Genealogy & Local History in Buffalo, NY

Ugly Today, Beautiful Tomorrow: Peace Bridge Commentary

By Cynthia Van Ness, ©1999

Originally published with illustrations in Artvoice (Buffalo, NY), v.10, no. 37, September 16-22, 1999

Recently a writer to the Buffalo News sardonically congratulated the Peace Bridge Authority for recognizing that the Peace Bridge controversy was "an emotional debate about aesthetics." If that is the case, it's worth considering some of these aesthetic motivations. A little warning: this article will not win me any speaking engagements at the New Millenium Club.

The voices of those who admire the Peace Bridge for its appearance have been cast out of this otherwise cacophonous conversation, giving the false impression that on this one issue, public opinion is unanimous. It is not. I am not the only person I know who admires its graceful steel arches and the powerful masonry abutments supporting them. I have also grown to appreciate its odd Parker truss as a distinctive feature, like Barbra Streisand's signature nose. I challenge everyone who is ready to wipe the present Peace Bridge from the face of Buffalo to take a stroll on the Bird Island pier at sunset, view it from underneath, and see if you can resist the urge to say Wow.

Consider the dramatic reappreciation, in just the last 20 years, of the varieties of Buffalo's pre-WWII housing: modest brick or frame "worker" cottages, middle class Queen Annes, unique-to-Buffalo "two-flats," Arts & Crafts bungalows, Neoclassic and Tudor mansions, elegant apartment houses. Fifty years ago, when the Cape Cod and Ranch House ruled, these older homes were considered garish and outdated. Those who owned them and had the disposable income necessary for "home improvement" replaced elaborate wooden porch columns with flimsy wrought iron. Or they demolished the porches altogether. Wooden clapboards were masked with beauty-free asphalt, aluminum, or (more recently) vinyl siding. Bargeboards, brackets, cornices, spindles, fish-scale shingles, and all manner of "gingerbread" were stripped. Stained and leaded glass windows were discarded. Turrets and towers were sheared off. Natural wood details on the interiors, such as mantelpieces, pocket doors, window seats, hand-carved balustrades, and built-in bookshelves were painted over or torn out. But the slaughter slowly ended, and now the presence of these original, intact features are prime selling points for city houses, demonstrating that "home improvement" has been and continues to be a euphemism for architectural suicide.

Here is another example, with an illustration from the Courier-Express. Around 1963, sixty years after the Casino was built in Delaware Park, it was remodeled with a "strikingly modern design" that I will call Suburban Populuxe. The spinning in Olmsted's grave was probably felt for miles. After looking for a quarter century like a "strikingly modern" gas station, the Casino was restored to its near-original glory.

These cases illustrate the nature of aesthetic cycles. A generation or two after anything is built in America, it will be seen as garish and outdated. Eventually it might be rescued by the young, whose role is often to champion what their parents trashed (or to trash what their parents championed). Being almost 40, my distaste for the 1960s defacement of the Casino is in sync with the aesthetic schedule that I have described. I will always dislike almost everything built after World War II. Gen-Xers, or perhaps the marketers who want their attention, are beginning to glorify Suburban Populuxe architecture, also right on schedule.

Interrupting this aesthetic cycle can have devastating effects. The Delaware Park Casino was vastly improved by ridding it of "strikingly modern" incursions, but let me remind everyone that Frank Lloyd Wright's landmark Larkin Building was demolished about 50 years after it was built. At the time, Suburban Populuxe was on horizon, Wright was considered a has-been, and the Larkin was seen as garish and outdated. Sound familiar?

By aiming my heaviest Remember-the-Larkin artillery at Sig Span fans, I am not arguing that the Peace Bridge is the architectural equivalent of Wright's masterpiece. What I am saying is that the bridge is at the same vulnerable point in its aesthetic career that the Larkin was at when it was demolished. The bridge may not be a great bridge, but it is not a bad bridge. It is unique (does any other city have a duplicate?), which qualifies it in my book as a "signature" bridge. Ultimately, time will be the judge of its aesthetic value. I just ask that Time live with something as difficult to dismantle as an colossal steel and masonry bridge for a good long time--more than a couple of generations--before calling the wreckers. If we demolish the Peace Bridge, will our descendents compare their parents' or grandparents' cartoonish "Signature Span" with pictures of its predecessor and resentfully ask their elders, "Anyone can see what a cool bridge that was. What were you thinking ?"

