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"We shape our buildings, and afterwards our buildings shape us."

-- Winston Churchill

Downtown Buffalo, New Year's Eve 1935. A palace from opulent-era Western New York holds many mysteries.

There's a secret passage, gossip has it, between this Allentown landmark and its neighbor the Buffalo Club, so that some prominent gentlemen of the exclusive club can give a New Year's kiss to ladies other than their wives -- without besmirching anyone's sterling reputation.

That's just one of the rumors surrounding the Mansion, spelled these days with a capital "M." Perhaps the greatest curiousity is how the 132-year-old "new" hotel at 414 Delaware Ave. was saved from a wrecker's ball to become a dazzling symbol of Buffalo itself. Born from the city's early wealth, only to fall into near ruin during suburban flight, the Mansion has risen again, transformed into a nationally known luxury retreat.

The comeback of what's known in architectural circles as "the Charles F. Sternberg House" -- and scheduled to be featured in Architectural Digest's February issue -- follows a multimillion-dollar renovation that spanned 14 painstaking months. Planning alone took a year and a half. Mansion staffers are now gearing up for the holidays, and they welcome drop-in visits from anyone interested in the exquisite renovation work that's been done.

"We've become a big holiday 'gift' this year -- corporations are buying certificates for a stay to reward their great employees," says Mansion manager and co-owner Gino Principe. "It's the kind of gift some people would never get for themselves.

"New Year's Eve was already sold out by the summer."

Mansion owner Dennis Murphy, president of Buffalo-based InnVest Lodging Services, conceded he's "built 250-room hotels that took less time and worry than this one." But he knew when he was done, no one would recall how long it took.

"They'd only recognize how beautiful it is" Murphy says. "It is an icon of Buffalo, a representative of the glory days. It sat dormant for 23 years, and we were able to bring the building back, in some ways, better than its original splendor. It's an example of what Buffalo can do."

Shortly after escorting a group of Russian visitors through the stately lobby, Principe pointed out that those who designed the Mansion's rebirth wanted everything to be perfect.

"We decided to give ourselves time to allow that to happen," says Principe. "It was hard to envision because the building was in such horrible disrepair, we needed to make so many decisions."

Perfect it is, enveloping global nomads like rocker Eric Clapton, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y., Dominic "Uncle Junior" Chianese from "The Sopranos," and country singers Reba McIntyre, Tim McGraw and Faith Hill in a jewel-box sanctuary of both contemporary comfort and baronial splendor. This glamour spot of Buffalo provides a fantasy experience of a bygone time; all guests get a personal butler.

And butlers were needed to run the more than 20,000-square-foot home built in 1870, a structure known in the pre-electricity era as the "House of Light."

Gilded Age Buffalo

In those days, that light came from the building's 200 windows, an extravagance ordered by millionaire Charles Sternberg, who owned a grain elevator on Ohio Street.

Grain was king in late-1800s Buffalo. Remember the grain elevator was invented here. And Sternberg had the cash to build himself a castle, even when a castle cost a then-outrageous $200,000. In those days, a skilled tradesman earned the handsome weekly salary of $20. Heating with coal was expensive, yet Sternberg ordered 18-foot ceilings, and more than a dozen large bay windows from architect George Allison, designer of other pricey Delaware Avenue homes. The Sternberg house, according to the "Buffalo Architecture" guide, was "the most characteristic example of the American Second Empire style in the city."

"The centerpiece of the facade is the elegant entrance porch, elevated several feet above the street," states the guide. "Approached by two curved flights of marble steps and trimmed with delicate iron cresting, it is supported by cast-iron Corinthian columns from which spring small pointed arches."

Elegance was a requirement. When moneyed Buffalo women did make an appearance at the shores of Lake Erie, they wore full gowns, hats and parasols. And if they went in the water, they only left behind their parasols. When the snow flew, these same women skated in full dress for their Christmas exercise.

"One important way in which the rich are indeed different from the rest of us is that they are conspicuous," noted historian John Foreman's study of the Gilded Age. "This is true in spite of their best efforts to the contrary." And there was a time in the great cities like Buffalo when, he says, "there was little effort made to hide one's riches."

"Many rich people saw themselves as flesh and blood fulfillments of the American dream," wrote Foreman.

So building a palace like the Mansion sprang from that indulgent philosophy.

"The reasoning that led men to build private palaces was usually quite sound," wrote Foreman. "Such buildings were, of course, visible symbols of power and backdrops for lavish entertainments." And Buffalo certainly had what Foreman called "mechanical innovation and cheap and abundant labor. Large and elaborate houses were furthermore an expression of high fashion. Their design often represented the cutting edge of national taste."

These "great houses of the rising plutocracy," he continues, were "consciously viewed, by builders and public alike, as attempts to beautify the American scene and enrich our own infant culture.

"Much of the life that was lived within these great houses was quite captivating. Certainly it was theatrical. The extravagant dinners and balls, the gleaming equipages, and liveried servants, the aura of luxurious women and powerful men fascinate us still. We should not forget that the great house and the great party are both constants in human experience."

But destiny played a trick on Charles Sternberg, who would not enjoy that great party. He died before the mansion was finished.

Civil War veteran Colonel John Condit Smith then bought the home, taking his place in a neighborhood with scores of millionaires. The house was near what would be known as the Midway -- about half the distance on Delaware Avenue between Niagara Square and Forest Lawn, then close to the city's outskirts. In the midst of a baroque explosion, Buffalo's economic elite invited visitors like wit Oscar Wilde, who lectured ladies in their own homes on how to decorate in the trendiest late-19th century style.

