The Sweeney Company was a large department store that operated in Buffalo in the early twentieth century. Before I tell the story of the Sweeney Building, let’s discuss a little bit of the history of department stores in the U.S. and Buffalo.
In the latter half of the 19th century, the economy in the United States slowly inched its way upward. Buffalo’s boom was part of this upward trend. People had more money to spend, and as a result the middle class grew to unprecedented numbers. This left the American middle class with more money to spend than ever before and more time to spend it.
Especially women. It was not uncommon for middle class families to have hired help in the home at this time, leaving the woman of the house with more free time on her hands than ever before. What could she do with it?
Shop apparently. The American department store capitalized on the growing middle class. And they did it very well. Department stores universally offered to their clientele (mainly middle to upper class women) all sorts of diversions. From apparel to luggage, to cooking classes, to washing machines and ice boxes, and everything in between. For the first time in history, it became fashionable to shop. And to be seen shopping.
Macy’s in New York City. Marshall Field’s in Chicago. In Buffalo, it was Adam Meldrum & Anderson, Flint and Kent, William Hengerer Company, and The Sweeney Company.
I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that department stores were some of the first businesses in the country to offer widespread employment to women. Women were marketing and selling to other women. Lower and middle class girls who were old enough to go into department stores and work, did.
That being said, most young women were doing it to earn a bit of money, or as a diversion before settling down, getting married, and having a family. But they did it, and it had never been done before. Baby steps.
Even though the pay was not great, and women were always the clerks, never the managers, feminists of the day, on the whole, embraced department stores for hiring more women than men. It was a start.
Fast forward to February 1, 1888. Fire breaks out at a building at 268 Main Street, a building owned by prominent Buffalo businessman, C.J. Hamlin. The tenant of the building was Barnes, Hengerer and Company Department Store. It was a massive fire, which engulfed the entire building in only a matter of minutes. The fire spread to both adjacent buildings, a jewelry store (Dickenson’s) and a dry goods store (Partridge’s), and spread across Main Street to Glenny’s, a china and glassware store. The surrounding buildings suffered only minor damage, but Hamlin’s building was a total loss.
After the fire, Hamlin rebuilt the building. It was completed in 1889 and this is the building that would eventually become the Sweeney Building. It was designed by Cyrus K. Porter, and built of brick with red medina sandstone carvings. There are six floors. A restaurant space, a studio and retail space on the first floor, with offices above.
After the fire, Barnes, Hengerer & Company moved back in and resumed business in the new building.
After Barnes retired in 1895, Hengerer founded the William Hengerer Company. In 1903, Hengerer moved from 268 Main Street into his newly built building further down Main at number 508.
This left 268 Main Street open for the Sweeney Department Store to move in. Sweeney’s became one of the larger department stores in Buffalo. They too were very good at providing middle class people who found themselves with a bit of extra cash and leisure time to spend, with many diversions.
They were long time tenants of the building.
Fast forward one more time to the present day. Enter Crowley Webb, a locally owned marketing communications agency. They too were longtime tenants of the building when it went up for sale in April of 2016. With a reputation for working hard, the three owners of Crowley Webb purchased the building, which has simply been referred to as 268 Main for quite some time now. They essentially became their own clients by rebranding and marketing the building as The Sweeney Building.
The building itself has undergone a few transformations. These include a small modernization in the 1940’s, being refaced in the 1960’s into a mid-century international design, (if you can imagine that!) and it was finally made over in 1990 into what we see today. The first two floors have been transformed into a post-modern look with a center arching window that is reminiscent of the original design, and the upper floors were returned to the original design from 1889. The final look is considered post-modern by most.
Crowley Webb occupies the fourth, fifth and sixth floors, while Keenan Law Firm, J.R. Militello Realty and WNY Court Reporting Services share the third floor. Praxis Communications, The Salty Dog Barbershop (it’s cool again to go to a barbershop), DSV Air & Sea, Inc., a cargo shipping service with offices in 80 countries, and a private club occupy the remainder of the building.
Next time you’re out and about on Main Street, take a second look at The Sweeney Building. It’s got incredible history behind it, and it’s got some interesting things going on there now.
A couple of days ago, on the anniversary of the World Trade Center attack, I got to thinking about the Twin Towers in NYC, One M&T Plaza here in Buffalo, and their common designer/architect, Minoru Yamasaki.
