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Nearly 40 years old, architecturally distinctive Ellicott Complex remains a centerpiece of student life
Story by Tara Ellis, BA '92
Once upon a time, as in fairy tales of old, colleges and universities commonly boasted that the proverbial Ivory Tower and dorms were part of an elaborate, exclusive culture. The model was fortress-like with exterior walls built in a courtyard fashion, where windows and social settings were preserved for the interior.
In one complex on UB’s North Campus, there are not one, but six 10-story towers setting the stage for the Joseph Ellicott Complex—what Progressive Architecture magazine referred to in 1975 as reminiscent of “Oz and El Dorado, Carcassonne and San Gimignano.” These towers, however, beckon to students and faculty alike and today still draw comparisons to classic architectural treasures like Carcassonne, the fortified town in France, or San Gimignano, the semiwalled town in Tuscany.
Ellicott tower a striking site. Douglas Levere, BA ’89
“Ellicott provides aesthetic diversity and is pleasing to look at from the exterior or interior. From the exterior, it is a mixture of towers and horizontal buildings and in profile, it could be a medieval Italian village, such as San Gimignano,” says Ezra B.W. Zubrow, UB professor of anthropology whose office is in Ellicott. “One also gets aesthetic diversity looking out from Ellicott’s windows. Most windows do not provide the same view on the same area. The complex geometry of Ellicott means that as one looks out from each window you see a different combination of buildings and, of course, the very nice views to Lake LaSalle and the small forest.”
In fact, the ever-futuristic Ellicott Complex is a something of a city or village within the expansive setting of the university’s largest campus. With the recent opening of Greiner Hall, UB’s state-of-the-art residence for sophomores on the North Campus, it seems a fitting time to recall the opening nearly 40 years ago of Ellicott, then and now a place where living and learning mix easily.
Walking through Ellicott today, one gets the impression of never needing to leave. As you wind around each corner or climb each staircase, you discover yet another useful find. Whether it is a common area, a fitness center, a food court or a store, there is not much you cannot access within the complex. The 38-building, multipurpose megastructure covers almost 1.1 million square feet and is divided into six residence halls connected at the second level with an elevated terrace. Certainly, its many roles and complex architecture are difficult to summarize.
Dining facilities are an attractive option for UB students. Douglas Levere, BA ’89
“The Ellicott Complex is absolutely unique,” says Dennis R. Black, JD ’81, vice president for university life and services. Black, who was a student during the complex’s final days of construction, has a particular nostalgia for Ellicott, which opened in 1974 and was formally dedicated in 1976, its eponym Joseph Ellicott (1760-1826), the Holland Land Company agent credited with planning the City of Buffalo. “It is a living, learning environment made even more special by the large number of students and faculty who make the environment exciting seven days a week, 24 hours a day,” he says. UB administrators estimate that the complex can see more than 7,000 students, staff and faculty move through its buildings each day.
Fargo resident and sophomore Anusha Ahmad enjoys the high-traffic environment. “Honestly, this is simply the most convenient place. It’s like an independent town inside the campus. All my friends come here,” Ahmad says.
Black has a special connection to Ellicott, recalling the campus’s rugged environment when the complex was constructed in the late 1960s and early 1970s. “The campus was in the beginning stages of development and it was a large, open mud pit,” he says. “So I have seen it progress from that stage to having an undergraduate class in Ellicott the first day it opened to being at the dedication [two years later].” New York’s 51st governor, the late Hugh Carey, presided over the dedication, which was held in the temporary recreation bubble known as “the Ketterpillar” (The Spectrum student newspaper’s reference to then-UB President Robert L. Ketter) to try to maintain calm during an era of frequent student protests. Black, who still has the program Carey signed, laughs as he recalls that day. “Somehow it all remained calm and no one kicked up much dust,” he says.
Ellicott boasts the Katharine Cornell Theatre, which was once the location for taping shows of Buffalo-born political satirist Mark Russell. It also has an anthropology library, administrative and faculty offices, two lecture halls, dining halls, a convenience store, postal services, laundry facilities, state-of-the-art fitness centers, a transportation tunnel for buses and cars, and dorm rooms for more than 3,200 students. Ellicott also is home to 11 classrooms, five class-labs, one lab-computer classroom and four UB departments: classics, geography, archaeology and anthropology.
