Finding the Unexpected in Buffalo, NY

The city of Buffalo, New York is making leaps and bounds in their revitalization efforts, and its surprisingly vibrant art and heritage scene is ready to explode 

I’ll be the first to admit, a trip to Buffalo has never topped my list of ‘must-see’ destinations. Like many of you I would be hard-pressed to even consider it a destination. So when the tourist board invited me to come out to witness what the city had to offer, and to see how much it had changed over the past few years, I was skeptical. Buffalo’s rich heritage of art, architecture and culture thoroughly surprised me—changing my perception of the city altogether.

Impressive Architectural Heritage

When the city of Buffalo was in its infancy, it became home to buildings conceived by some of America’s leading architects of the time. Frank Lloyd Wright, H.H. Richardson and Louis Sullivan all designed impressive structures throughout the city.

Frank Lloyd Wright’s Martin House Complex. Biff Henrich / IMG_INK, courtesy Martin House Restoration Corporation.

Frank Lloyd Wright’s Martin House Complex.

Frank Lloyd Wright’s Darwin Martin House Complex, constructed between 1903-1905 is an absolute must-see for anyone even casually interested in architecture, and in particular, eco-designs. One might say that Wright was a visionary in his early adoption of organic architecture. His philosophy was that buildings should be harmonious with their surroundings and the natural environment.

Wright said “A building should appear to grow easily from its site,” and the Martin House exemplifies his organicism as an aesthetic principle, with long, low roofs, and intersecting planes that appear to be at one with the earth beneath and around it. Wright also designed stained glass windows that would later become known as the “Tree of Life” pattern. Each pane was created with 750 individual pieces of glass in earth tones that reflect sunlight into the complex with gold, auburn and green hues.

Standing at the head of the 100-foot pergola is breathtaking, and walking through it toward the conservatory fills you with a sense of peace. Upon entering the sun-lit warmth of the indoor garden, complete with a replica of the Nike of Samothrace (Winged Victory), it’s clear that Wright triumphed in the architectural genius that is the Darwin Martin House Complex.

The Richardson Olmsted Complex is an expansive building designed by architectural giant H.H. Richardson. Constructed in the late 1800’s as the Buffalo State Asylum for the Insane, it was said to be a forward thinking psychiatric center, with meticulously planned landscaping meant to be calming for its residents. As with many older properties throughout the city, the structure fell into disrepair over the years.

The state of Buffalo has been working to breathe new life into the property with hopes of drawing in more cultural tourism. The building is being transformed into a hotel and conference center with a focus on heritage and architecture. With the massive restoration of Olmsted, it shows the lengths the city is going to to revive its reputation—preserving their history while marching into the future.

A remarkably vibrant art scene

Another pleasant surprise in Buffalo was the discovery of its many multidisciplinary and multimedia art galleries, and the robust history of native artists both past and present. Any arts and culture lover can happily plan a visit to the city and remain busy for days exploring galleries large and small.

Albright-Knox holds a significant collection of works by Picasso, Matisse, Gauguin and Van Gogh.

Albright-Knox holds a significant collection of works by Picasso, Matisse, Gauguin and Van Gogh.

The Albright-Knox Art Gallery I learned, is one of the oldest art institutions in America, and is recognized as one of the world’s leading collections of contemporary and modern art. With something for every taste, it houses works including Impressionism, Post and Abstract Expressionism, Cubism, Surrealism and Pop art.

Who knew that inside a small gallery in Buffalo, lies a significant collection of works by Picasso, Matisse, Gauguin and Van Gogh? And that also housed within these walls, are works by Gorky, Pollock, Warhol and Jasper Johns? The little gems of this city really are fascinating, and are worth the effort of trying to unearth them all.

Thomas Hoving, former director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art noted that “the Albright-Knox Art Gallery should be on everyone’s list to see,” also referring to it as “small, intimate and seductive.” It certainly is a beautiful blend of contemporary and modern art that should be experienced by anyone with a love for art and art history.

Across the street from Albright the Burchfield Penney Art Center awaits your arrival. This museum is a dedication and reflection of the creations of artists from Buffalo, Niagara and greater Western New York. The center is named for the famous watercolorist, Charles E. Burchfield.

Burchfield has an open, airy atmosphere with soaring ceilings, clean lines and a sense of space that bespeaks a comfortable, minimalist aesthetic. Being in the art center is calming, and affords one time to reflect on the works presented in a state of tranquility. Explore your surroundings, and discover the ceiling lights arranged in the shape of the constellation Orion.

The charming Benjaman Gallery is a family-run, locally owned space currently operated by the kind, and knowledgeable Emily Johnson, and husband Baird Tucker. Emily’s parents, the original proprietors, left her with an abiding love of art which she willingly shares with anyone who walks through her door. Expect to find museum-worthy fare with an eclectic mix of local, regional, national and international works, and additionally a large photography collection.

Benjaman’s rooms are brimming with paintings—treasures to be found high and low. The sheer catalogue of options to choose from, with many at very reasonable price points, makes it easier to find something to please your artistic tastes. Emily’s enthusiasm for the works in her gallery is infectious, and I encourage anyone new to the idea of acquiring pieces to visit her for a non-pretentious crash course into the world of art and art collecting.

Culture tourists can round out their art intake in the Allentown neighborhood where there is a cluster of independent galleries with focuses on various mediums. Before ending your explorations, stroll by the corner of Allen and College streets to witness an impressive display of large scale murals.

Eats and Treats

Chef’s family-style Italian restaurant has been serving their homemade sauce and pastas for 90 years, and after almost a century, it remains a family favorite for the locals. This is a no-frills eatery where you’ll find typical Italian fare, but if you want to eat like a true local, try the spaghetti parmesan with a thick blanket of mozzarella cheese baked on top.

Before you leave the city, you must visit Sweetness_7 Café. This charming eatery on the corner of Grant and Lafayette has been the cornerstone of a neighborhood revitalization effort on Buffalo’s West Side. The spirit of the café invokes a mood of relaxation and comfort. The menu is thoughtful farm-to-table fare with all-day brunch, and dishes with names like Parisian Street Vendor, Love & Butter and Irish Peasant. Atmosphere here is laid back, so don’t expect anything in a hurry, especially as everything is made fresh to order. It may take a few minutes longer than usual to dig into your meal, but the eclectic space filled with flea-market  treasures (vintage typewriter and telephone booth included), gives the dining room a pleasing, life-less-rushed feeling.

Buffalo, as it turns out, is more beautiful than one might think.

Visit Buffalo. As it turns out, it’s more beautiful than you think.

Just a few short blocks from Sweetness is the quaint Elmwood Village. On this stretch you’ll find a selection of independently owned shops, cafés and restaurants.  I’m told that no visit to the village is complete without grabbing a piece of sponge candy from Watson’s, and indulging in a morsel of cocoa sweetness at Fowler’s Chocolates. My visit was brief, so I’ll have to pop by when I return.

Your eyes do not deceive you. I will return to Buffalo to further explore the city that is deceivingly rich in culture and history. The revitalization that is happening is inspiring, and moving in the right direction. I look forward to seeing and experiencing the rest of what this part of Western New York has to offer.

For more information on what the city has to offer, please see: Visit Buffalo Niagara or any of the hyperlinks above.



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