I live next door to a Frank Lloyd Wright house. For decades, I worked in a building designed by Edward Durrell Stone of Kennedy Center fame. I've spent more than 25 years working to restore and preserve Buffalo's iconic 1833 lighthouse. Like many Buffalonians, I worship in an old church filled with ornamental splendor -- in my case St. Anthony's, just a few steps from the back door of Buffalo's landmark art deco City Hall. Each season brings entertainment opportunities in Eliel and Eero Saarinen's stunning Kleinhans Music Hall or C.W. and George Rapp's elaborate Shea's Performing Arts Center. And, also like many Western New Yorkers who work downtown, I stop occasionally for a sandwich or a lottery ticket in Daniel H. Burnham's Ellicott Square.
In short, I am surrounded by architectural magnificence. And, far too often, blind to it.
I should not be. Nor should you.
With members of the National Trust for Historic Preservation gathering here this week for their annual conference, much has been made of the opportunity this region has to showcase itself for a national audience. Big deal. The national audience already is figuring out for itself that Buffalo has special treasures to share, with article after article in the national press and a growing national reputation for heritage and cultural tourism. After all, the National Trust didn't decide to meet in Buffalo because its leaders thought we didn't have amazing stuff to look at.
Sure, the national conference will help, by kicking that growing reputation up a notch. But there's a much more important opportunity here, one that shouldn't be wasted.
It's the opportunity to look around for ourselves.
One of the things that held Buffalo back for years was our own attitude to the place we live. We apologized for snow. We took Buffalo jokes seriously, and let them hurt. We forced smiles when people asked us how we could live in Buffalo, and replied weakly that "at least we don't have earthquakes."
It's time to say, "no more."
It's not about what we don't have, but what we do.
Our own negativity has been a killer, and a needless one. A much more positive attitude has begun taking root, thankfully, as local residents see and enjoy progress on such long-held dreams as waterfront renewal and a state-of-the-art medical campus. Commercial building housing conversions are bringing life back to downtown, hotels like the Statler and Lafayette are returning to former glories and new construction is no longer a novelty.
But the push for a renewed pride in place still has a long way to go. Too many of us still don't see that, as hometowns go, this one is exceptionally rich in architecture and history.
Buffalo has many nicknames, both prideful and self-disparaging -- Queen City of the Lakes, City of Good Neighbors, Nickel City, Miami of the North, City of No Illusions.
It's time now to think of upstate's major urban center as the Legacy City -- a city whose bones were formed by earlier leaders who dared to dream big, and who had the wealth to make good things happen for their community. They were leaders who commissioned famed architects to bring architectural greatness to the city, who had the wherewithal to donate such treasures as the blended classical-modernist Albright-Knox Art Gallery, who envisioned the need for soul-soothing green space and decided a magnificent Frederick Law Olmsted parks system -- not a park, but an entire parks system -- would be just the thing to provide it.
Even the city's main cemetery -- Forest Lawn, the final resting place of President Millard Fillmore, Seneca orator Red Jacket, aviation giant Lawrence D. Bell, weather bureau founder Albert J. Myer, explorer Frederick Cook, singer Rick James, William Fargo of Wells-Fargo, air conditioning inventor Willis Carrier, Aretha Franklin's mother, Irving Berlin's wife and a host of others -- is awash in architecture and history.
It just shouldn't be that hard to be proud of living in a place like this.
Even without the architecture, this region has a huge claim to history. It's where the engineering marvel of the 19th century, the Erie Canal, linked the seaports of the East Coast to the maritime trade of the Great Lakes -- and, in the process, opened the interior of a continent to settlement and pushed a fledgling nation into world economic stature. It's where some of the bloodiest fortunes turned in the War of 1812, a conflict that solidified American independence. It was a final stage on the Underground Railroad, one of the earliest cradles of aviation and the earliest cradle of electrical power on a grand scale. And we haven't even mentioned chicken wings.
But the city's architecture, much of it now being preserved or restored, embodies some of that history and all of the pride that should go with it.
As writer Nicolai Ouroussoff noted in the New York Times in 2008, "Buffalo was founded on a rich tradition of architectural experimentation. The architects who worked here were among the first to break with European traditions to create an aesthetic of their own, rooted in American ideals about individualism, commerce and social mobility."
