Buffalonians today are much more aware of their heritage of great architecture than they were a couple of generations ago when some special buildings were demolished, structures that might easily have been preserved.
But I wonder whether we have learned the tragic lesson of the Larkin Building, the Frank Lloyd Wright masterpiece that was razed in 1950. If we have, our community will act now to save the architectural features of the Erlanger Theater that remain at 120 Delaware Ave. at the corner of Mohawk.
The building is vacant now and eventually will be the site of a new federal courthouse. My concern is that one morning, I'll see the wrecking crews at work battering down the walls of this classic theater -- all that's left here from the great era of legitimate theater.
The site has already been purchased for the courthouse, so there is no chance to restore the portion of the building that was the Erlanger. We can, however, salvage the front facade on Delaware and the northern facade on Mohawk and preserve them to be used for an appropriate building within the Theater District.
When the Erlanger was abandoned as a theater in 1956, it left this city without a professional playhouse. Over the years since, we have built a vibrant theatrical reputation with Studio Arena, Shea's Performing Arts Center and numerous smaller venues throughout metropolitan Buffalo. However, none of these can compete with the Erlanger in ambience and size. It seated 1,500 and was a wonderful setting, drawing top performers such as Helen Hayes, Orson Wells, Katharine Cornell, Gloria Swanson, Paul Robeson, the Barrymores and many other theater greats. I recall its last season concluded with Hume Cronyn and Jessica Tandy in "The Four Poster."
Built in renaissance revival style in 1927 by E.M. Statler, who wanted a theater across the street from his new hotel, the Erlanger was a major stop on the theatrical circuit. It was designed by the firm of Warren & Wetmore, the architects for Grand Central Station and a number of other prominent buildings in New York, including the Biltmore and Vanderbilt hotels. When it was complete, Statler sold it to a Buffalo-born theatrical impresario, Abraham Lincoln Erlanger, who was one of the most powerful and influential theatrical entrepreneurs of the period.
The theater building escaped the wrecker's ball once a half century ago, when it was annexed to a new office structure. Now, with no appropriation in the federal budget for construction of the courthouse, will it be demolished to create just what we don't need -- a parking lot -- while the city waits for the funding for the courthouse? I hope not.
Mayor Byron W. Brown should act now to contact professionals in the School of Architecture at the University at Buffalo. They can determine how the distinguishing architectural characteristics may be saved and reused in a new building so that the Erlanger will remain a cultural icon in Buffalo. We must act now rather than whine about it later.
John S. Cullen, chairman of Multisorb Technologies, chaired the first restoration of Shea's Buffalo in the 1970s.