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5 iconic Buffalo tourist attractions that almost weren’t

by Staff

An aerial tour of one of Buffalo’s most unique sites, the collection of historic grain elevators known as Silo City.


Derek Gee



When you have to launch an ad campaign coaxing residents into “Talkin’ Proud” about their city, you’ve got a problem.

That was the case in 1980, when the Buffalo Chamber of Commerce launched the campaign, hoping to curb Buffalo’s reputation as a once-great city whose best times were behind it.

But something changed in the past 20 years, when stakeholders in the city began giving residents more to be proud of.

In a city where a prized Frank Lloyd Wright building had been torn down and the iconic Central Terminal building was stripped and left to decay, leaders and preservationists and investors started to see value and potential in the once-glorious buildings that had fallen into disrepair.

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Skaters fill the Ice at Canalside as night falls.




And there was a new appreciation for green space and the power of waterfront access, highlighted by Canalside and the ongoing improvements along the Outer Harbor.

The result of which has been a handful of new tourist attractions for the region that have proven to be a powerful magnet for visitors.

“We have really spent most of the 21st century reinvesting ourselves, summoning the will to change the trajectory of our community to change our fortunes,” said Ed Healy, vice president of marketing at Visit Buffalo Niagara, which hosted a tourism forum last week. “We raised hundreds of millions of dollars to rebuild, reinvent, reimagine our community.”

Richard Peterson, president and CEO of U.S. Cultural and Heritage Marketing Council, visited the city recently and was wowed by what he saw.

“You have such an array of spaces here. You think about the waterfront, you think about the incredible work happening with the silos and the spaces that are really new or reimagined,” he said. “Do you realize how lucky you are to have all those great public spaces in your community all year?”

Here are five tourist destinations that are thriving today, but almost withered away.







Shea's Buffalo Theatre (copy) (copy) (copy) (copy) (copy)




Shea’s Buffalo Theatre

Today, Shea’s Buffalo Theatre hosts touring Broadway musicals and some of Buffalo’s most important events. Its exterior signage is as much a symbol of Buffalo as the city’s skyline, and the theater itself is respected and admired nationwide.

But it wasn’t always that way.







Shea's (copy)

Today, Shea’s Buffalo Theatre hosts touring Broadway musicals and is admired nationwide, but it was nearly lost to the wrecking ball in the 1970s.




“You may think of it as the jewel in the crown of our Theatre District but that could have very easily been a parking lot,” Healy said. “There was a very serious discussion about knocking it down many years ago, and a passionate group of citizens determined that they were not going to let that happen – that it was too important and too beautiful. And they saved that building, and it’s the cornerstone of downtown entertainment.”

The former 1926 movie theater fell on hard times in the 1970s amid the city’s decline. When the theater defaulted to the city for back taxes, a group called the Friends of the Buffalo Theater prevented the former owner from stripping the theater of its valuables, then led the charge to raise public and private funds to restore it.

“I’m so glad it was not hit by the wrecking ball,” said Peterson, at the U.S. Cultural and Heritage Marketing Council.







Duende at Silo City

Silo City along the Buffalo River hosts sculptures, art installations and performances at Duende, above, and the site will soon open leasing for more than 100 apartments.




Silo City

The empty grain silos on the Buffalo River were once a symbol of the life that had left the city – now they’re a symbol of its rebirth.

The 14-acre site hosts sculptures, art installations, performances, music and literary readings. The heart of the six-parcel complex is Duende, a rustic bar with indoor and outdoor performance areas. 

Now, after some complications and delay, developers are leasing more than 100 apartments at the site, that will bring year-round living to the spot.

“I think this is maybe the most improbable success story and transformation in our community,” Healy said.

“If you had told me when I was starting this job 20-plus years ago that Silo City would one day have apartments, be an arts destination and one of the cooler places to go and hang out in Buffalo, I would have said, ‘What are you smoking?’ ” he said. “But it’s happened. It’s real.”







Buffalo River aerial

The Ferris wheel at Buffalo RiverWorks, which just over a decade ago was a vast expanse of industrial wasteland, is reflected in the tranquil Buffalo River as night falls.




Buffalo RiverWorks

In another adaptive reuse project, what was once the GLF Grain Mill operation is now a thriving art, entertainment and concert venue and waterfront activity destination on the Buffalo River.

Where for years there had been a vacant expanse of hulking cement structures and industrial wasteland, there are now four bars, a roller derby track, two covered ice rinks, a restaurant, Ferris wheel, brewery, banquet space and an arcade. There are zip lines, silo climbing, a ropes course, kayak rentals and a martial arts dojo.

“Now, 365 days a year, there’s something going on there,” Healy said. “It’s a really vibrant urban entertainment complex.”







Martin House Exterior view (copy)

The historic Frank Lloyd Wright-designed Darwin Martin House has been restored to its former glory and has become a world-class attraction.




The Martin House

Designed for Larkin Co. executive Darwin D. Martin by renowned architect Frank Lloyd Wright, the house was abandoned after Martin died in 1935 and sat vacant for years. The property was left crumbling and badly vandalized. The carriage house, conservatory and pergola were demolished in 1962, but rebuilt in 2007 as a part of restoration efforts.

Now, the historic home, restored to its former glory, is a treasured museum and important example of Wright’s Prairie School-era work. It hosts tours and events and attracts tourists from around the world.

“It really was a devastated site there, and now it is really, truly a world-class attraction,” Healy said.







Richardson Hotel

The Richardson Hotel, designed by Henry Hobson Richardson, opened in 1880 originally as the Buffalo State Asylum for the Insane.




Richardson Olmsted Complex

The former Buffalo State Asylum for the Insane has always cut a striking figure over the Elmwood Village, but for years, the structure sat vacant and vandalized, with trespassers coming and going almost as they pleased.

“At one time, the hope was maybe just to shutter it, protect it from the elements and from vandalism, and then we could all look at the towers from Forest Avenue,” Healy said.

In 1997, then-Gov. George Pataki planned to sell the building. But a group of volunteers led by former Buffalo News publisher Stanford Lipsey raised $100 million to stabilize and restore it. In 2017, InnVest Lodging Services opened the 88-room Hotel Henry Urban Resort Conference Center and a restaurant in the twin towers building and the two buildings alongside. Hotel Henry closed during the pandemic but was reopened by developer Douglas Jemal as the Richardson Hotel in September.

Soon, the Lipsey Architecture Center will open on the grounds, with exhibitions, tours, programs and outreach engaging the public in Buffalo’s architecture, landscape design and urban planning.

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