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Sean Kirst: Electric Tower lights up again as a Buffalo Christmas landmark

In this regard, Michael Kless speaks for much of Buffalo. He is chief engineer at the Electric Tower, the Washington Street landmark owned by Iskalo Development. That means he has 14 floors worth of equipment and wiring to deal with every day, creating a building that to an engineer almost becomes a living thing.

Yet this is no ordinary landmark in the city. Kless never forgets what the tower meant to him as a child. He grew up in South Buffalo. What he remembers — whenever he traveled downtown from the south part of the city — is the same sensation that a colleague, Iskalo brand manager Nicholas Dolpp, used to feel on boyhood rides from the other direction in December.

Dolpp's family would take the bend on the Kensington Expressway and one image would instantly command the sky.

The Electric Tower — often known then as the Electric Building — burned red and green in the night, a compelling symbol that signaled one thing to countless Western New York children.

"Christmas," Kless said, thinking back.

The lights have returned, in a way that officials with Iskalo hope is better than ever. The tower went dark for a few days this month while the company spent about $100,000 upgrading to a new LED lighting system that will allow for more intense and varied combinations of colors, according to Joe Montesano, Iskalo's director of property management.

Downtown Buffalo's Electric Tower, built in 1912, was inspired by The Tower of Light, a spectacular highlight at the 1901 Pan American Exposition held in Buffalo. Follow News … 

For the first time, Montesano said, the dome at the absolute peak of the tower, about 294 feet above the sidewalk, will be routinely illuminated. Last week, to reach that peak, Dolpp, Kless, Montesano and Glen Eisenhut, another colleague, led us to a door on the 14th floor that opened onto to a concrete auditorium, unused for many years.

From there, you follow a winding spiral stairway that feels like something out of Jules Verne, until you reach the three-tiered tower itself, platforms accessible only by metal ladders. Keep climbing, and the tower opens upon cold air and stunning views of the skyline and Lake Erie beyond it.

You eventually reach the tier from which a ball descends every year to mark midnight on New Year's Eve.

The Electric Tower: A spiral stairway, rarely seen, carries you toward the peak. (Robert Kirkham/Buffalo News)

Montesano, standing on a small and narrow deck where you can look down upon the city, spoke of how the building went up in 1912 as a statement, as a "tip of the spear" for the technological revolution that brought electrical power into everyday household use.

Buffalo wasn't far from the great and early hydroelectric generators at Niagara Falls, and Esenwein & Johnson, the architectural firm that designed the building, drew on two models for their statement.

They were inspired by the ancient, three-tiered lighthouse of Alexandria, and also by the original Electric Tower, a beautiful and temporary element in 1901 at Buffalo's Pan-American Exposition.

Yet if the building still evokes some deep sense of the spiritual, almost celestial, it begins with the international legend who designed the original lighting scheme. As you climb the ladder in the tower, you realize you are in the 20th century staging ground for W. D'Arcy Ryan, called "the father of illuminating engineering" by Chris Hunter, a historian and curator at Schenectady's Museum of Innovation and Science.

Put more simply, at a time when early skyscrapers were rising in American cities, Ryan understood the power those buildings would evoke at night, if bathed in electric light. He eventually became the engineer in charge of illumination engineering for General Electric, Hunter said, which gave Ryan a canvas for his dreams.

In 1907, he designed a lighting system at Niagara Falls far beyond anything attempted before. In the following year,  he used searchlights and incandescent bulbs to illuminate the Singer Building in Manhattan, at the time the tallest skyscraper in the world.

The Electric Tower in 1912, with W. D'Arcy Ryan's original lighting plan. (Photo courtesy of the Museum of Innovation and Science)

Four years later, the Electric Tower became his newest masterpiece. The spotlight "cannons" at the absolute peak reinforced the idea of a lighthouse, shooting out beams visible from miles away. When the building opened in September 1912, the Buffalo Evening News said an estimated 75,000 Western New Yorkers traveled downtown to tour the structure and to marvel at the lights.

"He was brilliant, an important and very influential figure," said Sandy Isenstadt, an architectural historian, speaking of Ryan.

As for the importance of his work in Buffalo, Ryan himself — in a 1921 article unearthed by Hunter — listed the Electric Tower within his handful of most significant projects, which included such efforts as lighting the locks of the Panama Canal.

Both Hunter and Isenstadt said illuminated skylines, as we know them today, were deeply influenced by Ryan's genius and inspiration.

The Electric Tower glows as it rises above downtown Buffalo, last March. (Derek Gee/Buffalo News)

At the Electric Tower, in the early years, the main floor served as a kind of marketplace for refrigerators and every imaginable gadget that could be powered by electricity. The tower would later become the longtime home of the Niagara Mohawk Power Corp. and then National Grid, before developer Paul Iskalo bought the building in 2004.

Montesano said Iskalo has tried to restore as much of the original grandeur as possible, including ripping down some false walls to restore the main entrance to original form, with a striking mezzanine.

Walter D'Arcy Ryan, with a spotlight. (Photo courtesy of the Museum of Innovation and Science)

While no one is quite sure when the building was first illuminated for the yuletide, Hunter believes it was probably early in its history. Old images at the Buffalo History Museum show the tower draped with strings of holiday lights, but it went dark for a time during the energy crisis of the 1970s.

The lights were eventually restored, and less expensive, more efficient LED lighting now creates entirely new opportunities.

In a sense.

Still, the lights — then and now — help give the building its lasting resonance, elegance mingled with a touch of awe. It was built with a distinct purpose, as a symbol for a new age of electricity. As Hunter, the Schenectady historian, puts it, all of those factors come together each December, when statements on power, light and community each mesh into one.

He puts words to what the children of Buffalo have known for generations.

From any direction, as you near downtown, look up and you see Christmas.

Sean Kirst is a columnist with The Buffalo News. Email him at skirst@buffnews.com or read more of his work in this archive.

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