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Home > Leadership > Mayor > City Hall History

City Hall History

Edited by Tony DiNatale
From a paper written by James Schihl & James Healy

City Hall from Niagara Square

Prelude

Buffalo's City Hall is a building that is much overlooked and often ignored, but Buffalo would not be what it is today without this building. Constructing City Hall where it is, with the style it has, quite literally changed the way the city of Buffalo looks. The buildings eventually constructed nearby and throughout the downtown business district would certainly not have the same design nor even be in their present location if not for City Hall's placement and design. Think for a moment if City Hall had been constructed in a neo-classical style on Main Street between Tupper and Chippewa!

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Building City Hall

City Hall was built by the John W. Cowper Company, which was the same firm that earlier had built the Statler hotel and The Buffalo Athletic Club. The total cost of the building of City Hall was $6,851,546.85, including architect fees, making it at the time one of the most costly city halls in the country.

The following are some interesting statistics about City Hall:

  • The ground area of the site on Niagara Square is 71,700 square feet and cost $698,930, also making it one of the largest city halls in the country. Ground was broken on September 16, 1929 and the corner stone was laid May 14, 1930. The building was completed for occupancy on November 10, 1931, even though parts of the building were occupied as early as September 1931. The building was dedicated in July 1932.
  • The building has 32 stories, 26 of which are usable office space, and is 398 feet high from the street to the tip of the tower.
  • The total floor area is 566,313 square feet of which 316,937 square feet is usable for office space.
  • There are 1,520 windows from the first to the twenty-fifth floor. An interesting design feature is that all of them open inward, making window washers obsolete in the new City Hall. It takes approximately ten days to clean them all.
  • There are eight elevators to the 13th floor and four to the 25th floor. Curtis Elevator Co., the oldest active Elevator Company in the country, furnished the elevators. Otis Elevator Co. now the largest Elevator Company in the world supplied additional elevators added later.
  • There are 5,000 electrical outlets, 5,400 electrical switches, and 21 motor driven ventilation fans. One hundred and ten miles of copper wire weighing 43 tons, 47 miles or 180 tons of conduit pipe can be found throughout the building, as well as 26 miles or 5 car loads of underfoot conduit. There are either 138 0r 143 clocks (there is some dispute on here) regulated by a master clock in the basement and 37 fire alarm stations distributed throughout the building.
  • It originally had 375 telephones with a master switchboard and 369 flood lights with an average candlepower of 350 each illuminating the exterior of the building at night from dusk to midnight.
  • City Hall was originally equipped with a non-powered air-conditioning system. The building is situated to face the wind that carries off Lake Erie and the architects used the power of that wind to cool the rooms throughout the building. Large vents were placed on the exterior of the building to catch wind that would then travel down vents to beneath the basement, where the ground would cool the air. This cooled air would then enter a series of vents that would distribute the cool air through the building. The wind off the lake was usually strong enough to power air through this system.
  • Seven years later, in 1939, defects would appear in the building that would cause quite a ruckus. Apparently, many anchors were left out in the walls behind the granite facings into which water had seeped. This combined with Buffalo's fine weather to cause extensive damage.

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The Design of City Hall

It has been customary in the past to erect triumphal arches memorializing the victories of war, but the architect and builders of Buffalo City Hall have endeavored to portray the constructive rather than the destructive side of life. Their focus was to accomplish in stone, steel and glass what the ancient Greeks did in stone and timber.

The importance of this Art Deco masterpiece is immediately relevant upon viewing its command of the downtown Buffalo and the waterfront. When approaching City Hall from Niagara Street, one is impressed with an architectural style which is modern without being modernistic and which depicts the age in which it was built. Also, it generally balanced its modernism with a taste of the symbolism normally associated with classical architecture. The exterior and interior are adorned with symbolic figures and decorations, which in bold relief portray an industrial theme.

In keeping with this approach, the main entrance of City Hall is made up of symbolic units forming columns and lintels. The shafts of the columns represent large octagons nut with rivet heads and stud heads applied there. The molding of the lintel is styled to depict a saw, thus portraying the power in Buffalo's industry.

City Hall Entrance

When approaching the main entrance, the central figure perched above represents a historian, with pen in hand, ready to open the book of Buffalo's history and write the next hundred years.

