Friday, April 7, 2017

Cesar Pelli's Lost Oasis: The Niagara Falls Winter Garder



Cesar Pelli's Winter Garden, nearing the end.
I distinctly remember the first time I experienced Cesar Pelli’s Winter Garden in Niagara Falls, New York.  I was in high school, and I was visiting the Falls with a friend.  We decided to poke around in the Rainbow Center Mall, which by then was already declining pretty badly.  It was the early 90s and I don’t remember there being many stores that were still open.  After wandering in and out of a couple of shops, we came to the southern end of the mall and entered into an unexpected oasis.  One doesn’t often expect to find a lush tropical botanical garden attached to something as banal as a shopping mall, but there it was.  I was intrigued by the building’s multiple raised walkways and elevators.  A tall spiral staircase stretched to the highest level of the greenhouse.  Pools and fountains trickled through the thick vegetation.  It was certainly unlike other Niagara Falls structures I was familiar with.  The Falls are a tourist destination, so is filled with the normal tourist trappings one would expect like souvenir shops (with a generous dose of wax museums and goofy haunted houses thrown in).  This was completely different from what I knew of the Falls.  As a kid growing up in Western New York, regular trips to the Falls are a rite of passage, but this building had somehow not entered into my previous visits.  But, once I discovered it I made a point of visiting it every time I was there.  I’m glad I got to experience it when I did, because it was eventually demolished.

The building has sort of a sad history that ties into the City of Niagara Falls in general.  It was built in the 1970s in an effort to revitalize the downtown core. Large sections of the city had been razed during ill-fated attempts at urban renewal, and Cesar Pelli was one of the modernist architects hired to re-build the city, pretty much from the ground up (buildings by Philip Johnson, Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, and Paul Rudolph are also close by).  It was an attempt to create a tourist destination, but perhaps a tropical greenhouse was an odd, and eventually unsustainable, proposition.  As I researched the Winter Garden, I read about how it had been glazed using non-insulated single pane glass.  Heating the building during Western New York’s harsh winters became a burden for the city.  As time went on, the Winter Garden became difficult to support financially.  Niagara Falls may be an iconic world landmark, but the city itself has suffered with poverty and falling property values for decades.  Any fixes to the city-owned building would have been difficult and costly.  Re-glazing the structure with insulating glass would have cost millions.  Charging an admission fee for the building also posed problems (visiting the Winter Garden was free).  It was attached to a shopping mall, and the building itself was supposed to act as a pass-through from one side of the tourist district to the other.  The building had already been criticized for being built over what had once been a street, so closing it off to all but paying customers would have hurt business in the city even more.  There were other ideas proposed, such as converting the plantings to native species that could weather the cold, but nothing panned out.  In the end the plants were auctioned off and it was (for a brief time) converted into “Smokin’ Joe’s Family Fun Center.”  It was filled with video games and bounce houses, but that venture only lasted for a couple of years.  The Winter Garden was finally torn down in 2009.

Say what you will about the demolition and the successes or failures of modernist architecture in general, but there’s no doubt that a unique (and admission-free) attraction was lost when the Winter Garden came down.  It was an unexpected oasis in the middle of the city.

As I began writing this article a little while ago, I started researching the Winter Garden on-line, looking for photos that could give me information on the building’s design as well as the plantings within.  I came to the quick realization that there isn’t a lot out there, unfortunately.  For a building that stood in the middle of a major tourist destination for 30 years, it’s lack of representation on the internet was both puzzling and a little frustrating.  Pictures of the outside of the building are fairly easy to find, but interior photos that show the tropical plants and fountains are rare (maybe 12-15 pictures will show up in a Google search).  Of course there are photos out there.  I took pictures of the building during my visits, and I’m including some with this post. The building was also a common location for weddings in the Niagara Falls area, so countless wedding photos surely exist, they just haven’t been uploaded to the internet.   Many photos of the construction of the building’s interior spaces, as well as many people’s accounts of the building can be found in this post. (a good article that's definitely worth a read) 
I found this interior photo in an old architectural magazine.

This photo is from the same magazine article.
This is a photo I took in the late 90s.  The seating area was where special event like weddings were held.

This photo shows the pool and stairs, and shows the many different levels contained within the structure.
This pic was taken from an upper walkway, looking down at the main path that cut through the garden areas.
When I first visited the Winter Garden, the large dove-shaped decorations (visible in the above photo) were mounted on the front of the building, and were there for several years.  These are a vestige of the Festival of Lights, a winter/holiday themed event that was held throughout the city in the 1980s and 90s.  I was able to find one YouTube video that showed the doves illuminated. The footage of the Winter Garden comes near the end, but I took a screen cap:
This is literally the only footage I could find of the illuminated decorations.
On a final note, I noticed an interesting inconsistency while viewing the site of the Winter Garden in Google Maps.  I went to the street view in to see the area now (it’s essentially been turned into a large pedestrian walkway and plaza) and found something unexpected- some of the street views are old and still show the Winter Garden.  They’re all views from the periphery, as if you’re catching a glimpse of a ghost from the corner of your eye.
The street is now closed off, so when the Google cameras recently captured new images of the area, these shots couldn't be updated, so the Winter Garden's ghost lives on.
Now you see it, now you don't.
Cesar Pelli’s Winter Garden: Once an oasis, now a mirage.



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