Buffalo on Foot

A walking tour of downtown reveals 28 architectural treasures, stunning Lake Erie views and a glimpse into the Queen City’s golden past.
Photo credit: Laura Watilo Blake
Lafayette Square offers free concerts on Thursdays from May through August.
When the 1933 film 42nd Street debuted, the town it was set in was home to more millionaires per capita than any other city in the United States. With the opening of the Erie Canal a century before, the shipping industry had brought great wealth to Buffalo, which led to money-making in other sectors, such as manufacturing and banking.

Some of the most prominent architects of the time were hired to create buildings that reflected the city’s prosperity, including Louis Sullivan, Richard Upjohn, Stanford White, Daniel Burnham and Frank Lloyd Wright, just to name a few.

It is my mission to see as many of them as I can. While there are many guided tours of the city’s architectural legacy, I want to explore the city at my own pace. But before I do, I make a quick detour to Chow Chocolat for treats to eat along the way. The artisanal chocolates, with flavors as diverse as habanero mango, coconut curry, passion fruit and jasmine tea, are as unique as the buildings I’m about to see.

A few blocks away from Chow Chocolat, I pick up a guide to the city’s architectural treasures at the Buffalo Niagara Visitor Center. In downtown alone, there are 28 notable buildings, all of which are part of the self-guided tour — better known as Walk Buffalo — that can be done on foot. Dorothy may have followed the yellow-brick road, but to stay on course here I follow the blue buffalos painted on the sidewalk in front of noteworthy sites.

The visitor’s center, located inside the Market Arcade, is the perfect gateway for the 2.5-mile walk, which meanders past Louis Sullivan’s Guaranty Building, a groundbreaking masterpiece of early skyscraper design; Daniel Burnham’s breathtaking Ellicott Square Building, with its ornamental glass-covered concourse; and ends at the beautifully restored Shea’s Buffalo Theatre, which was modeled after the great opera houses of Europe.

The frosted glass ceiling of the arcade, originally named the Palace Arcade, sheds light on the interior of the neoclassical beaux arts building, which opened in 1923 to house a collection of shops and offices. The indoor pedestrian walkway connecting Main and Washington streets surely provided respite from the cold and windy Buffalo winters. I realize that I’m fortunate to be visiting on a mild summer afternoon as I step outside and pass underneath a high stone archway decorated with the head of a bison.

Heading south on Main Street, I marvel at the shiny brilliance of the gold-domed M&T Center, formerly the Buffalo Savings Bank. The dome was restored in 1998 for $500,000 — more than the original cost of the building when it was constructed in 1901. The restoration called for 140,000 sheets of 23.75-karat gold leaf.

One block over, the Niagara Mohawk Building, which rises above the M&T Center, features a central tower modeled after the Pharos lighthouse of Alexandria, Egypt. While it can’t overshadow the original wonder of the ancient world, it does serve as a beacon of light when observing Buffalo’s skyline at night. Originally called the General Electric Building, it also stands as a shining example of the abundant electricity produced by Niagara Falls, located just 20 miles away.

Photo credit: Laura Watilo Blake
The Hiker, which is dedicated to the branches of the armed forces that served during the Spanish-American War.
I pass by Lafayette Square and its Soldiers and Sailors Monument, which is a hub of activity both day and night. Free concerts are held here every Thursday from late May through the end of August.

The tour reaches its climax at the art deco Buffalo City Hall, built by John J. Wade and Sullivan W. Jones and completed in 1932. The central tower is ringed with brightly colored triangular tiles that form the crown of the “Queen City,” Buffalo’s most common moniker. The observation deck — open to the public on weekdays from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. — affords amazing 360-degree views of the city, Lake Erie, the entrance to the Erie Canal and the mist rising from Niagara Falls in the distance.

To reach the observation deck, I ride the elevator to the top, then climb three more flights of stairs to the 28th floor. It’s here that I meet student Derek Nichols, who is showing off the cityscape to a friend visiting from France.

“I really love the architecture,” says Nichols, who is studying urban planning at the University at Buffalo. “I don’t think the people of Buffalo realize how great it is.”

But from this vantage point, above the rooftops of some of the most groundbreaking buildings constructed in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the story of Buffalo’s greatness reaches sky high.

There’s still much more to see on the tour, so I head down the elevator and I hit the ground — walking.

Info to Go

Plan your walk at walkbuffalo.org or pick up a guide at the Buffalo-Niagara Convention & Visitors Bureau, which is located inside the Market Arcade at 617 Main St., where the walking tour begins.

For a more in-depth look at Buffalo’s landmark buildings, take a tour with Preservation Buffalo Niagara. 716-852-3300, preservationbuffaloniagara.org

Don’t want to walk? Hop on the Open-Air Autobus of Buffalo, operated by the Campaign for Greater Buffalo History, Architecture and Culture. 716-854-3749, openairbuffalo.org

How to make up for all those calories you burned? Try Chow Chocolat at 731 Main St., 716-843-4388, chowchocolat.com