“I live off-campus near South, but as a geography major I have the majority of my classes in Wilkinson and spend a lot of time here in Fillmore,” says senior Zach Batterman. “When I first came here it was really pretty confusing. In fact, trying to navigate the third floor was quite difficult. I think it really could use some better directional signage, but eventually you do get used to it.”
Transfer student Courtney Barrow is not yet convinced. “It is really hard to find your class,” she says. “I have a friend who’s an anthropology major, so she has helped me find where I’m going but it is hard.”
A university website notes that Ellicott is “notorious for its serpentine corridors and multiple pathways.” Over the years, students have taken jabs at its structural intricacy and puzzling layout. The Spectrum in its 2010 April Fool’s issue, for instance, lampooned this impression of Ellicott with a fictitious—but somehow plausible—report that Ellicott had been officially renamed “Lego Land,” with an accompanying LEGO corporate sponsorship. Yet Ellicott’s twists and turns are logical and understandable once one grasps the underlying system or rationale.
Zubrow, Faculty Senate chair, says Ellicott is not too difficult to navigate because it is organized using three principles.
“First, it is a bilaterally symmetrical set of buildings and courtyards whose axis is the NW/SE transect through the Oasis [the food court area],” he explains. “Second, the buildings and courtyards are arranged alphabetically Fargo (closest to the Spine and near Greiner), Porter, Red Jacket, Richmond and ending with Spaulding and Wilkeson. Third, the building numbers are consistent around each courtyard. Once you know the number system, it is easy to find where to go and to visually orient yourself. The No. 4 building for each courtyard is the 10-story tower and is a landmark.”
Designed by architects Davis, Brody and Associates, Ellicott’s connectivity was intended to encourage dynamic collaboration and exchange, a concept that UB senior Chelsea Monroe, an Ellicott tour guide, says comes to life once students learn to navigate.
“Once you learn the buildings, you couldn’t ask for a better place to live, or in my case, for a better job,” says Monroe, a member of the UB Thunder of the East Marching band. “There are lots of places to hang out, and it is open and friendly. You almost never have to leave the complex if you don’t want to because everything is available here.”
Well, almost everything. Because of the tumultuous times in which Ellicott was built, it has virtually no large meeting areas, according to Jay Friedman, EdM ’00 & BA ’86, associate vice president for alumni relations.
Friedman also has a long history with Ellicott, beginning with his days as an undergraduate dormer to his eventual years there as a staff member. “At first, it was totally intimidating trying to figure out where you were going both because of its size and the fact that it is all connected,” he says. “But once you are acclimated, it is simply awesome. You have the opportunity to interact with thousands of students and enjoy amenities, like being in a little contained city. Yet if you do have to or want to leave, the transportation from campus to campus and local sites is a huge benefit.
“I moved out my senior year and in my 30s went back as a staff member,” Friedman adds. “We had the food court, green space, parking, the lake. We all fell in love with that place.”
In the almost 40 years since the complex was opened, it has managed to evolve and complement changing times. “The original master plan included three complexes like Ellicott surrounding the lake with an NFTA Metro Rail line connecting them to the academic spine,” Black recalls.
“Originally it was designed to hold residential colleges, Fargo to Wilkeson, similar to the Harvard houses, the Yale colleges, or the Oxford and Cambridge colleges where each has its own library, dining areas, etc.,” Zubrow says. “When I first came to UB, that was how it was used but over the years that ended for lack of funding, and its new functions gradually developed.”
Funding did indeed change everything. In the mid-1960s, massive federal and state spending catalyzed an explosion in dorm construction across the country. New York was no exception. In fact, today’s economic realities make Ellicott even more unique. “It would be a challenge to envision a resurgence in state and federal funding that could compare to the glory days of New York’s Rockefeller era,” Black says. Nelson Rockefeller was New York’s governor from 1959 to 1973, and his expansionist policies and extravagant spending can be seen in the infrastructure from that era across the state. All that came to a screeching halt as the country slipped into a recession in the 1970s that also would mark the end of the Empire State’s building boom.
