A little after 8 a.m. (all times are local) on December 1, we left Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi Airport on the first leg of our flight home. The flight to Tokyo took six hours and we had a two and one-half hour layover before the next leg to Chicago. That flight was scheduled to take 12 hours, but fortunately we arrived more than an hour early thanks to strong tailwinds. After a quick pass through U.S. customs, we spoke with an American ticket agent who was able to get us onto their 4:45 pm flight to Buffalo rather than our original 9:25 p.m. flight. We arrived in Buffalo at about 7:30 p.m., nearly 24 hours after we left Bangkok but four and one-half hours earlier than our original itinerary.
After a quick stop to get a sim card for Theresa’s cell phone and some U.S. currency, we checked into The Mansion on Delaware, a small, luxury hotel in a building that is 140 years old. The Mansion was initially a house built for Charles Sternberg, a local industrialist, and his family in 1870. At the time, the 20,000 square foot home had space for both the family and a 12 person service staff. At the beginning of the 20th century, the building was converted into a 100 room hotel that operated until the end of WWII. The property was abandoned in 1977 and it remained shuttered until a multimillion dollar renovation in 2001 produced the current 28 room boutique hotel.
The mansard-roofed building has two griffins guarding the entrance, 18 foot ceilings on the ground floor, and intricate woodwork throughout. Immediately inside the front door are the parlor (on the left) and billiard room (on the right). The parlor has a tall, elegant Christmas tree and a working fireplace; it is a warm, comfortable, inviting space in which to hangout. The billiard room also has a working fireplace as well as an honor bar from which guests can choose from a selection of top shelf liquor, beer, cordials, mixers, and eight bottles of fine wine, four red and four white. In the morning, the hotel provides a European-style breakfast buffet in this room. The hotel staff is very attentive without being overbearing. This is a special place and we very much enjoyed staying here during our first few days back in the U.S.
After breakfast on Friday, we got in the rental car and drove to the Galleria to get a sim card for my cell phone and a winter coat for Theresa. Mission accomplished, we proceeded south to Orchard Park, the town in which we lived from 2001 through 2007. We rode by our old house (it still looks good) and then stopped for a lengthy and pleasant visit with some of Theresa’s former co-workers.
When lunch time arrived, we headed straight to Elmo’s, a small neighborhood bar in a strip center in the Northtowns, for a double order of wings (half Cajun-style and half medium) and a Blue. While Elmo’s may not have the rabid advocates like the more well-known wing places (e.g., Anchor Bar and Duff’s), in my opinion Elmo’s has the best wings in Buffalo — which is to say the best wings in the world since no place compares to Buffalo for this culinary delight (and props to Mike C. for introducing me to Elmo’s!)
On Friday evening, we met two good friends at First Niagara Center to watch my beloved, albeit frustratingly inconsistent, Sabres take on my hometown Red Wings. The Wings dominated the first period with three goals and they easily won the game (4-1). Despite the outcome, Buffalo is a great place to attend a hockey game and we had a very enjoyable and memorable evening with our friends.
Saturday was a day to reconnect with more friends and former colleagues. We started the day with a brunch at the home of my former company’s COO. Later in the afternoon, we picked up one of my former co-workers who flew into Buffalo for a reunion party that was taking place that evening. We arrived at the party just after 6 p.m. and seven hours quickly flew by as we reacquainted ourselves with about 25 former colleagues and their spouses. Even though we hadn’t worked together in five years, the conversation came quickly and easily, as if it had been only a few days since we had last spoken. In reality, however, the years were apparent as colleagues related that their babies were now in school; that their older children were now playing varsity athletics, driving, and attending or applying for college; and that their oldest children were now working, living independently, and often married. The few extra pounds, the grey, thinning, or missing hair, and assorted ailments only confirmed that none of us are getting any younger.
Sunday was our last day in Buffalo and we had no big plans. After checking out of the hotel, Theresa and I went for a tour of the Darwin Martin House, the first major residential construction project by Frank Lloyd Wright. The compound sits on one and one-half acres of land near Buffalo’s Delaware Park, another Buffalo gem that was designed by Frederick Law Olmstead. The original home was designed and built by Wright for Mr. Martin, a top executive at the Larkin Company, in 1905 when Buffalo was booming. At the turn of that century, Buffalo had a population of 350,000 people, 3x as many people as thirty years earlier and more than are in the city today.
The compound consists of five interconnected building — an eight bedroom main house for the Martin family that connects via a pergola to a conservatory and a stable/carriage house, a more modest house for Mr. Martin’s sister, and a home for the gardener. Unlike other homes of the time and most homes today, Wright’s Prairie School design emphasized the horizontal dimension rather than the vertical.
Mr. Martin lost his fortune when the stock market crashed in 1929. He died in 1935 and his family abandoned the home in 1937 as they were unable to pay for the upkeep or find a buyer during the Depression. The property remained vacant and vandalized up until 1955 when the main house was bought by a local architect who turned it into three apartments. The original pergola, conservatory, and carriage house were later demolished and three apartment building were erected in their place. The University of Buffalo acquired the main house in the late 1960s as a home for its president, who was an admirer of Wright.
The property was designated as a National Historic Landmark in 1986 and the Martin House Restoration Corporation was founded in 1992 with the goal to restore the entire complex. The apartment buildings were torn down and the pergola, conservatory and carriage house were reconstructed in 2007. Restoration work continues on the property even now. While some of the original windows have been found or reacquired, most need to be replaced. These are not just regular glass windows, however; they are “light screens” designed by Wright that contain as many as 750 individual pieces of glass. To reproduce an individual window can cost over $20,000.
Buffalo, like much of the industrial Midwest, is a city that to some degree has been frozen in time. The city has shrunk by half from its mid-twentieth century peak as the steel industry and grain elevators shut down and as the importance of the Erie Canal and the railroads waned with the development of the St. Lawrence Seaway and the construction of the interstate highway system. In spite of the grandiose hopes and dreams of the local politicians for the magic bullet that will renew the city, growth remains elusive as stifling taxes and regulations provide major challenges for even the biggest local boosters and the most die-hard entrepreneurs.
Despite our expectations of a cold, snowy clime, Buffalo treated us well with only a brief snow shower on Friday morning and high temperatures near 60 on Sunday. Buffalo remains a comfortable city in which to live and visit. The scale is highly human; the city cherishes the splendor of its architectural heritage; and since the city changes only slowly, it is very easy to return even after years away.
On Sunday evening, we left the Queen City with Theresa jetting to Beantown and with me flying to the Music City.
Kop Khun Krab, y’all.
© 2011 Kurt Brown. All rights reserved.