Yep, that’s right, One M&T Plaza was designed by the same architect who designed the World Trade Center. As a matter of fact, Yamasaki completed the design for the World Trade Center while One M&T Plaza was being built.
Photo Credit: Nancy Wohlfeil. One of the Twin Towers pre 2001. Looks like a photo I would have taken, doesn’t it?
Yamasaki (rt.) shown with colleagues and a model of the World Trade Center. Photo Credit: Tony Vaccaro
You could say that One M&T Plaza is another one of our architectural treasures that is hiding in plain sight. We pass by it all the time. We watch bands there every weekday in the summer. We run over there to grab a quick bite from a food truck, or to do our banking on our breaks. But do we ever really look at it? Or even recognize it for the masterpiece that it is, or for the incredibly talented architect who designed it?
Let’s start with the architect. Who was Minoru Yamasaki?
Well, he was born in Seattle, Washington in 1912. Yamasaki was a second generation Japanese American who put himself through college by working at a salmon cannery for 17 cents an hour. Seeing the elderly men working in the cannery, he became very determined to take his life in a completely different direction.
His uncle, architect Koken Ito, visited the family and showed Yamasaki plans for the U.S. Embassy Building in Tokyo. It was then that Yamasaki set his sights on becoming an architect. After graduating from Washington State University with a Bachelor’s Degree, he went on to receive a Master’s Degree from New York University.
Early in his career, Yamasaki was heavily influenced by the practicality and austerity of the modern or international style of architecture. But in 1955, he traveled to Japan to get some ideas for a U.S. Consulate building in Kobe. While he was there, he was particularly struck by the temples hidden among the commotion of the city streets. The beautiful, calm, serene effect that was achieved in these designs fascinated him.
He set out to perfect the art of delighting the senses while using modern building materials such as concrete and steel. His designs always drew attention, but not always in a positive way. They were criticized for being both too dainty and later too great and powerful looking. I guess it’s true what ‘they’ say, beauty is in the eye of the beholder.
While working for Duane Lyman and Associates, Yamasaki was commissioned to design One M&T Plaza. Executives at M&T had a vision of a serene place for their employees to work unencumbered by poor design, with a place out of doors, in the sun to relax during break times. They wanted their employees to enjoy being at work, feel stress free and surrounded by beauty. In 1966 that was quite a change in vision from the Ellicott Square Building across the street, which was built in 1895 and advertised as the “place where you can get two days worth of work done in one day”. It seems to me that in 1966 we were moving in the right direction. And Yamasaki was just the person to design this building.
It’s in the International style like almost all of Yamasaki’s designs and has 21 stories. It’s a classic tripartite design, which simply means that the design has three sections.
The first floor with high ceilings and tall arched windows, faced with marble in white and green, the green being on both the north and south elevations make up the first section. It’s followed by the office block which houses narrow windows, and piers made with concrete aggregate with small pores that self clean the building when it rains. (It’s effective too. Think about it, you’ve never seen this building appear dirty like some others. Case in point, the Rand Building.) The office block is topped by the third and final section, which is a series of white verticals with just a slight hint of a cornice above. This is the basis for most modern skyscrapers.
As a side note, Yamasaki designed the windows to be tall and narrow with very narrow piers. This is said to alleviate that woozy feeling that accompanies the fear of heights from the inside of the building. He did this on all of his tall buildings you see, because he was afraid of heights. Can you imagine? A designer of skyscrapers, afraid of heights?
The steel for the frame was purchased from Bethlehem Steel here in Buffalo, and wraps around the outside of the structure leaving the inside of the building wide open at the center. The spine at the back of the building on Washington Street houses all the utilities and elevator shafts, allowing for this great openness on the inside.
Incidentally, this spine was built of concrete in a process known as slipforming, a method of construction in which concrete is poured into the top of a continuously moving formwork. As the concrete is poured, the formwork is raised vertically at a speed which allows the concrete to harden before it is freed from the formwork at the bottom. Slipforming was used extensively in Buffalo in the building of our grain silos.
The fountain outside the Main Street entrance was designed by famed sculptor Harry Bertoia. The curves of the sculpture contrast nicely against the straight lines of the building itself. The fountain is designed to make you feel as if the water flows out of the sculpture itself onto the ground of the plaza, which is entirely stone, in M&T signature green. That same stone continues right through the front doors and into the enormous open lobby.
