The Real Buffalo Rises
My wife and I celebrated our 30th wedding anniversary in a mental hospital. I drove her there, I admit. But, hey, she asked for it. We were not patients thereof but rather imbibers in the bar of the new Hotel Henry, which is embedded in the erstwhile Buffalo State Asylum for the Insane (1880), a massive and portentous cluster of eleven buildings designed by H.H. Richardson, eponym of the Richardsonian Romanesque architectural style. Constructed of locally mined Medina sandstone, surmounted by two great Gothic towers, its grounds landscaped by Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux (whose lesser works include Central Park at the state’s hind end), the asylum disgorged its last patient 40 years ago.
By the 1990s, Richardson’s creation had fallen into a state of disrepair bordering on the immedicable. That any structures at all, let alone a masterpiece on its way to restoration, exist on this spot today owes to the labor and love of many people, but not one is more passionate, more eloquent, or more Buffalonian than Tim Tielman.
I met Tim in 2003, when his Campaign for Greater Buffalo History, Architecture, and Culture sponsored a talk upon the release of my Dispatches from the Muckdog Gazette. Tim made an immediate impression. A witty and gritty and irreverent historic preservationist who loved the Old Weird Buffalo yet had command of the tedious minutiae of planning policy? A charismatic urban geographer? What gives?
He was then in the midst of a metamorphosis. Once damned as an obstructionist, a spoilsport throwing dead cats in the basilica of the American religion of capital-p Progress, Tielman was on his way to being hailed as prescient, perspicacious, a public treasure. Donn Esmonde, longtime Buffalo News columnist, wrote in 2013 of the “transformation” of Tim Tielman: “Once maligned and marginalized by the powers that be, Tielman now is used as a civic spokesman. Not since Linda Blair’s head swiveled in The Exorcist have we seen as dramatic a turnaround.”
The enfant terrible has become an eminence grise.
I spoke recently with Tim on the front porch of the 1906 Period Revival home he shares with his wife Suzanne on a small leafy street in a Buffalo that is the antipode of the city mockingly poeticized by Vachel Lindsay:
Within the town of Buffalo
Are prosy men with leaden eyes.
Like ants they worry to and fro,
(Important men, in Buffalo.)
Tielman’s Buffalo—the real Buffalo—is a city of neighborhoods, even if some of them were sliced and diced and almost eradicated by urban renewers and highwaymen—the prosy men with leaden eyes of the 1950s and ’60s.
Nineteenth-century Buffalo, boomed by the Erie Canal, had flourished as a prosperous entrepot between the Great Lakes and New York City. Olmsted, who designed its network of parks and parkways, called it “the best planned city in America, if not the world.” By 1900, Buffalo was the nation’s 10th most populous city. A year later it hosted the Pan-American Exposition, where Leon Czolgosz assassinated President McKinley, thereby inflicting Teddy Roosevelt on the country.
Though a shot-and-a-beer steel town in the 20th-century public imagination, Buffalo was also a city of architectural gems: It and Chicago are the only cities to boast works by the American trinity of H.H. Richardson, Louis Sullivan, and Frank Lloyd Wright.
Yet its population has collapsed from 580,000 in 1950 to about 250,000 today, even as its county of Erie has hovered around the 900,000 mark. Tim Tielman explains:
“In the span of one generation—from 1957 to 1980—downtown Buffalo, N.Y., was transformed from a cluster of thousands of commercial establishments and homes, the central place of an eight-county hinterland, into a far less populous commercial desert devoid of most central-place functions. The physical transformation was deliberate and methodical, driven by downtown elites, enabled by federal and state programs that were tapped by a political-bureaucratic apparatus eager for easy money. All saw the traditional city as threatening and obsolete. The apparatus measured its success by the degree to which the physical form of the city was changed. Architects and media joined in to create a self-romanticizing coterie bent on heroic action.”
Who better to fight a self-romanticizing coterie bent on destruction than another self-romanticizing coterie whose motive is love of the city?
Tim Tielman, like any patriot, grew up loving his place, yet loathing—and learning from—the appalling things that had been done to it. He is the son of immigrant parents: a Dutch mother and a Dutch Indonesian father who migrated to Maryland. Tim’s dad worked for a USDA program designed, Tim says, “to teach benighted Europeans enlightened American agricultural techniques: get big or get out, and please buy an American tractor on credit!”
They shuffled off to Buffalo when dad took a job in a chemical factory. Tim was born in 1959, when the family resided in a now-demolished public housing project. The family of ten struggled financially, and when Tim was 12 they repatriated to the Netherlands. He hated the four-year exile—“I was all-American, loved baseball”—and upon turning 16 he bought a plane ticket to Buffalo with earnings from odd jobs.
