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In Buffalo, historians like not only the architecture, but also the attitude

Six hundred architectural historians visiting Buffalo this week got their first peek at the city’s finest buildings Wednesday.

They liked what they saw.

But the architecture buffs say they’re just as impressed with the can-do spirit of local activists as they are with the masterworks of Richardson, Sullivan and Wright.

They like the city’s mojo as much as its masterworks.

“I’ve never been here before, but sitting here, you really get the sense that this is an exciting place to be,” said Catherine Boland Erkkila, an architectural historian and doctoral student at Rutgers University.

“There’s this energy,” she added. “You feel like something’s happening, and it’s really palpable. I get the sense that this is going on in the city, and it’s not just a bunch of enthusiasts in a room.”

The architecture conference comes a year after preservationists from around the country gave Buffalo two thumbs up.

“As an architectural historian, I think it’s the best place for architecture in the country, hands down,” said Annie Schentag of Ithaca. “It’s something that, living here, you really should appreciate what you have.”

Buffalo’s architecture “is on a more human scale and more intimate and interesting than in a lot of other places,” added Holley Wlodarzyk of Minnesota.

Wednesday, conference-goers were whisked across the city by bus to see the region’s greatest architectural treasures and its newest projects.

City Hall. The Guaranty Building. The Central Terminal. Larkinville. The Olmsted Parks. Silo City.

If the opening days of the conference offer a lesson, the experts say, it’s that the passion Buffalo has for restoring its past holds the key to building its future.

And it’s no secret in the architecture world that that movement – among young activists, preservationists, policy makers and developers – has already begun here.

“There’s a lot of excitement and interest around the country about what’s happening in Buffalo at the moment with combining historic preservation and the environmental sustainability movement to develop a really livable city,” said Kenneth A. Breisch, vice president of the Society of Architectural Historians.

Buffalo was “rich at the right time and poor at the right time,” conference officials said, because we had the money to put up many of the city’s grand wonders but no funds to knock them down.

Now, the buildings left standing serve as a template for the resurrection of other post-industrial places.

Local officials were happy to dish details about why that is.

Quality of life has improved in the city’s neighborhoods as the once-neglected park system – designed by famed landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted – was beautified by hundreds of community volunteers.

Architecture has played a key role in the transformation, they said, with the restoration of historic buildings within the parks.

“Our entire visual character has been transformed,” said Thomas Herrera-Mishler, president and CEO of the Olmsted Parks Conservancy. “It’s had a profound effect on how we think of ourselves as a city.”

Other groups have made a serious investment in once-forgotten neighborhoods, such as the city’s West Side, causing homes to sell “like hotcakes” and pushing values higher.

And an entire industry of preservation-minded developers, law firms and young activists has come to the forefront with the use of historic tax credits on high-profile projects like the Hotel @ the Lafayette.

The architects also were pleased to hear the city is the third in the country to throw out its outdated zoning code and create a new one that promotes high-density, walkable neighborhoods.

All of these elements have been coming together for years, but officials say the two national conferences have given them an urgency like never before.

“You come here at a time when there is great appreciation for our built environment and much more interest in living in the city,” Tom Yots of Preservation Buffalo Niagara told the group.

Robert G. Shibley, dean of the University at Buffalo’s School of Architecture and Planning, assured the architects that Buffalo is just getting started.

“It’s again a great time to be in Buffalo,” he said. “Things have never been more promising. We are tired of being pregnant – we’re gonna deliver. It’s coming back.”