Historic Structures

New York Central Terminal, Buffalo New York

Date added: September 24, 2022 Categories: New York Train Station Art Deco

The New York Central Terminal is a monumental example of an Art Deco style civic structure. Built between 1927 and 1930, the huge complex consists of the main terminal building flanked by three wings, a power plant, six supporting structures, and the open green space to the west of the terminal. A Railroad Express Terminal Building, built prior to the complex in 1917, is also included part of the complex. The station is especially distinguished for the degree and scale with which it manifests the Art Deco style in both its immense exterior design and its lavish, grand interior. Nearly all of the architectural features associated with the style are evident in the station's massing, materials, and details and are further highlighted by the high degree of craftsmanship and design quality evident in its construction. The terminal attests to Buffalo's role as the geographic center of American commerce from the beginning of the railroad age in the mid-nineteenth century until its climax in the mid-twentieth century. With a total of fourteen lines serving the city, Buffalo's railroad network was second in size only to that of Chicago. The complex is also noteworthy as a representative work of the regionally prominent architectural firm of Fellheimer and Wagner, specialists in railroad station design. One of the last great railroad complexes built in the expansionist era of the 1920s, the New York Central Terminal retains high architectural integrity and remains as one of the few extant landmarks representing Buffalo's role as a national railroad transportation center.

Ownership of much of western New York, including what is now the city of Buffalo, was in the hands of the French, British and Six-Nations Indian tribe throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The British won formal control of the area with the 1763 treaty ending the French and Indian War, only to have to cede it to the new American government in the Treaty of Paris twenty years later. However, the British remained in control of most of the Niagara frontier until 1796. In 1793, Robert Morris of Philadelphia bought the land west of the Genesee River from the state of Massachusetts. After retaining a strip for himself surrounding the river, Morris sold the remainder to the Holland Land Company, a group of Dutch investors. The settlement of the area was rather slow due to the continued presence of the British at Fort Niagara and other outposts as well as the lack of roads leading into the area.

In 1797, Joseph Ellicott, the first agent of the Holland Land Company, began his survey of western New York. Ellicott laid out the city of Buffalo from 1803-1804 with eight streets radiating at equal angles from the designated hub of the city. During the war of 1812, the city served as a staging point for several largely unsuccessful American forays into Canada. The period from the end of the war in 1815 until the beginning of the canal period in 1825 saw considerable growth in the area as people were attracted by its rich, fertile soil. The village of Buffalo was incorporated in April 1816 and by 1820, the population had risen to over two thousand.

The major event in the early nineteenth century development of Buffalo was the construction of the Erie Canal. Started in Rome, New York in 1817, the canal was completed with Buffalo as its western terminus in 1823. Its opening two years later inaugurated a period of great growth and development in Buffalo. Population and trade expansion resulted from the area's favorable location as a transportation point connecting the Atlantic Ocean and the Eastern Great Lakes. By 1830, Buffalo was the shipbuilding capital of the Great Lakes and possessed a population of over 8,000. Two years later when the city was incorporated, the population had topped 10,000. During the late 1830s and 1840s, shipping and trade increased at a phenomenal rate, assuring Buffalo steady economic growth. By the mid-1850s, however, a new transportation system was developing which would quickly surpass the role of the harbor and canal system in making Buffalo a major transportation center.

As early as 1831, several prominent Buffalo citizens had suggested the construction of a railroad between Buffalo and the Hudson River, but it was not until 1836 that the first steam railroad, the Buffalo and Niagara Falls, was placed in operation. In 1843, the Buffalo and Attica Railroad was built connecting Buffalo with a chain of minor railroads which traversed the state and ended in Albany. The year 1852 was eventful in Buffalo's railroad history for the construction of four major systems: the New York and Erie Railway, the Buffalo and Rochester Railroad, the Buffalo and State Line, and the Buffalo and Brantford. The latter two connected Buffalo with Chicago and Canada respectively. With the financial panic of 1857 and the ensuing Civil War, railroad construction came to a halt and for the next twenty years, most companies consolidated in order to survive. The city of Buffalo continued to prosper, however, and by 1862, it had a population of 100,000 and was served by eight major railroad companies.

Positioned at the junction of the eastern end of the Great Lakes and western end of the Erie Canal, Buffalo had become the greatest inland port of trans-shipment in the United States by the latter half of the nineteenth century, earning the nickname "Queen City of the Lakes." With its harbor and rapidly developing railroad network, Buffalo was at the geographic center of American commerce from the middle of the nineteenth century to the early twentieth century. In the latter half of the nineteenth century, railroad entrepreneurs consolidated old lines and built new ones linking Buffalo with all sections of the country.