Here his story takes on a hipster Horatio Alger tinge. Heeding his mother’s advice, Tim asked a priest at St. Joseph’s R.C. Church on Main Street if he might board with a parish family. He was delivered to the not-so-tender mercies of a “stark raving nuts” nun, from whose custody he quickly escaped. The plucky lad found a job in a downtown bookstore, sublet an apartment, got his GED, and wound up studying geography at SUNY College at Geneseo.
In best autodidact fashion, freshman Tielman read through every back issue of Architectural Forum magazine in the Geneseo library basement. And he noticed something: “When I would go back to Buffalo and see them demolishing everything to create a Great New City, I said wait a minute: the Netherlands is pretty advanced economically and they’re doing okay in buildings that are 500 years old and in cities that a 12-year-old can get around in, by bike or tram. Buffalo’s going about this the wrong way.”
It was a wrong turn that almost every mid-sized American city had taken in the postwar madness. In Buffalo, a series of federally funded urban renewal and highway construction projects, beginning in the 1950s, displaced more than 10,000 people and demolished over 1,000 businesses. Houses and shops were expropriated; expressways bisected, which is to say destroyed, neighborhoods—or at least those neighborhoods whose residents were not prominent in the Chamber of Commerce. As Tielman says, “Highway construction was always the partner of urban renewal. Get an atlas of any city in the U.S., look at the road projects in the 1960s, and overlay a map of socioeconomic factors: income, education, race—the highway is going through.”
As the wrecking ball swung, one of the most resonant voices of protest belonged to African American architectural pioneer Robert T. Coles, son of a Buffalo postal worker. Coles pleaded, unsuccessfully, for preservation, for neighborhood, for the little shops, china cups, and virginity—no, wait; that was the Kinks in “Village Green Preservation Society”—and against urban renewal, wanton destruction, and the regime of automobile uber alles. In 1963 Coles wrote: “We are mistaking newness for goodness….[I]n wandering through the downtown neighborhoods, one sees so much that could be saved; one wonders whether it might be better for Buffalo to rehabilitate what it already has to attract its former residents back into the city rather than to build at tremendous cost new towers in the horizon in the midst of blight and deterioration.”
But what did a young black architect, product of Buffalo’s schools and Buffalo’s streets, know? Starchitects like Minoru Yamasaki (who also designed the infamous Pruitt-Igoe housing project in St. Louis) and Harrison & Abramovitz, with their soulless modernist skyscrapers, were teaching the city fathers how to raze what Buffalo was and raise a new, clean, rational, and brutalist city. These architects were right out of the Robert Frost poem: “With him the love of country means/Blowing it all to smithereens/And having it all made over new.”
Urban renewal was the lethal marriage of progressive urban engineering with what Tim calls the “kakistocracy”—thieves who justify their crimes against place in the canting and condescending language of efficiency and inevitability.
New York’s Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan once said, while being driven through urban-renewal-decimated Auburn, New York, “In the 1950s, with a progressive government and newspaper, you got into urban renewal and destroyed everything of value in your town. If you’d had a reactionary newspaper and a grumpy mayor, you might still have it.” Try to imagine Chuck Schumer or Kirsten Gillibrand saying something one-ten-thousandth as perceptive. (Confirming Moynihan, the largest American city to reject urban renewal funding was Salt Lake City, whose voters, following the lead of their delightfully cranky libertarian Mayor J. Bracken Lee, rejected the federal bulldozer in 1965 by a vote of 29,119 to 4,900.)
Moynihan had a soft spot for Buffalo, probably because it was filled with the ethnic Catholics who claimed his heart, if not always his head. His support was critical in saving Louis Sullivan’s terra cotta-ornamented Guaranty Building (1896) from senseless demolition. (In a 1961 essay in Commentary, Moynihan called Buffalo “a big, ugly, turbulent city.” I once asked him if that description caused any problems in his campaigns. He looked at me incredulously. “How many people in Buffalo do you think read Commentary?”)
Tielman says, “Absent the federal and state money, none of this devastation occurs in Buffalo or Niagara Falls.” He elaborates: “Where did this free money go? To the existing power structure”—whose acts of destruction were facilitated, I regret to say, by urban Catholic mayors, who sacrificed significant portions of their cities to the Greatest Generation’s Greatest God: Progress.
