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Inside The Hotel Lafayette

Rocco Termini says the Hotel Lafayette will open in May.

Rocco Termini, dressed in a light green sweater, spoke for about five minutes at the downton library’s hour-long Tuesday lunchtime lecture series—his introduction was longer—as he hastened to get the standing mob out the doors and into the construction site of his new $35 million preservation project, the Hotel Lafayette.

Upon opening in 1904, it was one of the finest hotels in North America; in its latter years it became one of the crustiest, saddest piles of moldy plaster and bedbugs this side of the American Falls. It was the Hotel Chelsea except no one ever wrote anything there except fake prescriptions.

When the hotel closed at the end of 2010, the door opened for Termini, who says it had taken him four years to get the state historic tax credits necessary to finance the project. Without that, he often says, the project would have been impossible. He bought the hotel from its owner in May of 2011 for half a million dollars, and immediately put 220 people to work full-time restoring the banquet halls. He intends to restore the building into not only a hotel but several floors of apartments, banquet halls, and stores.

On our walk around the first floor of the hotel, 150 of us circle around as Termini describes the process of peeling away layers of drywall to find ornate plaster accents decorating the ceiling, and finding that the renovations the hotel went through over the years have actually protected the original plaster and woodwork. As revenues decreased with Buffalo’s population, lower- and lower-cost renovations were performed on the interior and exterior. Over the years, the hotel slipped into the quicksand of lower standards and couldn’t stop sinking.

In the finished banquet rooms, you feel like you’ve just gone back a century. Termini took Louise Blanchard Bethune’s design and stuck with it, sometimes hiring craftsmen from continents away (Termini has a penchant for Russian plasterers) to go at the rooms with a toothbrush. The first room we visit is the Dutch Grill, most recently the studio for WYRK, which Termini has restored as a balconied lounge with a vaulted ceiling and intricate hand-painted arches to match the balcony’s’ gold bronze railing. The dark mahogany boiseries around the walls and pillars are polished to a reddish shine. Termini says this room will be the dining room of a steakhouse, the creation of Buffalo chef Michael Andrzejewski.

Back in the main hallway to the banquet halls, two painters get blasted by flashes as people photograph them. They are working closely together with pallets and small artist’s brushes, replicating the marble finish. They are working on a space about a foot wide, and the hallway is over 100 feet long. I would be frightened for them, were most of the room not already finished.

The ceilings in the hallway and the completed crystal ballroom are stunning. The paint and lighting that has been created here is beautiful. Five crystal chandeliers hang from the intricate white ceiling of the banquet room, and the mostly natural light coming in from even the cloudy sky shines from the room’s walls.

The largest room we see on our tour once belonged to the Buffalo Automobile Club. Its 30-foot ceilings have just begun to see the restoration work that the other rooms have, and a large scaffold is set up in the middle. It looks like a space in an abandoned building. The ceiling that is not cut away is an off white color, and steel is dangling from the ceiling. It looks like a five-year job just to get this room done, but Termini says it will be finished, along with the other banquet rooms, by the first of May. Perhaps to prove he’ll make good on that opening, the first few weeks have already been booked.

The amount of work is the kind of thing Buffalonians have been calling ridiculous for years. People question his plan, Termini says, because they believe that no one ever comes downtown. He answers, “If you give people something to downtown, people will come.”

And the Hotel Lafayette will be nothing if not something to do. The first floor of the building will see a florist, a tuxedo rental and menswear store, a jeweler, two full banquet halls, a steakhouse, and a brewery from the owners of Pearl Street. The second floor will be hotel rooms, with the upper floors split into one- and two-bedroom apartments. The basement, which Termini discovered was a speakeasy during prohibition, will be a bakery.

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