Neglecting a Grand Old Lady

Christened “Queen City of the Lakes,” Buffalo, New York, sits on the shore of Lake Erie. Like many major cities of the world, Buffalo’s prime location beside great water resources was largely responsible for it’s becoming a boom town during the nineteenth century, and a gateway to the western frontier. While today, Buffalo’s growth is something like 2.5%, and many consider the city to be on life supports, the city was once a thriving lake port metropolis with a soaring economy based on grains, railways, steel, and an important water system, the Erie Canal.

In 1825, the Erie Canal opened, making Buffalo the central transfer point between Albany and New York City and the Atlantic Ocean, via the Hudson River, and between Chicago and points west, via the Great Lakes. Because the canal made it possible to transport manufactured goods and raw materials cheaply and rapidly, the resulting development of the shipping industry jump-started the city’s economic success. In 1835, Buffalo could process 112,000 bushels of grain a year. After Buffalo grain merchant Joseph Dart invented grain elevators in 1842, the city became the world’s busiest transfer point for grain storage and processing. By 1855, 22,400 bushels of grain could be unloaded onto ships per hour. (Modernist architect Le Corbusier called Buffalo’s collection of concrete grain elevators “The first fruits of the new age!”)

Buffalo’s population tripled during the last 3 decades of the 19th century as more workers were needed to service the city’s burgeoning business as a railroad transportation hub. By 1869, when the transcontinental railroad system began operation, railroad technology was overshadowing the canal’s success.

In 1888, the Westinghouse Electric Company won an international Niagara Falls Commission contract to harness the energy of Niagara Falls, using Nikola Tesla’s polyphase system of alternating current. By 1896, three hydroelectric generators built by Westinghouse were providing inexpensive power to Buffalo’s emerging industries, and this unique opportunity encouraged more industries to settle in the area. The new hydroelectric technology was featured at Buffalo’s 1901 Pan-American Exposition.

Although it is not a widely-known distinction, historically, Buffalo has consistently been privy to the best of the country’s architectural heritage.  This tradition was established at the beginning of the nineteenth century. In 1804, the city fathers commissioned Andrew Ellicott to devise an urban plan. The design was based upon that of Washington, D.C.’s, a grid system of radiating avenues punctuated by circular park hubs.  Ellicott knew Washington’s urban plan because he had served as head surveyor of the federal city site in 1790-91, and he was successor to its original designer, Pierre Charles L’Enfant.

Buffalo soon could claim more millionaires than any other city in the nation, and during the last half of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth century, the city became host to most of the major architects working in the United States. Richard Upjohn, Henry Hobson Richardson, Daniel Burnham, John M. Root, Frank Lloyd Wright, Louis H. Sullivan and the firm of Charles McKim, William Mead and Stanford White, and landscape architect, Frederick Law Olmstead and Calvert Vaux all won important design commissions and established offices in town. Their completed projects soon contributed to the heady mixture of prosperity and conspicuous consumption that earned this time its’ name, “The Gilded Age,” as inspired by the title of an 1873 satirical novel co-authored by journalist Charles Dudley Warner and Mark Twain.

On a visit to Buffalo in 2006, I interviewed three of the city’s women architects: Beverly Foit-Albert, president of Foit-Albert Associates; recently retired Fellow of the American Institute of Architects, Adriana Barbasch; and Kelly Hayes McAlonie, Senior Associate at Cannon Design and Education Chair of the Buffalo/Western New York chapter of the AIA. In their discussion of Buffalo’s architectural legacy, they stated that the buildings these famous male architects designed for Buffalo are considered prime examples of their work. Their assessment was confirmed by a quote in the city’s official visitor’s guide from The New York Times, that Buffalo is “a textbook for a course in modern American buildings.”  These male architects gained worldwide attention and are the subjects of many books, papers, and articles, but neglected is a woman who strode among these architectural giants as an equal.

This architect was Louise Blanchard Bethune (1856-1913), a woman with deep roots in America’s colonial past. She was born Jennie Louise Blanchard in the upstate New York town of Waterloo, located next to Seneca Falls, where Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott held the first Women’s Rights Convention in 1848. Her mother, Emma Melona Williams Blanchard, was a schoolteacher whose Welsh ancestors arrived in the Massachusetts colony in 1640. Her great-grandfather Ebenezer Williams, born in Lebanon, Connecticut, in 1749, served as an enlisted minuteman from Richmond, Berkshire County, Massachusetts, during the Revolutionary War. Her father, Dalson Wallace Blanchard, was descended from French Huguenots, known to have emigrated to New England in 1639 after their flight from France, by way of England, because of religious persecution as Protestants. He was the principal of Waterloo Union School, where he taught also mathematics.

Louise was an only child whose parents home-schooled her until the age of eleven. Their undivided attention to her education resulted in her developing strong mathematical skills and unwavering self-confidence and self-reliance, three attributes which would serve her well as a woman practicing architecture. The Blanchards moved to Buffalo in 1866, to secure better jobs, and Louise graduated from Buffalo High School in 1874. Said to have shown an early interest in designing houses and other buildings, her decision to become an architect was sealed the day someone challenged her ambition with the argument that no woman could perform such work.