Tim Tielman began speaking and writing in praise of what he calls “paleo-urbanism” in the mid-1980s. He was, at first, a gadfly—“the urban design book-pusher of Buffalo,” he laughs—protesting the seemingly limitless ways by which developers and politicians proposed to “improve” Buffalo by maiming, molesting, or extirpating the common inheritance. Whether a Frederick Law Olmsted park or a corner butcher shop, nothing was safe from the powerful men armed with plans and free federal money. (Tim also enfiladed them with Sharp Comix, a satirical bimonthly, which provoked a $30 million lawsuit—”we settled for $100”—by the Trulmp-like Buffalo developer Carl Paladino.)
After one event, Tim met Susan McCartney, cofounder of the Preservation Coalition of Erie County, which Tim would serve as executive director before leaving in 2002 to found the Campaign for Greater Buffalo History, Architecture, and Culture. Tim and Sue wed, they defended their cultural patrimony, and they divorced. But their progeny include not only two children but numerous once-threatened buildings now upright and thriving, obscure gems illumined, even baseball games played in a proper setting. The much-praised design of the downtown Coca-Cola (née Pilot) Field of 1988, one of the earliest of the retro ballparks, is partly due to preservationist pressure to keep the stadium from being domed or otherwise denatured.
In the case of H.H. Richardson’s asylum, the Preservation Coalition sponsored tours of the grounds in all their dilapidated splendor and promoted educational efforts to acquaint Buffalonians with this fading hulk of their heritage. It urged local officials to do basic maintenance on the state-owned landmark, but to no avail: The National Trust for Historic Preservation put the complex on its most endangered list.
As a last resort—a legal Hail Mary—the Coalition sued the state, arguing that Albany was statutorily obligated to maintain its designated historic buildings. In 2002 the New York supreme court concurred. The prospect of the state footing the bill for the legion of vacant psychiatric centers, courthouses, jails, waterworks, and suchlike under its ownership convinced Governor George Pataki to make a deal: If the cash-strapped Preservation Coalition would agree not to contest the state’s appeal (it couldn’t afford to anyway), the state would send $100 million to Buffalo for preservation of the Richardson asylum and the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed Darwin Martin House. Fifteen years later, the Martin House is a jewel and H.H. Richardson’s alternative to Bedlam has returned from the moribund.
Yes, I know, this is taxpayers’ money. Tim describes himself as a “liberal,” though I’d call him a civic-minded localist. Regardless, the monuments and handiwork of our forebears deserve preservation, even reinvigoration. Besides, the first two tenants to open in the 463,000-square-foot Richardson-Olmsted Complex, the 100 Acres Kitchen and the 88-room Hotel Henry, are privately owned.
Tielman quickly learned that the best way to parry the “obstructionist” charge was to “always have a counterplan, an alternative path.”
Sometimes, though, the kakistocrats and Bold Dreamers concoct plans so outrageously profligate and stupefyingly wrongheaded that obstruction becomes a bounden duty.
In the early years of this century, Buffalo-area officials sought to lure Bass Pro, the big-box sporting-goods store, to anchor the development of Buffalo’s Canal District, western terminus of the Erie Canal. The Canal District was a bustling tenderloin in the days when mules named Sal trudged the towpath; later it was pulverized and paved, a victim of urban renewal, a sacrifice to the parking lot Baal. Today, after excavation and restoration prompted by a Tielman lawsuit, “Canalside” is a popular site for recreation, concerts, and festivals.
But before this rebirth, the economic development boys had the bright idea of luring Bass Pro with a $35 million subsidy. The corporate giant took the bait. Politicians lined up for photo ops.
So the Campaign for Greater Buffalo went big-box hunting. It assembled a coalition including VOICE-Buffalo, a religious-social justice organization; the Sierra Club; and taxpayer watchdog Jim Ostrowski, son of South Buffalo (and of a New York State Supreme Court justice), attorney, and libertarian activist.
Among the most eloquent critics was Mark Goldman, restaurateur and historian, who has chronicled the destruction and incipient revivification of his adopted city in such books as City on the Edge (2007). Goldman said of Bass Pro:
“There’s nothing good about it. It’s bad public policy, bad economics, and bad governance. Bad public policy because subsidies to private companies do not and cannot work. Bad economics because the project focuses on increasing supply and not demand; bad governance because it sends a terrible message to any others interested in doing business that we do not have a level playing field here…that there are a certain chosen few who get the benefits while the rest do not. The deal is rotten from the head down.”
The left-right coalition sank Bass Pro—which in hindsight even the magic bullet, subsidize-anything-that-moves crowd concedes was for the best. Says the libertarian Ostrowski: “Tim is a brilliant guy who knows the history of Buffalo down to the smallest detail. He used to be marginalized by the powers that be as is their usual reaction to real talent. However, they listened to him on Bass Pro and the waterfront is much better for it.” But the Canal District is now threatened by every parent’s nightmare: a children’s museum, a $27 million project, jointly funded by a state development corporation and corporate donors, with the city offering a $1-a-year lease for forty years.
