Buffalo Central Terminal

Amtrak 281 heads west on the main bypassing Buffalo Central Terminal.

The terminal's signature office tower still stands as an icon of Buffalo.

Long-abandoned dispatcher desks remain like sentinels from a bygone era.

Many rooms still have tons of debris and significant damage.

Temporary lighting and a clean floor is the first step to restoration.

The terminal's main concourse is perfect for events including train shows.

Mark and Ed shake hands above the main concourse.

By Steven M. Sweeney/Photos by Mike Roqué
April 21, 2009

BUFFALO, N.Y. – Thick fog still blankets much of the city, but families with children, rail enthusiasts and men and boys with cameras gladly add their bodies to a line snaking 200 feet four abreast from the base of Buffalo’s New York Central Terminal.

By the end of this event – a two-day model train show – only 3,000 paying visitors walk into the cathedral-like art deco station. Some blamed the weather, the economy or both.

But the scene is still baffling compared to the one from just 10 years ago, long after the last passenger trains departed and local government officials had written off the building as too expensive to redevelop or demolish.

It was left to rot.

Until now.

The Past

Buffalo’s Central Terminal was built in 24 months by the New York Central Railroad and opened to the public on June 22, 1929.

The massive 512,000 square foot art deco style building with a single 17-story tower, arches and accompanying passenger concourse was Fellheimer & Wagner, the same architectural firm responsible for designing Cincinnati Union Terminal.

That building opened in 1933.

The Great Depression that began the same year the Buffalo terminal opened culled demand for passenger trains throughout the nation’s rail system and hurt Buffalo hard.

Mark Lewandowski, treasurer for the Central Terminal Restoration Committee, was born and raised on Curtiss Street in the shadow of the terminal. He waxes philosophical at times about the terminal's history and significance to east Buffalo.

“At the time, the city of Buffalo was the sixth largest city in the country and the second largest rail hub … they felt the city would expand and this would be the center of activity,” Lewandowski said of the New York Central. “In my opinion, the city of Buffalo stopped growing here and hasn’t grown ever since.”

Lewandowski said passenger traffic related to World War II gave the terminal a golden age but that dwindled in post-war years until the last Amtrak departure in Oct. 1979.

Buffalo developer Anthony Fedele purchased the building later that year for $75,000, a fraction of the original $14 million construction cost.

Fedele filed for bankruptcy in 1986 and was forced to sell the terminal in foreclosure. The building fell victim to vandals, Mother Nature and salvagers looking for unique interior decorations and copper wiring.

The Present

Lewandowksi’s shoes crunch and swish through the darkness.

His impromptu tour of Buffalo Central Terminal’s upper floors kicks up enough white dust to leave a layer on his blue replica conductor's uniform. Mounds of paperwork – left from salvaging parties upturning old filing cabinets – piles to three feet in some rooms.

From the vantage point of one papered room above the concourse, visitors can see what look like hewn sandstone blocks on the terminal's walls and interior arches. They are really Guastavino tiles of the type used on monumental buildings constructed in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Within 11 years, restoration corporation volunteers removed 350 tons of debris and welcomed visitors for the first time in 2003.

“It was the ‘shock and awe’ tour, ‘Come see this building,’” said Mike Miller, CTRC president.

That basic clearing and reconnecting work allows the building to host beer festivals, weddings, Polish-American Dyngus Day celebrations and, yes, model train shows.

Some people return for other events and even get involved in the restoration process.

One Eagle Scout restored an electric baggage cart as a community service project while local welding students are working to repair handrails around the building. Erie County, N.Y., government gave a $1 million roof repair grant in 1999. M&T Bank, with headquarters in Buffalo, purchased the terminal’s old main concourse clock for $25,000 from a Chicago antiques dealer and donated the clock to the restoration corporation for eventual permanent display.

The next step is heat.

When the terminal was fully operational and as many as 15,000 people worked there a day, the New York Central Railroad burned 6 tons of coal an hour to generate heat and 25-cycle electricity, Lewandowksi said.

“That’s not an option for us,” he said. “When we acquired the building … we had five goals. We’re at the toughest stage now, getting the building ready for development.”

The Future

Beyond the laundry list of $100 to $160 million worth of total restoration projects are dreams for the long-haul.

“I see this building as a Renaissance for the east side,” said Hank Olejniczak, a restoration corporation building committee member. “High-speed rail between Buffalo and Albany is only a matter of time. (Light rail) between downtown and the airport and high-speed rail between Buffalo and Toronto, is only matter of time.

“Tell me this isn’t where you want to be at sometime?”

Miller and Olejniczak envision museums and not-for-profit organizations occupying the space surrounding the concourse. Business start-ups can occupy the office wings and most people say the tower is ideal for luxury apartments or condos.

“There are 10 to 20 people of us in the core. We need to know how to take it to the next step; what types of experience do we need; what types of people do we need to move the project along?,” Miller said. “The reason we have to move along is there is no other choice.”

The CTRC still needs a master plan, architectural surveys, money and more volunteers like Adam Vester, of Lancaster, N.Y., a CSX Corp. conductor and a railfan.

“This place, when I was a kid, I remember seeing pictures on-line. I told my dad, ‘We’ve got to go there,’” Vester said of the Central Terminal. “You go to Cincinnati and the depot is already done – we’re just starting.

“That’s the draw for me.”

An 80th Anniversary celebration for Buffalo Central Terminal's grand opening is planned for June 2009.

For more information, visit buffalocentralterminal.org.