Over the next two years, as Louise Blanchard prepared to gain entrance to Cornell University’s recently opened school of architecture, she engaged in travel, study and teaching. In 1876, she changed her mind, and decided to bypass Cornell’s architectural program. Instead she chose to follow what was the era’s traditional professional training method, to apprentice in the office of a professional architect. The invitation she could not refuse came from a prestigious Buffalo architectural and building firm of Richard A. Waite and F.W. Caulkins, considered one of the most prominent architectural offices in Buffalo at the time. Over the next five years as their apprentice, Louise was given a small salary, full access to the firm’s library, and opportunities to master skills of technical drafting, construction detailing and architectural design. They kept a small staff in a building of their own design, the German Insurance Building (built 1875, now demolished) and soon Waite entrusted her to be his assistant. The firm secured many commissions, designing residences, schools, and police and fire stations in the city, and she is known to have worked as drafter on the firm’s initial planning for Buffalo’s 174th Armory. Her apprenticing years coincided with the firm’s engagement on one of their most elaborate projects, Pierce’s Palace Hotel (1876-1881, now demolished), a Victorian confection of a structure, similar in style to the Chautauqua Institution’s Athenaeum Hotel (built in 1881). The firm favored Romanesque style, the current local favorite fashion most famously employed by Henry Hobson Richardson on the red Medina sandstone twin towered administration building of the Buffalo Psychiatric Center (built 1870-1881), and this exposure equipped Louise Blanchard with the expertise necessary to render all details required to achieve this style.

When Louise Blanchard announced the opening of her own Buffalo architectural office in October, 1881, at the Ninth Congress of the Association for the Advancement of Women, Adriana Barbasch states that the occasion “marked what is considered the entry into the field of the first professional woman architect in the United States.” That same year, Robert Armour Bethune, a draftsman from Ontario, Canada, and former colleague at R.A. Waite’s office, joined her office and shortly thereafter they married.  The firm’s name changed to Bethune & Bethune. William L. Fuchs, who had been an apprentice in the office for nine years, became the firm’s third partner in 1890, when the firm became Bethune, Bethune & Fuchs. Documentation in city records and newspapers researched and compiled by Ms. Barbasch in the 1980s, confirm Bethune’s design contributions that were built between 1881 and 1904 include 15 commercial buildings, 8 industrial buildings, 18 schools, and various public buildings, such as a police station, a church, a woman’s prison for the Eire County Penitentiary, baseball grandstands for the Queen City Baseball and Amusement Company (later renamed Offerman Baseball Stadium), the Seventy-Fourth Regiment Armory (converted later into the Elmwood Music Hall), the transformer building that provided the first power line in the nation which was used for operating the city’s electric trolley system, besides single and multiple residential projects. All of these projects were constructed in the city of Buffalo and its suburbs. An October 1893 article in American Woman’s Illustrated World indicates Louise Blanchard Bethune functioned as the head of her office as “for some years she had taken charge of the office work and complete superintendence of one-third of the outside work.”

As a result of her contributions to the architecture of Buffalo, in 1885 Louise Bethune became the first woman to be approved as a member of a professional architecture association, the Western Association of Architects. Daniel Burnham, Louis H. Sullivan and John M. Root served on the review board that unanimously conferred Bethune’s professional credentials. They stated, “If the lady is practicing architecture and is in good standing, there is no reason why she should not be one of us.” In 1888 she became the first woman member of the American Institute of Architects. In 1889, she established another precedent, becoming the first woman fellow of the American Institute of Architects.

Acting on her own adage that “the future of woman in the architectural profession is what she sees fit to make it,” Louise Bethune’s professional reputation was furthered by her principled refusal, in 1891, to enter the national competition to design the Woman’s Pavilion at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago.  As an early and adamant advocate of women receiving “Equal Remuneration for Equal Service,” she objected to the fact that, while male architects were “appointed” to design assignments at the Exposition for which they received $10,000 artistic commissions plus coverage of their construction drawing costs, women architects were asked to compete for a $1,000 “prize,” and the costs of their construction drawings had to be paid out of their own pockets.  In fair and full disclosure, a board of men selected the woman architect, although all the terms of the plan and further decisions pertaining to the Woman’s Pavilion were overseen by an appointed Board of Lady Managers, a volunteer group of society and professional women of Chicago, chaired by the town’s reigning society matron, Mrs. Bertha Potter Palmer.