And the lobby is impressive. You only need to walk through the door (use the revolving door for the full effect) to be awed by the sheer size and openness of it! I’m told on this visit today that there will be a reorganization of the lobby in the coming months and will be completed in early 2020.
The photo above was taken by me today 9/13/2019. I’m told the chairs in this photo will be replaced with the original chairs (below) when the reorganization of the lobby is complete.
Photo credit: Mark Mulville, Buffalo News.
Think for a moment about Manufacturers & Traders Trust Bank. It was founded in Buffalo in 1856, as Manufacturers and Traders Bank by two very prominent Buffalo businessmen, Hascal Pratt and Bronson Rumsey. That’s 163 years ago! And M&T has maintained a very strong presence here ever since. Even when businesses and people alike were leaving Buffalo in droves in the 1950’s, 60’s & 70’s, M&T stayed. And on top of that, just as everyone else was leaving, they hired one of America’s best architects to build this building in the heart of the downtown business district, with a clear vision for their employees.
A place to work in relative serenity. A place to sit in the sun and relax on breaks and at lunch time. Anyone who works or spends any time downtown knows that this is exactly what happens in the plaza that surrounds the building. Especially in the warm months. Yamasaki realized that vision in both the building and the plaza.
As I sit on the wall in the sun today outside One M&T Plaza, I am grateful that Yamasaki didn’t live to see the horrifying fate of his World Trade Center and the massive loss of lives on September 11, 2001.
But I do sort of wish he could sit here with me today, seeing his plaza at the M&T Building still being used fifty some years later just as he had intended.
If you have never experienced lunch hour at M&T Plaza, head over to the corner of North Division and Main Street to take in some rays, sit back and relax for an hour and just enjoy the people and the plaza.
And don’t forget to head inside to see that awe inspiring lobby!
Share your thoughts on One M&T Plaza in the comments below.
The Glenny Building has intrigued me ever since I learned that the entire facade of the building, all five stories, is made of cast iron. I have never heard of that before. The whole front of a building being built with the stuff of frying pans! I mean everyone who is of, ahem, a certain age, has owned a cast iron frying pan at some point in their lives. I still use the one my mother-in-law received as a wedding shower gift. They absolutely last forever! But buildings?
I guess it makes sense. Especially here in Buffalo, which happens to be located at about the halfway point between the iron ore fields of the upper Great Lakes, and the coal mines of Pennsylvania (coal to fuel the blast furnaces). Iron and steel works have long been associated with the Buffalo area. When the Glenny was built in 1873, Buffalo had at least three architectural ironworks firms, Tift Ironworks, Washington Ironworks, and Eagle Ironworks, all familiar names in this area. Due to renovations of the first floor facade, it is not clear where the iron on the Glenny is from. It is however, the only remaining building in Buffalo with a cast iron front.
The architect of the building is none other than Richard A. Waite, who was the owner of a well respected architectural firm here in Buffalo. He is also the man who hired and helped train the country’s first woman architect, Louise Blanchard Bethune. The Glenny is of the Italian Renaissance Revival style, evidenced by the broad openings in the first floor allowing for large plate glass windows to let light into the building, and the rounded arched windows in the upper floors.
The Glenny’s Namesake
The Glenny was built for William H. Glenny, an Irish immigrant who came to Buffalo in 1836. He found employment as a clerk at a bookstore before opening a small crockery store in 1840. He married Esther Ann Burwell in 1844, and together they had four children, William, Bryant, John and George.
The timing of all this was perfect for a crockery business in Buffalo, and Glenny’s business thrived. Buffalo was growing rapidly and money was being made; and spent. Glenny’s business is a perfect example of what I like to think of as a support business for Buffalo’s giants at the time, which were shipping, railroads, and grain. We tend to forget about all the other businesses that grew up around those giants.
Here’s what I mean. People moving to Buffalo and beyond needed general household items like simple crockery. Not to mention that those giants of industry who were building empires here in Buffalo, also needed crockery, fine china and crystal to fill their mansions. Glenny provided it at a time when it was not readily available here. The business took off, and W. H. Glenny, Sons & Co. went on to become one of the largest crockery businesses in the country.
William Glenny served on several boards in Buffalo, including Manufacturers and Traders Bank, Erie County Savings Bank, and was a trustee of the First Presbyterian Church, of which he was a regular attendee. He passed away a very wealthy man in 1882 at the age of 64. Glenny is buried in Forest Lawn Cemetery.
