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Overlooked Feminist Architect Gets Her Due

It was a cold January day in 2011 when I had last seen the Hotel Lafayette, the grand French Renaissance Revival styled brick that sits on the corner of Washington and Clinton Streets in downtown Buffalo, New York’s Lafayette Square. Built between 1901 and 1904, it was originally designed by Louise Blanchard Bethune (1856-1913), lead architect on the project with her firm Bethune, Bethune & Fuchs, which included her husband Robert Bethune and former apprentice William L. Fuchs. Louise Bethune carries the mantle of being the first woman in the United States to be recognized as a professional architect, with her inclusion in the Western Association of Architects in 1885, and then in 1888, when she became the first woman member of the American Institute of Architects (AIA) and then the first to become a Fellow, (FAIA), in 1889.

Since Spring, 2010, the seven story dark red brick building with its distinctive white glazed terra cotta decorative trim had been closed for business. The exterior’s wrought iron balcony railings and chipped terra cotta surfaces still bore the scars of long neglect.  Signs pasted on the front doors and street level windows indicated big changes were about to take place, with promises that the hotel would be ready to assume a new life as a multipurpose destination for weddings and other special events, with both hotel and long-term apartment accommodations available, reopening for business in May, 2012.

The Lafayette’s French Renaissance style was in high fashion in 1898, when Bethune designed the hotel in the grand manner of the City Beautiful/Beaux Arts’ aesthetic, acclaimed since Chicago’s 1893 World’s Fair.  Her choice of style was a fitting compliment to Lafayette Square’s other existing buildings, of which the Liberty Building, on the corner of Main and Lafayette, remains today.  Intended to open in time for the 1901 Pan American Exposition held in Buffalo, after various financial delays, the Hotel Lafayette’s construction only got started in 1901. When it was completed in 1904, the hotel was considered one of the nation’s twelve luxury hotels.  Although the façade and architectural details were Renaissance inspired, Bethune took full advantage of the latest technological inventions of the day–steel, fireproofing, and electric lighting, hot and cold running water in all bathrooms, and telephones in every room. The Lafayette featured energy saving devices way ahead of what was present in even the most luxurious hotels of that time: the electric lights in the guests’ rooms were wired to shut off when patrons closed and locked their doors; a central air vacuum system extended to every room and corridor throughout the building with steam heat functioning to both heat and humidify the building during the winter; and the elevators were operated on a unique system using electricity in the summer months and steam during the winter months.

Up through the 1940s the hotel served as a destination for presidents, movie stars, tourists and businesspeople.  The second generation of additions expanded the hotel’s original footprint at least another third, and included the first floor’s Grand Ballroom. Further additions brought the hotel to its present size of five seven story wings.  Each addition brought new elements and aesthetics.  The first changes to the original building were designed by Bethune, from 1909 to 1911, including everyone’s favorite grand ballroom, although actual construction did not begin until four years after ill health caused  her to withdraw from active practice at the age of forty-five. (This was twenty-four years after Bethune opened her first office, although her name was not legally removed from the partnership until 1912 when signatures on building permits which her firm registered in the city records changed from “Bethune, Bethune and Fuchs” to “Bethune and Fuchs.” She died in 1913, from complications of diabetes. )

In spite of remodels and additions, by the 1950s, the hotel was no longer looking grand, and its luxury clientele disappeared as it continued to decline even into seediness, as it evolved into a “boarding house for a social services population.” This basically remained its function until the middle of the first decade of twenty-first century, when some of Buffalo’s architects, preservationists and civic leaders began to actively search for ways to change its fate.  However lack of funding continued to block all efforts to solve how to go about significant changes or restoration, until August, 2010, when the hotel at last earned placement on the National Register of Historic Places. With full landmark status, and the passage of a bill through the New York State legislature shortly thereafter, which made the Lafayette eligible for two million dollars in New York State’s historic preservation tax credits, developer Rocco Termini, president of Signature Development, cobbled together the means to move forward with what was recently reported to be a 43 million dollar “makeover.”