A total of fourteen lines served the city including the New York Central, the Erie, the Lackawanna, the Pennsylvania, the Nickel Plate, and the Lehigh Valley. The city was physically transformed by the creation of extensive corridors, yards, and facilities with over 700 miles of track within the city for storage and switching of trains alone. One historian has noted that "No American city during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries owed more to railroads than did Buffalo." As a result of the city's role as a major transportation center and with its inexpensive unlimited electric power from Niagara Falls, Buffalo experienced a period of industrial growth during the latter half of the nineteenth century second only to that of Chicago. Auxiliary industries connected with the railroad developed as did other industries anxious to take advantage of the city's transportation facilities and cheap electric power.

Buffalo became a transfer point in rail-water routes linking the Great Lakes with the nations's rail network. The low cost of lake transport still gave the carriers some advantage over the rails, especially in the transportation of bulk commodities. New wheat growing territories opened to the west and north and their crops traveled to market via lake freighters to Buffalo where they were stored in large grain elevators, making the city the largest grain depot in the world. As a result of the massive quantities of wheat entering the city, huge complexes of grain elevators were constructed. Many of these still survive giving Buffalo the distinction of having the best extant historical collection of elevators. From the grain elevators, the wheat was shipped to eastern markets via Buffalo's huge railroad network.

With the construction of the Buffalo and Washington Railway in 1873, which opened a direct connection with the sources of anthracite coal in Pennsylvania and several other railroad lines which carried coal almost exclusively, Buffalo became the center of an enormous coal market and depot. The city was once again physically transformed as each railroad company that carried coal built its own trestle and stocking yards holding an average of 100,000 tons. The city continually set records for the shipping of anthracite and bituminous coal during the 1880s and 1890s. The same influence that caused the rapid development of the coal business had a similar effect on the iron industry. Ore docks were constructed by five of the major railroad companies and Buffalo once again established records as a major iron ore shipping center. The availability of the mineral resources combined with the city's great railroad network made Buffalo an important manufacturing center. Flour mills, steel mills, and a host of diversified manufacturing enterprises developed in the city. Buffalo also became a large cattle market, second only to Chicago.

At the turn of the century, Buffalo had a population of over 300,000 and was regarded as having the greatest railroad yard facilities in the world. Two railroad stations were in operation: The Exchange Street Station serving the New York Central system (1870) and the Erie Railroad Passenger Station (1880). In 1916, the Lehigh Valley Company opened its Main Street Station and the following year, the Delaware, Lackawanna and Western Railroad established its passenger station. None of these stations is extant.

By 1923, the five principal railroad passenger terminals served fourteen different lines. Buffalo was at its height as a railroad center with the railroad employing over 20,000 people. However, the multitude of different tracks and companies and the widely scattered passenger terminals caused problems for the city. There were congestion delays in local freight shipments plus the huge expense of carting goods to the widely scattered freight houses and tracks as well as passenger inconvenience resulting from the different stations located throughout the city. The possibility of constructing one large passenger terminal to serve all of the railroad lines had been debated since the turn of the century. Because of the huge volume of rail traffic in and out of the city, the new terminal had to fulfill specific requirements. After much debate, ground was broken at Curtis and Lovejoy Streets in the southeast quadrant of the city on March 29, 1926. The terminal was completed and opened on June 22, 1929. The structure cost approximately $15 million and was built to serve over 200 trains and 10,000 passengers daily.

The terminal was designed by the well-known New York City architectural firm of Fellheimer and Wagner. Steward Wagner (1886-1958) studied architecture at Columbia University and the Beaux Arts Institute of Design in New York City. He practiced with various partners from 1910 to 1914 and then enjoyed a highly successful private practice from 1914 to 1921. Alfred Fellheimer (1895-1959) obtained his degree in architecture from the University of Illinois before moving to New York City and joining forces with Allen H. Stem, a specialist in railroad station design. The firm of Stem and Fellheimer designed Union Station (1915) in Utica, New York. In 1921, Fellheimer and Wagner formed a partnership that lasted until Wagner's death in 1958. The firm designed several large industrial buildings in the New York City area including the Warner and Lambert Factory in Morris Plains, the Bakelite Laboratory in Bound Brook, the Hoffman-LaRoche Pharmaceutical Plant in Nutley, and Allied Chemical Company Laboratory in Morristown. The firm also received recognition for its design of the New Jersey Turnpike and its various support structures as well as for buildings at Queens College and Elmhurst General Hospital.