Who Owns It Now?
The Glenny Building was purchased in 2014 by Paul Kolkmeyer’s Priam Enterprises. It’s been transformed into modern upscale apartments and two story lofts, lending new life and energy to the downtown core.
The Glenny is a building that has its roots in a humble immigrant who arrived in Buffalo with virtually nothing and became a leader of industry through, by all accounts, hard work, integrity, and perseverance. His story is one of ‘rags to riches’ in the history of our city. One that was repeated over and over again in Buffalo. This parallels the history of the city itself. From its humble beginnings as a small fledgling village, into the rich gilded age of the late 1800s and early 1900s. And it’s being repeated again through the hard times of the late 20th century, to the resurgence we are enjoying today.
Looking at the building as I walk by it today, I’m glad William Glenny came to America and eventually to Buffalo. I am happy for his success, and the successes of Buffalo itself. I am also happy that we as a city still welcome immigrants and refugees with open arms, promising to them all that we have to offer. And I hope that we will always be a welcoming community. That to me is success.
Every building, every street, every neighborhood has a story to tell. They’ve all meant something to someone. Like William H. Glenny and his building on Main Street. These are the stories that mean something to me. These are the creative, hard working people who built our town. And it’s the same type of people who are rebuilding it even as I write this and as you read it.
Go See It
Next time you’re out and about downtown, take a closer look at 251 Main Street; the Glenny Building. While there, take a moment to think about what it may have meant to all the people who have spent time there.
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The Rand Building was built in 1929, just as the country was torn from the Roaring Twenties and plunged into the Great Depression of the 1930’s. It was in fact, the last skyscraper completed in Buffalo before the stock market crashed.
It was designed by Franklyn & William Kidd along with James W. Kideney & Associates. And although you can’t miss it in the Buffalo skyline, it seems to be the Rodney Dangerfield of Buffalo Architecture. It just doesn’t get much respect. I mean, it’s supposedly the inspiration behind the Empire State Building!
But I’m getting ahead of myself.
Let’s go back to what was here before the Rand Building. It’s located on Lafayette Square, and the spot it sits on used to be a lumber yard. If you can imagine that! That was in 1832 when Buffalo was incorporated as a city. Shortly after the incorporation, a series of churches used the site. In 1845, Dr. Grosvenor Heacock started the Park Church Society (later named Lafayette Street Presbyterian Church for the street it stood on; it’s now called Broadway). There was also a private residence at the corner of the site. In 1850, the church burned to the ground and was rebuilt in 1851. The photo below shows the 1851 church.
Circa 1890 – Photo Credit: Picture Book of Earlier Buffalo
In 1896 the church moved north of the city center to follow many of the people in their congregation who were moving north to avoid the newer, somewhat dirty industrial landscape in the heart of the city.
Here’s an interesting little Buffalo tidbit. When the congregation heard that the old church building was being sold to a burlesque theater, they felt it would be improper to profit from such a transaction. They arranged to turn the property over to Nathaniel Norton, who was President of the Board of Trustees, and his brother Herbert. They would sell it to the theater and then transfer the money back to the church. Sounds like a technicality to me, but that was to be the deal.
Unbeknownst to the congregation, the brothers added $52,000 to the selling price and kept the extra for themselves. Nice guys those Nortons. Of course, once the transaction took place, the sale price became public record and the congregation found out. They sued the brothers for the extra money and won in 1908.
Ahhh Buffalo. I’m sure this isn’t the only shady deal you’ve ever seen. But that’s for another day.
The church was indeed renovated in 1901 into a burlesque house called The Lafayette Theater. This later became the Olympic Theater, featuring vaudeville shows and movies. The private residence on the corner was demolished in 1908 and a new building was built and used as a German restaurant called The Park Hof. This corner building would become the Lafayette National Bank and was eventually purchased by the Marine Trust Company, who later purchased the Olympic Theater as well.
Circa 1914 – Photo Credit Buffalo & Erie County Public Library
Circa 1915 – Photo Credit Buffalo & Erie County Public Library
The Marine Trust Company built the Rand Building. It was named for George F. Rand, Sr. who was born in Niagara County in 1867, and began his banking career when he was 16 as an assistant cashier at the State Bank of North Tonawanda. He married at 21 (in 1888) to Vina S. Fisher. Together they had four children, Evelyn, George F. Jr., Gretchen and Calvin.
