Hotel Lafayette represents a turning point for American women. The hotel in downtown Buffalo, New York, was built in 1904 – 16 years before they were granted the right to vote with the passing of the 19th amendment to the U.S. Constitution. What’s the connection? The person who designed the property was Louise Blanchard Bethune, the very first female architect in the United States.
Bethune was a trailblazer and a feminist even before the latter word was even coined. She is credited with a long list of firsts in her profession, yet she is largely unknown within Buffalo and outside it. She boldly called out her profession for its discrimination against women who were paid about one-tenth of what male colleagues earned and demanded equal pay.
Bethune further rattled societal norms when she dared to buy and ride a bicycle. It led her to form the Women’s Wheel and Athletic Club (one of the country’s first such clubs) in 1888 so that she and her fellow female cyclists could ride without fear of being heckled.
But she is best known for the Hotel Lafayette. After winning the contract, the firm she headed was given a budget of $1 million to create one of the most prestigious buildings in the city. It was unheard of at that time for a woman to have such responsibility since it was believed you couldn’t wear a dress and supervise construction at the same time.
The end result was impressive. Built in French Renaissance style, the hotel was considered one of top 15 hotels in the entire country. It incorporated all the latest technology, including elevators, hot and cold running water, plus phones in every room. Upon opening, it was described as “the best that science, art and experience can offer for the comfort of the traveling public.” But like many grand hotels, it endured economic boom and bust cycles, serving as a run-down rooming house later in its life.
Even in its sad state, it earned recognition for the important role the hotel played in evolution of Buffalo and for the talents of its architect. Hotel Lafayette was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2010. Two years later, renovations to the tune of $35 million wrapped up and the doors opened once again to guests looking for stylish accommodations in the downtown core. Its former beauty was restored. The ornate elevator doors gleamed again. The murals cleaned and vibrant and gorgeous lobby, done in 1942 in Art Moderne style, provided an elegant welcome.
The building is now a mixed-use space, incorporating banquet rooms, retail stores, restaurants, apartments and a boutique hotel with 57 rooms. Those rooms are spacious and decorated in a contemporary style with funky touches like graphic murals and retro tiled bathrooms. Some suites have double-sided fireplaces that can be seen from the bedroom and living room. Others have fully equipped kitchens, especially suited for long-stay guests.
The hotel ticks a lot of boxes for what you’d want from a property. WiFi is complimentary and a decent breakfast buffet is included with the room rate. The location is one of the best things about this hotel. The best of what Buffalo offers downtown is easily accessible, including the Mark Twain Room in the Buffalo Public Library next door. This is where you can see a portion of the writer’s handwritten manuscript for his classic, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and collectibles from the time he spent in Buffalo working as the editor of The Buffalo Express.
Just 10-minute walk is Shea’s Performing Arts Center, where you can catch top-tier Broadway shows, plays and musical performances. It opened in 1926 as a movie house. It was Buffalo’s most elegant venue, thanks to beautiful stained glass from Tiffany Studios and its neo-Spanish Baroque architecture. It has hosted everyone from Frank Sinatra to Big Bird. Shea’s was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1975.
In fact, a great deal of Buffalo’s amazing history and architecture can be reached on foot from Hotel Lafayette. Other don’t-miss spots include: Buffalo City Hall, an impressive example of Art Deco-style, completed in 1931; the Guaranty Building, designed by Louis Sullivan who was once Frank Lloyd Wright’s mentor; and the Ellicott Square, the largest office building in the world when opened in May 1896. To hit as many highlights as possible, consider booking an architecture tour with a company like Explore Buffalo.
For those days when you don’t want to venture very far from your room to eat, there’s an excellent coffee shop on-site and a nice restaurant, The Pan-American Grill & Brewery. The latter features elevated American cuisine, including Buffalo-inspired favorites like chicken wings, Buffalo chicken flatbread pizza, plus kielbasa and pierogies – all best when paired with craft beer. Fortunately, onsite in the basement of the Hotel Lafayette, a full brewery churns out various ales and lagers with names like Roosevelt Red and Rough Rider Robust Porter.
You might wonder what’s with the Teddy Roosevelt and Pan-American references sprinkled throughout the hotel. Here’s the deal: After the assassination of president William McKinley during a visit to Buffalo’s Pan-American Exposition of 1901, Theodore Roosevelt came to the city to being sworn in as the new prez. That’s just one of the amazing stories that is waiting to be explore in Buffalo.
Though Buffalo is booming again and undergoing a full-blown renaissance, it has not lost sight of its roots. They’re celebrated today in places like Hotel Lafayette and so many others that have undergone revitalization, poised for another exciting next chapter. You can bet that one of the city’s finest early architects, Louise Bethune, would have been proud of what her beloved hometown has become.
The writer stayed as a guest of Hotel Lafayette, but all opinions are her own. Photos courtesy of Brian Douglas and Hotel Lafayette.