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Building culture The classic structure housing the Albright-Knox Art Gallery is celebrating 100 years as the cornerstone of Western New York's artistic community

It's no secret Buffalo has its share of architectural marvels.

The Guaranty Building, Buffalo Psychiatric Center and Darwin Martin House are often cited at the head of the class.

But no building is such a civic touchstone, or conveys as much cultural authority, as the Greek Revival building that's home to the Albright-Knox Art Gallery. That's true even for people who don't know abstract artist Ellsworth Kelly from former Buffalo Bill Jim Kelly.

Buffalonians pass the white-marbled, patined landmark in their cars, pose for wedding pictures on its looming steps, listen to jazz concerts in its shadow and use it to gaze across Delaware Park's sweeping vista.

Now it's time to draw a deep breath and blow out birthday candles for the internationally renowned repository of modern and contemporary art. The building -- named for early benefactor John J. Albright and, beginning in 1962, patron Seymour H. Knox II -- is 100 years old.

"It's an incredibly wonderful building that gives us great flexibility to present anything from historic material to contemporary, cutting-edge installation art," said Louis Grachos, the museum's director.

The structure's classic aesthetic elements -- from the 102 fluted columns and stately colonnade to egg-and-dart molding and frieze ornaments -- were designed by Buffalo architect Edward B. Green as a monument to the golden age of art and architecture of ancient Greece.

It's an architectural style evident in many art museums of its day, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the Boston Museum of Fine Arts.

"The very essence of the idea of a museum as a temple is at the heart of American museum building, going back to the late 19th century. Neoclassical architecture (was used) to express authority and a kind of ethical standard," said New York Times chief art critic Michael Kimmelman, who will speak on Nov. 9 at the gallery's centennial celebration at its annual members-only event.

The architectural trend occurred during a banner time for Buffalo, which was then one of the nation's most prosperous cities.

"What we have is a museum that is responding to contemporary trends in the early part of the 20th century," said Ted Pietrzak, Burchfield-Penney Art Center's executive director. "Buffalo was looking toward the things indisputably the finest and the best, and these were put on a pedestal."

> A beautiful opening

Several thousand Buffalonians were present for the Albright Art Gallery's opening outdoor celebration at 4 p.m. on May 31, 1905. A small army of marshals and ushers dressed in frock coats, white scarves and silk hats were on hand to greet them.

The Buffalo Fine Arts Academy, founded in 1862 and still the governing body of the Albright-Knox, was ready to unveil its new building -- a gift from Buffalo industrialist John J. Albright.

The architect Green, who was in partnership with William S. Wicks, placed the structure on a hill at the west end of Frederick Law Olmsted's Delaware Park overlooking the tranquil lake. The architect's other accomplishments would include the neoclassical Market Arcade, the flat-iron-shaped Dun Building and numerous, grand homes along Delaware Avenue.

The new museum was an adaptation of the Erectheum, a structure on the Acropolis in Athens built in 408 B.C. to house shrines for minor deities. When the gallery was completed, it was second only to the U.S. Capitol in its sheer number of columns. The marble came from the same quarry used to build the Washington Monument.

One of the most unusual features were the caryatids -- eight figures of stoic women by famed American sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens that support the roofs of the north and south porches.

Four represent different arts: architecture, music, sculpture and painting. Due to a later economic collapse by Albright and the death of Saint-Gaudens, they weren't installed until 1933.

Failure to complete the building for the 1901 Pan-American Exposition -- unlike the nearby, Parthenon-inspired building that housed what would become the Buffalo & Erie County Historical Society -- failed to dent the excitement.

According to the academy's July 1905 Academy Notes, that Wednesday afternoon was strikingly beautiful. Musical societies gave performances, special music commissioned for the day was performed and a poem recited. Charles William Eliot, president of Harvard University, delivered an address on "Beauty and Democracy."

"Of course, at the moment everyone is talking about the building as a building, and this is not surprising," wrote a correspondent for the New York Tribune. "I do not know anywhere in America an edifice of the kind which is intrinsically more artistic."

> Time of growth

For its opening, monthlong exhibition, the museum presented 237 works of living, contemporary artists, 36 from its own collection.

The museum's collection would grow exponentially over the years, gaining a reputation for having one of the finest post-war collections of modern and contemporary American and European art in the world.

Much of that had to do with the more than 600 acquisitions made in the 1950s and 1960s by patron Seymour H. Knox II. As an heir to the Woolworth fortune, he continued his father's dedication to the museum -- and then some.

Working with Gordon Smith, the museum's director, they obtained many of the great paintings of their day for the gallery, including one of the greatest collections of Abstract Expressionism.

"Inch for inch, and painting for painting, no museum in this country can better the Albright-Knox in Buffalo when it comes to the art of the second half of this century," declared a 1979 article in Smithsonian Institution.

To accommodate the growing collection, Gordon Bunshaft of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill designed a marble and glass wing that doubled exhibition space to 40,000 square feet. The Knox-funded building opened in 1962.

The almost minimalist Bunshaft building was an attempt to pare down to a pure and simple form, in the same way the 1905 classical building was meant to be in harmonious balance. It adhered to the motto of Modernist uber-architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe: "Less is more."

The incongruity of the Modernist building and its "black box" auditorium, next to the classical purity of the 1905 building, caused perplexed or disagreeable reactions then as it does today. Others embraced the contrasts in the same way they have I.M. Pei's geometrically-shaped glass pyramid inside the entrance of the Louvre in Paris in 1989.

Kimmelman said the aesthetic tension embodied in Albright-Knox's two buildings is representative of a conversation the art world has had with itself for decades.

"At the heart of the dilemma for the American museum was how to create museums that conveyed the authority of the institution, and also welcomed the democratic idea of culture," Kimmelman said. "I think a lot of what's happened architecturally to museums in the last 100 years has been to reconcile that problem."

Susana Tejada, head of research resources at the Albright-Knox, and chairwoman of the committee celebrating the museum's centennial, sees an exciting dynamic between the two buildings.

"The building itself represents what we are as an institution. You have the 1905, which is tradition, and the 1962 that throws that tradition into the future," Tejada said.

> Knox ties remain strong

The Albright-Knox holds special meaning for 50-year-old Seymour Knox IV beyond bearing the family name, or being a significant benefactor through the ongoing support of the Seymour H. Knox Foundation.

Knox proposed to his wife in the Greek Revival building in 1989.

It's also where the Buffalo resident watches his 11-year-old son run up the 43 back steps "Rocky"-style, or drink hot chocolate together as they enjoy the view.

"It's one of the most breathtaking buildings in all of Western New York," Knox said.

The museum has another, lesser-known attribute, Knox said, that shows once more how the museum can be many things to many people.

"It's a great makeout spot behind the fountain," he said.

e-mail: msommer@buffnews.com

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