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Unloved, maybe, but standing tall

One month ago, The Buffalo News compiled a list of beloved buildings from Buffalo’s past that were lost to the wrecking ball, fire or other fates. Digging through the region’s architectural heritage got us thinking about the other side of that question: What are the most unloved buildings in the area? Now, reasonable people can disagree on what makes a beautiful, or ugly, building. (Some people might put The Buffalo News headquarters building on the unloved list.)

Some of the works on this list were derided while they were under construction, others have provoked more dismay the more time passes since their completion.

We aren’t professional architectural critics, so wherever possible we’ve tried to relay the critiques of others rather than impose our own views. You may have your own thoughts, of course, and we welcome your feedback. Heck, the City of Toronto for 10 years had a contest, called the Pug Awards, that sought the public’s opinions on the buildings constructed over the previous year.

As you read, keep in mind this quote attributed to Frank Lloyd Wright: “A doctor can bury his mistakes, but an architect can only advise his clients to plant vines.”

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PHOTO GALLERY: The most unloved buildings in Buffalo

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Churchill Academic Tower

Canisius College

Canisius built the tower, which was finished in 1971 and named after former WKBW radio owner and evangelist Clinton H. Churchill in 1981, because it was running out of office space for its growing faculty. The Rev. Edward B. Gillen, assistant to the president for planning, picked a tower design by Leroy H. Welch to maximize what little space was available on campus, according to the college.

The plan was controversial from the first, but Gillen predicted the tower would become a local landmark. It sure did. Critics complain Churchill doesn’t fit in with the rest of the campus and blocks the view from Main Street of Old Main’s golden dome. School officials say one of the most common questions asked by students and alumni is some variation of: “Why did they build that tower there?”

“The hulking cylinder is a very unattractive addition to an otherwise great-looking campus,” Newell Nussbaumer wrote in a 2006 Buffalo Rising blog post.

Canisius officials defend the tower, for all of its flaws, as highly functional. “Its upper floors offer great views of the city. And every office is the same size, so there are no corner offices for the faculty to argue about,” the late George M. Martin, a dedicated alum and longtime administrator, once said.

The entire University at Buffalo North Campus

Amherst

The university constructed the buildings along the main academic spine, as well as the Ellicott Complex and Governors Complex dormitories, throughout the 1970s. The school followed a campus master plan produced by the architectural firm Sasaki, Dawson, DeMay and Associates, but each building had its own designer, including the well-known architects I.M. Pei, Ulrich Franzen and Marcel Breuer.

Students for years have complained about the uninspiring complex of modernist, brown brick buildings that sits in the heart of the campus, with the “Lego Land” Ellicott Complex rising to its north. The central quad, if there is one, is covered in cement instead of grass.

Blame it on Gov. Nelson Rockefeller – the style of architecture is common to the SUNY campuses built during his reign – and on a host of planning and financial problems.

By 1995, the UB Environmental Task Force put it this way in its “UB 2025 Project” report: “UB’s North Campus is just like a shopping mall: a megastructure in the center, surrounded by parking, surrounded by a large highway. You really don’t know where it begins and where it ends. It just fades away.”

And the Princeton Review in its admittedly nonscientific 2002 guide to 331 colleges and universities ranked UB No. 1 in the country in the category of “campus is tiny, unsightly, or both,” comparing the buildings to dungeons.

UB has spent the past 35 years trying to fix the mistakes of the past.

“There is no such thing as an ugly building or an ugly campus, only an incomplete one,” said Robert Shibley, dean of UB’s School of Architecture and Planning. “With the recent construction of Davis and Greiner halls, new renovations to the learning landscape along UB’s academic spine, improvements in child care facilities and new landscaping, including Walter Hood’s Solar Strand, we have been improving the campus.”

Buffalo City Court

50 Delaware Ave.

Built in 1974, and designed by Buffalo architects Pfohl, Roberts & Biggie, the City Court building looms like a monolith over Niagara Square with its façade of massive concrete panels. Defenders say the City Court building is a classic example of Brutalist architecture, and that’s certainly a good word for it. The building looks like it would be right at home in a bleak, post-apocalyptic graphic novel.

“Some critics of the form merely find it ugly and uninviting, while others view many public buildings in the Brutalist style as the embodiment of a troubling tendency toward authoritarianism or evocative of oppressive, Soviet-style design. The reality is a great deal more complicated, of course,” arts critic Colin Dabkowski wrote in a March 2014 column.

Shoreline Apartments

200 Niagara St.

More Brutalism, this time from the noted modernist architect Paul Rudolph, and completed in 1972. Rudolph’s vision for the large low-income housing project wasn’t fully realized, and the development is cut off from downtown by Niagara Street and from the waterfront by the Niagara Thruway, Dabkowski wrote in the 2014 column.

Critics say the apartments, which have fallen into disrepair, are a monument to failed urban policy. But local preservationists rallied to their side when the current owner announced plans to raze five of the concrete townhouses and replace them with new apartment units.

Main Place Mall

Downtown Buffalo

The Main Place Mall and the adjoining Main Place Tower were built in 1969 following the design of architects Harrison and Abramovitz. (Lathrop Douglass is credited with the mall itself.)

