Erie Canal Inner Harbor

On the Erie Canal

Graphic interventions transform a decrepit urban site into a celebration of the canal’s heyday, and boost a $53 million waterfront redevelopment project.

Early November 1825, and aboard the packet boat Seneca Chief, New York Governor DeWitt Clinton emptied two barrels of water from Lake Erie into the Hudson River, “wedding the waters” of the Great Lakes and the Atlantic Ocean and effectively opening the U.S. interior to commerce. The Erie Canal launched a new era of prosperity in New York, and along the banks at its western terminus, a new city arose.

Almost 184 years later, the Erie Canal’s heyday has come and gone, and Buffalo has seen some economic ups and downs. But a nine-year, $53 million redevelopment of its commercial harbor is aimed at reigniting the waterfront’s potential and contributing to the city’s revival.

To tap into that potential, developers needed to create an inviting space and get users excited about Buffalo’s maritime heritage. Part of that challenge fell to C&G Partners (New York), which created interpretive elements for what is essentially an outdoor museum.

“Overall, the project was an attempt to begin to convey—through a series of landscape elements, archaeological enhancements, and new buildings and bridges—what might have been there before,” says Keith Helmetag, who directed C&G’s design effort. “That was the context our work needed to live within and add to.”

The lack of existing historic fabric on the site was a major factor in the team’s interpretive approach. “If there had been a lot of existing historic fabric, we probably would have done a more reposed interpretive program, one that blended in with the landscape and became embedded,” Helmetag notes. “But since we were literally building on a vacant lot, it was the inverse. All the interpretive elements were created with the vision that they would lend back scale and, in a sculptural way, define what might have been there.”

The site’s primary identification signage needed to harken back to the canal era and establish a sense of place. An 1800s broadside advertising passenger traffic on the canal provided inspiration. C&G borrowed the typography for 4-ft.-high can letters spelling Commercial Slip (the harbor’s historic name), attached to the I-Beam railroad bridge over the canal. Atop the bridge, four glass interpretive panels with embedded, laminated graphics afford views of the canal while depicting what visitors would have seen before Buffalo was founded, during the early days of the canal, during its peak, and finally, during the railroad era after it began falling into disrepair. The graphic overlays feature original woodcut prints by artist Stephen Alcorn.

But the site’s most arresting piece is the four-story interpretive façade that evokes a canal-era warehouse and the bustling commerce it spawned. Framed in marine-grade stainless steel, its bottom third consists of a huge canal route map embedded in polycarbonate and sandwiched between ½-in. sheets of DuPont SentryGlas. Above the map, mounted on a stainless steel tracery of “bricks,” nine lightboxes project vintage photo images of the tradespeople who would have occupied the warehouse lofts. C&G commissioned an historical cartographer to expand on a 1908 surveyor's map of New York State’s canals. The resulting map depicts a wider picture of the canal system and its region of influence, with the space around it used for narrative sidebars about canal life and early American industry.

Close by, atop a small rise overlooking the ruins of old canal warehouses, C&G sited an evocative doorway that supports additional glass interpretive panels, these illustrating what the port looked like during its busiest years. On the footbridge, four more interpretive panels tell the stories of legendary Buffalo personalities on glass and phenolic resin panels, while on the wharf itself, five cast stainless steel planks also depict historical figures.

Creating the proper scale for the heroically-proportioned interpretive elements—essentially graphic traceries of the past—was critical to the success of the project, says Louis Allen, vice president/creative director for Adirondack Studios, the primary fabricator. “Our studio comes out of the theatrical trade, so we’re used to working at very large scale. To get it right, we did a lot of prototyping to determine the proper proportions for everything.”

Despite some initial negative reaction from local partnering agencies and the public (attributed primarily to an incremental installation schedule), the harbor is enjoying increased traffic and Buffalo has high hopes.

“Our goal was to convey the great history of the canal and its importance to the region, and do that in an intriguing way,” says Jordan Levy, chairman of the board of the Erie Canal Harbor Development Corp., a subsidiary of New York’s chief economic development agency. “We were certainly successful in that respect, and we believe the redeveloped Inner Harbor will have a lasting impact on Buffalo’s continuing revival.”

--By Pat Matson Knapp, segdDESIGN No. 23, 2009



Clients:  Empire State Development Corp., Erie Canal Harbor Development Corp.

Architects:  Flynn Battaglia Architects (project architect), Mathews Neilson Landscape Architects (landscape architects), John Milner Associates (historic preservation architects)

Exhibition Design:  C&G Partners

Design Team:  Keith Helmetag (partner-in-charge); Justine Gaxotte (senior graphic designer); Brandon Downing (writer/content coordinator); Cigdem Tanik, Thomas McMahon (exhibit architects)

Fabrication:  Adirondack Studios (primary interpretive fabricator), Jan Spoerri & Co. (models and castings), Systeme Huntingdon (phenolic resin panels), Stephen Alcorn (woodcut prints), Alex Reardon (historical cartography); DuPont (SentryGlas), Prelco (laminated glass graphics) Stephen Alcorn (woodcut prints); Alex Reardon (historic cartography)

Photos:  Richard Barnes

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