Wilde "caused a profound movement, a kind of upheaval, through Buffalo society and everyone was talking about him and trying to get him to visit them," reported Mabel Dodge, the city's first lady of the arts whose exploits shocked her conservative contemporaries. Wilde, she wrotein her memoirs, toured "one house, stuffed with 'decorations.' ... All the woodwork was twisted and tortured and varnished, and everywhere there were 'drapes' and bunches of gilded cat-o'-nine-tails tied together with great satin bows of ribbon."

A few miles away from Col. Smith's house stood the factories, docks and squatters' shanties, the "other" Buffalo that sheltered the poor from the industrial sky and plumes of smoke, and provided muscle to build the city's monuments. Industry ruled.

"Buffalo always grew northwards and people were beginning life down on lower Delaware Avenue or Franklin Street," maintained Dodge, confidante to D.H. Lawrence and Gertrude Stein. In the evenings, Dodge recalled, "there would be many dinner parties in Buffalo society. It was all divided up into sets and each set dined together a great deal. The dinners were usually of 12 people, and the tables were loaded with glass and silver and lace centerpieces. People ate and drank very well in Buffalo."

The mansion was turned into a 100-room hotel in time for the Pan-American Exposition, when Buffalo was the eighth-largest city in the country. Some exposition visitors were forced to sleep outdoors in then-costly cardboard boxes. But the new hotel commanded the highest price in the city -- three dollars a night. Society women took rooms there. An annex to the hotel was built on what is now the Buffalo Club parking lot. During the Great Depression, the hotel was rumored to be a bordello, allegedly frequented by some club members.

After World War II, restaurateur Hugo DiGiulio bought the establishment, turning it into the celebrated Victor Hugo's Wine Cellar, a hangout for the city's glitterati. The name probably didn't come from the 19th-century French author of "The Hunchback of Notre Dame." Rather, the late Hugo DiGiulio's partner had the middle name "Victor," and thus Victor Hugo's was born. The Wine Cellar was in the lower level, and the rest of the building was eventually turned into apartments -- but only rented to "interesting" people, one story goes. Tony Bennett gave a private concert in the "Cellar" until the wee hours of the morning. Liberace and actor Howard Keel also stayed there.

Ruin and Rebirth

After a few years, the building, including the Wine Cellar, fell into disrepair. It closed in the mid-1970s.

This was before the growth of the preservation movement. Tearing down an old stately home at that time was "almost an act of patriotism," according to historian Foreman.

The Sternberg mansion stood vacant for almost a quarter century, while many STABS (Suit Tie and Briefcases) fled the city. It was a time when Buffalo lost a big convention because a downtown hotel -- no longer in existence -- was infested with spiders. With the 1970s energy crises and baby boomers having trouble finding jobs, those remaining preferred homes with low ceilings. Commuters to the suburbs passed the Sternberg House en route to the Kensington Expressway. The once-spectacular windows were boarded up and the steps started to crumble. The grand lady's gown began to tatter.

But after years of stultifying suburban sameness, the city has begun to look interesting again. In the last four years, developers have invested more than $40 million in downtown hotels alone. Flowers have been planted, and Buffalo's ornate fountains are running again.

One Mansion guest from Orchard Park, on a recent romantic getaway weekend put it this way:

"We could have gone to the Prince of Wales in Niagara-on-the-Lake, but this is ours," he says. "That makes it special."

Not to mention the whirlpool baths with salts, cloud-like duvet beds with all-cotton linens, white cotton robes, fresh flowers, guest-personalized stationery, shoeshine, clothes-pressing, chilled bottled water and an evening sweets plate, afternoon cocktails, breakfast in a billiards salon and courtesy transportation. The rooms start at $145-a-night.

Visitors really feel like pampered divas. They can tell themselves Eric Clapton, Reba McIntyre, Tim McGraw and Faith Hill all chose to stay at the Mansion during the past 18 months.

Guests revisit the city's Gilded Age under ornate plaster mouldings and ceiling relief, mahogany wainscoting, breathtaking black walnut in the fireside salon, hand-honed white American oak woodwork in the library and detailed pocket doors.

Yet this hedonist shrine with its Old World service also integrates itself with 21st-century Buffalo. Area craftsmen created gracious nickel-inlaid armoires, capacious cherry beds and bed-side tables. All paintings and sculptures in the Mansion are the work of local artists.

Owner of more than a dozen Marriotts, present owner Murphy saw past the deterioration. "You could figure out what it was supposed to look like," he says. He respected the historical elements," and had the patience to wait for quality.

"We knew if we did it right, we'd end up saving a building and creating a successful business -- a double win," says Murphy. "The question was, how do you put a successful luxury hotel business in a building with so much architectural integrity? In a way it was like a Rubik's Cube.

"We've been lucky with the celebrities, but remain in touch with the community."

During the Allentown Art Festival, for example, the Mansion's doors were open to curious visitors who needed respite from the sun.

Contractor Peyton Barlow helped maintain the integrity and craftsmanship of George Allison's design. The tasteful 28 rooms are in creamy contemporary tones that conveys a tranquil mood.

Principe, who runs the hotel along with his wife Diana, says they were aiming for a "chic, modern look," with a fitness studio, rather than an "antiqued, period hotel you expect when you see the building. We thought this would be unexpected. Our buzz words were 'sexy and cool.'"

Some of the large rooms have fireplaces and parlor suites. With two ballrooms, it's been a favored spot for area weddings and corporate conferences.

And it might have even received Oscar Wilde's Christmas-party stamp of approval.

Buffalo News Staff Reporter Louise Continelli's last story for First Sunday was on the rise of the sociopath.