For a moment Jimmer Phillips thought he stepped off the Amtrak train in the wrong city.
"I thought I was in Cleveland," the local musician said recently.
He arrived as intended in Buffalo, but the new Buffalo Exchange Street Station caught him by surprise.
"Actually, I'm kind of impressed," Phillips said. "It looks really cool. It's got that old look."
The newly opened $28 million station is getting high marks from travelers and even those who just stop by to take a look. Its opening on Nov. 8 came three years after a contentious process that ended with the new station built on the site of the one it replaced, despite wide support for putting it at the Central Terminal on Buffalo's East Side.
The three-story brick train station's classic but contemporary look receives high marks. So, too, do the other features: the covered and raised train platform; the brightly lit, landscaped path under the Niagara Thruway; and signage guiding travelers to the nearby Metro Rail station.
Travelers also appreciate the longer hours. The station is open daily from 3:30 a.m. to 11 p.m. – a big departure from when it used to be closed evenings and on weekends.
"It's like a real train station," said Jackie Korchowsky of Amherst.
She and her husband, Daniel, made the trek to the station curious how it turned out.
"We always go to the Depew station and this is much nicer," she said. "You could actually be anywhere downstate. It definitely has that feel."
"It's gorgeous," said Megan Freeland, who drove with her two children from Corry, Pa., near Erie, to pick up her father. He was coming in on the Empire Service train that pulled into the station about 30 minutes after its scheduled 6:24 p.m. arrival from New York City.
"It looks like if you were to come to an old station in years past," she said.
The shoebox-size station that anchored the spot since 1952 was seen before its demolition last year as dreary, unwelcoming, unsafe and embarrassing for a train station in a city of Buffalo's size.
The Exchange Street station closed in 2016 after a partial ceiling collapse, setting off the push for a new train station. At the time, Buffalo had been the only major city in upstate without a new or significantly renovated train station in the previous 20 years.
The new station, built by the state Department of Transportation, was designed by Sowinski Sullivan Architects, which designed train stations in New York, New Jersey, Connecticut and Pennsylvania.
"When we are thinking of this station, we are thinking in terms of traditional American railroad architecture," Rich Sullivan, the lead architect, told The News in 2018.
"We didn't want to ape a beautiful building or make a mini-Central Terminal – that's almost an insult to the Central Terminal because it's such a magnificent building. For instance, we wanted to pick up some of the richness of the Central Terminal floor but without copying it," Sullivan said.
The station's ceiling, with intersecting barrel vaults, helps bathe the station in light. While still small – the waiting room seats 43 – the ADA-accessible station is nearly three times the size of the previous one. It is also at ground level and closer to the street to improve access and visibility, with the land it sits on raised 6 to 9 feet in places.
A large retro-looking circular clock, patterned brick and early- and mid-20th century wall-size photos of the defunct New York Central Railroad adorn the waiting room. The speckled terrazzo floor – colored green, salmon, brown and white – includes a buffalo emblazoned in the center.
The station has bike racks outside and a vehicle waiting area in addition to parking spaces. Plans call for a Taste New York kiosk celebrating New York foods.
The raised platform caught the approving eye of Daniel Korchowsky.
"It's at the level that you can just walk on the train instead of going up the steps with your bags," Korchowsky said.
Linda Taylor also liked what she saw.
"It's a beautiful building, and they did a great job with the landscaping outside and the walkway coming in," Taylor said. "The materials fit with the rest of the city."
Taylor said she is disappointed the station isn't bigger. She also questions the location because trains can't head west without backing up and turning around due to the proximity to Lake Erie, something Amtrak won't allow.
Instead, passengers heading west have to depart from the Depew station.
"I want to go to Detroit and you can't do it from here," Taylor said.
The Lake Shore Limited once headed west from the Central Terminal, the iconic 1929 art deco station on the East Side that saw its last train in 1979, and which a nonprofit organization now seeks to revive.
After Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced in 2016 that state funding would be available to build a new train station, a panel formed by Mayor Byron Brown chose the same downtown location to be near Canalside and Metro Rail. The Central Terminal was the preferred location based on written and public comments, while another design close to the present location also had support.
The Buffalo station serves trains heading east toward New York City on the Empire Service line and northwest to Toronto on the Maple Leaf line. With reduced rail travel and Canada's border closed since March due to the coronavirus, the three trips daily in each direction have been scaled back to two.
Mark Sommer covers preservation, development, the waterfront, culture and more. He's also a former arts editor at The News.