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 Buffalo’s Hotel Lafayette
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Renovation and Renewal: Buffalo’s Hotel Lafayette

Written by Karen Marley
Imagery by Photography by Sandra Kicman

The year is 1904. Buffalo, New York has secured itself as a glittering destination point with a robust economy. It’s an exciting city embodying American ingenuity and optimism. It’s here where the Hotel Lafayette comes to life, perfectly
capturing turn-of-the-century romance and enthusiasm.“Expositions are the timekeepers of progress,” announced President McKinley at the 1901 World Fair. Time would show how the Hotel Lafayette’s extraordinary life, 
ignited by the Pan-American Exposition, would parallel the progression of Buffalo’s own dramatic history.

The hotel boasts many firsts. It was designed by Louise Bethune, the first professional woman architect
in the country and first female member and Fellow of the American Institute of Architects. It was the first to 
have electricity, hot and cold plumbing, and a telephone in each room. It was the first built with a fireproof design; the first to operate as an all-inclusive hotel including a laundry, a billiard room, a reading room, restaurants 
and a tobacconist. The setting and amenities were of such elegant, sumptuous design that the Hotel Lafayette
was considered one of the top 15 hotels in the country.

Bethune designed the Hotel Lafayette in the style of the French Renaissance. Characteristics include ornate 
decoration, rich materials, and elaborate plasterwork. During the early 1940s, it was remodeled in the popular Art Moderne style when original elements were covered and redesigned. Stylistically, the CrystalBallroom became a transitional space. Art Deco railings and simple wall elements contrasted with crystal chandeliers, marble mosaic tile floors, ornate columns and coffered beam ceilings.

Deterioration began in the 1960s, correlating with Buffalo’s faltering economy. Out-of-town ownership sealed its fate as a site of neglect and destitution. The roof leaked and squatters lived illegally in the hotel portion, which was officially closed. Then in 2010, developer Rocco Termini decided to take a chance on the Hotel Lafayette. He saw through all the paint and filth and eroded ceilings and torn floors and felt the time was ripe for a renovation.

The meticulous efforts of Carmina Wood Morris, an architecture, engineering and interior design firm, guided the design of the building with its new, mixed-use configuration all within the constraints of the hotel’s overall historic preservation. It’s expertise also played a critical role in managing and restoring the numerous, irreplaceable design gems discovered during the restoration and returning many spaces to their original, luxurious arrangement.

Two expansive mosaic panels of inlaid wood paying tribute to Buffalo’s history of airplanes and shipping were found in the Art Moderne lobby. Interior designer 
Michael Poczkalski, owner of Room and room2, drew inspiration from the panels when Rocco called upon him
to furnish the historic lobby with touches of modern pizzazz. Borrowing from the mosaics’ thesis Poczkalski  repeated a riveted, aluminum airplane theme. The desk has it, as does the furniture around the contemporary fireplaces. Yet, this throwback to the forties is intermingled with the original turn-of-the-century hotel elements.

You step into the glory of Bethune’s French Renaissance in the main hallway. After three months peeling back paint, Rocco was stunned. His team uncovered an enormous wall painting by American impressionist, Abbott Graves. The walls were a scagliola plaster faux relief resembling marble entwined with russets and burgundies. Columns with a full marble base transitioned to the artistic plaster.  The white floor marble, mosaic tiles were trimmed with russet, moss green, aubergines and grays. The ceiling had layers of textured trim with golds and copper. Rocco is effervescent. “We knew these elements had been there … but had no idea to what extent! It became a treasure hunt.” More gems were found in the grill and brewery, now called Pan-Am. The distinctly strong and elegant Pan-Am is surrounded with faux plaster resembling natural oak. The floor is original terracotta herringbone tile. Long, sleek and varnished – Brunswick manufactured the bar before converting to bowling alleys. The backroom has two massive wall paintings featuring George Washington by Aldo Lazzerini for the WPA.

Another first exists in the room off the Grand Ballroom: the U.S.A.’s first automobile club. Carmina Wood Morris extensively researched original period styles to derive their color palette for the meticulously painted ceiling of recast plaster whose colors are matched in the restored terracotta and oatmeal floor tiles. Mahogany walls have marble wainscoting that complete the definitively masculine space.

An exciting secret was also revealed. The architects discovered a false floor in the main hallway that covered a staircase descending to a semi-underground speakeasy. A heavy wood door with a sliding slot window guarded the single entrance. No pictures and no historical records exist. It’s an interesting twist given that the Hotel Lafayette’s primary financier was a distiller in Rochester. Moreover, the hotel’s restaurant was the first to serve alcohol after 
prohibition ended.  Today the speakeasy is occupied by Butterwood Sweet & Savory.  The room’s mystery and indulgent nature continues but today it’s in the form of delectable pastries and wedding cakes.

The hotel’s grandeur has returned. But thanks to Poczkalski’s skilled design sensibilities, Carmina Wood Morris’ comprehensive historic preservation and restoration, and Rocco’s business savvy, it’s better. In key areas, Poczkalski enhanced the hotel’s fabulous history with a contemporary flair. Images of the Pan-American Exposition capturing the era’s optimism and energy are manipulated into wallpaper murals anchoring each hotel room. Others wrap the stairwell and punctuate the hallway outside Pan-Am. Rooms are variations of a similar design theme. Each has a modern fireplace and locally made furniture. Subdued neutral color palettes have chartreuse accents.

Most of the former hotel rooms are now apartments, extended stay rooms, and stylish new businesses. The apartments and retail space were completely filled before the grand opening and the enterprises support the hotel’s thriving wedding business. “To see the splendor of it now, it’s impossible to know how bad it was,” says Jackie Albarella, author of Bethune’s Opus: Restoring Louise Bethune’s Hotel Lafayette.” Like Buffalo, the Hotel Lafayette is revealing itself as a beautiful place ready for a new future. 

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