My meeting with the three contemporary women architects from Buffalo began in front of the Lafayette Hotel, Louise Bethune’s most famous architectural design, and one for which she is given credit as sole architect.  The Lafayette Hotel was intended to be completed in time for the 1901 Exposition, but due to financial delays caused by a change in ownership, the seven storied, 225 room, million dollar hotel was not completed until 1904. Located in heart of Buffalo’s downtown, at 391 Washington Street in Lafayette Square, the Lafayette Hotel was billed as the “Gateway to Niagara Falls.”    Done up in “French Renaissance Revival” style, the hotel was constructed with red brick, rusticated stone, and white terra cotta trim. Its exterior’s ornamental surface decorations include small stone balconies with cast iron railings, terra cotta cartouches, and a lacy garland of leaves, flowers and wreaths as a projecting cornice round the roof. Bethune took full advantage of the latest technological inventions by installing fireproofing, electric lighting, hot and cold running water in all bathrooms, and telephones in every room, allowing the hotel to advertise itself as “the best that science, art and experience can offer for the comfort of the traveling public.”  The hotel was considered among the nation’s fifteen finest during the years it was owned by three generations of same family.

Unfortunately, Buffalo has a history for not finding ways to preserve even their internationally respected architectural gems. Frank Lloyd Wright’s Larkin Administration Building, built in 1904 to great acclaim for its innovative office structure and its coordinated interior with built-in cabinets and futuristic metal office furniture, was demolished in 1950 only to remain an empty lot.  The city appears to have learned from its mistake, as Wright’s only example of a multi-residential structure, the Darwin D. Martin House Complex, is a highly featured item in Buffalo tourist literature.

Although the Lafayette Hotel is still standing, it was allowed to decay. We could see traces of the grand lady’s glorious past in spite of the deteriorating façade’s broken cast iron balconies, chipped stonework, and cobalt blue paint interrupting the integrity of the red and white motif so central to Bethune’s original elegant styling.  We entered the main lobby, to find that it has mostly been stripped of its opulent past, though it still maintains the original Numidian marble column bases and terrazzo floor with its curving pattern of green, gold and white swirls that lead guests to the elevators, and the Fronterra mahogany paneled walls and entrance desk. Two of the lobby walls exhibit handsome murals assembled using various types of inlaid woods, probably added during the late 1920s or 30s, as they feature modes of transportation including a propeller airplane and a type of ship that were not yet invented in 1904. Even though we had telephoned ahead and requested a tour of the building, when we asked to view other parts of the building’s interior we were told we would have to check with the current owner, Hung Ngyen, who lives out of town.  When I called later that day, I was told the owner had turned down our request, perhaps thinking that we were building inspectors.

The desk clerk on duty described his fascination with details that remain today, hidden in its basement. Otherwise, I have read reports of leaded-glass skylights, mahogany-paneled coatrooms, an English oak-paneled men’s bar and dining room, a red and gold grill room, wine rooms and billiard rooms. The fabled crystal chandelier-hung grand ballroom, added to the original structure in 1916, was still being used in the 1970s according to Bonnie Foit-Albert, when it was adapted by an architecture firm for their office space.

Where once it housed presidents and movie stars, the hotel had become a crack house. According to Buffalo’s Mayor Byron W. Brown, whom I interviewed in 2006, the building had been cited by the city for committing a number of code violations, and some tenants had been evicted for engaging in criminal activities or having substance abuse problems.

Mayor Brown gave me an update on the hotel’s story when I returned to Buffalo in the summer of 2007, as did architect Clinton E. Brown, who filed an application with the United States Department of the Interior’s National Park Service, to gain historic preservation certification for the hotel.  This time we were allowed to tour down the hotel’s long halls and enter some of the guestrooms, which were undergoing basic maintenance upgrades necessary to be in compliance with current building codes. We observed repairs to correct deterioration of window frames, to replace faulty plumbing that caused significant water damage to walls and ceilings, and carpeting removed that was long past its prime. Tenants who were causing disturbances had already been evicted, and Clinton Brown was proposing ways to generate income for the hotel, such as promoting its use by students and other travelers from overseas as a good bargain base when touring Niagara Falls and other sights in the region.

Clinton E. Brown’s June, 2008 update on the Hotel Lafayette did not sound as upbeat. He stated that at present “we are not involved in and do not know of any work underway,” and his office’s efforts to achieve historic preservation certification have only achieved Part I approval—certification that the Hotel Lafayette is historic for tax purposes.  So the question remains as to whether it will be possible to continue to salvage and restore this historical hotel –historical not only because of its style and its period, but because of Ms. Bethune.

The AIA gives prominent acknowledgement to Louise Blanchard Bethune’s “firsts” in their literature and on their website; and on March 9, 2006, the Buffalo/ Western New York chapter of the AIA succeeded in having her inducted into the Western New York Women’s Hall of Fame, the same year they placed an historic marker on her grave in Forest Lawn Cemetery. However the Buffalo architects’ effort to have her inducted into the prestigious organization, the National Women’s Hall of Fame, was met with rejection in 2007.  It remains a puzzle why, even at this late date, the nation’s first woman to be formally designated as a professional architect was judged not worthy to receive this national honor.

CARLA BLANK is the author of “Rediscovering America” (Three Rivers Press, 2003).

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Carla Blank directed Ishmael Reed’s most recent play, “The Conductor,” which closed at Off-Off Broadway’s Theater for the New City on September 10, 2023.  Her article, “The Resurrection of Sister Aimee,” published in ALTA magazine, was a finalist for a Los Angeles Press Club 2021 National Arts & Entertainment Award.