That fact already was a stark reality in 1975 when Progressive Architecture lauded the complex as “a superb model for dense, mixed-use development,” representing “a last hurrah for a period of architectural patronage.” Ellicott cost $54.5 million in 1974, which would be a $233.4 million investment in UB in today’s dollars.
As state and federal funding continues to shrink, new construction begins to take on a different face, and UB leadership says there is a place for a variety of housing options.
“Ellicott is central, it is a built-in community with support and campus engagement, which is really appropriate for students in their first and second years,” Black says. “Then there are housing options that might be more appropriate for upperclassmen and graduate students.”
Tracey Rosenthal Drury, BA ’92, agrees. She lived in Ellicott as a freshman and sophomore and “absolutely loved it. Having everything connected in my first year when I was not from this region and not accustomed to the winters was convenient, and gave me a nice adjustment period. There always was a place to hang out that wasn’t your room and always something going on. I loved the green space to go outside, lie out, read a book or throw a football around ‘fake lake’ as we called it. We were part of a community with friends from all walks of life. After two years, it felt like the right time to move off campus,” Drury says. “But I still spent lots of time there for meetings, events, visiting friends and even for a place to eat.”
Soon, when students or staff look to Ellicott for a dining option as Drury once did, they will have an exciting new option as UB continues to invest in its Ellicott gem.
“We are really looking forward to a new full-service dining hall that currently is under construction,” Black says. The multimillion-dollar project is the next step in modernizing the futuristic complex that is such a bright example of timeless architecture and a sign of the continued confidence the university and its students have in Ellicott’s future. The new dining hall is expected to open this August.
“Forty years later and Ellicott is not dated or pigeonholed in a decade of architecture,” Black says. “Forty years later and Ellicott is still simply very, very special.”
Freshman Joe Proper and sophomore Melissa Marulanda agree. “I like my room, the food court and living in the complex,” Proper says. “You can get everything you need very easily.”
“It’s just an awesome place. We get to interact and connect with our friends, attend classes, and spend some very late nights here,” Marulanda says. “Everything here is open very late and our friends who live other places have to travel here. We are already here.”
Tara Ellis, BA ’92, is a Buffalo-area freelance writer who spent time at Ellicott as a UB student and managing editor of The Spectrum.
Though nearly “middle aged,” the Ellicott Complex retains an avant-garde appeal for those living and working there. Alumni from around the world contribute their reminiscences of this incomparable megastructure.
In the late ’70s, when the Amherst Campus was still in its infancy, the Ellicott Complex was the centerpiece for student life. It was a miniature city amid a wilderness campus. Ellicott had living spaces, eating spaces, student entertainment, a grocery and a bookstore. It formed the foundation of our social experiences and the many friendships that we all developed.
Michael Shatzkin, BS ’81
I have so many great memories of living at Ellicott as a student from 1976 to 1980 that it’s hard to answer in a couple sentences! Some of my fondest ones include heading down to the “Ellicatessen” at night for munchies; dancing at the Wilkeson Pub; gathering with friends in the Porter Quad lounges; hanging out at Lake LaSalle; and playing volleyball in the “Bubble.” One of the more memorable Ellicott moments had to be the Blizzard of January 1977. We were holed-up in Ellicott for close to nine straight days, but we still had everything we needed because of the complex’s self-contained design. Of all the Ellicott memories I have, the single best one was meeting my future wife there—32 years and still going strong. UB and Ellicott, in particular, have given me a wonderful life!
Mike Brown, BA ’81
Ellicott is fully contained. All you really needed was there. We studied on the pit seating on the classroom level. Not too intensely, though—we were ready for conversation when the opportunity arose. There were times we played “hide the milk carton/keep away” until the wee hours of the morning. What a bored freshman could find to do is amazing. As you can tell, I was there in the early years of the grand old place. There was nothing like the vast erector set buildings as you approached. Back then there was nothing else to hide the view.
Christi Franklin Neal, BA ’80
I remember feeling totally disoriented. The worst was when I had to find a room for an exam that was up a tower with room numbers that continued across from the other tower. I asked people in the building where to go and no one had a clue. It was very nerve-racking.
