Education 2011: Buffalo Seminary
Buffalo Seminary remains Buffalo’s only nonsectarian, college preparatory school exclusively for girls. Founded in 1851, the school has been in its Bidwell Parkway location since 1909—and now the historic building that it occupies has finally been recognized and honored with official listing on both the National and State Registers of Historic Places.
The school has long anchored one of the loveliest sections of the city, in a jewel-like setting along a parkway designed by Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux. The spot is just steps away from Soldiers Circle, the point where Bidwell, Lincoln, and Chapin (the very grandest of Buffalo’s parkways) converge. The civic circle is bordered by broad landscapes and concentric rings of trees, and framed by the set-back facades of homes on Soldiers Parkway, creating an unparalleled context, grace, and elegance.
The original 1909 building, designed by George Newton of Boston, which has two perpendicular wings with gable ends, is enhanced by several additions. The first was designed in 1929 by the architectural firm of Bley and Lyman. Duane Lyman and Associates (its successor firm) again expanded the school in 1964. Those two primary units were then joined in 2001 with the enclosure of a courtyard to create an interior atrium space. Together, they form a tightly knit whole whose spaces flow surprisingly well.
George Newton’s façade is clothed in the Gothic Revival style, an architectural movement that began in England, with a conscious look back towards rediscovering and reviving the historic architectural forms of the Middle Ages. Applying a medieval church vocabulary to new structures (made easier when done with contemporary building methods) gave them all the accordant associations of stately ecclesiastic architecture. Elements of the Gothic style—such as pointed arches, recessed compound arch portals, buttresses, and elaborate tracery—were taken from history and given new meaning. When used on academic structures, the style was dubbed Collegiate Gothic, a style that became hugely popular in America for many types of buildings.
The name of the school was changed to Buffalo Seminary (from Buffalo Female Academy) in 1887 by an alumnus who was passionate about the college curriculum. Although the word seminary might denote religious connotations, Sem has always been an independent, nonsectarian, college-preparatory, private girls’ school, offering a special experience for the four years between middle school and college. (With the purchase of four homes that are contiguous to the school, Sem also offers a full boarding program.)
One of the most impressive rooms in the original building is the library, a spot which glows with tradition. It seems somehow to have magically gathered and retained all of the history of the venerable school into one iconic space. Its rich woodwork, wood-beamed coffered ceiling, oak bookcases, and richly carved fireplace all remind students, staff, and visitors of the school’s long and distinguished history. The portrait above the mantel is of L. Gertrude Angell, headmistress of the school in 1903. It hangs over a fireplace that feels somewhat like a church altar.
Another special space in the building is Lower West-Chester (created with the 1929 addition and named in honor of Sem’s first two headmasters). It was originally intended for use by alumni, but is now a popular spot to host a variety of events such as meetings, administrative events, and parent luncheons. Despite its lovely fireplace and finishes, its most beautiful feature (and ultimate focal point) is an enormous bay of leaded glass casement windows. These windows flood the room with daylight while allowing views out onto the beautiful Bidwell Parkway vista. The room above it, Upper West-Chester Hall, has its own unique rhythm of similar windows, a handsome fireplace, and barrel ceilings.
A lovely auditorium/gathering space is referred to as the Chapel. Later additions preserved the natural light sources of its large Gothic windows, giving it a wonderfully airy quality. There are fine views from the Chapel’s balcony, as well as a great perspective from the third floor to the Margaret L. Wendt Foundation Gallery. With the removal of a 1960s-era dropped ceiling, this has become a restored and busy space, with a stack of patterned windows that endow the gallery with rhythm and energy.
Sem’s outstanding theater program is housed in the multifunctional Performing Arts Center. It converts to theater-in-the-round, has great acoustics, and boasts an elaborate system of lighting to afford flexibility. The versatile space also becomes an art gallery to support the school’s art appreciation and visiting artist program.
The Cummings Room, originally the balcony for an old gym, is the newest classroom, a space for programs such as online courses and video conferencing. Each student at Sem is furnished with a laptop; new technology is thoroughly integrated with the core curriculum.
The Atrium houses the cafeteria and connects to the lower level’s newly renovated athletic facilities, fitness center, and squash courts. The charm of Sem’s physical structure is a lineage and tradition which guarantees that classrooms and common spaces will have variance in size, shape, and vintage.
“I feel so lucky that Sem never did move from this building,” says Jody Douglas, Head of School since 2007. Although she confesses that there have been physical challenges about the building on occasion, she thinks that old buildings convey a certain aura. “It’s not just the tradition of the school; one feels the presence of the young women and headmistresses that came before,” she notes. “Even though we’ve modified, we’ve kept the history and that sense of past as we moved ahead.”
When asked what might be different in ten years, Douglas responds, “With technology, we don’t need to build more and more—we need to make the best use of what we have. In ten years, I see Sem as having solidified its standing as the school of choice for college-bound young women, and having solidified its reputation as an excellent school both nationally and internationally.”
Jennifer Walkowski is the architectural historian who researched and prepared the application for listing Buffalo Seminary on the State and National Registers of Historic Places. She’s personally been responsible for listing over three hundred buildings on the Register (a couple of Historic Districts helped boost the total). “The history of the school is important for the history of Buffalo,” she notes. “It’s a tradition in the community for many years and generations.” In fact, it was an education institution in the community at a time when women weren’t given that opportunity.” Walkowski views Buffalo Seminary as a great blend of the social and cultural, rooted in the fabric of Buffalo for many generations.
If you would like to know more about Buffalo Seminary’s architecture and history, see Chuck LaChiusa’s website Buffalo as an Architectural Museum (www.buffaloah.com). Images and information are posted, along with Walkowski’s State and National Register of Historic Places Nomination in its complete form.
Barry A. Muskat is "Buffalo Spree’s" architecture critic and frequent contributor. His suggestion: “Even if you know the area well, look at Buffalo Seminary’s neighborhood and appreciate Olmsted and Vaux’s amazing vision as we enjoy it a century and a half later. There aren’t many cities that can hold a candle to this scene.”