How better to take the covers off the familiar than to introduce it to strangers? Throughout Buffalo, volunteers present Buffalo anew. At Canalside, Larkinville and City Hall, as well as self-contained centers of art like the Burchfield Penney Art Center and the Albright-Knox Art Gallery, discovery occurs daily through the words, smiles and talents of these docents.
Although you may have seen Buffalo’s skyline for decades, you will find your sight transformed by a skilled docent. Take the two-hour boat ride focused on the grain elevators and you will learn not only about how they function, but be awed by the creative possibilities for what our multitude of gigantic structures could become.
I stumbled into this stream of energy by accident. Although I had taken tours over the years, I never imagined myself giving one. But I decided to give it a try. Participating in the 10-week winter docent training program offered by Buffalo Tours, along with 50 other volunteers, I was amazed at the precision and care with which master docents gave of themselves to help beginners. We received feedback on everything from intonation to eye contact, and watched each other become better as weeks went by.
The terror of the first tour weighed heavily upon each of us. But we were encouraged to infuse our personalities and interests into welcoming visitors, and leave our fears behind. And it worked! My notes, full of facts, became less and less needed. Pointing out special features at my chosen site, I enabled tour members to see the Richardson Psychiatric Center Complex as designers Henry Hobson Richardson, architect, and Frederick Law Olmsted, landscape architect, had envisioned it. Instead of having the excitement of seeing the buildings only as they are now, visitors are invited to imagine what Dr. Thomas Kirkbride had designated as a sanctuary for healing, filled with light and curves. Visitors leave the buildings with a grasp of its past, knowledge of its present and thrilled about its future.
Throughout the spring and summer, and now into the autumn, we are sharing our spaces with Buffalonians as well as people from around the world. On a recent tour, visitors from Germany and Boston listened to neighborhood members who had played ball on the back lots of the Richardson complex. A highlight: At our “Christmas in July” tour, we sang the 19th century “Deck the Halls” in halls where former residents might have done the same thing, and the lilting melody reverberated magnificently.
This summer, with two sets of visitors, I saw Buffalo through their eyes. At the Darwin Martin Complex, we were invited to appreciate the home, the history and all the remarkable people involved in the complex’s creation. My visitors saw Niagara Falls, the Theodore Roosevelt site, a trolley tour within Forest Lawn, Niagara-on-the-Lake and the Burchfield Penney Art Center. The assortment yielded a medley of beauty – man-made and natural. And in settings where a docent was present to guide us, our visits were enriched.
Throughout Buffalo, tours offer individuals of all ages and backgrounds opportunities to translate facts into entertaining insights about people, places, things. Navigating the past can be dusty, until one passes through the time portal with a docent who captivates. Then, with time suspended, together you unlock history.