If, as H.G. Wells said, civilization is a race between education and catastrophe, it may be time once again for Buffalo's citizens to line up for some refresher courses.
Collectively, we've learned a lot over the years about hanging on to our cultural heritage. For instance: Don't tear down masterpieces of architecture on the order of Frank Lloyd Wright's Larkin Administration Building, as the city did in 1950. The world will never forgive you.
We've also learned to be more alert to the value of our smaller-scale cultural treasures. For example, in 1987 the Buffalo Museum of Science auctioned off a set of Audubon bird prints at Christie's for $1.2 million. Ten years later the museum was ready to hawk the rare books called "Milestones of Science," which include such momentous items as first editions by Galileo, Copernicus and Johannes Kepler. But a public outcry halted the sale. Following a swap with the Buffalo and Erie County Library involving more Audubons, the books became a permanent part of the library's Rare Book Room collection.
As the selected list of cultural losses below indicates, there are many potholes on the road to cultural enlightenment. Buffalo had become somewhat habituated to living between the wrecker's ball and the mad glint in a city planner's eye. In the past, major demolitions and incursions by expressways into parklands were often taken to be signs of progress, not the affront to our cultural heritage that they were.
Some losses were inevitable and necessary, and involved neither human error nor bureaucratic insensitivity. But that doesn't make them any less sad.
When it comes to assaults on our portable art treasures, the primer has yet to be written. Just how do we keep paintings, sculptures, books and other valued artifacts in Buffalo when our chief cultural institutions see fit to sell them to the highest bidder?
Enough voices in unison can do it. But the fact is, some very valuable cultural items -- like the recent auctioning of a Willem De Kooning painting from the Albright-Knox Art Gallery collection -- do not stir the blood of even sympathetic observers.
Following this gloomy catalog of what we've lost is a partial list of some of our notable cultural victories. Despite the losses, progress is being made on important fronts.
A third list addresses some of those structures and public spaces whose fate is still unresolved.
Larkin Administration Building
When the Museum of Modern Art had its big Frank Lloyd Wright show a number of years ago, it devoted a gallery to a large model of the Larkin building and its revolutionary features. The building's high place in the development of modern architecture is undisputed. By 1950 we should have known better. All that's left today is an unmarked brick pier at the back of a parking lot.
This humble domestic dwelling had the bad luck to be located on North Street, in the shadow of two of McKim, Mead and White's grandest mansions, the Williams-Butler House at Delaware Avenue and North Street, and the Williams-Pratt House next door. It didn't seem to matter that the Metcalfe was also designed by the great late-19th century firm and that it contained some of Stanford White's most elegant efforts in woodwork design. It came down in 1980. The parking lot that replaces it, though among the prettiest in Buffalo, is nonetheless a parking lot. Fortunately, main portions of the interior have been preserved in two rooms on display in Rockwell Hall, Buffalo State College, under the auspices of Burchfield-Penney Art Center.
Willem De Kooning's "Woman"
Last fall the Albright-Knox Art Gallery decided that a De Kooning oil and charcoal on paper called "Woman" (1955) served no real function in its extensive collection of abstract expressionist art. The late De Kooning was a major figure of abstract expressionism and the artist's "woman" series was critical to the movement's development. The gallery, however, claimed that the 28-by-20-inch piece was too small, too light-sensitive and too out of character for its two big abstract de Koonings in the collection. So they sold it.
That it fetched a startling $1.8 million was indicative of what a highly coveted object the gallery had. If the gallery could have figured a way to display it -- certainly not an insurmountable task -- the painting would have contributed immensely to the understanding of abstract expressionism. De Kooning had made a radical and, to some, puzzling move when he reintroduced the figure at a time when painterly abstraction -- an abstraction that he helped invent -- reigned supreme. "Woman" is a particularly vivid demonstration of how abstraction and the figure can co-exist beautifully in the same work. It's small but not insignificant. It tells us precisely what the rest of the collection doesn't: Abstract expressionism was not always abstract and it wasn't always of monumental scale.
(And while we're on size: Paul Klee's little oil and watercolor on paper, "Child Consecrated to Suffering," is 6 1/4 x 9 1/4 inches. This piece, along with the many other small works in the collection, is not apt to be sold off for ill fit.)
John James Audubon's "Birds of America"
Audubon's "Birds of America" flew the coop when the Buffalo Museum of Science auctioned off its fine folio in 1987. It went for $1.2 million. Five years later the museum came back and sold a set of 1,000-year-old porcelain Chinese figurines for $841,500.
Vincent van Gogh's "Vase With Daisies and Poppies"
The Science Museum also was one of the beneficiaries in the 1991 sale of this charming painting, sharing the proceeds with the Albright-Knox Art Gallery and the University at Buffalo Foundation. The 1890 work went for less than expected but still brought a respectable $9.5 million. The Albright-Knox, which owned the controlling interest in the picture, went along with longtime gallery benefactor George F. Goodyear, who had given the painting as a partial gift but wanted to sell. The deal cut the gallery's stock of the Dutch post-impressionist's painting by half.
