lobby with exquisite mosaics and stained glass.  The ornament is “not stuck on” to use Sullivan’s words, but forms and organic unity with the building.

During its long history the building suffered considerable neglect and was almost demolished. In the early 1980’s, with much community support, the building was modernized and restored. Again in 2004, the present owner the law firm of Hodgson Russ undertook a second renovation of the exterior and interior. This work included the replicating of the original lobby and elevator grills. Once again the Guaranty building is one of Buffalo’s finest workplaces.

Sullivan’s contribution to the tall office building began with his Wainwright building in St. Louis of 1890. Buffalo’s Guaranty building, which the architect considered to be its twin, represents his fully evolved idea of the steel framed office tower as a uniquely America building type. Sullivan’s well-known dictum “form forever follows function,” which he coined in his essay The Tall Office Building Artistically Considered published the year the building was opened, finds here its fullest expression.


De Wit, Wim. Ed. Louis Sullivan: The Function of Ornament. New York, NY: W.W. Norton & Company, 1987.

Guaranty Construction Company. Brochure The Guaranty Building, n.d.

Jordy, William H.  American Buildings and Their Architects, Vol. 3, New York, NY: Doubleday, 1972  

Morris, Hugo. Louis Sullivan: Prophet of Modern Architecture. New York, NY:  W. W. Norton & Company, 1935

Siry, Joseph. “Adler and Sullivan’s Guaranty Building in Buffalo,” Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians. Vol. 55, No. 1, March 1996, pp. 6-37.

Sullivan, Louis H., Kindergarten Chats and Other Writings. New York, NY: Dover, Publication,  1979                                                                                                                                       

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