Renovation of the grand ballroom. Photo by Tennessee Reed.

Luckily, few major alterations had significantly gutted the early architectural detailing, as original vaulted ceilings, walls and marble floors were often just covered over in successive past remodels, with many surprises uncovered, such as sliding doors stored inside of walls and even a speakeasy, discovered in the basement. Tim Jones who had been the Lafayette’s chief engineer for eighteen years and is Construction Superintendent on the renovation “describes the demolition crew that carefully removed layer after layer of materials. He recalls their mantra: “It’s the Lafayette—it’s like an onion; it’s got layers.” (Buffalo Spree by Barry A. Muskat, 12/2010) Over the years, Tim Jones stored away detailing bits large and small as he found them, in case some day they’d prove useful.  He said that’s the way he was raised on a farm, where everything was saved as you never know when you might need something again.

That time arrived with the renovation plans of Rocco Termini, and the architects, Carmina Wood Morris, who have wisely chosen to honor the layers of historic styles imbedded in the hotel, particularly, to restore or replicate the Renaissance Revival style of the original building and the Art Moderne motifs from the 1940s.  Decisions large and small have their historical basis, with research behind every aspect of the renovation and reclamation: from layers of paint carefully scraped to be able to accurately match the original colors of ceilings and walls to the fonts on publicity and restaurant menus replicating those found in materials from the time of the Pan American Exposition, and a line-up of wood telephone booths in a corner of the lobby providing their old function of privacy for today’s wired generation. In late March, the two story Grand Ballroom, part of the 1916-17 addition, looked just about ready to house grand events again, its original crystal and brass chandeliers cleaned and polished to their original shine and its domed stage or bandstand, added during another renovation circa 1924-26, now revealed to justify their former fabled glory. Years of dirt and grime were removed from the lobby’s marble wainscoating, polychromatic terrazzo flooring, and the decorative murals and wood marquetry and inlay motifs of the 1942 Art Moderne remodel, to complete that all-important first impression establishing the hotel’s claim to grandeur in the form of a warm welcome. Even where spaces were reconfigured to comply with present day building codes, those changes employ craftsmanship and architectural detailing so seamless and consistent with the overall style of the hotel that they will appear to be resurrected from earlier times.

Plaster moldings. Photo by Tennessee Reed.

I saw much of this work in progress in mid-March, 2012, during my most recent Buffalo visit with my husband Ishmael Reed and our daughter Tennessee, when Construction Superintendent Tim Jones graciously provided me and my family with a guided tour. We quickly felt there was no longer need to feel concern for Louise Bethune’s legacy, as evidence abounded that her signature piece has lucked out this time.  Buffalo developer Rocco Termini, Managing Partner of Lafayette LLC and President of Signature Development Company has truly come to her rescue.   According to Tim Jones, the development team’s determination to make the hotel regain its rightful claim as a destination of tasteful luxury is proving a smart business model as well, with its restaurant and retail spaces all taken up for use:  a combination restaurant, bar and cocktail lounge, which originally functioned as a billiard room until after Prohibition when it became a popular hangout known as the Lafayette Tap Room, will become the Pan American Grill and Brewery, operated by Earl Ketry, Managing Partner of the Hotel at the Lafayette and the Pan-American Grill & Brewery and owner of Buffalo’s highly respected Pearl Street Grill; with other occupants including Get Dressed, a formal wear and tuxedo rental shop and Mike A’s Steak House, located in the hotel’s original Grill Room space, with its elliptical groin vaulted ceiling and walls covered in their original Flemish oak.  We could see stainless steel fixtures waiting to be set in place for Woyshner’s Flower shop, located where the hotel’s former corner main entrance had been; and further preparations for a new configuration of shops in the basement to include Butterwood Desserts, a bakery and dessert bar, set in a space where former subway tiles and quarry tile floors were found intact. The Lafayette’s upper floors have been reconfigured into 115 market rate apartments, ($895-$1195 for one and two bedrooms). 75% had been rented at the time of our visit in late March; multiple weddings and other events were already booked as well.