It's that cradle of architectural innovation and haven of architectural greatness that has drawn the interest of the National Trust. It should boost local pride, too.
It's not just the "Big Three" of American architecture -- Henry Hobson Richardson, Louis Sullivan and Wright -- that we can talk about here.
Sure, they gave Buffalo masterworks -- Richardson's Buffalo State Hospital complex, Sullivan's Guaranty Building and Wright's Darwin Martin House -- but those masterworks are supported superbly by the visions of other architects great and common. Wright's Martin House, for example, is set in a neighborhood of typical but beautiful Victorian homes near Olmsted's centerpiece park and the Delaware Park Zoo; its masterly ongoing restoration has added a dramatic modern visitor center by Toshiko Mori. Those "everyday" homes in the neighborhood give context to the startling vision that Wright dropped in their midst, and Mori's Greatbatch Pavilion emphasizes the high regard accorded the Martin House by the modern architectural world.
Places like the Saarinens' Kleinhans Music Hall -- a Depression-era masterpiece largely funded by one of those wealthy Buffalo mercantilists -- offer local residents a chance to enjoy both the architectural beauty of a modernist building in a setting of period homes, mansions and classically styled churches, and the sound of one of the most acoustically perfect music venues in the world.
Most concerts today are drawn to the outdoor stages of the Erie Canal Harbor -- another heritage-celebrating site -- or the mega-venue of First Niagara Center, until recently the HSBC Arena. But there's a real difference. At those sites, heavily amplified music fills the spaces; Kleinhans offers a much more intimate connection to its performances. It's the difference between music fitting the place and the place fitting the music; Buffalo has both, but the Music Hall is the real treasure.
Buffalo also has pioneering female architect Louise Blanchard Bethune's Hotel Lafayette, a host of works by E.B. Green and buildings by Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, Stanford White, Minoru Yamasaki, Richard Upjohn and others. We still have tarnished gems like the Central Terminal, a major challenge, but we also have such comeback victories as the Larkin office and warehouse complex as a promise of what still could happen. For a detailed architectural legacy listing, check out Chuck LaChiusa's lovingly maintained "Buffalo as an Architectural Museum" website at buffaloah.com.
All of this can be a bit overwhelming, but Buffalonians have been underwhelmed by it for years. Watching National Trust Conference participants wander wide-eyed past our everyday treasures might be just the tonic we need.
It might help to take a look at what they're looking at (the program is online at www.preservationnation.-org/conference, including information on events open to the public). That includes the masterworks, of course. But by bus, bike and Birkenstock, conferees also will be augmenting technical sessions with an array of tour opportunities that range from prehistoric Native American sites of the lower Niagara River to the Delaware Avenue mansions of "Millionaires' Row."
They will be visiting grain elevators, the harbor, the Col. Ward Pumping Station, Medina, Lockport's "Flight of Five" canal locks and much more in the Erie Canalway Heritage Corridor. The West and East Sides (both on a Polonia tour and a visit to "struggling neighborhoods") will get repeated looks. There's even a Buffalo breweries tour.
The Anchor Bar is on their schedule. So is Artspace. Churches and temples will open, as will City Hall, Allentown, the Botanical Gardens, Shea's, the homes of bridge-bordering Prospect Hill, the fireboat Edward M. Cotter, Forest Lawn, the Market Arcade, the Theodore Roosevelt Inaugural Site, Wright's Davidson and Graycliff homes, and the Coit House. Buses will range through southern Ontario, to the Chautauqua Institution and Niagara Falls State Park, to the Herschell Carrousel Factory Museum and Riviera Theater in North Tonawanda, and to the Roycroft in East Aurora.
There will be visits to urban farms, and an heirloom apple orchard in Holly. The African-American historic district including the Colored Musicians Club, Michigan Street Baptist Church and the Nash House will be showcased. So will Buffalo's schools reconstruction program.
There will be candlelight house tours in the Delaware District, coupled with "museums by moonlight" openings. And there will be what the National Trust itself calls, appropriately enough, a "walk and gawk" stroll along a mapped-out route of homes and churches from the convention center to an awards ceremony at the music hall.
"Walk and gawk" indeed.
We should be so lucky.
Mike Vogel is the former editorial page editor of The Buffalo News, and will be a speaker on lighthouse preservation at the National Trust Conference.