Is This the Most Architecturally Significant Building in Buffalo?
The century-old Delaware Court is an elegant, unobtrusive building on the Chippewa Strip. The events that took place inside, however, changed the city forever. For decades, Delaware Court was a mecca for Buffalo’s most important architects as they built Buffalo’s most important buildings.
Delaware Court was designed by architects Lansing, Bley & Lyman and opened in 1917. Lawrence Bley hailed from nearby Hamburg, while Duane Lyman, once declared the “Dean of Western New York Architecture,” was originally from Lockport. Williams Lansing worked previously as a draftsman for the prolific Green & Wicks firm, then partnered with Green & Wicks draftsman Max Beierl to build landmarks such as the Connecticut Street Armory and St. Francis Xavier Church (now the Buffalo Religious Arts Center). Lansing, Bley & Lyman worked together for less than ten years and Delaware Court is one of their few remaining commissions. Still, they created some notable buildings, including the current President’s House for Buffalo State College on Lincoln Parkway. Lansing left the firm in 1919 to partner with Chester Oakley, but Lansing died a year later. Oakley continued until his own death in 1968, best known for a trinity of ornate Catholic Churches: St. John the Baptist, Blessed Trinity, and St. Casimir’s.
Bley & Lyman worked together for another two decades, designing the Saturn Club, building 800 West Ferry for Darwin R. Martin, and partnering with EB Green for what is now the Old Federal Courthouse on Niagara Square. When Bley died in 1939, Lyman carried on as Lyman & Associates until his passing in 1966. That firm supervised the addition to the Liberty Building, Minuro Yamasaki’s One M&T Plaza, and several buildings on the University of Buffalo’s South Campus. Like many later architects they used the Delaware Court location as a springboard for bigger and bigger opportunities.
Delaware Court immediately attracted other architects as tenants. In 1917 architect William A. Kidd moved in with partner and brother Franklyn J. Kidd, where they remained until 1922. Their most well-known work from that period is probably the Rand House on Delaware Avenue’s “Millionaire’s Row.” Today the mansion is home to Canisius High School. Later, Kidd & Kidd would also design the Rand Building on Lafayette Square and assist Eliel & Eero Saarinen on the world-famous Kleinhans Music Hall on Symphony Circle.
After World War I, Delaware Court became a hive of activity. Buffalo’s booming population required the city to set aside $8 million for construction of not one but eighteen new public schools. Rather than compete for eighteen separate commissions, thirty-five architectural firms banded together to form Associated Buffalo Architects, Inc. and opened an office in Room 40 of Delaware Court. Individual firms would be given buildings but recognition would go to the ABA. Contracting directly with the Buffalo Board of Education, the entire project was put under the auspices of an internally chosen board of local architects. Duane Lyman was appointed Secretary.
“It will no doubt come as a shock . . . to learn that fifty architects in the city of Buffalo consented to have seven of their number pass judgement on their professional qualifications,” noted the Journal of the American Institute of Architects. The Engineering News Record called the association “A very striking example of disinterested service to the public by a group of professional men–the most striking we can recall in the construction professions.” Contractors could still bid on specific construction projects through the BoE, but blueprints and other plans were only available through the Delaware Court office.
Even more notable, the association brought in the nationally renowned William B. Ittner of St. Louis as Consulting Architect for all school designs. Ittner promoted a general “E” formation of central schools throughout the country, using distanced wings for subject-specific classrooms and labs and a middle third wing for gymnasium, auditorium, and cafeteria use. If you attended a school built between World War I and World War II you were probably in some version of an “E” plan school, and the man who popularized it worked out of Delaware Court. This format was used in cities as well as rural schools, as the era of one-room schoolhouses subsided in favor of central school districts around this time. Ittner’s push for orderly and efficient school plants was promoted in earnest with the aid of the Department of the Interior. The “E” type is probably the most ubiquitous public architecture in American history. ABA no longer exists, but Ittner’s firm established in 1899 still creates schools.
In 1926 the new firm of Dietel & Wade moved into Delaware Court. For the next five years, plans for one of the biggest buildings of its kind in the nation came out of their office. While at Delaware and Chippewa they designed and oversaw the construction of Buffalo City Hall–one of the premier examples of Art Deco anywhere. Architect John Wade brought in extra staff including his mentor, Sullivan W. Jones, to assist on the large project. Jones was simultaneously the State Architect under Governor Al Smith. (One of the few remaining buildings by George Dietel, the St. Francis de Sales church in Hamlin Park, is currently for sale.)
Like Duane Lyman, Frederick C. Backus was a veteran of World War I; he worked as a draftsman for Bley & Lyman for a time. At one point Backus was also Buffalo’s City Architect before striking out on his own, and the City Architect’s office is where he found draftsman Donald Love. Backus originally hired David Crane, who worked in EB Green’s office, as his personal draftsman in 1936 but elevated him to partner. Love would take leave during World War II but would return after being wounded in battle. Backus, Crane & Love remained in Delaware Court into the 1960s and were trailblazers for Buffalo’s modernist, post-war construction period. They designed major projects including Erie County’s Rath Building, the Marine Drive Apartments, and the National Gypsum Company Building.
Backus, Crane & Love’s most historic accomplishment–like the Delaware Court building where it was conceived–is under threat of demolition. The Willert Park Courts, the first public housing open to African-Americans in Buffalo, began construction in 1939. A WPA project, the first phase consisted of 172 apartments. For years it was the only public housing for the city’s African-Americans, and it remains a cultural landmark for generations of residents to this day. Walls and private entrances still exhibit unique sculptures by Depression-era artists Robert Cronbach and Harold Ambellan. In 1940, the Museum of Modern Art in New York City published a Guide to Modern Architecture featuring the most vital modern buildings of the 20th century. MoMA highlighted Willert Park alongside Louis Sullivan & Dankmar Adler’s Guaranty Building and commissions by Frank Lloyd Wright as Buffalo’s best examples of modern design.
Delaware Court’s convenient location for networking, its large windows able to flood sunlight onto drafting tables, and an attractive, classically designed facade (as if to advertise “Professional Architects Inside”) are all reasons why it became a mecca for Buffalo architects. Recent hotel development plans for the property involve complete demolition of the building and the removal of all tenants. New construction, however, would mimic the curved corner entrance. Developers have hinted as preserving pieces of terra cotta decoration but those plans appear tenuous at best. Toronto’s Allen Lambert Galleria in Brookfield Place comes immediately to mind as an example of how older buildings can be woven into new construction if an inspired architect is involved. One wonders what a Duane Lyman, John Wade, or Frederick Backus would design for the property if they were alive today. . . .
Thanks to Jennifer Walkowski for some of the information in this post.