In the same year he was married, George Sr. was elected president of the First National Bank of Tonawanda. Can you imagine? A bank president at 21? 1888 was a good year for George Rand! He held that position for ten years until he took the post of vice president of the Columbia National Bank of Buffalo. Rand moved to Buffalo in 1901 when he became the president of that same bank. He was made president of the Marine National Bank of Buffalo only a few years later. Rand is largely credited with giving New York State its first consolidated banking system by merging several banking institutions into the Marine Trust Company, which eventually was to become the Marine Midland Corporation.
George F. Rand Sr. Photo Credit: Buffalo’s Delaware Avenue: Mansions and Families, by Edward T. Dunn
Sadly George Rand Sr. passed away in a plane crash overseas in 1919, at the age of only 52. His son George Jr. followed him as President of Marine Trust in 1926. He was present and participated in the laying of the cornerstone of the Rand Building in 1929.
It was reported in the Buffalo Evening News about the laying of the cornerstone of the Rand Building on September 18, 1929: “When the cornerstone, a ton of Indiana limestone, had been lowered in place, it sealed in a cavity a copper box containing documents that hold an interesting record of the structure, its founders, and the city of Buffalo.” I’m sure I’m not alone when I say I would love to see the contents of this box. But not at the expense of losing the building. I guess.
My obligatory look up at the sky shot.
Buffalo radio stations WGR and WKBW moved into the building when it opened and remained tenants until the late 1950’s. Incidentally, the ‘GR’ in WGR stands for George Rand. The Federal Telephone and Telegraph Company founded the station, of which Rand was a major investor. Now, the stations in the Townsquare Media cluster reside here, among many, many other tenants.
The Rand Building is presently owned by Paul J. Kolkmeyer. Together with his firm Priam Enterprises LLC and its affiliates, he owns several buildings in the Buffalo area.
I love the way they’ve kept the lobby of the building original. The ships on the elevator doors (The Marine Midland Corporation used the name Marine from the fact that most of its original customers were largely from the grain and marine trade on the great lakes and along the Buffalo River). The plaque in honor of George Rand. The ash trays still on the wall right under the no smoking sign. Even the friendly security workers who were in the lobby when I walked in to take these photos. Thanks for your help guys.
Getting back to the building not getting respect from the experts and among the great buildings in Buffalo. This is my take on why.
Everything about the Rand Building is conservative. It positively screams conservative banker. I mean, it’s a decent example of art deco style, but when you compare it to say, city hall, well, it’s very conservative. Understated if you prefer. Like a good bank should be, she said with just the slightest hint of sarcasm.
Let’s face it though. It could just be those unsightly radio towers on the roof.
Not to mention the entire exterior itself could use a good cleaning. And some lights. In my research for this post, I found several mentions about the exterior lights when it was first built, and how beautiful the building looked lit up at night. It would go a long way for the owners to add some lighting to get the building noticed as the solid architectural structure that it is. It could contribute greatly to the beauty of Buffalo at night.
I suppose that when compared to all the greats in Buffalo, the Guaranty Building, the Ellicott Square Building, City Hall, the Darwin Martin House etc., the Rand Building does come off as being not as great. Perhaps we are spoiled with a plethora of fantastic architecture here in Buffalo.
Respect or no respect, the Rand Building is here to stay. Next time you’re in Lafayette Square checking out the Hotel Lafayette or the Brisbane Building, look across the way and take a closer look at the Rand Building.
Leave a comment below and give us your opinion of this historic Buffalo building.
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The Dun Building. It’s one that I’ve been admiring for a long, long time. There’s just something about it. For roughly 15 years, I drove toward it on Swan Street on my way to work. It’s my favorite view of it. I walked by it daily as well. And still when I see it, I get a feeling that I don’t quite know how to describe.
The Dun Building was designed by none other than E.B. Green and William Wicks for the Union Central Life Insurance Company, who placed a contingency on the plan stating that they’d build it if enough Buffalonians bought policies with their company. Buffalonians didn’t, and the plans were acquired and set into motion by R.G. Dun & Company.
R.G. Dun & Company was founded in 1841 as a credit check service. In those days a small business owner would see his local banker to secure funds for simple loans. These transactions were often completed between virtual strangers, judgments were made in just a few minutes, and the lender frequently lost on the deal due to lack of information about the borrower.
