Buffalo City Hall: Historical Influences

Buffalo’s City Hall is one of the largest in the US. Constructed with Art Deco influences, this municipal building was first opened in 1931, and dedicated in 1932. It was constructed for nearly $7 million by the same organization that built the Statler hotel and Buffalo Athletic Club, John W. Cowper Company. The Art Deco style is blended with classical architecture, most notable by the symbolic figures and decorations on the facade and in the lobby.

Both the Elmwood and Niagara Square exterior entranceways are highlighted by the detailed sculptures that lay overhead. Each of them was sculpted by English-born Albert Stewart.

The stone frieze, defined as a broad horizontal band of sculpted or painted decoration, on the West (Elmwood side), portrays five scenes from the early history of Buffalo.

  • The first scene from the left, dated 1758, is of a French Canadian trader addressing three Native Americans. Behind him is a partially completed building – representative of the first non-Native American construction site in Buffalo.
  • The second group, dated 1903, depicts Joseph Ellicott giving instructions to the Holland Land Company surveying team, laying out the Ellicott plan for the village of New Amsterdam (later renamed Buffalo)
  • The middle scene depicts a meeting of the Iroquois Council in an oak grove on Scajaquada Creek, currently located in Forest Lawn Cemetery. The Seneca orator, Red Jacket, is presenting a ceremonial tomahawk to Native American Agent Erastus Granger. The actual tomahawk presented in 1810 is in the collection of the Buffalo and Erie County Historical Society. The scene represents the peaceful relationship between Buffalo and the Senecas.
  • The next scene is from 1820, and represents the construction of Buffalo’s first harbor. Samuel Wilkeson, who later became mayor of the city, was the driving force behind the project. The completion of the harbor on schedule enabled Buffalo to be chosen as the terminus of the Erie Canal.
  • The scene furthest to the right depicts the opening of the Erie Canal in 1825. It was the key event beginning Buffalo’s steady growth in population and prosperity, which was continuing as City Hall was being built.

Text source: “Buffalo City Hall: An Americanesque Masterpiece,” by John H. Conlin. Landmark Society of the Niagara Frontier, Buffalo, NY, 1993. Available through Western New York Wares

The stone frieze on the East (Niagara Square) side of City Hall, includes nine groups of figures, each portraying symbolic notions of Buffalo’s culture:

  • First from the left is a portrait representative of past generations of Buffalonians, passing down knowledge and guidance to the city’s youth.
  • Second from the left is representative of the steel industry, portrayed by an ironworker. At time of construction, the steel industry (most notably, Bethlehem Steel) was a major part of Buffalo’s economy and culture.
  • The third portrait reveals the advancement of Buffalo universities in science and medicine
  • The fourth image is representative of electrical energy, depicted by electricians with dynamo – the importance of this is that Buffalo was the first city with full scale electricity – highlighted by the light displays of the 1901 Pan American Exposition.
  • The central figure is a crowned woman on a thrown, surrounded by various symbols. She represents the city of Buffalo and its culture as a whole.
  • To the right of the central figure is a sculpture of man, women and child, representing the stability and fertility of the community.
  • The next portrait over depicts two dockworkers, revealing the importance of water commerce and lake shipping.
  • Second from the right is a sculpture of two scholars and books, representing the importance of law and education
  • And finally, the furthest to the right is of a locomotive engineer, ship captain, and aviator, depicting the importance of transportation and diversity of Buffalo as a waterfront community

From this, we can see that the Elmwood entrance depicts historical events that have led to the formation and prosperity of the city of Buffalo, while the frieze at Niagara Square represents the community and hardworking citizens that have helped to build the city into what it is today.

Buffalo City Hall’s lobby also incorporates major Native American influences, as the Iroquois Indians are a vital part of the Western New York history. Immediately inside the entrance doors are four columns with Indian symbols of the Four Winds – thunder, storm, sunshine, and happiness. One of the first things noticed in the main lobby is the domed ceiling, composed of bright colors of tile, and representative of an Indian Chief’s bonnet. The center of the domed ceiling depicts the sun. In addition to this Native American symbolism, the four statues in the lobby each represent characteristics of good citizenship – Virtue, Diligence, Service, and Fidelity.

Buffalo City Hall incorporates much more than Art Deco architecture – it is a symbolic masterpiece, comprised of historical influences that tell the story of Buffalo’s past, present, and future.

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