An early skyscraper in the Falls
United Office Building/Giacomo
The distictive lobby remains relatively intact.
Photos by kc kratt
Whether one enters Niagara Falls, New York, from points north, south, east, or west, the 1929 United Office Building/Giacomo Hotel at 222 First Street dominates the skyline.
Designed by Buffalo architects Esenwein and Johnson, the twenty-story building is the only early twentieth-century skyscraper in Niagara County, and was built by hotel magnate Frank Dudley, who presumably intended it to dominate.
Although the city of Niagara Falls was not incorporated until 1892, the area was explored nearly 300 years earlier. In 1678, French explorer René-Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle, built a trading post on the Niagara River and, the following year, built the first ship on Lake Erie, named the Griffon. In the late 1700s, when the British occupied the area, the first European settlers arrived. John Stedman was the first known landowner, arriving in the 1760s; Goat Island is so named because Stedman grazed his goats there.
The tower setbacks and stepped pinnacle of United Office are typical Art Deco elements.
By the early 1800s, Niagara Falls was becoming a tourist destination, especially for people who traveled west to Buffalo on the Erie Canal and then journeyed on to the Falls in ferry boats. When the railroads began running in the 1840s, even more travelers arrived and, by the 1880s, Jacob Schoellkopf was using river water and turbines to generate electricity. This led to a strong manufacturing economy and the city continued to grow until the mid-twentieth century when the population peaked at around 100,000.
One of most intriguing remnants of that industrial history, the United Office Building, is an outstanding example of an Art Deco skyscraper. Prior to the widespread use of a metal building skeleton, buildings were limited in height by the possible depth of masonry bases. This changed in 1885 when the Home Insurance Building was constructed in Chicago. Although only ten stories tall, that steel structure and use of elevators made the William Jenney-designed building the first skyscraper that paved the way for today’s soaring structures.
Art Deco was a popular style from the mid-1920s to the 1940s. Named from the Exposition des Arts Decoratifs held in Paris in 1925, this was the first style in America that was not based on a revival of an earlier style. It accentuated vertical designs with stepped-back tops and geometric ornamentation—especially octagons, diamonds and chevrons, sunburst, and other ancient-civilization-inspired motifs—with glimmering cladding, making it perfect for use in skyscrapers. Perhaps the best-known national Art Deco skyscraper is New York City’s Chrysler building; the most famous local example is Buffalo’s City Hall.
Art Deco elements seen in the United Office Building include its verticality, emphasized by the brick-clad steel skeleton; the stepped pinnacle; and the Mayan frieze panels at the entrance and in the tower setbacks. To emulate a glimmering cladding effect, there are more than ten shades of brick. The brick begins with dark brown at the base and becomes increasingly lighter; at the top, it is nearly beige. The setbacks/steps at the sixteenth and eighteenth floors hold the intricate, multicolored terra-cotta Mayan designs, flanked by light, cut-stone ornamentation in the crenulated parapets. On the interior, diamond motifs grace the grand staircase.
Esenwein and Johnson were prominent, prolific architects during Buffalo’s glory days. They designed several hotels, including Buffalo’s original Statler Hotel, as well as schools, including Lafayette High School. Their client, Frank Dudley, was an entrepreneur involved in many Niagara Falls-related projects. In the late 1800s, he was a member of the state legislature, and, in the early 1900s, he founded the Niagara Falls Country Club. He was part owner of several electric companies and a large hotel concern.
Prior to its reincarnation as a luxury boutique hotel, United Office functioned as office space for notable Niagara Falls businesses, including Dudley’s United Hotels Company of America, which, during the late 1920s, was the largest hotel conglomerate in the country. Other early tenants included insurance companies, law offices, and investment brokers. It also held a coffee shop, pharmacy, and medical offices.
Although the building opened in the Great Depression, it was well occupied until the 1970s, by which time many of the Niagara Falls industrial giants had left the city; the smaller businesses followed. The building closed in the 1980s and remained vacant until purchased by Carl Paladino in 2003. Paladino’s Ellicott Development Company spent $10 million restoring the building, and today it houses forty-one hotel rooms and twenty-four apartments. The primary hotel rooms are located on floors two through six, and the suites, some of which are 1,500 square feet, are on the fifteenth and sixteenth floors. The apartments are on the remaining floors. While the building’s purpose has changed, the lobby remains relatively intact. Coffered ceilings in the lobby, the Art Deco grand staircase, and geometric-designed terrazzo floors are all original. The Mayan figures by the lounge fireplaces, however, are modern interpretations emulating the external Mayan motifs.
During its more than 300-year history, Niagara Falls has gone from a trade and transportation center to a tourist center to an industrial center, and now back to a tourist destination. Even though the population has shrunk to approximately 50,000, it seems fitting that the city’s early twentieth-century monument to its industrial/commercial success has discovered a new life catering to the tourist trade.