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'These buildings are Gershwin': Stylish Art Deco enlivens city

Art Deco, the radical, stylized design of the 1920s and 1930s, decorates Buffalo.

The ornamentation of Buffalo City Hall and the Central Terminal, two set-back monoliths, are the most well-known examples.

But they're hardly alone.

There are the downtown Art Deco gems along the Court Street corridor, between City Hall and Lafayette Square. The Industrial Bank Building, the Walter J. Mahoney State Office Building and the lobby of the Hotel @ the Lafayette are some of the examples.

The modern art movement shows up in other downtown buildings, including the lobby of the Electric Tower Building on Washington Street, and the Vars Building on Delaware Avenue and Tupper Street, one of three Art Deco designs by Buffalo architects Lawrence H. Bley and Duane S. Lyman.

[GALLERY: Derek Gee's photos of Art Deco architecture in Buffalo]

Detail of the intricate Art Deco frieze in the facade of the Industrial Bank Building on Court and Pearl streets. (Derek Gee/Buffalo News)

The exotic designs have also left an imprint on the East Side, too.

Art Deco is evident in Frederick Law Olmsted 156, the former Lederman's furniture store on Lombard Street and the former Liberty Bank on Genesee Street, where coins can be seen on the facade, including Mercury from the mercury dime and the bison from the Buffalo nickel.

"Louis Sullivan once said architecture was frozen music," said Martin Wachadlo, an architectural historian. "If that were true I would say these buildings are Gershwin."

Wachadlo is particularly enamored of City Hall. He likes the many adornments outside the building, including the southwest Indian colors and designs, the carved limestone panels, geometric panels and columns that look like pipes bound together with wire, rather than classic pillars.

"City Hall is the ultimate setback skyscraper, a Hugh Ferriss dream come true," Wachadlo said of the New York architectural draftsman and artist who sketched towering, terraced buildings in deep shadows and bright lights that became a hallmark of Art Deco's look.

(Ferriss' influential 1929 book, "The Metropolis of Tomorrow," featuring artistic renderings, are currently in the exhibition "Building Buffalo: 60 Architectural Books from the Rare Book Collection of the Buffalo & Erie County Public Library.)

The ceiling over the three-story stone atrium inside the pillars on the main entrance to Buffalo City Hall features intricate, glazed terra cotta tiles. (Derek Gee/Buffalo News file photo)

Inside City Hall, Wachadlo counts the polychrome ceiling, geometric metal work grills and stylized panels throughout the entry area depicting Buffalo's industries among his favorites.

"These wonderful details really make the building an extraordinary experience," Wachadlo said.

Started in France

The term "Art Deco" -- an interior design style that began in France -- was coined in the 1960s to commemorate the 1925 Exposition Internationale des Arts Decoratifs Industriels et Modernes, an international design exhibition in Paris.

The design brought together the early modern architecture of Europe with new trends in the fine and commercial arts.

Cubism, an avant-garde painting style of the early 20th century, was an influence. So was pre-Columbian art and architecture, including ancient Aztec and Egyptian motifs, likely due to the discovery of  Pharaoh Tuntankhamen's tomb in 1922.

Industrial designers applied Art Deco to create a sleek, modern and sometimes futuristic design in kitchen appliances, furnishings, trains and cars.

Art Deco design in skyscrapers -- including the Empire State Building, the-then tallest building in the world, and the extravagant, stainless-steel spired Chrysler Building in New York City -- followed, conveying status to the cities displaying them.

The design style was also expressed in film, music clubs, movie palaces, public buildings and world's fairs.

"Art Deco was a great celebration of the modern age," said Frank Kowsky, an architectural historian. "It was very much of its time, and it spoke to the enthusiasm and the hope of the era, and hope for the future. That was kind of ironic, since it was also the Depression."

Despite coming between the two world wars, and encompassing the Great Depression, Art Deco celebrated extravagance. That helped to be its undoing.

"They were generally pretty expensive because of the decorations, the carvings, the mosaics, the murals," Kowsky said. "The Depression helped put an end to it, along with the rise of the International Style that turned its back on ornamentation."

Immigrants' craftmanship

Ron Eaton, who gives tours of Art Deco buildings for Explore Buffalo, said Buffalo's lucky to have as much of it as it does.

"There's so much detail with a lot of the Art Deco buildings," Eaton said, citing the southwest American Indian ornamentation in City Hall as one example.

"They're really a tribute to the immigrants who came to Buffalo at that time, and were such talented craftsmen."

Mary Murdock, who also gives Art Deco tours, has an affinity for the art form's accessories, such as post office boxes found in the lobbies of most Art Deco buildings.

Murdock particularly likes the Industrial Bank on Court Street, with its decorative facades on the corners of Court and Pearl streets, grill work and large frieze.

Detail of sculptural elements on old Industrial Bank Building on the northwest corner of Court and Franklin Street. (Derek Gee/Buffalo News)

The frieze appears traditional, but upon closer examination, skyscrapers can be seen behind a scribe writing on a tablet. Mercury holds up an airplane, as a steam locomotive shoots out from between his legs, crosses a bridge and heads toward a steamship.

Murdock's favorite building on the tour is City Hall. "You could spend days looking at the details that went into that building," she said.

Kowsky said the Central Terminal -- Buffalo's other large Art Deco structure -- was perfectly suited to that style. After it opened in 1929, 200 train cars a day traveled in and out of the train station.

"At the time, trains were thought of something speedy and modern," Kowsky said. "It was an appropriate expression of all those elegant trains that carried people around. It was an age of style."



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