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Buffalo & Erie County Historical Society Museum

The building that is home to the Buffalo and Erie County Historical Society. began life in 1901 as the New York State Pavilion for the Pan-American Exposition. The Exposition, which introduced the world to the marvels of large scale electric lighting, sought to stimulate friendship and trade between the United States and the nations of Central and South America.

Illustration by Daniel Haskin


Nearly all the large exposition buildings imitated the high, ornamental tradition of Latin American baroque architecture. They were built, however, of a temporary material called staff (plaster and straw) and were planned to last only a few months. The New York Pavilion was an exception. Solidly constructed of white Vermont marble, it was intended to remain after the close of the Exposition to become the headquarters of the local historical society. Its sober Doric style also set the New York Pavilion apart from its flamboyant plaster neighbors.

Doric was the style of architecture perfected in Athens during its golden age in the 5th century B.C. This style was apparently chosen for the New York Pavilion to assert to the Exposition's visitors the roots of the democratic heritage of the United States, then recently victorious in the Spanish-American War over European monarchy.

George Cary, the architect of the New York Pavilion, possessed familiarity with the tradition of classical architecture from his years of study at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris. He had been the first Buffalonian to study at that 19th-century mecca for aspiring American architects.

Cary designed his building paying careful attention to the details and subtleties of what he and others regarded as the most "masculine" of the Greek styles. The beautiful south portico, which overlooks the North Bay of Delaware Park Lake, is a scaled down version of the east front of the Parthenon, the temple on the Acropolis in Athens that is the greatest example of Doric architecture.

Looking at Cary's portico, one can appreciate the precision with which the builders replicated the simple abacus and echinus that make up the characteristic Doric capital, as well as the concave flutings and sharp arises (edges between the flutes) that articulate the stout columns. The columns taper toward the top and rest without bases directly on the stylobate, or substructure. The careful observer will see the gentle bulge known as the entasis in the profiles of the column shafts that, like those of the ancient temples. are composed of individual segments called drums. Above, on the horizontal entablature that rests on the capitals, triglyphs (plaques of stone with three vertical channels) alternate with blank areas known as metopes to recreate the typical Doric treatment of the frieze. In the pediment (the triangular gable over the portico), monumental figures represent various branches of the humanities and sciences.

In 1927 Cary received a commission to enlarge the building. Maintaining respect for his earlier work, Cary added extensions to either side that repeated the style of the original portion of the building. They house the library (east wing) and a 250 seat auditorium (west wing). In his remodeling, Cary left undisturbed the beautiful central interior court with its columns, floor, and staircase of elegant black marble.

One enters the Historical Society building from Nottingham Court through impressive bronze doors. They were designed by J. Woodley Gosling, who is most famous for his bronze doors at Trinity Church in New York City Women symbolizing History and Ethnology grace the two panels. History peers from beneath a veil and illuminates the past, while Ethnology holds American Indian emblems of war and peace. Art (displaying a palette and brush) and Science (holding a globe) are personified in the transom by two other women.

Decorating the building's exterior are 11 marble reliefs carved by Edmund Amateis in 1929 depicting significant events in local history. Among them are the opening of the Erie Canal in 1825, the visit of Lafayette to Buffalo in the same year, the trial of the Seneca Indian orator, Red Jacket in 1802, and the operation of underground railroad before and during the Civil War

In 1987, the Secretary of the Interior designated the Historical Society building, which is the most important surviving edifice from the Pan-American Exposition, a National Historic Landmark.

Buffalo's Best is produced by The Preservation Coalition of Erie County.

The Coalition sponsors educational tours, lectures and special events and actively seeks to preserve the architectural heritage of Erie County. Write for information and newsletter

This card is made possible with public funds from the New York State Council on the Arts. Series editor: Timothy Tielman

©1987 Preservation Coalition of Erie County

Page by Chuck LaChiusa

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