Tim is not enthusiastic. “Did you know Buffalo is the largest city in the country without a children’s museum?” he asks in mock outrage. “We can’t let that stand!” More seriously, he notes that “children’s museums attract fewer people than cemeteries,” and that this one “has nothing to do with the Canal District—it could be anywhere.” (It could be anywhere—what an apposite caption for so many of the edifices that deface our cities: This could be anywhere.)
Tielman envisions Canalside as more than just a place to drink craft beer and listen to Goo-Goo Dolls covers, let alone spend an excruciating hour at manufactured “play.” He has proposed, and the powers-that-be are considering, a plan to open the Canal District to small buildings, shops, apartments, and commercial spaces. “We can rebuild a sustainable neighborhood where Buffalo started,” says Tim, donning prophet robes, “and it can restart from this site following a philosophy based on historic preservation and what works urbanistically.”
Jane Jacobs occupies the catbird seat on Tim’s bookshelf. He rhapsodizes Jacobsian over pre-urban renewal Buffalo, which was “dense with buildings and crowded sidewalks, where one could wander block upon block, past shop after shop, restaurant after restaurant, office building after hotel, without apparent end. Buffalo was a beehive, where all of life’s necessities, pleasures, and luxuries could be had within the square mile of its core.”
Its demolition was not the work of some invisible hand or inscrutable force but rather, in Tielman’s phrase, “social engineers” who destroyed the essence of the city. But maybe everything that dies someday comes back.
This is no wool-gathering fantasy. One of Tielman’s greatest hits is Larkin Square, centerpiece of a once-abandoned industrial district, which Chris Hawley, senior planner for the City of Buffalo, calls “one of the true Rust Belt success stories.”
The Larkin Company was a soap manufacturer and mail-order business associated with Elbert Hubbard, the eccentric apostle of the arts and crafts movement, and Frank Lloyd Wright, who designed a home for Larkin secretary Darwin Martin as well as the Larkin Administration Building (1906). The building was generally considered a masterpiece of modern industrial architecture. (I leave aside the question of whether that’s a good thing.)
In time, the Larkin Company went the way of all mortal things and hidebound companies. A younger Larkin had defaced the building, over Wright’s objections, with his own “improvements,” and by the mid-1940s it was seized for unpaid taxes by the City of Buffalo. Purchase offers from a brewer and other dreamers were rejected, and in 1950 it was felled to make room for a proposed truck terminal that never came to be. Instead, Wright’s Emersonian cathedral to “the ideal of virtuous work,” as art historian Jack Quinan called it, was replaced by a parking lot.
We parked in that lot as we visited Larkin Square, a bustling urban space hosting a 1930s service station converted to a restaurant, a vintage diner, a peaceful army of food trucks, an outdoor concert venue, a historically themed mini-golf course, and people-watching chairs to fit all shapes and sizes. Howard Zemsky, a preservation-minded developer and Russer Foods heir, has worked with Tielman and others to rejuvenate the once-desolate Larkinville district surrounding the square; the whilom post-industrial wasteland now houses the excellent Flying Bison Brewing Company, various design and architecture firms, and a burgeoning retail, manufacturing, and warehouse center. With its hanging perpendicular signage, awnings, and gooseneck lighting, Larkinville fairly sings “New Urbanism was here.” (Signally, the Congress for the New Urbanism held its 2014 national conference in resurgent Buffalo.)
“Success, for me,” says Tielman, “is if someone can buy a quart of milk or get breakfast in the neighborhood.” He describes Larkinville as a “free-market urban environment” whose future he does not presume to predict. “You break up a big forbidding scale and allow smaller things to happen,” he says. “You create the basic setting and then you let other people do what they can do.”
Next time you’re in Buffalo—and you really ought to visit; the Buffalos and Lowells and Pittsburghs are so much better for the soul than Orlando or Myrtle Beach—take one of the Campaign for Greater Buffalo’s open-air bus tours. Drop by Larkin Square and Canalside. Visit the reified visions of Richardson, Sullivan, and Wright, and enjoy the vernacular architecture of local builders. These have been saved, or resurrected, by local patriots, men and women of all pedigrees, from South Buffalo Irish to Dutch Indonesian. What they did here, you and I can do in our own places, if we will but look, listen, and love.
Bill Kauffman’s eleven books include Dispatches from the Muckdog Gazette and Ain’t My America. He also wrote the screenplay for the feature film Copperhead.
This article was supported by a grant from the Richard H. Driehaus Foundation.