1929 was a good year for Buffalo apartments. That’s when some of our best were built: the Campanile, 800 West Ferry, Park Lane. Ranking still among the city’s most prestigious addresses, these multiple dwellings set the architectural bar high. Not many apartment buildings erected here, or anywhere, have since risen to a similar level of prominence.
By the 1930s, architectural style in U.S. cities began to slink downward. The Great Depression, World War II, then a postwar need for fast and inexpensive housing redirected architectural focus from style to functionality.
Unadorned, boxy-type apartments became the norm, and while they served a short-term purpose, they left an uninspired architectural legacy. Buffalo, though still a city of finer residential stock than most, was not exempt from the postwar assault on style. By the 1970s, we had our fair share of structures built of poor quality materials, and exceedingly simple aesthetics.
Still, a few modern-era apartment buildings (now most are legally structured as condos) have aged well. The Delaware Tower at 1088 Delaware Ave., the Executive Condominiums at 849 Delaware and Waterfront Village townhouses are a few city standouts. The Town of Amherst has some as well – Oakbrook Condominium Complex, Hidden Ridge Commons and the Village of Williamsville’s smaller yet impressive Millrace North. Coming from a bland architectural period, one wonders what set these buildings apart.
At base, the question is: If time is the test, what is the criteria for passing it? In order to evaluate a building’s long-term desirability, we first ought to know the markers for attaining it.
To some, money is the measure. If a property held in good condition continues to escalate in value regardless of market trends, investment types see architectural success.
Preservationists look at structural features, like symmetry, balance and flow, and evaluate those features for compliance with a certain period or style. Others, some well-known in architectural circles, believe the true measure of design is in the eyes of the beholder, claiming if a building works well for the people it serves, it’s work well done.
The acclaimed architect and writer, Witold Rybczynski, falls into that later camp. The author of 15 books and several important essays on architecture dodges rigid evaluation criteria. Rather, he comments more on how places make people feel. To him, great buildings are functional, visually pleasing, comforting, “the setting for a pleasant experience.” In “How Architecture Works,” he says good architecture is “architecture that helps us make the most of our daily lives.”
Using Rybczynski’s broad but reasonable criteria, we can see how some area apartments built since the folding of the grand era are managing to hold their own against the test of time.
Marilyn Cappellino is a freelance writer from Amherst.