Located one or two floors above the commercial spaces and lobby will be 34 themed hotel suites, to be known as The Hotel at The Lafayette where, through a recently formed partnership with the Buffalo and Erie County Historical Society (BECHS), the rooms will feature design elements culled by the renovation’s architects and designers from research in BECHS’ collections of Western New York historical memorabilia. Reproduced images from historical photographs and other items will appear on such decorative details as murals on headboards in the bedrooms and displays throughout the corridors.  Constance Caldwell, BECHS’ Director of Communications and Community Engagement related in an email to me, that “authentic wallpaper pattern swatches, in BECHS keeping, from the M. H. Birge and Sons Wallpaper Company [are] to be replicated for the walls in the Pan-American Grill and Brewery.”  She says BECHS’ partnership with Termini and Ketry will help “support fundraising at BECHS by offering sponsorship naming opportunities for the bridal and bedroom suites. The Historical Society will curate mini exhibits about the sponsor or a relevant local story and receive 100% of the donation proceeds.” This partnership is one of many ways that the city of Buffalo stands to benefit from this project.

In late March, we saw the exterior’s terra cotta was being cleaned and repaired.  The cobalt blue ribbon of paint, which for many years was to me an eyesore covering the building’s circumference at street level, had almost vanished from the exterior–just a bit on one window frame had yet to be removed, but photos appearing in Buffalo newspapers and websites subsequent to our visit showed that part of the work has also been accomplished.

As we walked toward the hotel I had seen workmen maneuvering a large crane on Washington Street to hoist flats of drywall into windows on upper floors slated to become apartment rental spaces.  Tim Jones explained that the layout of the original hallways would be the only floor plan unaltered on the upper floors.

Architectural blueprints. Photo by Tennessee Reed.

When I asked Tim Jones what the new entrance area would look like he assured us it will be completely consistent with the meticulous craftsmanship and taste being applied to the interior’s environment.  He explained how “the more they fought with the building, they realized they had to go with the building” as it “pushed back” against their efforts to make major layout changes, and they found themselves placing kitchens and lobby and commercial space in basically their original relationships on the first floor, with the major exception of restrooms which had to be brought up from the lower level to the first floor to comply with today’s codes.

On April 11, Buffalo’s WIBV TV reported that Termini would host a tour of the Lafayette Hotel project by the New York State Historic Preservation Office to

“…recognize it as ‘the largest privately financed historic preservation effort currently underway in the nation.’

“Termini says a banner will be strung in front of the building to signify the designation….

“Termini tells WGRZ-TV the first tenants will begin moving into the building on May 1st, prior to renovations being completed on May 29th.”

Louise Bethune is sometimes omitted, dismissed or barely noticed in standard histories of architecture, often according to whether a writer thinks she deserves the distinction of being called the first American woman to practice as a professional architect. Even the National Women’s Hall of Fame has turned down repeated applications for her to be included in their honored ranks, although the AIA features her “first woman” credits on their website.  Starting in May when all the festivities get underway to celebrate the renewal of Bethune’s signature piece–the Hotel Lafayette– may at last grant her the place in history she certainly earned and deserves.

This article is from Carla Blank’s work-in-progress, “Pioneers in the Master’s House, Women Architects of 19th century North America.”

CARLA BLANK’s most recent performance work is “KOOL, Dancing in my Mind, “ a collaboration with Robert Wilson. She is the author of “Rediscovering America,” a multicultural guide to the 20th century.

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Carla Blank’s most recent book is “Storming the Old Boys’ Citadel: two Pioneer Women Architects of Nineteenth Century North America,” co-authored with Tania Martin. She collaborated with Robert Wilson on “KOOL, Dancing in My Mind,” which premiered at New York City’s Guggenheim Museum in 2009. In May 2015 she directed a production of Ishmael Reed’s play, “Mother Hubbard” in Xiangtan, China, and in September 2015 she directed Yuri Kageyama’s “News From Fukushima” at New York’s LaMama Café Theater.

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