Come with us now to the future. The distant future. The next millennium. To a pleasant Saturday afternoon in April when Buffalo is veritably alive -- we'll ask you to kindly refrain from laughter, please -- with tourists.
Let's meet one of them. We'll call her, oh, Lorraine Schupp of, say, Kirtland, Ohio.
Lorraine is exhausted. She and her husband and their in-laws piled into their car in their tidy Cleveland suburb and drove four hours down Interstate 90 precisely because they had heard Buffalo was a terrific place to vacation for a weekend.
Please. We asked you not to laugh.
They came to take what is starting to be known far and wide as the Great Buffalo Architecture Tour.
Already this Saturday, Lorraine and company toured the world-famous Darwin Martin House on Jewett Parkway, the Frank Lloyd Wright masterwork that first captured their attention -- along with the rest of the nation's -- when it was restored and opened as a museum.
Then they popped over to the Albright-Knox Art Gallery, which they had also heard a lot about back in Kirtland. And, since it was right out the gallery's back door, they decided to stroll around the lake at Delaware Park. (No, they hadn't heard about that before, but theychecked out the park anyway once they got here and learned Frederick Law Olmsted built it as the crown jewel of America's first park-and-parkway system.)
All this before they even arrived at their bed-and-breakfast in a charming Victorian house on Linwood Avenue.
This evening's plans are uncertain. Will it be the National Historic Landmark Night Out (sushi at Saki's Restaurant in Louis Sullivan's century-old Guaranty Building downtown, followed by a symphony concert at Eliel and Eero Saarinen's renowned Kleinhans Music Hall)? Or the New and Old Combo (dinner at one of the quaint restaurants that have sprung up in the Cobblestone Historic District downtown, then a Sabres playoff game at the new Crossroads Arena next door)?
And don't tell Lorraine this, but tomorrow's choices are even more exhausting: Will they want to check out our art deco City Hall or the famous Henry Hobson Richardson buildings on the grounds of the Buffalo Psychiatric Center? Wander through the side streets of Allentown on foot or drive around historic Forest Lawn? The beautiful Delaware Avenue mansions or the bold grain elevators on the waterfront?
Hey, if there's time, maybe Lorraine can even squeeze in a quick visit to Niagara Falls.
Sound a tad unreal, does it, this futuristic little dream of ours?
No problem. Come with us instead, then, to the recent past. A week ago Saturday, to be exact. We are deep in the mountains of western Pennsylvania, an hour down a back road from the nearest city.
We are here to visit another famous Frank Lloyd Wright house turned museum, the vacation home he built in the late 1930s over a little stream and called Fallingwater.
It is 2:15 p.m. and, believe it or not, the parking lot is full of cars and buses.
And the overflow parking area is full.
And the license plates say it all: New York. Pennsylvania. Ontario. Ohio. Maryland. Maine. District of Columbia. California. Connecticut. Virginia. West Virginia. Florida.
And wouldn't you know it, as we wait to take the 3 o'clock tour -- tour No. 40 of the day, at $10 a head, and the day's not over yet -- we run into Lorraine Schupp.
The real Lorraine Schupp. The one from Kirtland, Ohio.
"My children had to come here in college, and they said, 'Oh, Mom, you got to see this,' " Mrs. Schupp says. "And we're retired now, so we decided, why not take a nice spring drive?"
David Arend and his wife are in the crowd, too. He had seen Fallingwater before, he said, but his wife hadn't. So they came. From Lisbon, Ohio.
On a busy day, in fact, 1,700 people just like the Schupps and the Arends visit Fallingwater. That adds up to about 135,000 a year. Seventy percent of them travel more than four hours to get there.
"In October it's like Disney World here," says a spokesman.
As all those tourists wait to see Fallingwater, the information desk points out other Wright creations they can visit: the Dana-Thomas House, Unity Temple, the Robie House and Wright's Home and Studio in Illinois; the Pope-Leighy House in Virginia; Taliesin, the Johnson Wax Building, the A.D. German Warehouse, Wingspread, the Seth Peterson Cottage, the Unitarian Meeting House and the Annunciation Greek Orthodox Church in Wisconsin; Taliesin West in Arizona; the major retrospective exhibition now on view at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.
No mention is made of the city that has some of Wright's greatest work.
People have been saying for years now that Buffalo has buildings of such rare quality, tourists from elsewhere would actually come here just to see them.
A few people, anyway. Lone voices in the wilderness. Architecture buffs, mostly. The occasional politician. Critics from other cities. Professors. People like that.
Problem is, nobody much listened. So nobody did any of the things that have to get done before any tourists pack their families and their dollars into their cars and head this way. Nobody raised the money it will take to fix up the Martin House, for example. Nobody ever bothered to put together a regularly scheduled tour of the world-famous Guaranty Building. Or City Hall. Or Kleinhans.
Nobody, believe it or not, has ever even done a study to try to find out just how many tourists might come.
But while we sat still, something strange happened. Heritage tourism took off like a gazelle -- turned, in fact, into the second-fastest-growing segment of the tourism industry.
"While the local advocates may have in their minds that we're somehow unique, really it's a national movement," says Buffalo lawyer Jacek Wysocki, chairman of the Greater Buffalo Convention & Visitors Bureau's architecture and history committee.
"And the point is, we don't just have that one thing that people will stop to see when they're on the highway; we have enough to absorb them for a couple of days or three. It's very important that we position ourselves to receive people."
