Tonawanda News

April 28, 2013

BOOK NOOK: Kleinhans Music Hall, no concert tonight

By Ed Adamczyk
The Tonawanda News

Tonawanda News — A visitor to Buffalo’s Kleinhans Music Hall is generally there to attend a concert, and while the beauty of the building is noticeable, it’s typically second-fiddle, so to speak, to the event.

A slight but informative book, “Kleinhans Music Hall: Buffalo Architecture Mid-Modern,” currently available at Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra concerts and on its website, changes that. Those of us who have long admired this mid-20th century treasure of local architecture now have a handbook of history and photographs of the place.

Finished in 1940, Kleinhans Music Hall was designed by Eliel and Eero Saarinen, Finnish father-and-son architects famous for a number of prominent buildings in locations larger than Buffalo. Its general swoopiness, to employ a decidedly non-architectural term (use of curvature to offer a feeling of envelopment) is a hallmark of the Saarinen way of doing things, and it is artfully explained in the book.

Although no credit is given, the text is by Brian Carter, University at Buffalo architecture professor, who stays nicely balanced between a critique only an art critic could understand and a populist explanation of this remarkable building.

The book offers a short history of how and why the concert hall came to be Buffalo’s pride; a gift by the family of Edward Kleinhans — he of the retail clothing firm — and the structure itself was deliberately parked not downtown but on Frederick Law Olmstead’s encompassing municipal park plan, in a residential neighborhood.

It was also a Public Works Administration job, a Depression-era program to get people working by pumping money into civic projects that sooner or later had to get done, baseball stadiums, schools and the like (so was the Buffalo Philharmonic, incidentally, a Works Progress Administration project).

Those federal projects often resulted in trillion-cubic-feet piles of concrete masquerading as public gathering places, but in Kleinhans Music Hall a masterpiece was created.

A much larger book could be presented about this place. This little book, more like an elaborate pamphlet, will have to suffice for now. With several dozen photographs and drawings, and enough text for a long magazine article, it may not be a bargain at fifteen dollars, but the book, part of a continuing if occasional series on local architecture, is a winner.

A chapter of the book, actually about four pages, describes the furniture the Saarinens designed for the hall — the lounge chairs, the concert seating, the restaurant in the basement. Indeed, it was common for architects to stock their creations with fixtures appropriate to their buildings. Sadly, most of the Saarinen chairs have been scattered or are otherwise missing from modern-day Kleinhans, but the book artfully explains the mission behind the work.

One evocative photograph in particular depicts the curve above the staircase to the balcony. Those of us who have attended five hundred events in that concert hall may never have noticed the Buck Rogers-like sweep of the wood in the ceiling at that spot in the foyer, and it’s a detail such as that which makes the book a pleasure to consider.

And yes, the place is full of wood (although it actually made of brick) and lacking in ornamentation, an example of early modernism expressed in curves instead of angles, and geometry instead of decoration. Since it is a concert hall, Kleinhans has an acoustic purity as well, but that is not the point of the book. 

There are untold numbers of small books available about Buffalo’s architecture, usually developed by lovers of the buildings (preservationists, architects, founders of non-profit organizations and the like), and here comes another one, about 40 pages long and as elegant and definitive as its subject. It is a snap to say it’s the best of books about Kleinhans Music Hall, if only because it is the only one, thus far.

It is not a book about the orchestra; the Buffalo Philharmonic has a history of its own. Instead, it is about what the orchestra comes wrapped in. The building, here, stands on its own as a work of art. The book could be longer or cost less, but it is a souvenir of a jewel, a love letter to a much-loved part of Buffalo, of art, of architecture, of history.

Kleinhans Music Hall has been captured here in a small but splendidly-presented way.



• WHAT: "Kleinhans Music Hall: Buffalo Architecture Mid-Century Modern" • BY: UB School of Architecture and Planning • GRADE: A


Ed Adamczyk is a Kenmore resident and can be contacted at