Buffalo Central Terminal stands as a silent guard over a passing Amtrak regional train. Since Amtrak vacated in 1979 and Conrail departed in 1980, the fate of the terminal had always been in question. With a resurgence of volunteer and community support, Buffalo Central Terminal is making a comeback. Photo by Mike Roqué
The comeback kid: Buffalo Central Terminal
By Otto M. Vondrak/Photos as noted
Buffalo, New York, was once Chicago's only rival for largest railhead in the nation. Its strategic location astride the Great Lakes, coupled with an industrial powerhouse driven by the expansion of the steel industry, made Buffalo an important gateway between the east and the midwest. In the 1920s, the New York Central was looking to build a new terminal to consolidate its services into the Nickel City and avoid the congestion and confusion of the many competing downtown passenger stations. The railroad was also convinced the construction of a new terminal would encourage the city to grow to meet it, much as how New York City reached north and enveloped Grand Central.
In 2005, the information booth clock was purchased and returned to its rightful position inside Buffalo Central Terminal. Photo by Otto M. Vondrak
Constructing the new terminal was not without is controversy. A large residential neighborhood made up mostly of Polish immigrants was condemned and razed in 1926 to make way for the complex of facilities. Since the new terminal was located roughly two and a half miles from downtown, a streetcar loop was proposed, however, the owner of the local taxi franchise campaigned against it, leaving travelers with few choices to get into the city center. What's more, the New York Central could not convince many other railroads to use their new facility, though a few made token appearances over the years.
Buffalo Central Terminal opened to the public on June 22, 1929 amid all of the expected pomp and circumstance typically afforded such an event. The massive Art Deco edifice dominated the skyline of the quiet residential neighborhood with a 270-foot high tower that contained a 16-story office building. The vast main concourse contained a vaulted ceiling of Gustavino tile soaring 58 feet over the floor. A seven platform concourse was connected to the terminal through a series of elegant ramps. Clearly, the New York Central had planted its flag in Buffalo, and was invested in the city's future growth and prosperity.
That optimism was short lived as America was plunged into the Great Depression following the stock market crash of October 1929. Buffalo Central Terminal quickly became a white elephant on the south side of town, a symbol of enthusiasm and excess that seemed out of place in the austere environment of the 1930s. The terminal enjoyed a resurgence during World War II, but for the most part it remained an underutilized albatross hung around the neck of the New York Central. The collapse of passenger train travel brought on by the jet age hastened the terminal's decline. When Amtrak took over in 1971, only a handful of trains called at Buffalo Central Terminal, with most passengers opting for the diminutive Exchange Street station downtown or the suburban Depew depot. The last Amtrak train departed BCT on October 28, 1979, leaving Conrail as the only tenant. With the consolidation of dispatching facilities, Conrail departed in 1980, and so ended 51 years of railroad use.
The terminal went through a number of owners and transactions between 1979 and 1996, some benign, some devastating. The last owner stripped the property of anything valuable, including every decorative element from chandeliers to sconces to brass fittings on ticket windows. Abandoned and open to the elements, Buffalo Central Terminal was vulnerable to acts of vandalism. The office tower stood silent, and it soon became a challenge to find a single pane of unbroken glass anywhere. Old paperwork blew in the winds around the terminal, and debris accumulated around the property, creating a bleak, post-apocolyptic landscape. Talk of demolition grew louder as the terminal's gaunt shell withered.
Ownership was cautiously transferred to the Central Terminal Restoration Corporation in August 1997, which sought to reverse nearly 20 years of abuse to the landmark structure. The group was met with some skepticism at first, but when the four tower clocks were restored and illuminated on October 1, 2001, it revitalized interest in the old terminal. After a general clean up and stabilization, Buffalo Central Terminal was reopened for tours in 2003 to huge success. Soon the open space inside the terminal was being booked for public events. In 2005, a successful fundraising campaign helped return and restore the information booth clock to its rightful location. For a building that stood derelict a little more than ten years ago, attendance at the terminal's annual events is staggering. Central Terminal remains as a source of pride and hope to generations of Buffalonians, bolstered by volunteer efforts to see it returned to its former glory. The continuation of restoration efforts will bring additional and more expensive challenges to Buffalo Central Terminal's future, but if the community response so far is any indication, the station will only benefit as time marches forward.
For more information, please visit the Central Terminal Restoration Corp.'s web site.