Some see red as Buffalo’s tallest tower undergoes facade makeover

Holy Maroon

Some see red as Buffalo’s tallest tower undergoes facade makeover

Buffalo’s Seneca One pictured in its sand-hued heyday. (booledozer/Wikimedia Commons)

After a pause in construction due to the coronavirus pandemic, redevelopment work at Seneca One—Buffalo’s tallest skyscraper at 40 stories and the tallest privately owned office building in New York outside of NYC—has resumed in a most conspicuous manner: A full exterior paint job, the first in the building’s history, that’s left some admirers of the 529-foot-tall landmark building aghast. Completed in 1972 as the Marine Midland Center (from 1999 through 2013 it was known as the HSBC Center), the Skidmore, Owings & Merrill-designed Brutalist high-rise will soon sport a fresh shade of maroon.

Barbara A. Campagna, a Buffalo-based preservation architect, referred to the facade paint job to AN as “an continuation of efforts at the site that demean its original design and intent. There seems to be no coordination or understanding of what a mid-century modern design by master architects actually is.”

Despite valid calls to modernize Seneca One and better integrate it into the urban fabric of 21st century downtown Buffalo, it’s not hard to see why the maroon makeover is viewed as an aesthetic bungle that’s not only visually jarring but effaces the precast concrete tower’s modernist legacy.

Skyline-redefining color section aside, there’s also the possibility that the paint job could ultimately damage the building.

“The building’s facades are clad in 4-inch thick chamfered precast concrete panels and finished with washed silicate gravel which gives it a pebbly texture,” explained Campagna. “It was likely not intended to be painted. Epoxy paint on textured concrete can ultimately cause more problems than leaving it untreated. Water will get absorbed into the concrete as it always does but if the epoxy is too strong then it has nowhere to go but staying in the concrete causing cracks and spalling. The second issue regarding the paint is that by using two different colors (black on the spandrels) and ‘terra cotta’ on the verticals primarily the visual aspect of the concrete frame is completely changed.”

The epoxy paint job—15,000 gallons will be needed for the entire project, per Buffalo News—is one of several interventions being deployed by Washington, D.C.-based Douglas Development as part of a $120 million mixed-use redevelopment scheme. Buffalo’s skyline-defining modernist monolith is now home to over 200 soon-to-be-occupied apartments, including market-rate studios and one-bedrooms, in both the tower and in the new retail-topping west annex wing. Seneca One’s barren concrete plaza and east annex wing are also in the process of being transformed into a 75,000-square-foot multi-level shopping mall. A pair of new faux cobblestone clubhouse buildings, which will be populated by shops and restaurants, will fill a void left behind by the plaza along Main Street.

a rendering of a tower in buffalo painted red
A rendering depicting Buffalo’s redeveloped Seneca One complex complete with a newly painted facade. (Courtesy Douglas Development)

Roughly a quarter of the skyscraper—11 floors of the tower total plus additional plaza-level space—has been transformed into a 1,000-plus-employee technology hub for Buffalo-headquartered M&T Bank. The bank formally announced Seneca One as the location for its Tech Hub in June 2019, a little less than three years after the then-mostly vacant building was acquired by Douglas Development for $12.6 million. “I want to make the building pedestrian-friendly, and right now it’s not,” Douglas Development founder Douglas Jemal said at the time. “It’s a big massive slate of nothing.”

Per local ABC affiliate WKBW, M&T’s new 330,000 square foot space is slated for occupancy the third quarter of this year although that timing could change due to the pandemic (construction was largely finished before the pause in work). The first residential tenants at Seneca One could move in as soon as this August. In total, the redeveloped property encompasses 1.35 million square feet.

According to a press release issued by M&T and shared by Buffalo Rising, the facade’s color overhaul is meant to bring “new life and vibrancy to the appearance of the complex.” Per the bank, work has also resumed on other major components of the project including landscaping, the building out of a mezzanine on the complex’s plaza level, and interior work at the tower including elevator and escalator installation.

While the paint job and other elements of Douglas Development’s revamping of Seneca One including foreboding, fortress-like walls erected around the complex have elicited groans from preservationists and others, the redevelopment of the building has also been heralded as an ambitious and much-needed vehicle for reactivating a once-faded primary corridor in Buffalo’s rebounding downtown core.

“Yes, of course it [the building] can and should be evaluated for updates and a remaking,” said Campagna. “But filling the plaza with these new buildings in completely unrelated styles to the building and even to each other seems random and capricious.”