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100-Plus Things: The beauty of the Ellicott Square Building

Rushing about our everyday business, we sometimes miss the treasures that hide in plain sight. One wintry day a couple of years ago reminded me of that.

I had been at a lunch meeting with a colleague from Amherst. The wind and sleet had kicked in.

"Let's cut through the Ellicott Square Building," I suggested.

And in we went -- beneath the carved entranceway, through the revolving brass doors. I was halfway through the atrium before I realized my friend was missing. He had halted, it turned out, as soon as he got inside. He was looking up and down in amazement.

"Where are we?" he asked. "What is this place?"

The Washington Street entrance to the Ellicott Square Building. (Derek Gee/Buffalo News)

We should all do that, dashing into the Ellicott Square Building -- whether we're there to grab a beef on weck at Charlie the Butcher, or to pay a water bill, or just to get in out of the cold. We should all stop and stare.

The Ellicott Square Building is one of the wonders of Buffalo. It starred in "The Natural," portraying the hotel where Robert Redford stayed.

When it was completed in 1896, this 10-story creation was the biggest office building in the world. Its architect, Charles Atwood, worked for the Chicago firm of Daniel H. Burnham. Burnham's motto was: "Make no little plans, they have no magic to stir men’s blood. Think big."

The building's atrium illustrates the era when people valued beauty in their everyday lives. Look anywhere, and you will find a mind-boggling detail. The figures of bison on the ornate Westinghouse elevators. Ornate carvings. Iron railings. The skylight overhead, a marvelous mood-booster on a chilly winter day. Even the radiators are beautiful.

Detail of a bison adorns the elaborate elevators in the Ellicott Square Building. (Derek Gee/Buffalo News)

Heavy carved mail boxes invite you to share in the gentility of yesteryear. There are mail chutes, too, and they appear to be working. A sign gives the number to call if they get jammed.

The mosaic floor, with its 23 million pieces of Italian marble, was created, audaciously, during the Depression. The year is spelled out in Roman numerals: MCMXXXI (1931).

And at holiday time the hall plays host to what could well be downtown's biggest Christmas tree. It's real, too, a concolor fir. A real tree is a priority with the Ellicott Square Building's owner, Carl Paladino.

It's great that the Ellicott Square Building still functions as what it was designed to be -- a kind of downtown public square, open to all.

Tony Miranda carves roast beef at the Charlie The Butcher stand in the lobby of the Ellicott Square Building. (Derek Gee/Buffalo News)

On the other hand, it's easy to take it for granted. Remember that experiment in New York City, when violinist Joshua Bell played in a New York City subway station? Almost everyone, busy with life, passed him by without a thought.

Make a date with yourself to do differently. Stop into the Ellicott Square Building over the holidays, to take in the tree. Take in the atrium while you're at it. Let's call it by its official name, the grand court.

See it through the eyes of newcomers. One recent weekday at lunch time, they included a group of young women from the Rochester area, here for training in social services.

"I was definitely struck by the arches, the marble work, the Christmas tree," said one of them, Sarah Lorusso. "I was amazed that was a real tree," she added, as the digital player piano started up with "It Came Upon a Midnight Clear."

One of the chandeliers hangs from the glass tile ceiling over the grand lobby of the Ellicott Square Building. (Derek Gee/Buffalo News)

Her colleague Ashley Miller shared her admiration.

"It's an interesting array of things in the building," she said. "This is a bizarre building. But not in a bad way," she hastened to specify. "There's a lot going on. A conglomeration of things."

You got that right, as a Buffalo bartender would say.

"Every step you take, you're stepping on 40 tiles," said Marie Mauro, Ellicott Development's vice president of administration.

Sort of makes you want to hold your head high, doesn't it? That's what Buffalo wanted, and the architects intended. Walking into the grand court of the Ellicott Square Building, you exit the everyday and enter the extraordinary. You feel like a king.

The Main Street entrance to the Ellicott Square Building. (Derek Gee/Buffalo News)

*Read last week's 100-Plus Things, on the poinsettias in the Botanical Gardens:

100+ Things: A bold Poinsettia Show at the Botanical Gardens


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