The Architecture Loop: Buffalo Bike Tours’ tour offers a look at Buffalo’s architectural gems
Spring is officially here and with things opening back up, there are many reasons to want to get outside and see the city. And nothing beats seeing Buffalo from the seat of a bike – with our rich architecture and history, Buffalo is a great place to explore on two wheels. Well if you have a phone and a bike, there’s a new option for you: The Architecture Loop.
The Architecture Loop highlights Buffalo’s rich tradition of architectural experimentation and most beloved buildings. The self-guided 8-mile tour loop is perfect for a morning or afternoon ride. Best yet, it’s free.
Buffalo Bike Tours has teamed up Niagara River Greenway to bring their shared missions to life through Bike There, Buffalo!, a series of self guided bike tours promoting outdoor recreation in Buffalo. All you have to do is fill out a short form and you’ll be e-mailed the route using the Ride With GPS app.
So today we’re bringing you 6 of our favorite hidden histories you’ll learn about on the Architecture Loop. Full disclosure: I am owner of Buffalo Bike Tours, which leads food tours and history tours of Buffalo by bike – check out our full lineup here.
Tour of The Architecture Loop:
Stop 1: Hotel Lafayette
Like many of Buffalo’s historic buildings, the Hotel Lafayette was built for visitors of the Pan American, but financial problems delayed its opening until 1904. Lauded by the NY Times as “one of the most perfectly appointed and magnificent hotels in the country”, the seven-story building is in the French Renaissance style with decorative red brick and terra cotta trim. It was designed by Louise Blanchard Bethune, Buffalo’s pioneering woman architect – the first woman admitted to the American Institute for Architects (AIA), who famously withdrew from design competitions on the basis of a gender wage gap. A woman ahead of her time, Bethune was also an avid cyclist and is said to have been the first woman to buy a bicycle in Buffalo.
Stop 2: Cyclorama Building
Designers Cyrus K Porter & Sons probably never imagined we’d be watching movies on our handheld devices, but their Cyclorama Building, built in 1888 was popular entertainment at the time. The circular building allowed viewers to take in mammoth, immersive paintings telling an entire narrative scene. The attraction was so popular that the first exhibition, “The Crucifixion of Christ”, drew more than 1,000 visitors a day. Eventually, the building’s circular design was repurposed to be a roller skating rink, a livery, taxi garage, a library, and finally the office building it is today.
Stop 3: Johnson Park
Johnson Park is a lovely short street tucked away between downtown and Allentown – originally an area considered the suburbs. The land was designated as a park by Ebenezer Johnson, the street’s resident doctor, who went on to become Buffalo’s first mayor. Many of the homes were built between 1830-1850, and are in a mixture of styles popular at the time. Of note is the New Phoenix Theater, originally built as a lecture hall, and later served as a “séance house,” vaudeville house, and soup kitchen. Other homes of importance are 51 Johnson Park (home to President Grover Cleveland, although this may be unsubstantiated) and 69 Johnson Park (home to Dr. James Haynes and Donald Licht, founders of the Mattachine Society, Buffalo’s first gay and lesbian civil rights organization).
Stop 4: Shoreline Apartments
One of Buffalo’s more contentious architectural sites is the Shoreline Apartments – or what’s left of it. Originally a dense, mixed-use neighborhood, hundreds of homes were leveled during urban renewal efforts in the 1950s and architect Paul Rudolph (head of Yale University’s architecture program) was given a blank slate. He proposed a wildly ambitious four-part plan including affordable housing, school, sprawling community center, and public space. Designed in his signature Brutalist style, the complex intended to recall old European settlements and was featured in a prestigious exhibition at the MoMA. Unfortunately, only half of his designs were used and the buildings fell into disrepair. Things got so bad that the FBI enacted helicopter drills and even bombings on site a couple of years ago, and a large portion of the complex has been demolished.
St0p 5: First Unitarian Universalist Church
This church, just off of Niagara Square, was the original home of the First Unitarian Church in Buffalo and built by a giant in Buffalo history – Benjamin Rathburn. Rathburn was so prolific he built almost 100 buildings in 1935 alone – yet this is his only surviving building. Rathbun owned and operated a slew of other industries, including quarries, brick plants, machine shops, grocery stores, and horse-drawn carriages, which served as the city’s first public transportation. He and his brothers also owned a bank, which began forging fraudulent bank notes – and Rathurn found himself in trouble, owing more than $37 million dollars in today’s currency. Ironically, he wound up serving jail time in the prison he had just finished building.
Stop 6: County and City Hall
The historic County and City Hall, where Erie County’s court offices and records are today, was Buffalo’s original City Hall. The building was built on the grounds of Buffalo’s first cemetery, where there was once a mass grave to those who died in the War of 1812. The block-wide granite building was constructed by Rochester architect Andrew Jackson Warner in 1875 in the Romanesque Revival tradition and features a clock tower with four statues atop, all supposedly modeled after the Mayor Philip Becker’s wife. The building is also noted as being the site of where anarchist Leon Czolgosz was tried and convicted for the assassination of President William McKinley.
Follow along with our GPS for more info:
Sounds fun – how does it work?
To access the Architecture Loop, all you need to do is sign up your email to download the program. In addition, riders are encouraged to share their experiences using the hashtag #biketherebuffalo.
This post was originally published in 2020 and has been updated.