Then and Now: Buffalo City Hall, Black is Black

You have to be about a half century old or more to remember City Hall wearing the sinister black skin seen in this image from a mid century postcard.  I remember it being cleaned some time in the early to mid 70s when it was turned back to its original and now more familiar warm honey tones. The porous tan limestone of its facade was apparently like a sponge for pollution particles. The 32-storey building was completed in 1931 but was already looking substantially blackened in images from the 1950s. It is likely that it took only 20 or maybe even fewer years to darken so much by likely absorbing the back coal soot that poured out of practically every chimney in the region during a time when coal was an almost universal heat source. 
When I was a kid this was a black building.  People though of it as a back building. That was its materiality, its persona – dark, old, and foreboding.  At the time of the cleaning you probably would not have found very many people who knew of the soft, light toned building that lay hidden below that cloak of black. As much as I love the honey hued building we have, I actually think I like the black version better.  It was extremely dramatic and mysterious.  It spoke of Buffalo’s long gone industrial might.  The black tones are not uniform with subtle variations that look as if they were planned into the facade.  Lighter toned corners on the lower wings emphasize the base. The tower turns dramatically darker as it rises to the deep coal-black top where shimmering gold terra-cotta decorations shine soot-free from the crown.   I would not mind it still being black.  
Older buildings are typically designed with materials meant to age well.  Stones soaked in grit allow details to become more or less prominent, a chip here or there add character etc.  New buildings with modern details and materials need to be kept like new, fixed in time, if they are going to continue looking good. Dirty metal paneled buildings look awful for example.  They have to be kept as new looking as the day they opened.   But too much of a good thing isn’t so good. Old photos of Buffalo and other older north eastern cities reveal many blackened buildings at mid century.  
Cities full of dark old buildings played no small part in America’s flight to the new greener cleaner pastures in the suburbs and the new cities of the south and southwest. The urge to purge the dark old buildings from cities led to massive urban renewal and land clearing.  I remember very clearly the brilliant white walls of the M&T Plaza when that building went up. It was like a space ship landed made out of some kind of space material (it was white concrete and white marble). M&T Plaza is still stunning today 40 years after its construction. But, imagine its mind blowing impression when placed against a whole blackened mid century city as represented by this vintage image of Buffalo City Hall.  
Many buildings that were not removed for urban renewal were eventually brightened up in the 70s and 80s.   Some were cleaned but many such as the Ellicott Square Building were simply painted over. City Hall gained character with age but was also able to shine like new after cleaning. With a drastically different atmosphere now compared to Buffalo’s industrial heyday we are unlikely to see this dramatic coloration return to City Hall any time soon if ever.  So, I guess we are stuck with the gorgeous building that we have now for a long long time.  Poor Buffalo.

About the author  ⁄ david steele

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