R.G. Dun hired what they called ‘reporters’ to look into the character and record of the borrowers, therefore helping to secure repayment of such loans. Dun had upwards of one hundred thousand reporters in 1900, offices in most large American cities and indeed many cities worldwide. The Buffalo office was one of its most active. And it’s not hard to see why. At the time, Buffalo was still growing by leaps and bounds and business was booming. The need for capital would have been great, going hand in hand with the need for credit checks.
R.G. Dun & Company later became Dun & Bradstreet, which still operates globally today.
When construction began, the Dun Building was to be the tallest building in the city, in keeping with the building trends of the late 19th century, a time when cities were becoming more and more crowded. Up seemed to be the only way to go. There are a couple of other interesting things about the building that you wouldn’t notice at first glance. There’s a restaurant space in the basement which has independent entrances, along with approaches from inside the building. Also, the utilities of the building are located under the sidewalk along Swan Street.
When it was completed the Dun Building was indeed the tallest building in the city. But only for a very short time as the Guaranty Building at 13 stories was completed shortly thereafter.
Let’s take a minute to compare these two buildings.
The Dun Building was completed in 1895. It is Neoclassical in style, but it has both Greek and Roman influences, as evidenced by the giant arched windows and the highly decorative round windows. It is an odd shape as well, referred to as a flatiron.
At 10 stories, its is considered Buffalo’s first high-rise building. But its not considered a skyscraper in the true sense of the word.
And here’s why.
In the late 1800’s architects were struggling to learn how to design buildings that were taller, but the weight of traditional wood frame construction was too heavy to go more than 4 or 5 stories. Major cities had also experienced tragic fires among these wooden structures, with great loss of lives. The job fell to architects to solve these problems.
By 1890 most architects knew that steel frame construction was the wave of the future, but were unsure how to use it, and didn’t quite trust its strength. These architects were pioneers of a sort, testing the newest technology on the newest type of building to date.
When Green & Wicks set out to build the Dun Building, they started with a steel frame design with load bearing masonry walls ensuring the strength the tall, oddly shaped building needed. They built it in three distinct ‘layers’ if you will. Some refer to it as a ‘stacked’ design, or a ‘wedding cake’ design. The first two floors were built first, the third through seventh floors followed, and the three uppermost floors came last. The Dun Building is also a very narrow building, and these extra precautions may have been undertaken to withstand the high winds coming off Lake Erie as well. None of this is in keeping with what we have come to associate with traditional skyscraper design.
By contrast, the Guaranty Building, completed in 1896 by architects Dankmar Adler and Louis Sullivan, is everything a true skyscraper has become. Tall, drawing the eye skyward with no breaks to interrupt the movement of your eye straight through to the sky. Everything about this building is vertical. It is a total steel frame construction, built with twice the necessary piers in order to emphasize the verticality of the building.
Almost all skyscrapers to this day follow pretty much the same rules of architecture that were employed in the Guaranty Building. The base, which normally consist of the first floor or two, and hold somewhat public spaces. Retail, conference rooms and the like. The shaft, which holds the offices. And lastly, the capital, which is usually the top floor and cornice of the building itself.
Read more about the Guaranty Building in an earlier blog post here.
The Dun Building and the Guaranty Building are equally beautiful in completely different ways, but it’s the Dun Building that holds my attention longer. Not because I think it’s architecturally superior, because I don’t think it is. There’s just something about it.
The Dun Building was purchased in 2013 by 110 Pearl LLC, an affiliate of Priam Enterprises. It remains a thriving office building, with Sato Brewery (which should be on everyone’s list of things to do) in the basement. And to this writer, the building adds an interesting figure in our city’s skyline. There’s that feeling again.
Now this is going to sound strange, but hear me out. The feeling I get when I see it is that it’s almost like the Dun Building represents Buffalo itself. Both were built during a time of huge growth, both were beautifully designed, and both were built to withstand the test of time. And both have. Each in their own way. And I get all this while merely walking by. There’s just something about this building.
See it for yourself at the southwest corner of Pearl and Swan Streets, standing tall and strong against the elements.
The Dun Building is a City of Buffalo Landmark and is located within the Joseph Ellicott Historic District. Thank you for taking the time to read about it!