Tim Gallwey, PhD ’80
When I lived in the Ellicott Complex, a [fictitious] news report came out that the Russians had invaded the United States and had landed at the Ellicott Complex. Then they went home because they got lost and couldn’t find their way out!
Robert Yacynych, BS ’83
Ellicott City, Md.
Since I never spent a significant amount of time at the complex, I never actually got to see any of the suites or rooms. However, I did have to go there a few times as a student worker; for some reason, Central Receiving sent me there to pick up a few parcels, and I remember having to go there to pick up books when I worked for Tech Services. It was always bizarre finding the right entrance—the layout, the directions that I’d be given that would get me lost no matter how detailed. Seems like an impossible place to negotiate, but when I went to work in Bethesda, finding my way around the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences (USUHS) made Ellicott seem easy!
Tom Trinchera, MLS ’96 & BA ’94
I remember my summer orientation at the UB Amherst campus in the summer of 1981. It was quality time spent in the Ellicott Complex. Every hallway looked the same, and I struggled finding my way around the inside of that building. I also remember “The Pub” in the lower floor of Ellicott. There were many great shows there, from local talent like Talas to national acts like Blondie. I even had the opportunity to perform there with my band, Triton, on a Sunday evening—it was our first gig ever. We still perform around the Buffalo area as a fun side job, but will never forget that first performance.
James Scerra, BS ’81
Grand Island, N.Y.
Ellicott was where the action was—food, social gatherings, movies, the piano lab where I learned keyboards—everything. My best memory about the place, however, is not the beehive of activity. It is rather something that I am sure cannot be repeated today. When I wanted to take a break from things on cold winter nights, I walked to the dark and unoccupied quad (either Spalding or Richmond, I cannot recall now) to look at the stars. Remember, the area was not developed—few streetlights, empty dorm rooms unlit. The night sky was crisp and brilliant. Orion was framed perfectly in the open space between the towers. I would stand there and let the freezing air fill my lungs while taking in the eternal night show. These are the best star-gazing memories I have.
Brian Smith, BA ’78
Having to bus out to Ellicott in 1975 from the Main Street campus because my department (Linguistics) had moved out there. Ellicott was shiny new, more light-filled and spacious than Hayes Hall, but my attachment was and is still to Hayes, the old home of the linguistics department.
Lynn Goldstein, BA ’75
I met my wife of 28 years, Rosemarie Krauss (nee Miggiani), in the Ellicott Complex in September 1982 when she applied for a work-study job at the Creative Craft Center (she was 18 then, and I was 20). I worked at the Creative Craft Center, under then-Director Joe Fisher, as a student manager of the store that was located between the two craft studios. Rose and I now have three beautiful children—daughters Maria (age 28) and Alea (age 26), and son, Adam (age 8).
Brian Krauss, MBA ’91 & BS ’83
Sliding down the snow-covered steps on cafeteria trays. I’m sorry—was that not allowed?
Theresa Palmieri, BS ’86
Drinking at the Pub when it was a bar, before it became a coffee place.
Ronald Balter, BA ’80
I never lived or worked in Ellicott. I graduated before Geography moved in. However, my fondest memory is taking the bus to and from Ellicott to visit an old girlfriend. The girlfriend is long gone but the bus ride and exhaust fumes remain.
John Lombard, PhD ’90 & MA ’85
Virginia Beach, Va.
My recollection is not that of an alumnus of UB but as a faculty member. From the day it became part of SUNY, I had an office there as a staff member of the National Center for Earthquake Engineering Research [now MCEER]. My observation is from attending the ceremonial groundbreaking some 15 years earlier, when New York Gov. Nelson A. Rockefeller dug one of the first holes with a shovel. The hole immediately filled with water to the entertainment of (all?) those present.
William H. Baumer, Professor of Philosophy
When I first attended UB in 1973, I visited an isolated dormitory at Ellicott set in moonscape surroundings. By the time I was a graduate student an academic city had appeared; also a law school, language building and many classrooms on adjacent land.
Marie E. Dolan, BA ’78