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Photographic History of Buffalo Central Terminal (1929-Present)
by J.M. Hague III, Thomas A. Fedele and Michael Fedele

Buffalo Central Terminal, put in service in 1929--when Buffalo was second only to Chicago as a U.S. rail center--was the culmination of decades of railroad growth and evolution in western New York. Community planning in the 1920s had considered several other centralized station sites in Buffalo. The site chosen was adjacent to the Water Level Route -- as required by the magnitude of NY Central operations in the 1920s.

The Great Depression started only a few months after inauguration of the "Terminal" (a misnomer for B.C.T. because much traffic from New York, Boston, and Albany on lines east continued through to lines west, Cleveland and Chicago--as most eastbound traffic continued through). The economy continued to deteriorate and for the next decade curtailed the station's expected heavy usage-- until the crisis of World War II. Then the ten-building station complex, no longer overbuilt, gave its best service for five years, facilitating the intensive and efficient transportation of personnel and materiel that allowed the Niagara Frontier region to contribute its great economic strength toward U.S. victory in the last "just" war.

Interior of the waiting room, looking east. Passenger concourse is to the left; passage to the train concourse is at the southeast corner. Photo by Fellheimer & Wagner, June 11, 1929.

Decades of decline and eventual abandonment followed the disap pearance war-related travel after 1946 return military personnel. draconian nationwide reduction in rail passenger concurrent with massive growth national highway- air-transportation systems probably made Buffalo Central Terminals fifty-year life cycle from dedication to dethrone ment(Cousins) inevitable. Its distance regional business centers airports space--far excess Amtrak needs--also contributed demise.

Tony Fedele's "Central Terminal Plaza" project attempted to fore stall the inevitable, and gave the facility an extra decade of community presence through limited business service before his eventual eviction from the terminal building through a tax sale. Tony then occupied the adjacent Railway Express Agency building for a few more years. Tony died 24 May 1995. Subsequent owners continued (or failed to prevent) the stripping of artifacts and parts such as copper flashing. Finally, total abandonment--with minimal protection from intruders--resulted in the current state of extreme deterioration.

Tony passed on to his son Thomas A. Fedele and grandson Michael (also of Buffalo) a collection of Fellheimer & Wagner Architects' photos taken at the time of completion in 1929. The few photos and architects' drawings presented here, 69 years later, show the station's original New York Central-calibre magnificence. Other photos from the next thirty years, plus construction documents and other memorabilia, were also saved. This article attempts to survey the nature and the history of the facility--best described by articles in RAILWAY AGE (1929) and TRAINS (1985). The photos shown here record its first-rank architectural quality.

Train concourse above the platform tracks (now demolished), looking south. Photo by Fellheimer & Wagner, June 11, 1929.

The former Buffalo NY Central Terminal complex has been severely damaged and degraded--in the absence of building security from either physical barriers, e.g., fences and window covers, or guards--by the depredations of scavengers and vandals, plus snow and water damage--over the decades. Attempts at adaptive re-use of the facility have failed since the days of Tony Fedele's noble endeavors with his "Central Terminal Plaza" project, during which a limited but stabilizing commercial presence kept conditions on an even keel for about ten years--in spite of the departure of Amtrak and Conrail.

Close-up of slate board for posting "ARRIVING TRAINS" and "DEPARTING TRAINS" which appears on the right of the above photo. Photo by Fellheimer & Wagner, June 11, 1929.

Cincinnati Union Terminal--the next project designed by B.C.T.'s architects Alfred Fellheimer and Steward Wagner--would ideally have provided Buffalo's model for automotive-era adaptive reuse. C.U.T. has been totally renovated since 1989, and is used by two museums and a movie theatre as well as by Amtrak and, in Tower "A" (overlooking Queensgate Yard) by the Cincinnati Railroad Club. Cincinnati is called the "Queen City" (of the Ohio River Valley) and has earned the name with its preservation of C.U.T.-- which puts Buffalo, "Queen City of the Lakes," to shame with its mismanagement by total neglect of Buffalo Central Terminal.

