Racing Against the Clock to Capture Buffalo’s Urban Revival

I HAVE DEVELOPED A SERIOUS CASE OF BUFFALO ENVY. My visits to this American city just over the border have revealed an architectural wonderland, an urbanite’s playground, and a very friendly town undergoing a revival that’s turning into a renaissance.

Over dinner at Seabar on my first night in town last month – try the beef on weck sushi – I’m issued a friendly challenge by Brian Hayden from Visit Buffalo Niagara and Mike Shriver, who runs the BuffaloPhotoBlog. We sketch out a short list of iconic Buffalo locations on a map, and my goal is to try to shoot as many of them as I can in the next two days.


One of the town’s defining views is the 1931 City Hall, looming behind the McKinley monument in Niagara Square. Along with Central Terminal, the Pierce-Arrow showroom on Jewett Parkway and the interior of the Electric Tower – among just a few examples – Buffalo hit the jackpot with Art Deco, but that’s only the beginning.


It’s well known that Buffalo has some of the finest collections of Frank Lloyd Wright buildings outside Chicago, but that’s only the start. The city is a pick and mix of architectural greats, with virtually one of everything, including buildings by Louis Sullivan, McKim, Mead & White, Henry Hobson Richardson, Yamasaki Minoru, Eero and Eliel Saarinen and many others. One of my personal favorites is Daniel Burnham’s Ellicot Square Building, which has one of the most breathtaking covered interior courtyards a downtown could want.

I take Mike and Brian’s challenge as an excuse to make an early morning visit to Kleinhan’s Music Hall in Allentown. The father and son team of Eliel and Eero Saarinen – with help from Charles Eames – designed one of the most successful midcentury modernist buildings I’ve ever seen, which has aged wonderfully as its limestone exterior walls have mellowed and warmed. I can walk around it for hours. One day I need to actually go inside.


A quick Uber ride takes me to Lackawanna and the Buffalo and Erie County Botanical Gardens, another scenic icon, and one that I’d only just driven around on previous visits. The clouds are low and the light is cool when I shoot the exterior, but the greenhouse rooms inside are warm and relaxing, with plenty of Instagramable locations, like the carp pond:

Conveniently across the street is Our Lady of Victory Basilica, the spectacular Catholic church that dominates the skyline in this part of town. Completed in 1925 and exuberantly ornate, it was one of the major legacies of Father Nelson Baker, the crusading priest who has a museum devoted to his life in the basement of the basilica.


Also on my list is Buffalo’s Main Light – the 1833 lighthouse that sits at the mouth of the Buffalo River and Erie Canal, and the oldest structure still standing in its original location in the city. I make my way to this iconic city location by walking past the warships moored at the Naval & Military Park by Canalside. It’s past mid-day when I arrive and hours from a dramatic sunset, but I stop down my lens to give some definition to the overcast clouds and sky.


Back downtown I make a lunch stop at Big Ditch, one of the breweries that’s played a big part in the craft brew explosion in Buffalo and Upstate New York. Located on East Huron, the taproom has a view down the street past the Electric Tower to the M&T “Gold Dome” bank building. I get a quick tour of the brewery from Matt Kahn and Corey Catalano, the founders of Big Ditch, and try an impressively varied flight of beers, which includes their justifiably renowned signature beer, the Hayburner IPA.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

With the light going, I rush uptown to Delaware Park to get another iconic view, of the Buffalo History Museum from across the lower pond at Hoyt Lake. I’ve seen countless views of the white marble of the neoclassical museum glowing amidst the greenery over the water, in all seasons, but the clouds are still thick and it takes several frames and lens settings to give the view the drama it requires.


With the sun nearly gone, I walk around the shore to the museum – another Buffalo landmark I have only admired from the outside. It occurs to me that it’s just as lovely up close as it is from across the water, and very Instagramable:

My home base for this trip is the Inn Buffalo in Elmwood Village. I’ve stayed here a couple of times now, and the service and comfort at this historic bed & breakfast are exemplary. Owners Ellen and Joe Lettieri have been painstakingly restoring this turn of the century mansion since they bought it in 2011, and I was lucky to get the Hewitt Room this time, named after Hubert Hewitt, the original owner, and complete with a luxurious bathroom with a working needle spray shower.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

After exploring the Central Terminal the next day, I decide to revisit Larkin Square and see what happened with the vintage 1937 diner car that I’d seen winched into place there over a year earlier. The Zemsky family have been reviving this part of Buffalo, with a weekly food truck festival next to the former Larkin soap factory offices and Hydraulic Hearth, their restaurant and bar.


The Swan Street Diner, another family project, is now open and serving breakfast and lunch every day. The Sterling diner car, whch did business in Newark, NY from 1937 to 2013, has been restored and rebuilt to its original configuration and serves a fantastic lunch. If you can, try to get a seat on one of the original bar stools:

Finally, you can end the day in style at the Colored Musicians Club downtown on Broadway. The CMC started doing business over a hundred years ago, but moved to its current location in 1937, where it was an after-hours magnet for every jazz great that passed through town, including Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Ella Fitzgerald and others.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

There’s a museum downstairs open during the day, but the action is upstairs at night by the original bar, where there’s something going on every week. We’re buzzed into the onetime speakeasy, and the band is running through standards with singers when it’s pointed out that there’s a guest from Toronto in the house. They make a show of rifling through their charts to find something, and end up playing a Maynard Ferguson tune for me. It’s the sort of warm welcome I’ve come to expect from this incredible city.

Rick McGinnis was hosted by Visit Buffalo Niagara, which has not approved or reviewed this story.

Photos and story © 2018 Rick McGinnis All Rights Reserved