The story of Buffalo Central Terminal is in many ways similar to that of Michigan Central Station, which we looked at last time (The Beauty of Transport 19 September 2018). Like Michigan Central, it shares a link with New York’s Grand Central. Alfred Fellheimer of architecture practice Fellheimer & Wagner, which designed Buffalo Central, worked at Reed & Stem as a junior partner when that firm worked on Grand Central.
Buffalo Central, which opened in 1929, is 16 years younger than Michigan Central but its architecture is in a much more modern style. There are shades here of Helsinki Central (The Beauty of Transport, 12 October 2016), especially in the shaping of the ends of the main station building, where giant arched or lunette windows are a distinctive feature. They also point towards Fellheimer and Wagner’s ultimate expression of the lunette window at Cincinnati (The Beauty of Transport, 27 November 2013), a station building which is essentially one huge lunette with a half-dome behind to keep it upright. A tough-looking building, its dark exterior and deco touches wouldn’t appear out of place in a Batman film. The external appearance of Buffalo Central is thoroughly Modernist or Art Deco (take your pick, it’s been described as both and I don’t want to get into an argument about the correct terminology). Finished in dark stone, the lunettes and tower are its key features.
The tower is Buffalo Central’s own skyscraper, a striking feature providing office space and placed on the corner of the station building. It’s not unknown for stations to feature towers, but they are usually clock towers. Indeed, Helsinki Central has a 48.5m tall tower, and the stepping back of the tower towards its top preempt Buffalo’s design. But Buffalo’s tower is something on a quite different scale, at some 82.5m dominating the landscape for miles around. It is a much more massive construction, designed not just to display a clock but as a work space housing offices belonging to the station’s owner and main operator, New York Central Railroad. The tower is octagonal in plan, stepping back on its upper storeys and buttresses on the corners of the octagon extended up to finish in a sort of crown above a lantern-like structure on top. The tower has 16 floors and is 24 metres in diameter, with its ground floor acting as an entrance lobby to the station, and lifts serving the office floors above.
Internally, Fellheimer incorporated ideas about passenger circulation and natural lighting which had first been seen in the revolutionary designs for Grand Central, as he did at his other major railroad stations of the same period. Cincinnati was one, Boston another. The main concourse was a huge, easily navigated rectangular space, with natural light coming in through the large windows. Groin vaults at both ends of the barrel-vaulted ceiling allowed for light to come in through windows on three sides. The ceiling was formed from buff-coloured Guastavino tiling, the walls were decorated with light and dark marble, and the floor featured geometric designs made of four different colours of terrazzo floor tiles.
Metalwork, light fittings and ticket counters were given Art Deco styling. An adjacent waiting room, smaller than the main concourse but still huge, had a barrel-vaulted ceiling decorated with a blue sky design.
Although the main concourse is a cavernous space, it was apparently a very quiet one, as various sound-absorbing structures were included in its design. This civilised approach to acoustic design can still be found in some large American railroad terminals which remain operational, including Los Angeles Union Passenger Terminal (The Beauty of Transport, 9 July 2014).
Passengers moved from the main building into a wide overbridge (almost a secondary concourse in its own right) which ran over the station’s seven island platforms, giving access to 14 tracks down stairways and gently sloping ramps. But before that, they would have dropped off their baggage in the station’s baggage room, from where it descended a spiral chute into a baggage subway underneath the tracks, to be taken onto the trains. Sadly, the connector between the overbridge and the main station was demolished in 1981 to allow space for tall freight trains – like the double-stacked container trains which so amaze British visitors (well, me) to America – to pass through the site. This left the platforms, with their streamline canopies, cut-off from the terminal building.
It was a huge place, containing not just ticket offices, baggage rooms and the railroad company’s offices, but also a large restaurant, a coffee shop, newsstand, soda fountains,
travel agents, liquor stores, barbers, concession stands, and telegraph offices.
It must have been quite extraordinary when new, but as you’ll have noticed from the photos Buffalo Central is not looking at its best these days. In general terms, its post-war decline mirrors that of Michigan Central, and indeed the whole of the American railroad network, but Buffalo Central also suffered as a result of some poor decisions about its location.
