Share this article

print logo

GOLD DOME FOR THE AGES TURNS 100 ALL AGLITTER

Two months before the Pan-American Exposition opened, another historic event took place a few miles away: the opening of E.B. Green's gold-domed Buffalo Savings Bank at the junction of Main, Genesee and Huron streets:

The March 1, 1901, ceremony heralded the city's golden age of architecture. Rising simultaneously a few blocks away were Louis Sullivan's ornate Prudential Building, one of the nation's first steel-framed skyscrapers, and Daniel Burnham's elaborate Ellicott Square, at the time the world's largest commercial office structure.

The centennial of the Buffalo Savings building, now M&T Bank's Fountain Plaza office, was celebrated with the cutting of a birthday cake and a round of speeches on the banking floor during the noon hour today.

That is considerably more hoopla than attended the laying of the cornerstone on Dec. 1, 1898, according to bank archives. In fact, there was no public ceremony. And Buffalo Savings trustees, ever the conservative moneymen, had decreed that construction costs be limited to "not over $300,000," or about $6.2 million today.

Ten architects were invited to submit designs for the building. The winner was submitted by Buffalo's Green, who created many of the city's enduring architectural treasures -- among them the Albright Art Gallery, Market Arcade, Dun Building, Twentieth Century Club, First Presbyterian Church and several buildings on the University of Buffalo campus.

For Buffalo Savings, Green came up with a graceful granite building in the neoclassic "beaux-arts" style. Told that the design was "a little too tall and ornamental," Green lowered the height by 13 feet and eliminated statues he planned to place around the base of the signature dome.

Unlike most of the elaborate-looking but temporary structures erected for the Pan-American Exposition -- typically wood-frame exteriors decorated with moldings made of a plasterlike material called staff -- the Buffalo Savings Bank Building was meant to last.

The dome itself -- still one of downtown's most recognizable features -- was 23 feet tall and 56 feet in diameter. It is covered with 13,500 terra-cotta tiles, meticulously engineered to interlock and overlap one another. Each of the 54 rows of tile differs in size from the row above or below it, and each tile is individually imprinted with a row and cast number.

The tiles originally were overlaid with copper, which took on a greenish hue. Three times since -- 1954, 1979 and 1998 -- the dome was gilded with pure gold. The last restoration required 140,000 paper-thin sheets of 23.75-carat gold leaf and cost $500,000 -- more than the original cost of the whole building.

Though the bank opened in 1901, its majestic vaulted interior, with its elaborate paintings and murals, was not finished until 1925.

From the eye of the dome high above the bank floor, the art fans out and down the walls:

In the eye, 13 feet in diameter, are ancient Roman buildings set against a deep blue background and the Confucius saying "Virtue Is the Root, Wealth the Flower."

Between the dome ribs are 16 wedge-shaped arabesques of Renaissance ornamentation against a gold background. Each measures 24 feet high; 12 contain signs of the Zodiac, for the passage of time.

Below those are four pendentives -- triangular supports -- all 14 feet high and 22 feet wide at the top. Each depicts one of the city's strengths: commerce, industry, power and the arts.

A 25-by-25-foot lunette panel on the east wall shows Joseph Ellicott and Jean Gabriel Van Straphorst purchasing the land that would become Buffalo from Red Jacket and Honayewus, the Iroquois and Seneca chiefs.

M&T purchased the landmark from Buffalo Savings' successor, Goldome Savings Bank, in 1991.

Mayor Anthony M. Masiello joined M&T executives for today's centennial ceremony.

Tim Tielman of the Preservation Coalition of Erie County discussed the building's historical and architectural significance, Margo Moore of the University at Buffalo School of Architecture and Planning spoke about E.B. Green, and David Granville, executive director of the Buffalo Arts Commission, discussed the decorative pendentives.

There are no comments - be the first to comment