Buffalo’s Mystically Magic Resurgence

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With twin Romanesque columns towering over either side like two rooks joined at the hip, Henry Hobson Richardson’s 19th century creation looms like full scale Gotham City prop. Traveling along a long-abandoned side road that circles the vast complex, one sees up close the details from the decades of decay. Unattended since 1994, New York State left what remained of the old Buffalo State Asylum to the elements.

The wind-swept snows of Lake Erie would take its toll on the buildings as well as the 200 acres of once elegant grounds laid out by none other than Frederick Law Olmstead. Western New York’s famous winters have only enhanced the eerie feel of the place. Built in oversized fashion from garnet-colored Medina Sandstone and industrial-red brick, the institution carries the burden of its initial purpose.

Elisabeth Stevens once wrote of the building (The Baltimore Sun, Saturday, August 11, 1979, page 7), “…one can conveniently imagine the character such as Mr. Rochester’s wife (in Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte) screaming wildly at one of the uppermost windows of the twin, medievalizing towers of the central Romaneque-style building.”

Yet, for all this creepy sensation, Richardson’s realized vision remains alluring. “It’s haunted. There’s a history here that you have to experience,” says Kelly Reitnour of Key Bank.

Reitnour was one of several hundred guests who packed two floors of the Hotel Henry Urban Resort Conference Center (nee Buffalo State Hospital, a.k.a. “Buffalo State Asylum for the Insane,” “Buffalo State Lunatic Asylum,” “Buffalo Psychiatric Center”) for the Buffalo Niagara Partnership’s annual “Hobnob” Event. Held after work on Thursday evening, May 17, 2018, this reporter roved the spacious rooms and hallways randomly interviewing business and community leaders.

Interviewing them about what? By coincidence, the National Society of Newspaper Columnists will hold their annual conference at this very location in June of 2019. Call it an early scouting report, call it an opportunity to ham things up, call it whatever you want, truth be told I wanted to know what the Hobnob guests would tell the nation’s columnists and bloggers about the allure of the Queen City.

“This is not the Buffalo you’ve been searching for,” says Obi-Wan Kenobi. No. Wait. That was really Christine Jurusik, an attorney at Richards & Kruger. She’s touching on a common thread for those not from these parts. For people who get their impression of Buffalo solely from late night talk show hosts, she advises, “This is not the Buffalo you know.”

Judging from the Hobnob, as well as the latest happenings at Canalside and other popular locations, Buffalo has shed its image of rusted out steel mills and dilapidated grain elevators. “Buffalo has a real comeback story, says Sean Leber, an account executive at PCI. “There’s a tremendous amount of energy and revitalization.”

There’s a reason why the U.S. Chamber of Commerce calls Buffalo, New York the place “where the cool kids want to live.” (Free Enterprise, July 28, 2015).  “Buffalo is really hopping,” says Jane Zaremski. She ought to know. Her firm, Lady Jane’s, helps those who are moving, settling-in, or rightsizing.

Western New York has become a mecca for millennials. InsuraMatch, part of the Boston-based auto/homeowner insurance company Plymouth Rock Group, ranks Buffalo the #1 city in New York State for millennials (other than New York City). “Buffalo is the hidden gem of the northeast,” says Doug Miller of The Zenger Group. “It’s overlooked and undervalued. It’s a friendly place to go.”

For too long, folks across the nation, in part fueled by provocative headlines in the media, have seen Buffalo as a rustbelt of economic depression. “There have been dramatic changes in the past 10 years,” says Julie Kruger, an attorney at Richards & Kruger. “You just have to come and see.”

“Buffalo is a great place to be,” says Brad Watts, Community Relations Coordinator at People Inc. “There are great new developments.” He enthusiastically invites anyone interested in attending a conference here to “come and take it in.”

Speaking of “here,” the Hotel Henry is just the tip of the structural iceberg. “We have some of the best architecture and food in the world,” says Meghan McDonnell, Associate VP at Cannon Design. We’ll save the food for later, but…

H. H. Richardson is part of that pantheon of American building designers referred to as “The Recognized Trinity of American Architecture.” Buffalo hosts famous structures from the other two members of this iconic triad – Louis Sullivan and Frank Lloyd Wright.