Buffalo Central Terminal was designed as a replacement for an under-sized station at Exchange Street in downtown Buffalo. Close to the border with Canada, Buffalo Central was also served by international trains of the Canadian National Railway, and the new station layout had plenty of space to serve trains both national and international. As well as the line north into Canada, Buffalo sat at a key location on the American railroad network, where lines from the Midwest met those of the east. It was constructed some two and half miles from the centre of Buffalo, in the hopes that the city’s business district would expand towards it.
Not only did that not happen, but Buffalo Central got in only about three decades of service before it became obvious that American long-distance railroad passenger numbers were in near-terminal decline. And even in its heyday, the station never saw the 10,000 passengers per day that it had been built to handle. Its opening in 1929 took place just after the Wall Street crash, which hardly helped, and some railroad companies which served Buffalo refused to serve the new station, preferring Buffalo’s existing (if cramped) stations. Buffalo Central’s location turned out be thoroughly inconvenient, being neither initially close enough to the city centre to be convenient, nor later on far enough out that it effectively served Buffalo’s growing suburbs. In its early days the fortunes of the station were not assisted by the fact that a planned streetcar extension to serve the station was never actually provided, despite the inclusion of a streetcar waiting room and space for the streetcar terminal loop under the plaza in front of the main building. This made travel into Buffalo city centre even more inconvenient than it might have been otherwise.
When America’s long-distance passenger railroad services were consolidated into the Amtrak company in the 1970s, that company was in no position to look after Buffalo Central, which was already becoming a maintenance headache. Instead it reopened a station at Exchange Street for some services. It also built a new station called Buffalo Depew, near the city’s airport. Between them, they serve the two parts of Buffalo that Buffalo Central never managed effectively to do at its single site. Exchange Street is downtown and serves the city centre, while Depew is in the outskirts, and serves Buffalo’s suburbs.
After Amtrak left in 1979, Buffalo Central found itself without purpose, and went into a steep decline. “Americans love abandoning things and moving on…” a Canadian friend of mine noted wisely. Between the 1970s and 1990s, Buffalo Central was held by various private owners. Its fixtures and fittings were removed and sold, or sometimes stolen. A famous statue of a bison, situated in the main concourse, was apparently destroyed when reversed into by a truck engaged in removing the station’s light fittings. The station passed to the non-profit Central Terminal Restoration Corporation in 1997, which has been working to stabilise and eventually restore the main concourse building and the associate tower, as well as the adjoining baggage building it also owns. It opens the building on about 40 days each year for events which help raise funds for the restoration of the building. But it’s a massive job, and without a significant private sector partner it will be a real challenge. Plans to partner with a Canadian real estate company, announced in 2016, subsequently fell through.
Meanwhile, although progress is slow, it is being made. The long-lost clock from the station’s concourse was located and purchased, and has now been returned to the station. A new version of the destroyed bison statue has been installed too.
Exchange Street remains utterly miserable and undersized, and thought has been given recently to its replacement. In April this years, plans were unveiled for a $20m rebuild, with a new station building taking some design cues from Buffalo Central, without it becoming an ersatz scaled-down copy. Although it’s nice to imagine that Amtrak services could instead return to a revitalised Buffalo Central (as one resident is quoted as suggesting), its location continues to count against it, which is why the Exchange Street site remains favoured. Depew station is better, a modest but effective little facility which tends towards the International Style in appearance.
Despite that, it somehow offends one’s sensibilities to know that Exchange Street and Depew stations serve a city which also hosts one of the most impressive inter-war railroad terminals of them all, yet which now sees no passenger trains at all.
How to find Buffalo Central Terminal
Bibliography and further reading
Solomon, Brian (2015): Railway Depots, Stations & Terminals. Voyageur Press, Minneapolis
Central Terminal Restoration Corporation website, here (lots of lovely photos)
National Register of Historic Places listing page for Buffalo Central Terminal (with downloadable pdf available), here