Lafayette Hotel - Table of Contents

Architecture 2010
By Barry A. Muskat
Buffalo Spree, December 2010

The Lafayette Hotel
The Hotel Lafayette sits at the intersection of Clinton and Washington Streets on Lafayette Square. It is distinguished by a distinctive white glazed terra cotta decorative trim, contrasting with its dark red brick exterior. Few alterations have been made to the exterior since the building’s construction.

Louise Bethune was the first woman in the United States to be recognized as a professional architect by the American Institute of Architects. The Lafayette Hotel in Buffalo is her masterpiece.

In a prime downtown location, at the intersection of Clinton and Washington Streets on Lafayette Square, this is a gloriously beautiful building both inside and out. Yet an extremely non-scientific poll recently taken of long-time Buffalonians demonstrates that not one can remember the Lafayette’s condition being anything better than seedy since the fifties and sixties. Over the course of a century, it’s slid from being one of the finest hotels in the city to effectively acting as a boarding house for a social services population. The restoration that is now underway is enormously overdue, colossally important, and extremely exciting.

For all of the Lafayette’s seediness, its heartbreaking decline, and some of the ill-conceived modernizations it has endured through the course of a century, a wonderfully ironic reality emerges: multiple layers of inappropriate building materials installed over years have somehow protected the original building for this moment. Behind the ordinary drywall are gorgeous wood paneled walls. Above the dropped ceiling is fabulously intricate plaster work. Under the linoleum are sweeping mosaics of stone and tile. In a word, “Wow!”

The construction site (more accurately, deconstruction site) resembles an archeological excavation toward discovery. Tim Jones, who has been the chief engineer for the building for eighteen years, describes the demolition crew that carefully removed layer after layer of materials. He recalls their mantra: “It’s the Lafayette—it’s like an onion; it’s got layers.”

This project was ripe for developer Rocco Termini, whose Signature Development Company is leading the charge to rehab, restore, and re-grace the Lafayette. This is the man who rescued the unsaveable Webb Building, gentrified AM&A’s abandoned warehouses, and gave dignity back to a number of buildings that were in various levels of disrepair. With the recent passage of historic preservation tax credits, this project is now a definite “go”—a dramatic example of how historic preservation and adaptive reuse can infuse the economy and provide measurable benefits.

The Lafayette Hotel was first dedicated in 1904 and a series of additions followed. The original exterior and interiors are in the classical French Renaissance Revival style, but major reconfiguration and lobby remodeling was undertaken in 1941. Termini and his team decided that for their remake of the building, they would preserve both the French Renaissance and Art Moderne (1941 renovations) elements of the hotel.

Much of the original configuration will be restored and Termini has tenants lined up to occupy key spaces and immediately bring life and energy when the building is reopened. The main floor will be used for communal spaces, the second floor will become thirty hotel suites, and the upper floors will be converted into 123 market-rate apartments (rents are projected from $900 to $1200 per month.)

A much-anticipated feature is the reopening of the Crystal Ballroom, which was abandoned decades ago. Unbelievably, its original elegant chandeliers (featuring an “L” for Lafayette) are still hanging, and the Corinthian capitals of its columns and pilasters and its ornate crossed-beam ceilings are intact.

The original Grill, later subdivided into small soundproof booths for a radio station and office, might be the best surprise. (It looks out to Clinton Street and the library’s Central Branch.) When the drywalling was removed, the original Flemish Oak walls were discovered—intact. The original ceiling is a series of elliptical groin vaults reminiscent of a cathedral. Michael A’s Steak House will occupy this space. Interestingly, an American flag and pole were found buried behind the walls. The bracket and the forty-eight-star flag will be rehung. The corner shop—featuring curved Art Moderne glass doors—will become a flower shop operated by Woyshener’s Florist. Nearby, a tuxedo rental and formal-wear shop will be operated by Get Dressed.

The original lobby finishes—including marble wainscoating, trompe l’oeil wall surfaces to match, columns painted in Numidian scagliola (an imitation marble), and polychromatic terrazzo floors—will all be restored. Special attention should be given to the two large murals of inlaid wood (an artistic medium known as intarsia) on the north and south walls. One mural features the Buffalo River with lake freighters and a host of grain elevators. The other features a propeller-driven B51 Mustang fighting airplane (heavily used in WWII and manufactured by Bell Aircraft) flying above the Buffalo Airport with its original control tower. Although in excellent condition, these will be extraordinary when brightened and restored.

Many thought of the Lafayette Tap Room as the best blues bar in Buffalo. This was a later addition, complete with a handsome copper-leafed barrel-vaulted ceiling, huge wood-burning fireplace and travertine marble mantel inlaid with the coat of arms of the Marquis de La Fayette. There are also two large murals (executed in 1939 by artist Aldo Lazzarino) opposite each other. One shows George Washington greeting General Lafayette; the other portrays the same pair meeting at Mt. Vernon after the Revolution as gray-haired men. It’s expected that graduate students of the Art Conservation program at Buffalo State will be involved in restoration of these murals. The reopened Tap Room will be operated by Earl Ketry of the Pearl Street Grill and Brewery.

There is a long list of charming vintage elements that will come back to life in the newly restored Lafayette, including the hotel’s original Church Directory (in a display case), the etched glass sign, and the original registration desk—an enormous marble and oak counter, which will be restored and converted into a massive bar for one of the lounges.

Original fixtures and architecture remnants, saved and collected by Tim Jones over the years, are ready to be installed in the completed project. “I grew up on a dairy farm,” the chief engineer says, quoting the old saw, “If it’s not broken, don’t throw it away; you never know when you’ll need it.” Now is that time.

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