The first group on the left of this portrait is representative of past generations of Buffalonians passing knowledge and guidance onto Buffalo's youth. The second group on the left is representative of the steel industry and is portrayed by an ironworker. The advancement of Buffalo's universities in science and medicine are depicted third from the left. The fourth image is representative of electrical energy and is portrayed by electricians and linesmen with a dynamo in the background.

When looking to the right of the central figure above the main entrance to City Hall, the first group shows a man, woman and child. They are representative of the stability and fertility of the community. The second portrays stevedores and lake crews which represent the importance of Buffalo's lake shipping. The third depicts law and education (note the figure reclining on the owl-adorned couch); while the fourth is representative of a locomotive engineer, ship captain and aviator. These represent the diversity of this waterfront community.

Underneath the entrance frieze and behind the columns are four sandstone panels. Those panels represent the hardship of the American Pioneer. First, there is a woman doing the harvesting; next a man is hunting deer; thirdly, a woman is depicted weaving a basket; lastly, a man is shown constructing a log cabin.

The Iroquois Indians are a vital part of the Western New York history. Their importance was at one time symbolized by decorations on four bronze doorways, since removed to make way for the now present revolving doors. The carvings represented aspects of the Native-American culture of Buffalo.

Within the vestibule, immediately inside the entrance doors are four columns with the Indian symbols of The Four Winds. To the left, thunder and storm depict the North Wind, while to the right the South Wind shows sunshine and happiness. In the rear of the vestibule, the same figures represent the East and the West winds.

The height of the domed ceiling makes quite an impression upon those entering the main lobby. The bright colors of the tile that make up the Dome create an Indian Chief's bonnet laid out flat. The center of the ceiling depicts the sun.

There are four statues in the lobby, each which represent the characteristic of good citizenship, Virtue, Diligence, Service, and Fidelity. There are four corridors off the lobby, each holding colorful murals depicting Buffalo's industry.

Plan for First Floor

The painting at the front of the main lobby is entitled "Frontiers Unfettered by Any Frowning Fortress" and depicts Buffalo as an international gateway to Canada.

The central figure in this mural is a woman representing peace between the United States and Canada. In one hand she has the United States and in the other hand is Canada, uniting the two. On the side of the United States there is an offering of farm implements, sewing machines, textiles and automobiles. On the Canadian side is an offering of furs and fisheries. The mother of Canada, on the Canadian side, is pointing toward the United States as the land of opportunity and youth.

The painting in the rear of the main lobby is entitled "Talents Diversified Find Vent In Myriad Form". It depicts the farmer, a man with a sickle, venturing into fertile fields.

Close examination of this mural shows the steel industry and the building industry emblematically portrayed in the background, while dredging machines, airplanes and many other Buffalo products are also depicted. Also, the boom of a ship represents the vast shipping interests while Buffalo is depicted giving up the fruit of her land. While Wade and Dietel were doing one of their final inspection tours, they noticed that the titles of these two main murals had been carved underneath the wrong mural. The stone was chiseled out and placed under the appropriate murals, which explains why the inscriptions in the lobby are deeper than the rest of the entire building.

The four smaller murals at the end of each corridor represent the public services that are rendered to the taxpayers, such as construction under Department of Public Works. They are more properly called lunettes. Other services depicted include Education through the Board of Education, Protection in the form of Police and Fire Department, and Charity in the form of a Welfare Worker. Of note in particular is the Construction lunette. The central figure of a massive, male Public Works has to the left of him a small male working on a model of the Art Deco City Hall. This figure is architect John Wade!

The figures portrayed on the Elmwood side of City Hall are representative of nine important events in the development of Buffalo's history. In this manner the story of Buffalo is told. It included the surveying of the city, development of her economy including symbols of both agriculture and industry, the building of the Erie Canal and the opening of the previous City Hall (the old City and County Building) on the United states' one-hundredth birthday in 1876. The past is represented on the back of the building, while the future is on the front.

Fris facing Niagara Square

City Hall is so rich in artwork that there is much more throughout the building. Though the most significant murals are in the first floor lobby.

