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Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Echoes of the past in the Statler lobby

By Dick Hirsch

I stood at the railing on the mezzanine, looking and listening to the lobby below, hoping to discern some echoes from the past.

Once a center of activity each noon, it was virtually deserted the other day as lunch time approached. Standing more than a floor above at eye level with those giant crystal chandeliers, I could even overhear the conversation of two women hurrying toward the Delaware Avenue entrance.

“So I don’t know why they waited so long for us to move,” one said. “We know where we’re going but we won’t be leaving for at least a month.”

“Too bad,” said the other. “I remember this place when I was young.”

Many people remember the Statler when the hotel was the place to be, a solid presence anchoring Niagara Square, a monument to the business foresight of E. M. Statler and the stage upon which civic and social occasions of every kind were celebrated. Now somewhat forlorn with vacant rooms and shabby carpeting, it has retained its basic character and continues to be alluring. All the building requires is a visionary with deep pockets.

It is being offered to the highest bidder at auction on Aug. 12. Will there be bidders? What will its future be?

It is amazing that I could be standing above and looking below at 11:50 AM on a weekday morning and eavesdrop on a conversation in the lobby. In its heyday, there was an almost constant hubbub. The lobby was filled with traffic; there were lines at the busy registration desk and the seven elevators were in constant motion, carrying passengers to and from the 18 floors above. A person could stand in that lobby at busy periods and be virtually assured of meeting friends or acquaintances, some walking through the lobby from Delaware to Pearl, others intent on stopping at one of the Statler’s attractions.

In addition to the Terrace Room which was the main dining room, a person interested in food or drink could choose the Cafe Rouge, an elegant space that was a bistro before that description came into commonplace usage. It had a light but diversified menu, and it served from breakfast through late night.

Just across the lobby was the lounge, a stylish setting with soft lights, tables for privacy, comfortable stools at the bar, and a cadre of attentive bartenders who seemed interested in their work and proud of their neatly pressed Statler uniforms. If neither the cafe nor the lounge seemed exactly suitable, just a corridor away was the Statler drugstore. It was stocked with all the usual medications and sundries, but perhaps was most famous for its soda fountain, behind which short order specialists worked to prepare what many believed was the best tuna salad sandwich within miles.

The Statler was the area’s most popular site for meetings. Organizations of every kind---civic, political, social, religious---would hold their annual banquets and other affairs there. The largest would convene in the Statler Ballroom and smaller groups in one of the private meeting rooms on the mezzanine. The groups would range from Catholic Charities to the Republican County Committee, from the Bailey-Delavan Businessmen’s Association to the Civil War Roundtable. Newspaper editors often assigned reporters to attend some of the meetings in hopes of finding a story. Sometimes there were stories.

One of those stories developed when a well known community leader asked me to look for him in the Statler lobby, often a convenient meeting place. He escorted me to the 12th floor where, in the State Suite, he introduced me to President Harry Truman, retired, and in Buffalo for a speaking engagement that evening sponsored by Canisius College. We had an amiable talk. President Truman was among many distinguished Statler overnight guests.

E. M. Statler began his business career in Buffalo in 1896 with a restaurant in the Ellicott Square Building. He built the first Statler Hotel at Washington and Swan in 1907 and built the present Statler, with its 1,000 rooms in 1923. Before he died in 1928 he owned hotels in Cleveland, Detroit, St. Louis, New York, Boston and Pittsburgh. The chain continued to grow after his death and was sold to Hilton in 1952 for $111 million.

The Statler hosted many wedding receptions including my own. I can still remember that formation of waiters in their short crimson jackets, marching into the darkened Terrace Room, each holding aloft a plate of Baked Alaska, the flaming dessert.

Yes, I did detect some echoes from the past...but nothing about the future...


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