In 1802 New York State Purchased the mile wide strip of Native land along the Niagara River known as the New York State Reservation. This property became known as Black Rock, named for an actual black rock formation that jutted out into the Niagara River near where the Peace Bridge is today. Black Rock was a village in its own right and the fledgling village of Buffalo was further south near where the Niagara River, Lake Erie and the Buffalo Creek all come together.
Buffalo was owned by the Holland Land Company at this time. The company worked consistently to market Buffalo as a new up and coming town where pioneers would be able to make a prosperous life for themselves under the direction of Joseph Ellicott, their land agent. New York State, on the other hand, was not in the marketing business, and therefore Buffalo grew a bit quicker than Black Rock.
Both Buffalo and Black Rock submitted bids to win the terminus of the Erie Canal. The competition began as a friendly rivalry but it reportedly became a bitter feud.
In Buffalo however, there were several businessmen who worked hard to have the Buffalo Creek dredged and made wider to accommodate ships, they created slips, piers and more. These Buffalonians were George Coit, Charles Townsend, Oliver Forward, and Samuel Wilkeson (more were involved, but these were the four who saw the project through to its completion). In the end Buffalo won out and the rest, as they say, is history. Black Rock eventually became a vital neighborhood within what became the City of Buffalo.
So what does all this have to do with Unity Island? Well, Unity Island is located in what we locals still call Black Rock. It’s not technically on the land that New York State purchased in 1802, but it is within the city of Buffalo and is just off the coast of Black Rock, in between what is now called the Black Rock Canal and the Niagara River.
Photo Credit: The Buffalo News
The Seneca Nation acquired the Island around the 1650’s. They called it Deyowenoguhdoh, pronounced de-dyo-we-no-guh-do, meaning “divided island”. Apparently there used to be a marshy creek that ran through the island, and hence the name. It is said that the French explorer LaSalle coined the name Squaw Island in the late 1600’s, and that’s the name that stuck. Until recently, the island was known as Squaw Island.
Given its proximity to Canada, the island was a staging ground during the War of 1812. A six-gun brig that was launched as the Adams by the United States in 1798, was captured by the British during the War of 1812, effectively giving England control over Lake Erie during the war. The Brig was renamed the HMS Detroit. In October of that same year, the Americans briefly recaptured her, but came under heavy fire, and had to abandon her to the Niagara River’s strong current. The ship ran aground at Unity Island, and the Americans were forced to set it afire.
By Special Collections Toronto Public Library from Toronto, Canada – Prize brig Adams in Lake Erie, Ontario, in 1812 (JRR 1153), CC BY-SA 2.0, httpscommons.wikimedia.orgwindex.phpcurid=38678979
The Senecas held on to Unity Island until early 1816 when they gifted the island to Captain Jasper Parrish, who served them as an agent and interpreter. In 1823 Parrish sold the island to Henry Penfield, a local attorney. The island changed hands several more times after that.
The Black Rock Ferry operated from the island, and ran back and forth to Canada on a regular basis. It is well known that this was the final leg of many a runaway slave’s journey north to Canada and freedom. Remember that even though slavery was illegal here in New York State, it wasn’t illegal for bounty hunters to find and transport escaped slaves back to the south. Buffalo played an important part in the Underground Railroad, and Unity Island was a key player.
In 1873, the International Railroad Bridge was built and effectively ended the career of the Black Rock Ferry.
Stories abound about the island.
There was the story of a hermit, Jason Thorp, a jeweler and an inventor, who reportedly moved to the island after having his heart broken by a woman in Ohio. He chose the island as the ideal place to drop out of society. Thorp apparently kept to himself, growing his beard well past his waist. After his death, it was described as the beard of a patriarch. His story makes me think of our modern day Williamsville Larry; everybody knew of him, but who among us really knew him?
There were other stories as well, mostly true. There were people smugglers and drug smugglers. One Sunday afternoon in 1897, 50 pounds of opium were seized from Chinese nationals who came over from Fort Erie. A U.S. customs agent was shot by a silk and whiskey smuggler. People simply moved in on the island and built ‘shacks’ for themselves and their families. There were several bars who reportedly served fish fries. And with the bars, came the bar fights and more.
And most of this was before 1900!
Photo Credit: The Buffalo News Chronicles
In the 1920’s the Federal Government owned a dike on the island, where 35 or so families lived. They were ordered out as squatters. The people argued that having lived there for 20 some uninterrupted years, they should be allowed to stay. A judge agreed and the people stayed.