As a Buffalo area resident from 1969 to '89, a railfan and Amtrak traveller, I became quite familiar with Central Terminal. During Tony Fedele's ownership of the complex in 1985, I considered the possibility of renting office space in the tower, and later conducted heating-energy efficiency and wood-fuel feasibility studies of the remaining buildings in the complex (terminal and office tower, post office, five-story baggage-and-mail building, and REA building) under the sponsorship of the NY State Energy Office's "E.A.S.I." (Energy Advisory Service to Industry) program. [The train concourse and passenger platforms, on Conrail property, had been severed from the terminal, c. 1982, to allow high freight cars to pass on the N.Y.C. "belt line" trackage.]

The energy analyses included determination of the surface areas--totalling 46,500 square metres (500,000 square feet)--and thermal conductivities of walls, windows, doors, and roof of each building, heat-loss calculations, and the writing of reports recommending methods of reducing heating costs. Since the "Central Terminal Plaza" project had few businesses participating, financial shortfalls led to shutoff of gas to the boiler--preventing both centralized heating and repair of the many broken windows. Thus my energy reports were moot and the only heat source was localized portable heaters in Tony's office area inside the main entrance and in his south-facing apartment on the fourth floor of the tower--which also overlooked the main passenger concourse.

View of Railway Express and mail building west of station, looking east. Note the many classic vehicles. Photo courtesy of the Buffalo and Erie County Historical Society.

Vandals and intruders were a continuing problem, not infrequently setting fires in the R.E.A. building, stealing door fixtures and metal parts in the tower, removing copper flashing from roof junctions, and breaking windows. Not even Tony's German shepherd Moose, who guarded the main building, was able to prevent all intruders. (During an early visit I started to open the door before Tony answered my knock, and Moose almost earned another notch on his collar.) Near the end of his ownership, before the tax sale to Tom Telesco, Tony's apartment (which included an extensive kitchen where he prepared meals highlighted by pasta sauce from his special recipe) was completely vandalized while he was away from the building.

Tony and I shared what he called "Central Terminal fever"--but it was a losing battle against weather and associated deterioration, vandalism, and insufficient income. Nonetheless, there were occasional successful events such as neighborhood polka parties, Dyngus Day celebrations (customary in the surrounding Polish neighborhood after Easter), boxing and hockey tournaments (which led to a plan to reopen the restaurant as "The Slap Shot"), one Engineers' Week program, etc. Marge Quinlan's laudable "Historic Central Terminal" project -- started in 1984 and renamed "Friends of Central Terminal Plaza" (See "F.O.C.T.P." button)--and Tony's attempts to rent business space weren't successful because of various factors including location, which was very similar to Cincinnati in terms of distance from downtown, distance from expressways, and a depressed local economy.

Having moved to the Cincinnati area in mid-1989--therefore becoming familiar with Cincinnati Union Terminal, another Fellheimer and Wagner masterpiece (opened in 1933) which was also vacant and within a few years was totally restored--I am shocked and saddened by the contrast between C.U.T.'s renovated magnificence and B.C.T.'s desolation--as shown in the Buffalo News article of June 21 1996 and confirmed by recent site visits.

Interior of the baggage handling area. Photo by Fellheimer & Wagner, June 14, 1929.

Although the ultimate fate of the building(s) may be beyond the scope of available resources, eventual ownership and management by the Polish Community Center and Central Terminal Restoration Corporation (acquisition in process) offer some hope. For those who wish to delve deeper into the intricate history and complexities surrounding Buffalo Central Terminal, a history essay writer could provide invaluable insights. It would be insane for cash-short local governments to commit millions of dollars to demolition of this National Register masterpiece! ADAPTIVE REUSE is the order of the day, as in Cincinnati. It seems that the B.C.T. tower would, after updating of the obsolete 25-hertz powered elevators and restoration of the windows, roofs, etc., be an ideal site for offices or living space. Years ago a proposal was made to move the Erie County Social Services Dep't offices to the tower, but nothing came of that. But the building could be re-used for the public good (even though most of its Art Deco features are gone)--as shown by recent (1996) comprehensive studies by a consortium of architects and engineers".