We couldn’t have picked a better weekend. The sun was shining, the air was cool, and the city buzzed with action. So much so, we had trouble finding a place to park on an early Saturday morning in Downtown Buffalo.
Reluctantly, we caved and paid for a spot in a lot not far from The Archer Restaurant on Main St., considering it a small price to pay for Buffalo’s continuing reemergence. Progress has come to the Queen City and it’s moving fast.
Part of that movement includes Explore Buffalo, a locally run non-profit organization providing over twenty walking tours in and around the city. They have a little something for everyone, from Mob Tours in Allentown to Neighborhood Tours on Elmwood, to the immensely popular set of Silo City Tours near the waterfront.
With so many choices, it seemed like a good idea to start in the heart of Buffalo, at the center of its history and in the midst of its future. The Masters of American Architecture tour provided the perfect opportunity to discover what Explore Buffalo has to offer.
Our guide, Donnie Gibson, began by leading us down Pearl St. and through the shadows of brick and steel. What was apparent from the beginning was that this tour would cover more than ordinary descriptions of the giants around us. Here we would hear their histories, understand their struggles, and get to know them personally.
The characters of Buffalo, built up in a time like ours, during a period of anticipation and growth.
Obviously architecture is at the forefront: the construction, style, planning and design, but it’s the story that absorbs us. That, and an engaging docent who knows how to ask and answer questions, find shade from the sun, and speak up when needed. Donnie recognizes that her job is not only to provide information, but to make the experience enjoyable for everyone.
And she clearly relishes her job as a volunteer. “I love the city,” she says, “and I tried to pick something that was part of my interest, but more importantly I love sharing it with other people.”
Over the course of our two hour walk, Donnie shared what she calls the “gems of downtown” architecture. You’ll see Buffalo’s first skyscraper, its oldest standing building, its only flying buttress, and a host of gothic churches all fashioned by an American cast of architects.
The 19th Century figures prominently throughout, with the majority of the tour’s highlights concentrating on the city’s development following the construction of the Erie Canal. Sprinkled in are the anecdotes and stories that bring the whole tour to life.
At a few points along the way, you’ll even get a chance to get closer to history by stepping inside some of our city’s most iconic buildings; a good time to give your neck muscles a rest after a full morning of staring into the sky.
Explore Buffalo suggests wearing a comfortable pair of shoes, but the time passed quickly, and a brisk walk before lunch will give you just the excuse you need to chow down when it’s over. We may have worked up an appetite, but at no time did the tour feel like work.
For ten dollars, you walk in not expecting much and leave wanting more. Thankfully, the majority of Explore Buffalo tours are under $20, and students with ID are able to walk along for a trifling $5.
The reasonable price should not lead anyone to believe that the quality of the product is sacrificed. Part of Explore Buffalo’s mission is to create an awareness of our city’s history and culture. They accomplish this through the efforts of around seventy-five volunteers sacrificing their time and energy to make it happen.
Moving forward through their first year as a young non-profit, Explore Buffalo plans on expanding its tours into the suburbs. Already offering unique tours of Hamburg and Williamsville, plans are underway to include Lockport and other areas in WNY.
As we walked back to our car, the noise of the jackhammers and heavy machinery continued on, unabated and undiminished. The sun remained high, and the warmth of the afternoon settled in.
After taking the Masters of American Architecture Tour, we can imagine that this is what our predecessors must have witnessed over 150 years ago: A city on the edge of its arrival, bustling with the sounds of change.
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