Eventually the city of Buffalo purchased a large piece of property on the island and used it as a garbage dump (who makes these decisions??). They also built a water treatment facility on the island and began operations there in 1938.
Through all of this, the people living there stayed once again. They worked, grew gardens, fished in the river. For the most part, they lived simple, quiet lives.
Photo Credit: The Buffalo News Chronicles. In the background of this photo is the International Railroad Bridge. Love the cat.
In my research of the island, which admittedly began a few years ago now, I began emailing with a woman named Sally who used to summer on Unity Island, where her grandparents lived. She wrote to me about how, as city kids, she and her sister felt such freedom there on the island in the summers.
Running through the tall grass, and swimming (swimming!) in the Niagara River! She said the river didn’t run as quickly in those days and the current didn’t come into play until you were 20 feet from the shore. Her grandmother would fish off the end of their dock teaching them both to fish and to prepare it (mostly perch) for their evening meals, which would also consist of whatever vegetables they had in their little garden.
There was no electricity on the island; they had kerosene lanterns for light. They drank well water that supposedly tasted like iron. They used an icebox, and had to travel off the island once a week to buy blocks of ice. They were outside from morning till night and they relished every minute. To a child, Unity Island was a paradise. The wistfulness in this woman’s writing was palpable. I could feel how much she loved her summers there.
Photo Credit: The Buffalo News Chronicles
Sally’s parents moved to California in 1950 and her summers were spent elsewhere. They eventually settled in Arizona, where she still lived. Even though she was close to 80 when we became email pals, she spoke of how she could never forget those summers on Unity Island. She asked me to throw a “pebble” in the water and to say, “that’s from Sally.” I did.
It was during the 50’s when the dump began to fill up and it was suggested by a common council member that if the city kicked out all the “squatters” they could use the north end of the island as a dump as well. Unbelievably, that’s exactly what happened.
The residents argued that it was insulting to be called squatters, as they paid the city to live there ($225/yr). All the same, they were evicted and the last of the residents were gone by 1966. I’ve wondered if Sally’s grandparents were among them.
The city did indeed expand the dump and continued to dump there until that was full as well.
In 2015 Jodi Lynn Maracle, a local Mohawk native, along with members of the Seneca Nation of New York, petitioned the Buffalo Common Council to change the name of the island from the racist and derogatory Squaw Island to Unity Island. The vote was unanimous in favor of the petition.
Photo Credit: Army Corps of Engineers
Extending south from Unity Island is a stone pier called Bird Island Pier. It was built in 1860. It once connected Unity Island to the former Bird Island, which was rocky to the south and held fertile soil on the north side. Natives were known to cultivate corn there. This island was noted in the journal of DeWitt Clinton, who surveyed this area before the construction of the Erie Canal, which began in 1817. By 1880, however, maps show that Bird Island had disappeared. Bird Island Pier, however, is still there and has been extended south of the Peace Bridge. It is well used by walkers, bikers and fishermen alike.
Broderick Park marks the spot where the Black Rock Ferry operated. It serves as a monument to Buffalo’s part in the Underground Railroad, complete with timeline markers. This alone should make Unity Island a destination for all Buffalonians. It’s an interesting look at an important part of Buffalo history.
The dump was eventually capped and Unity Island Park was built. Occupying the north end of the island it is complete with walkways and bike trails. Plenty of space for picnicking, not to mention true interaction with the Niagara River.
As a matter of fact, there is an Aquatic Habitat Restoration Project nearing completion in Unity Island Park as I write this, headed by the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers. It is being described as the recreation of a natural habitat for fish and wildlife in the area. Along with the restored habitat will come the fish, birds and other wildlife, as it should be.
Photo Credit: The Buffalo News. Shows restoration project well underway in May 2018.
This can only be a good thing for an island with a somewhat checkered, but incredibly interesting past, not unlike the city of Buffalo itself.
Sally abruptly stopped writing to me. And since it happened after she asked pointed and specific questions regarding the island, I can only assume that she is either not well, or is gone. Last week, as is my custom now whenever I visit Unity Island, I threw a “pebble” into the Niagara River, and said aloud, “That’s from Sally.”
Put Unity Island on your list this summer. You’ll find it at the foot of West Ferry Street. (Now you know how that street got its name.) If you see any pebbles, you know what to do.