Even the committee Wysocki heads was organized only last summer. A few weeks ago, it finally asked New York State for $75,000 to study the economic impact architectural tourism could have here.
Only when that is done, Wysocki says, will they have the ammunition to persuade local government, donors and the travel industry here that it's in their own best interest to start promoting our architecture as a tourist lure.
The obvious question is, why is Buffalo taking so long to get its act together?
"If there was somebody a year ago, two years ago, who was willing to write out a check for $50,000 so we could hire somebody to do this work, we'd be exploiting it today. Fact of the matter is, there wasn't anybody to do it," says Wysocki. "Could we have been moving any faster? Only if we knew where else we could get some money in these very tight times."
Bingo. Buffalo's perennial problem.
You can't begin to build a tourism industry around our collection of famous buildings, even Buffalo's most optimistic boosters say, until you've given the biggest draw of them all -- the Martin House -- a world-class restoration.
That will cost anywhere from $5.6 million to $15 million or more, depending on how much of of Wright's original estate we want to restore. The more that gets done, the more tourists who will pay to see it.
So far, after all these years, only $1 million has been raised to begin work on the main house. Most of that million is federal and state government money. And now government is broke.
"Where you gonna go?" Wysocki asks. "You're not going to build the Martin House by having a bake sale, a few cocktail fund raisers at 50 bucks a head or anything like that. Those will close the gap at the end. But what you need is gifts in the six-figure and higher range -- and not low six figures but high six figures. And where are you going to get them from? We don't have the foundations. We don't have the corporate citizens. And we don't have the individual wealthy folk."
Back now -- optimistically -- to the future, to the time when the Martin House is finally restored and people elsewhere begin to think of Buffalo sort of a living museum of architectural history.
Truth is, not all that many tourists are going to start spending their weekends in Buffalo just because of the Martin House, nice though it may be. No city is ever successful because of one stellar attraction. Cities succeed only when they have lots of things to see and do.
So what else might Lorraine Schupp and company visit on the second day of their Great Buffalo Architecture Tour?
The Linwood Historic District, where they can sample one of America's best collections of great old houses.
Ada Louise Huxtable, Pulitzer Prize-winning architecture critic of the New York Times, once characterized Buffalo as a city of "broad streets of attractive substantial houses from . . . the time when this country produced more good homes than at any period in its history."
The Buffalo Place Pedestrian Mall, where they can view not only a collection of 19th century buildings that includes two National Historic Landmarks (the Guaranty and St. Paul's Episcopal Cathedral) but works by some of the leading architects of the 20th, from Skidmore, Owings & Merrill (Marine Midland Center) and Minoru Yamasaki (One M & T Plaza) at one end to Kohn Pedersen Fox (M & T Center) at the other.
The Buffalo and Erie County Historical Society Museum, a textbook neoclassical building -- and a remnant of the Pan-American Exposition of 1901.
South Park, perhaps the most intact Olmsted landscape in the United States today, designed as a 150-acre arboretum and conservatory.
Our Lady of Victory Basilica, the showiest example of Buffalo's unusually showy collection of churches.
"We have something there that is easily the equal of what you would travel thousands of miles to see," says Wysocki.
"We have to somehow find a way to present the whole basket of what we have: That we have the icons. That the coincidence of those icons in this town, if not unique, is highly unusual. The opportunity to experience the vernacular architecture of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The Olmsted parks. That when you put all of that together as a package, you realize that you're not going to be bored. And that there is something for everybody. The Erie Canal. The waterfront. The Native Americans. The black experience. It's all here. And you can go up and see the War of 1812 at Fort Niagara. And you can see another unique American experience at Chautauqua."
So how does Buffalo begin to attract those tourists?
That study the Convention & Visitors Bureau wants to do is the first step, advocates agree. Getting the Martin House restored is the second. Beyond those -- the big two -- it will take a lot of little steps to create a thriving tourism program here.
Things like simply creating a brochure that lists restaurants in historic buildings, Wysocki says. Rochester does that.
Or a booklet with downtown walking tours that we give to everyone who comes to the city for jury duty. Manhattan does that.
"Let's grab 'em while they're here and show 'em something that causes them to bring the family next time," Wysocki explains.
Jason Aronoff, a Kenmore school psychologist and volunteer tour guide who has long been Buffalo architecture's most vocal missionary, says:
"A couple of things are needed after that. Permission from the owners to open the other buildings that are critical for people to see. The Guaranty Building should be shown at least once a day, every day, during the tourist season. Maybe more. City Hall is another building that should be available for tours on a regular basis."
And, of course, what's always needed is money.
Assemblyman Sam Hoyt, D-Buffalo, has requested state money for the restorations of the Martin House and Kleinhans and for a symposium and study of Richardson's Psychiatric Center buildings in next year's state budget.
The budget is weeks overdue, but Hoyt says he sees "positive signs" that all three requests will survive the budget process.
"I have a good feeling about it," says Hoyt. "Every member of the Western New York delegation recognizes the importance of the restoration of the Martin House and the benefit it could have for the entire community."
That, in itself, is progress.
"It's funny that we have to convince our own community about the value of what we have here," says Hoyt. "When I've spoken with people in Albany about Frank Lloyd Wright and the Martin House, they get all excited and say we should do something, we should help. And yet sometimes convincing our own neighbors it's a valuable resource is difficult."