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Architecture of the Week: The Guaranty Building

By Lucas Watson, Features Contributor

In 1895, a building arose from the streets of Buffalo. Upon its completion, it seemed to hold up the sky. It was an early skyscraper, designed by the proclaimed architect and father of the modern skyscraper Louis Sullivan. The building, named the Guaranty Building, was a marvel of the rapidly growing type of building known as the skyscraper. It stood as the tallest building in the city upon its completion. It has sat at the corner of Pearl Street and Church Street for the last 127 years. This building stands today, still full of offices and gracing our downtown landscape with such impressive terracotta on the facade. It comes from one of the proclaimed Trinity of American Architects: Louis Sullivan, Henry Hobson Richardson and Frank Lloyd Wright.

The Guaranty Building originated as the “The Taylor Building” and then the Prudential

Building, but it was originally named after Hascal L. Taylor, the Buffalo businessman who commissioned the Chicago architectural firm Dankmar Adler and Louis Sullivan to build what he wanted to be "the largest and best office building in the city." Unfortunately, he died in November of 1894, just before construction plans were to be released. Its location was strategic, as it was placed in close proximity to the County and City Municipal building, now known as Erie County Hall. It was done to attract lawyers and other high-quality tenants.

There are two accepted names for this building — the Prudential Building and the Guaranty Building — because The Guaranty Construction Company of Chicago (which was originally commissioned to construct the building for Hascal L. Taylor) bought the property and completed the project after Taylor's death. Construction began in 1895, and the Guaranty Building was occupied on March 1, 1896. It was renamed the Prudential Building about two years after it was completed at the time of refinancing through the Prudential Insurance Company.

Most architectural historians consider Louis Sullivan's Guaranty Building one of his greatest architectural achievements in office buildings. Louis Sullivan called the Prudential Building a "sister" to his prototype skyscraper the Wainwright Building in St. Louis, both designed within the decade following William Le Baron Jenney's Home Insurance Building in Chicago, the first tall, metallic-framed structure. With the Wainwright Building, Sullivan first expressed the essential nature of the newer, tall buildings — the power of their verticality. With these two structures, Sullivan established the basic idea and shape of the American skyscraper. He seems to have followed the main divisions of a column with a base, shaft and capital.

In the Guaranty, the first two floors, which contain public spaces, constitute the base; the office areas, shaft, elaborate cornice and row of round oculus windows on the street sides make up the capital. Using the narrow piers to give an upward thrust to the building, Sullivan created the archetype of the modern skyscraper, a column holding up, or “scraping,” the sky. Its terracotta facade is embellished with Sullivan's rich foliage and geometric ornament, some of which was detailed by George Grant Elmslie, Adler and Sullivan's chief draftsman.

However, the history of this building was not always glamorous, nor has it retained its status as one of the finest business addresses in Buffalo over the years. In 1955, a “modernization” project added corrugated panels to the lower exterior and a dropped ceiling in the lobby. Harsh sandblasting also damaged the intricate terracotta. The decline was accelerated by a fire in 1974, and the occupancy of the building dropped heavily; following this, the building was sold at auction to an out-of-town buyer. They were considering plans to demolish the building to make the plot of land more marketable. It was actually the work of local preservationists that convinced the owners to reconsider and civic leaders secured loans and grants to restore it.

In 1983, a $12.4 million restoration project was finally completed and then given its current official name, the Guaranty Building. In 1998, the owner of the building went into bankruptcy, and the building's future was once again thrust into uncertainty. A leading force which had helped earlier efforts to restore made it their principal headquarters, that force being Hodgson Russ LLP. In 2008, the firm completed a $15 million restoration project, ensuring the building's future for years to come and ensuring that this building remains one of the United States’ most important architectural landmarks.

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