Each floor was carefully laid out. The City Council had previously commissioned a study of the City's present and future needs in regards to the new City Hall. Albert Hopkins had completed this over the period of a year and, according to Chauncey Hamlin, "it was Mr. Wade's bible in preparing his plans." Thus each floor had designed into it the needs of the department that would call it home.

Plan for Third Floor

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The Common Council Chamber

Plan for Thirteenth Floor

Access to the Council Chamber is gained from the thirteenth floor. As you enter the Chamber, it is very difficult not to be taken with the bright ceiling, which is a very large stained glass window. This window is another example of Indian artistry and is in the form of a sunburst. The sunburst is representative of the crowning glory and the blessing of heaven City government. The greatest portion of lighting in this room is concealed and due to the use of prismatic glass in the sunburst, the lighting from this beautiful piece of art is diffused in such a way that no shadow is thrown anywhere in the room.

First Floor Dome Ceiling 

Below the sunburst, carved into the walls, appears to the legend "The People's Councilors Reflect the People's Will." This was meant to be a daily reminder to those who enter the chamber of their purpose.

Over the interior entrance to the Council Chamber are three keystones with symbolic faces. The face on the left with a sword represents Power. The face on the right with a facis represents Authority. The central figure with an orb is representative of Wisdom. What is further expected from the Council is represented by the use of animals and bird life. Examples of these are the faithfulness of the dog, the courage of the lion, the sacrifice of the pelican and the forcefulness of the hawk. The wooden spearheads protruding from a bundle of reeds tied with a ribbon are ancient symbols of authority, called facis (pronounced "fah-sees").

The Council Chamber is probably one of the finest Chambers of its kind in the country. The woodwork is inlaid with American Walnut. The Chamber can seat 383 people. The room is acoustically treated making the room perfect in the way of sound, even without a microphone.

Council Chamber

When City Hall was designed and later opened, the fashions of the day favored men's hats. The derby and bowler influenced the City Hall planners to the degree that every chair in the Council Chamber was equipped with a hat holder under the seat.

The pillars that surround the Common Council Chamber represent the virtues that a member should maintain. Fidelity, Prudence, and Faithfulness are examples, but one that you won't find is Honesty. Originally these pillars were to hold busts of famous Buffalonians, but unfortunately the Council could not decide who was to be included. The architects suggested that the pillars be used to display the virtues of Councilmen and the Council agreed.

On September 6, 1931, Wade was asked why Honesty, Efficiency and Economy were missing. He replied "If the members of the city government who will occupy the new structure live up to the qualifications inscribed on the panels, the public need not worry about the city having efficiency, honesty, or economy in Public service."

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Conclusion

Though cities and the buildings that comprise them are not alive, they have a beginning, a life and an inevitable end. Buffalo's City Hall is rather special in that it has a long history even before it was built, a prehistory, or ancestry if you will. And, since its usefulness is nowhere near over, it has a future. In fact, it was designed to have a future of more than a hundred years when it was built. Its design took into account that Buffalo, in the 1920's, was a growing city and would eventually need to expand. Thus, most interior walls were designed to be moved and the exterior was built to have more floors added. The caissons that support the entire structure were sunk far deeper than they needed to be. All of this made it easy for John Wade to draw, during an interview in February 1927, a view of what City Hall might look like in 2427 AD (five hundred years).

Buffalo's City Hall is a rare building which has a history embedded within that of its community. Though here we have barely touched upon this, the site that City Hall was built on was more than the center of the city. For instance, it was the site of the Wilkeson Mansion, home of one of the fathers of Buffalo. A gas station was erected after the Wilkeson Mansion was demolished, and before City Hall was designed. The very site has a character all of its own!

Finally, the building is more than just a work of art it contains much artwork. No part of the building or its surroundings was left without a reminder as to what Buffalo is. And this is an important point. The symbolism of all of this artwork was meant to represent the present as well as the future Buffalo. This is still true today, so that they are still meant to be the Buffalo of today. To a great extent, they still serve their function. Remember, the central allegorical figure in the frieze above the entrance to City Hall is a historian, quill in hand, about to record the next one hundred years of Buffalo's history.

Hopefully, the story of Buffalo's City Hall will continue with even more mordantly It was just in the past year (1999) that City Hall was put on the State and National Register of Historic Places. All of this, including our reader's interest will go a very long way to bring this landmark the attention it much deserves!

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