In the new study, The Peace Bridge Gateway: Notes Compiled by the New Millenium Group of Western New York, Inc., are examples of "come do business here" advertisements for Tampa Bay, FL and Alton, IL. Both places possess the exact suspension bridge proposed for Buffalo and both advertisements prominently feature this bridge. Showcasing these ads really undermines any argument that this design should serve as a visual symbol for our fair city. Now why should Buffalo lust after a bridge that is already on the job symbolizing not one but two undistinguished, unmemorable cities? If our apparent need to keep up with the Joneses is that severe, we can at least pick Joneses worth emulating. Since originality is seemingly unimportant to the Sig Span folks, let's copy the most dignified and evocative span in America, one that has passed the test of time: the Brooklyn Bridge. It is ridiculous and embarrassing for architecturally majestic Buffalo to gaze with envy at Alton and Tampa Bay, which have probably built so much sprawling generica on land that they have to fly ad agency photographers over a bridge so they won't see the town up close.

To hear Sig Span fans talk, you'd think this city had nothing of breathtaking beauty or iconic value to point to with pride or to picture in our "come do business here" advertisements. Look around you, folks: our "signature" cup runneth over. Buffalo has a signature location on the mighty Great Lakes; a signature Art Deco City Hall and a signature Art Deco rail station; a signature Olmsted park system; a signature Louis Sullivan skyscraper; a signature H.H. Richardson hospital complex; a signature (though largely buried) Erie Canal; a signature role in the Underground Railroad; a signature Modern Art collection; and six signature Frank Lloyd Wright houses, which is more than any place in the world except Oak Park, IL. Buffalo is also a short drive from a certain world-famous signature waterfall. Alongside these geographic, historic, and cultural distinctions that other cities would kill for, the Signature Span seen in the popular computer-generated poster looks as goofy as lipstick on the Lincoln statue in Delaware Park.

About that poster: has anyone noticed that it shows the proposed bridge running parallel to the Buffalo waterfront, dramatically connecting Lackawanna with Black Rock? This representation unintentionally reveals the subtext of the debate thus far, in which too many Americans are behaving as though the Peace Bridge is the de facto and de jure property of Buffalo alone and those Canadians oughta just butt out of our business. And we wonder why we aren't wildly popular across the border.

Now, by having defended the embattled Peace Bridge, I am not supporting the Peace Bridge Authority, which has earned the criticism it has gotten for deflecting public participation. Nor do I advocate the Twin Span design. Even though I've taken a few swipes at the New Millenium Group, I admire and support their desire to restore Front Park. As others have already said, the Peace Bridge isn't the problem, the Toll Plaza is.

What is interesting, though, is that both camps, Twin Span vs. Signature Span, have failed to notice the one basic, unaesthetic premise they both share: that people will do transportation in the next century exactly the same way they did in this one. Both designs demand that just about every person and cargo crossing the bridge be accompanied by an internal combustion engine.

The present "emotional debate about aesthetics" distracts us from a sober fact: the global supply of petroleum is rapidly diminishing. The sooner Detroit self-servingly assists the developing world to adopt American-style car-centered consumerism, the sooner we will have burned all the oil we can realistically extract and nonchalantly deposited it in our atmosphere, where its byproducts will wreak havoc for generations to come. Maybe electric cars and trucks will be a seamless replacement; I am unconvinced. But building increased automotive capacity in the year 2000 is as shortsighted as building a buggy whip factory was in the year 1900. What any international bridge, old or new, needs to do as part of a meaningful and sustainable transportation system is much, much more than be pretty enough to pose for pictures, it needs to be part of the restoration of an economical, land-conserving, and fuel-efficient freight and passenger rail system.

Pop quiz time: in the 1950s, what was Buffalo's largest industry? Did you guess steel? Automotive manufacturing? Wrong. The railroads were our largest employer and the New York Central was our single largest taxpayer. Four decades later, our street-road-highway system is one of the largest expenses in every municipal budget. Stop and consider the implications: we traded a revenue-generating form of transportation for a revenue-sucking one. No wonder Buffalo and its rail-era Rust Belt peers are so economically fragile. But unlike dreary automobile-centered communities in, say, Florida and Illinois, naming no names, mind you, Buffalo still has most of the infrastructure and rights-of-way to rebuild the sane and effective transportation system that made us prosper.

When the era of cheap gas inevitably ends, our descendents will not really care whether we built a dopey new bridge or twinned a funky old one, they will assail us for doggedly assuming, in spite of the glaring evidence, that cars were forever.

Updated 18 March 2010