The Market Arcade: Buffalo’s Past Reborn
One of the feature buildings in downtown Buffalo is probably better known to vacationers than Buffalo natives. The Market Arcade at 617 Main Street is home to Visit Buffalo Niagara and its Visitor Center. Overshadowed by Shea’s and other gems in the historic Theater District, it is just as historic and architecturally significant.* The stories surrounding the building play out as a microcosm of Buffalo’s past.
While post-Civil War America boomed economically, the nation’s switch from guns to plowshares pushed people farther westward. Buffalo served as a gateway to the western frontier in its role as a hub for rail transportation and inland shipping. This is when Buffalo experienced its greatest growth spurt: the population grew from 150,000 people in 1880 to 350,000 by 1900, making Buffalo (for a very short time) the eighth-largest metropolis in the United States. By 1890 Americans had effectively populated the West to the point that the US Census Bureau could no longer draw a frontier border on a map. Interestingly, the 1890 census was calculated by what is considered the first computer, invented by Buffalo native Herman Hollerith. The company he founded is known today as IBM.
At Chicago’s World Colombian Exposition of 1893, which was supposed to celebrate the 400th anniversary of Columbus’ voyage, historian Frederick Jackson Turner declared the frontier closed. Downtown Buffalo rebuilt itself as a commercial and financial center during this period. Residential neighborhoods shifted to the area’s outskirts, creating what is now considered a modern American cityscape. Many of our most famous downtown buildings, including the Ellicott Square building (by Chicago’s D. H. Burnham & Co., involved in building the Chicago Exposition), the Guaranty Building (by the Chicago firm of Dankmar Adler and Louis Sullivan), and the gold-domed Buffalo Savings Bank (by the local firm of Green and Wicks) were erected between the 1890 census and the Pan-Am year of 1901.
The Market Arcade, known for a while as the Palace Arcade, was designed by Green and Wicks in 1892. At one entrance, Main Street was a bustling business district of Civil War-era structures with numerous small storefronts. At the other, Washington Street bordered the busy Chippewa Market (also known as the Washington Market). Though a parking lot today, the open-air farmers’ market accommodated dozens of stands and hundreds of urban customers at a time. The largest retail market west of the Hudson River, it was known as the “Belly of Buffalo.” Much like Buffalo was a gateway between the eastern and western halves of America, the Market Arcade was a pass-through for local commercial traffic on these two streets.
Instead of looking toward Chicago for ideas, however, property owner and oil tycoon GB Marshall asked architects EB Green and WS Wicks to contemplate European arcades. Though built before 1820, the Burlington Arcade in London resembles a modern shopping center. With its bright but narrow interior and floor-to-ceiling windows for shops on both sides, the Burlington Arcade connects Burlington Gardens to Picadilly and bears a striking resemblance to Green and Wicks’ building in Buffalo. Indeed, the Market Arcade is Buffalo’s first mall.
The multi-leveled convergences of commerce and office space were similarly used in Naples, Italy for the Galleria Umberto I, completed just one year earlier. The Market Arcade’s floor is covered in terrazzo tiles and the exterior composed of yellow Roman brick, which is longer than regular bricks and emphasizes horizontality. Frank Lloyd Wright utilized this quality of Roman brick when building the Darwin Martin House and other Prairie Style homes. Large Roman numerals top the building’s identical facades. Corinthian Vermont marble pillars at both entrances and egg and dart molding also demonstrate Italian Renaissance Revival flourishes.
Some of the best features of the Market Arcade are both practical and aesthetic. Built before electric lighting, the frosted glass skylight makes the atrium seem like an outdoor alley. Overpasses on the second and third levels and sections of the floors encase glass blocks, bringing natural light all the way into the basement. Large glass panes, rare at the time of construction, are perfect for window shopping. The long, straight passageway resembles a tiny street but also provides excellent ventilation in summer without the use of air conditioning.
Green and Wicks’ use of terra cotta is probably the most stunning feature of the Market Arcade. Visitors are greeted by two bison heads located above the Roman arches. They keep watch over Main and Washington streets and are detailed to the last hair. While seemingly extravagant today, terra cotta (Latin for “baked earth”) was originally a cheap substitute for carved sculpture. The terra cotta forms of the Market Arcade—the garlands, crowning acroteria, and rosettes—can be replaced at a cost 80 percent cheaper than stone.
The material is also fireproof, an important selling point for storekeepers in the late 19th century. Between the formation of the modern Buffalo Fire Department in 1880 and the Pan-American Exposition of 1901, eighteen firefighters died in the line of duty. Entire city blocks would burn at a time. One of the most famous city fires occurred on Ascension Day, 1888. A gas line ignited, blowing the roof off of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church and setting small fires throughout the city. Today, many skyscrapers still enclose their steel beams in terra cotta to avoid buckling under intense heat.
By the 1970s the Chippewa Market had long closed down (though yesterday’s Buffalo News suggests it is still open) and Main Streets across America lost customers to suburban strip malls. Business in the Arcade followed suit and the building was shuttered; the city acquired it in a bankruptcy proceeding in 1979. By the mid-1980s, enough interest led to an $8.3 million restoration. One of the leaders of this renovation, Dennis Powers, is memorialized on a plaque next to the building’s new elevators. The Allentown-based firm of Hamilton Houston Lownie, which converted the St. Mary of Sorrows Roman Catholic Church to the King Urban Life Center at about the same time, completed the restoration in 1995. Visiting both landmarks, one can see the vibrant splashes of reds, purples, greens and oranges that became the firm’s calling card.
Today, the building boasts the CEPA Gallery and the headquarters of Shakespeare in Delaware Park, as well as several small businesses. Many visitors still freely walk through this impressive building to access the Metro Rail or catch shows at Shea’s Performing Arts Center or the Irish Classical Theatre.
*Official documents pertaining to the designation of the Theater District as a historic district use the -er spelling for “theater.” However, area theaters now market the overlapping entertainment district known as the Theatre District using -re. For more background, check out this very interesting Artvoice article by Anthony Chase.