The Little Harlem Hotel
An art deco delight, the Little Harlem was the last of the great Buffalo jazz clubs so famous in the '30s. It burned in 1993.
Buffalo's stock of brick buildings
The city seems intent on replacing every old brick building with flyweight vinyl-clad houses that look as if they'd rattle apart in a stiff breeze. The economics make sense -- it's cheaper to build new than to restore antiquated buildings -- and pride of ownership can spark a neighborhood. But the question is, will these flimsy houses become the urban eyesores of the next century?
The beautiful tree-lined parkway, destroyed with the advent of the Scajaquada Expressway, was only part of Frederick Law Olmsted's magnificent park system to be displaced by roads and bridges.
Seneca Street Bridge
This marvelous 19th century cast iron bridge and two lesser bridges on Hamburg Street were deemed historically insignificant. They're being replaced by bland concrete affairs.
The old airport building
Nobody's sure exactly what we lost with the razing of this 1939 building, but the story is that beneath all the tacky additions was a nice art deco tower with a classy glass dome on top.
Other losses: H.H. Richardson's Gratwick House, the John J. Albright estate, the Canal Street district, the neoclassical Lehigh Railroad Station downtown, Holiday Theater 1 & 2 (the biggest screens in town) and Crystal Beach.
SAVES OR NEAR SAVES
Darwin Martin House. The comprehensive restoration of Wright's 1904 masterpiece, including the adjacent Barton House, is on track and should be finished a year or two into the next century. This is such a supreme piece of architecture that it could easily become a tourist magnet. Restored to its full glory, with pergola in place and sight lines intact, it will be on equal footing with the greatest of Wright's prairie-style houses.
Roycroft Inn and the Alexis Jean Fournier murals
This pleasingly balanced arts and crafts building was carefully restored in 1995. A year later the restored Fournier murals were installed in their original places on the upper walls of the foyer. Working with art that had suffered from 90 years of grime, water damage and the overzealous hands of earlier restorers, James Hamm and his team from Buffalo State College's art conservation department did an amazing job in regaining much of the artist's singular sense of fused light and waffling atmosphere.
"Huck Finn" manuscript
A prime example of what it sometimes takes to keep your cultural heritage intact. In 1992 a hard-fought legal battle prevented the auction of the long-lost first half of the manuscript of Mark Twain's "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn." Twain had willed it to the Buffalo and Erie County Library in the 1800s, but it never turned up until it was found in a steamer trunk by a granddaughter of John Fraser Gluck, the library trustee who received the manuscript from Twain but died before he could have the pages bound. Now both halves are together in the library collection as Twain intended. Buffalo is the richer for it.
Old Post Office building
This marvel of a building from the turn of the century has an imposing tower, an airy central light court and a floor designed by the only Buffalonian to go down in the Titanic, Edward A. Kent. By 1981 Cannon Design had completed a sensitive renovation and the building is now the home of Erie Community College's downtown campus.
Shea's Performing Arts Center
One of the truly great old movie palaces, Shea's is saturated in ornament and nostalgia. It is going strong these days and will soon have a new $14.5 million stage that will allow more elaborate productions.
Wright's lakeside house for Isabelle Martin is a prime example of the architect's keen use of site as part of the experience of a building. The 1-year-old Graycliff Conservancy has launched a campaign to buy and preserve the house, hoping to eventually make it a public, self-sustaining entity.
Other great saves: Connecticut Street Armory, Calumet Building, Lancaster Opera House and Kleinhans Music Hall, now more than halfway through its restoration project.
Louis Sullivan's architectural gem was given a thorough and sensitive renovation in the early 1980s and remains one of the great saves in city history. But at the moment it struggles economically in a downtown that has lost too many tenants. One of the most refined boxes in all the world's commercial architecture, the Prudential is essential to any hopes of tourist revival. It can't be allowed to fall on hard times again.
Cobblestones? Has anyone seen any pushing up through the blacktop? This is one of those projects, like the waterfront development, that promises to require a decade of talk before the first shovel strikes the earth.
New York Central Terminal
Somehow, some way, this art deco monster must be made into a beacon for the city. With a fancy version of art deco in City Hall, it would appear that Buffalo had this deco tower thing all wrapped up. But how will this costly restoration take place, and by whom? The Buffalo Common Council just recently got around to approving security for the building and repair for its leaking roof. But the building has been stripped of most of its artifacts and structural damage has occurred.
The Victor Hugo building
After years of abandonment, there is action here. A luxury hotel is promised.
The grain elevators
We can be thankful. They are standing and some are still being used.
Everybody knows about the battle between those who want twin bridges and those who envision a single new span as a symbol for the city. Has anyone ever thought of a third possibility: Keep the old bridge but design the new bridge so that it sets up a dramatic contrast to the old? A calculated visual tension between the two spans would be far better than the bland echo now proposed, and very postmodern besides.