Fellheimer and Wagner enjoyed their greatest success, however, as specialists in railroad station design. The firm designed numerous secondary stations throughout the country as well as contributing articles on railroad station design to the leading architectural journals of the period. In the 1920s, they received their largest station commissions: North Station in Boston (1926), New York Central Terminal in Buffalo (1927), and the Union Passenger Terminal in Cincinnatti (1929), regarded as their masterpiece.

The firm of Fellheimer and Wagner was noted for efficiency and individuality in design, attention to detail, effective resolution of transportation and site problems, and efficient use of grand interior spaces. Their designs for railroad stations reflected the firm's commitment to creating a cohesive visual impression by relying on simple and dignified exterior architectural treatments which served to unify the typically large, sprawling structures. In addition, the architects designed each station to be as self-sufficient and self-sustaining as possible.

The New York Central Terminal is significant as a highly representative example of Fellheimer and Wagner's work as well as one of the few documented, extant structures by the firm. Since the Boston Station (1926) had to be designed around existing structures, the Buffalo station was the firm's first opportunity to experiment with railroad station design on a grand scale. Considered the prototype for the Cincinnati terminal, which was also designed in the Art Deco style, the Buffalo station exhibits several features which the firm employed successfully in their later work. Among these features are separate entrances for vehicular and pedestrian traffic, adjoining auxiliary structures, a clear circulation pattern, ample space for freight and rail traffic, and a multi-service passenger lobby. The fifteen-floor office tower and the commercial spaces in the lobby attest to the firm's desire to make the structure financially self-supporting. In effect, the design of the New York Central Terminal characterized Fellheimer and Wagner's "formula" for a successful railroad station, which they ultimately perfected in the Cincinnati terminal. The Buffalo Station is also significant as an exceptionally distinguished, completely representative example of the Art Deco style of design.

The Art Deco style had first appeared in the mid-1920s as new stylistic influences emanating from Europe had an impact on American architecture.

In breaking with the revivalist tradition of the Beaux Arts school, the Art Deco style artistically expressed the modern machine age. Essentially a style of decoration, Art Deco embellishment includes low-relief geometric designs, zigzags, chevrons, stylized floral motifs, fluting and frets. The style is characterized by angular composition and an emphasis on verticality; towers are often employed using setbacks and piers. The simplified and streamlined forms were emphasized by the use of modern, machine-produced materials such as concrete, pressed metals, stainless ste 1, terra cotta, glass, and mirrors. The choice of the Art Deco style for railroad station design was particularly appropriate for it represented a complete break from the Neoclassical style that had been popular for earlier stations and it accurately symbolized the expansionist, machine-conscious era of the 1920s.

The terminal exhibits many exterior architectural features characteristic of the style including a stepped or set-back facade rising to a pilastered and buttressed tower, stylized figure sculpture, decorative window spandrels, stone and concrete decorated trim, and the use of chevrons, volutes, foliate patterns, and low geometric relief. The interior is embellished with materials and decoration typically associated with Art Deco design including marble, brass grilles, glass panels, polychromatic mosaic tiles, filigreed ironwork screens, stylized geometric or foliate patterns, and black and white Carrara glass. The use of Art Deco shapes and forms abounds on the interior in the streamlined shape of the concession stands, the zigzag and chevron cresting on the ironwork, the stage-like marble pilasters framing wide, squared entrances and exits, and the stylized lighting fixtures. Art Deco patterns are found on nearly every interior feature including the water fountains, the clocks, the telephone booths, and the mailboxes. The terminal remains as a virtually intact, representative example of the Art Deco style in Buffalo.

Like many other cities in the mid-west, Buffalo experienced a tremendous population growth in the early twentieth century as the industrial and agricultural base of the country shifted from the eastern seaboard to the mid-west region. Buffalo's growth was due mainly to its role as a major transportation hub and industrial center. Much of the new construction that occurred in the city was in the Art Deco style, which peaked in popularity in the mid-1920s and early 1930s during the city's period of sustained growth. The New York Central Terminal is one of two large-scale, monumental examples of the Art Deco style in Buffalo. The Buffalo City Hall, built between 1929 and 1931 by the firm of Dietel and Wade, is also a classic example of the style. In addition, the city has retained numerous small-scale examples of the Art Deco style in the form of commercial buildings, restaurants, storefront, and banks.

Although the Great Depression started shortly after the terminal opened, the railroad industry continued to flourish in Buffalo until the 1940s. By the mid-twentieth century, however, the automobile and the airplane quickly diminished the role of the railroad on a national level. Due to its location outside of the downtown business district, however, the terminal was never utilized to its fullest except during World War II when it served as a transportation headquarters for troops. In 1955, New York Central started the first of many attempts to sell the Buffalo terminal. Today the structure is in private ownership and remains empty.