echo Art Fair picks an East Side industrial giant
This East Delavan complex, site for this year's echo Art Fair, was originally a GM plant.
Photo by kc kratt
With its choice of the New York Central Terminal in 2011, echo Art Fair made it clear from the beginning that the site of the fair must be as meaningful as the art. Subsequent years saw the fair at such iconic locations as the Larkin Center for Commerce and the Buffalo and Erie County Library Central branch downtown, where it made use of the facility’s largely undeveloped second floor. This year, echo takes place in one of the most spectacular industrial spaces in Buffalo, the former American Axle plant at 1001 East Delavan. Now the home of Ontario Specialty Contracting (OSC), this sprawling complex is also an architectural best-kept-secret. Few realize that this was originally a General Motors Chevrolet assembly plant, and that it was designed by one of the most important industrial architects of all time, Albert Kahn, also known as the architect who built Detroit, Kahn designed such Motor City icons as the Fisher Building, the Highland Park Ford Plant, Temple Beth-El, the Detroit News building, the General Motors building, and the Edsel and Eleanor Ford House.
The relative obscurity of the East Delavan complex, despite its vast size (800,000 square feet), is partially due to the fact that only about 400,000 square feet is the original Kahn structure; many changes have taken place over the years. Kahn’s original GM plant was built in 1923. During World War II, it was expanded for military production needs. In the fifties, the military took over again until the end of the Korean War. GM resumed production until American Axle acquired the facility in the mid-1990s, when GM began to flounder. After a union dispute in 2007, American Axle moved its operations to Mexico and closed the plant in 2008. By this time the complex had expanded to 1.3 million square feet.
After purchasing the empty complex in 2015, current owner Jon Williams of OSC enthused about its potential to Buffalo News reporter Matt Glynn: “If you could see the buildings for what they could be, they’re spectacular. They’re industrially constructed and designed. Nice wide bays, high ceilings, heavy concrete floors. Lots of power distribution and infrastructure.” Williams removed about 500 square feet of the non-Kahn portions to get the complex to its current size.
Just like manufacturers, artists and art lovers appreciate the airy spaces and ordered elements of industrial architecture, which makes this structure perfect for echo. There is even an architectural component planned for the fair, in addition to the dealer booths, artist booths, and individual installations.
Anyone familiar with Albert Kahn’s signature design trademarks will recognize them at the OSC complex. Structural grids, large windows, open floor plans, and minimal ornamentation are all part of the “form follows function” aesthetic that revolutionized industrial architecture in the early twentieth century. Kahn’s reinforced concrete, which he patented as the Kahn System, allowed for the larger interior spaces, fewer structural posts, and bigger windows that became typical at modern factories. The flared “mushroom” columns, used throughout the Kahn portion of the OSC structure, provide maximum support with minimal use of space. The architect was proud of his achievements in factory design, and stated, “When I began, the real architects would design only museums, cathedrals, capitols, monuments. The office boy was considered good enough to do factory buildings. I’m still that office boy designing factories. I have no dignity to be impaired.”
Another reason that Buffalonians might not be aware of this complex or Kahn himself is that there are only a few examples of the architect’s work throughout Buffalo. They include a portion of the Pierce-Arrow building (a 1906 commission) and the Packard Motor Car Showroom Service Building, built in 1926. Although the Packard structure features Renaissance Revival embellishments that would be appropriate for its use by customers, it also includes the reinforced concrete that would have allowed cars to move freely throughout the space.
Interestingly, Kahn did not necessarily foresee that industrial design elements would become an inspiration for later, International-style architecture, and he likely would not have approved. His nonindustrial commissions often employed the popular movements of their time and times prior, including Art Deco, Beaux-Arts, or even Tudor.
The OSC structure is privately owned and operated by Jon and Heather Williams; it also hosts several other companies. The echo Art Fair, held May 13–15, is an ideal opportunity to explore this rare local example of Kahn’s work.
Elizabeth Licata is editor of Spree. Look for more about echo Art Fair in the May issue.