Nicholas Croston, writing in the Windy Nickel blog in September 2013, described the mall as what the Death Star from “Star Wars” would look like if it were crunched into a rectangle and plopped in the middle of downtown.

The bigger problem, he wrote, is that the mall and tower were constructed as part of an urban renewal campaign that saw the demolition of the grand old Erie County Savings Bank. The Romanesque Revival building for more than 70 years anchored Shelton Square, which also was lost to the mall and tower.

“Now instead of a powerful testament to the city’s heritage, there’s just a hulking, black, horizontal slab,” Croston wrote.

Lackawanna City Hall

If you want to find someone to defend the modern addition to Lackawanna City Hall, which looks like a big orange box on stilts, don’t talk to Mayor Geoffrey Szymanski.

When told The News was putting together a list of the area’s unloved buildings, Szymanski said, “Ours should be on every page.” He was just getting warmed up.

Szymanski said he’s not sure why the addition, which was constructed in 1968 and 1969, was colored orange; he thinks it was a nod to one of the two colors, orange and green, used in the Bethlehem Steel logo.

“It’s the only orange building I’ve ever seen, in all my travels on this planet,” he said.

Last November, during the mega-storm that dumped up to 7 feet of snow on the region, someone worried to Szymanski that City Hall’s expansive, flat roof could collapse under the weight of all of that snow. “I hope so,” he quipped.

And, finally, when asked the name of the architect for the building affectionately known as the “Orange Milk Crate,” Szymanski joked, “Lucifer.” (It actually was Donald W. Love Architect and Associates.)

Tell us how you really feel, Mr. Mayor.

Former Vix Deep Discount and Pharmacy

701-705 Maple Road, Amherst

This building, on Maple Road just west of North Forest Road, is architecturally no better and no worse than any other generic, uninspiring shopping plaza built in Buffalo’s suburbs since the 1960s. But we’ve chosen it to represent the many “white elephant” retail centers that can sit vacant for years after they fall out of favor and close their doors.

The one-story retail building was built in 1968 and renovated for a final time in 1994, according to Buffalo News archives. It operated for years as a Tops store and later as part of the Vix chain, before closing in 2003. It sat vacant for nearly a dozen years, despite its well-traveled location, before owner Benderson Development Co. this month announced plans to convert it to medical office space for two Kaleida Health practices.

Niagara Falls Public Library

1425 Main St.

The Brutalist (are you seeing a trend?) Earl W. Brydges building, designed by Shoreline Apartments architect Paul Rudolph, opened in 1974. The modern library replaced a classic 1904 building, paid for with a grant from Andrew Carnegie, that was bursting at the seams. But the $6.5 million Brydges library “leaked like a sieve” from day one and soon required $10 million in repairs.

Michelle Petrazzoulo, the library’s current executive director, said the building is far from functional. It’s too large for the library’s needs and too expensive to heat and keep cool. The wide-open, three-story design allows noise to carry throughout the building, which isn’t ideal for a library. And it’s hard to hang pictures, add electric outlets or update the computer network because the whole thing is made out of concrete.

“I do feel like I have a tug of war with this building,” Petrazzoulo said. The next project on her list? A $2.2 million replacement of the foundation.

The building earns raves from tourists and architecture buffs, Petrazzoulo said, because it’s a fine example of Rudolph’s Brutalist designs. But staff and patrons are less thrilled.

“I just think it’s too industrial to me. It’s not welcoming – it’s not friendly,” she said.

Buffalo Niagara Convention Center

153 Franklin St.

Convention centers can be sterile, anonymous bandboxes that have no connection to the cities that surround them, and the Buffalo Niagara Convention Center, designed by DiDonato and Associates and opened in 1978, is no exception. The construction of the convention center, and the Main Place Mall, cut off some of downtown’s main arteries and created a dead space around the center.

“The Convention Center is the ugliest building in Buffalo and stands guard over a moribund area of the Business District,” a city resident wrote to The Buffalo News editor in 1999.

“It kills street life and has no respect for downtown. It takes away life on the block that it sits on and the blocks that it faces,” Mike Brill, of the Bosti architectural firm, told The News’ Richard Huntington in a 1988 column.

Boosters predicted the convention center would create 3,000 new hotel rooms, 1,500 parking spaces and $80 million of development nearby, but that never came to pass.

Critics complain the center is too small and too outdated to attract large conventions – even after a $7 million upgrade in 2010 – and planners for at least 20 years have discussed whether to replace it.

Burchfield Penney Art Center

1300 Elmwood Ave.

The Burchfield Penney Art Center, which opened in 2008, drew criticism as it was under construction on the SUNY Buffalo State campus. Gwathmey Siegel and Associates Architects, which designed the center, said the building is meant to complement the original and modern wings of the Albright-Knox Art Gallery, across the street, and the towering Richardson Olmsted Complex nearby.

Architect Charles Gwathmey described it as “an abstract object in a garden” in a 2008 Buffalo News article headlined “Beauty and the Burchfield.”

Critics decried the uninviting, windowless curved wall of rectangular zinc plates that faces Elmwood, with the main entrance tucked away on the other side of the building.

“The building, functionally, doesn’t do much for the community in terms of transparency, accessibility and openness,” said Karl Frizlen, head of Buffalo’s Frizlen Group architecture firm, in the same article.

email: swatson@buffnews.com