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Chris Hawley: Urban Planner and Historian

Get To Know a Buffalonian....

Chris Hawley is and urban planner for the City of Buffalo, but you’re more likely to spot himhasunting the city’s coffee shops, plugging away at his laptop. Hawley is a tireless historian of the city’s built environment and a crusader for the rebirth of Buffalo along urbanist, preservationist principles. His current project is the Hydraulics Press (, in which he traces the history and ongoing revival of the South Buffalo industrial.

Tell us about the Hydraulics Press. What are you trying to achieve with it?

The Hydraulics Press is a blog devoted to Buffalo’s oldest manufacturing district and certainly one of America’s most impotant industial heritage sites—the Hydraulics. It is an extension of wide-ranging archival research on the neighborhood I’ve been conducting on behalf of Howard Zemsky, the partner in Larkin Development Group and the guru behind the transformation of the Larkin Terminal Warehouse as Class-A office space. It’s a fun project that’s brought an edgy urban neighborhood to light and has helped reestablish a place identity that had been lost to history. Look for the bigger project, a book on the neighborhood titled Industrious: The Story of the Hydraulics, to debut this year!

You’re an urban planner by education, right? How is that you’ve also become this sort of hybrid historian?

Yes, urban planning is both my vocation and my avocation. I first picked up Jane Jacobs’ The Death and Life of Great American Cities when I was 15 and I have a personally inscribed, autographed copy! I studied urban design and metropolitan studies at NYU in order to come back to Buffalo to put urbanist principles back to work again. Clearly our rich history and architectural landscape is a vital to the dialog on the future of our city. In the Hydraulics and the Larkin District, heritage is a driver, perhaps the driver, for emerging development and investor interest in the neighborhood. The fascinating story of the Hydraulics is essential in its marketing, place-making, and economic development.

Where do you do your research?

I’ve logged in long hours at the Buffalo & Erie County Historical Society and the Buffalo & Erie County Public Library’s Grosvenor Room. Buffalo is very fortunate to have a largely complete, and largely unexplored, body of archival resources. The Historical Society has 100,000 historical photographs of Buffalo. 100,000! And believe me, I’m using as many of them in the upcoming book as possible. The images are simply stunning!

Share a good story from that neighborhood’s past.

The first person ever interviewed on television in history, in 1930, was born and raised in the Hydraulics. Sweet Peggy O’Neil, actress, singer, grand dame of theater life in London, New York, and Paris, was a Buffalo gal. She developed all of her talent as a little girl at St. Patrick’s School on Emslie and Seymour streets!

What has already been lost there? What’s ripe for saving?

Certainly the 1950 demolition of the Larkin Administration Building, Frank Lloyd Wright’s masterwork commissioned by the executives of the Larkin Company in 1904, was one of the greatest crimes ever committed against America’s cultural heritage over the course of the 20th century. The loss of Colson & Hudson’s Keystone warehouses in 2001, and the demolition of the Larkin P Building in 1962, are both regrettable. The good news is, an impressive body of urban fabric is left over in the Hydraulics to keep future investors busy for some time. Hands down, the economic potential of the Larkin Power House is mind-boggling. Larkin Development Group is in the planning stages of Larkin U, the Larkin gas station, and the Schaefer Building. While it’s not anyone’s radar just yet, I’m quite enamored with the sprawling factory complex of the F. N. Burt Co. at 500 Seneca. Perfect fit for the national historic tax credits, all the parking you’d ever need, a ten minute walk from downtown, I think it’s on the next frontier of urban development.

Bonus Question: Read any good books lately?

Yes, I highly recommend Andres Duany’s Smart Growth Manual and Leon Krier’s The Architecture of Community, both published this past year. I believe both texts will prove enormously influential in the world of urban planning.

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