Built from 1870 through 1880, the Asylum was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1973. On June 24, 1986, the National Park Service designated the Buffalo State Asylum for the Insane a National Historic Landmark. “This building has a rich architecture that people just can’t get anywhere else,” says Geri Gaumer of Key Bank.

The Hotel Henry is housed within the third of the complex that is fully restored. Elements of the originally construction have been retained, so visitors can catch a glimpse of history. Even the undeveloped portion, which has been stabilized to prevent future deterioration, maintains an aura of the bewitching past. “The site is sure to have even more development,” says Adam Stumpf, Leisure and Event Coordinator at The Travel Team. “This is a great part of the city.”

But this site isn’t the only attraction in the Elmwood Avenue neighborhood near Buffalo State College. “This location is near the heart of Buffalo’s art center, within walking distance of the Burchfield Penney Art Center, the Albright-Knox Art Gallery, and Elmwood Village,” says Michelle Lorenc of Key Bank.

If you like art, you’ll need to come to the Hotel Henry. “I’m passionate about art and history,” Diane O’Donnel, an interior designer. “It’s beautiful. There’s art everywhere. You can see Western New York’s artists at their finest. The hotel hangs them in all the rooms and constantly rotates them.”

Bill Prohn, Managing Director at Dopkins & Company, says “Buffalo has to do with art and history, two things people may not know about Buffalo.”

If you like history, your right down the street from the Buffalo and Erie County Historical Society, housed in the only remaining building from the 1901 Pan-American Exposition (where it served as the New York State Pavilion). Mark Gacek, an account executive at Lamar, jokes as he invites visitors to “come see where President McKinley had his last meeting.”

Comedy isn’t too far from Buffalo. In fact, it’s only an hour away down the Thruway. “Western New York is the heartland of comedy,” says Donna Blaufuss, Marketing Manager at Dopkins & Company. “Lucille Ball was born in Jamestown, which now features not only the Lucy & Desi museum, but also the Comedy Hall of Fame, which opens this summer.”

When asked to state what he thinks is best about Buffalo, David Corbett, aspiring cartoonist and employed by Barnato, LLC says “The tastiest part is the flank.” I told you we’d save the food for later

Corbett’s jovial nature defines Buffalo. “This is the best kept secret in the nation,” says Dan Mecca, President, Abbey Mecca & Company. “There’s a reason why they call it ‘The City of Good Neighbors.””

“It is a true hospitality city,” says Brenna Gilbert, Sales & Event Manager at Morton’s Steakhouse. Her co-worker and General Manager Nick Massimilian adds, “I’m new to here. Everyone is nice and caring.”

Words really can’t describe it. “You have to be here to experience it,” says Melanie Marotto, an attorney at Harris Beach.

What more is there to say? “If you haven’t considered coming to Buffalo, then you don’t know what you’re missing,” says Whitney Singleton, Marketing Coordinator at Clear View Social.

What better way to end the Hobnob testimonials then to relay the story of Craig Muni, Account Executive at Uniland Sales & Leasing. If the name sounds familiar, it might be because you’re a hockey fan. After starting his career with his hometown Toronto Maple Leafs, Muni won three Stanley Cups with Wayne Gretsky when both played for the Edmonton Oilers. The star defenseman, best known for his aggressive open ice checks, his willingness to throw his body in front of speeding pucks to block shots, and his adept ability for killing penalties, later played for the Chicago Blackhawks, Buffalo Sabres, Winnipeg Jets, Pittsburgh Penguins, and, Dallas Stars before retiring in 1998.

“I choose to come to Buffalo over 30 other NHL Cities,” says Muni. “I like it because of its proximity to water and the international border. I love the fact that with small cities you have all the convenience of big cities without the headache.”

Excited about coming to Buffalo? Excited about staying at the Hotel Henry? Then I’ve got a trivia assignment for you. Watch Robert Redford’s 1984 film The Natural. It was filmed in many locations throughout Western New York. Can you find the scene filmed in one of the massive hallways of what is today the Hotel Henry?

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