A Walk Through the Village of Williamsville

A Walk Through the Village of Williamsville

Last night I went for a walk with my friend Cathy.  We have this little custom of driving to different areas to walk.  Keeps it fresh, plus we both love looking at homes and generally enjoy seeing different parts of Buffalo.

This time it was my choice, and I told her I wanted her to take me on a tour of Williamsville.  Cathy’s office is in the village, and I know that as a busy small business owner she’s been taking walks through the village now and again to get out of the office, relax and meet her neighbors.  The Village of Williamsville is probably one of the best spots around to do just that.

We started at Island Park, her office being only steps away.  Just inside the park, we came upon the Williamsville South High School Band, playing a summer concert in the park.  What a lovely surprise, and what a superb way to spend a summer evening!  They are a talented group of musicians to be sure. 

We allowed ourselves just a few minutes of enjoying the music.  These walks are for fitness as well as fun!  We walked to the tip of the park and if you go there you’ll see that the park is indeed an island on Ellicott Creek and it comes to a point at the end.  When I was a kid, I imagined the tip of the park was the bow of a boat.  I guess I was a daydreamer even back then.

Walking around the park taking in the views of the creek and the surrounding greenery, it occurs to me that it felt as though we had walked into an oasis, very much like walking into the residential parks in the city.  It’s very serene, natural and calming.  Especially with the music playing softly in the background. What a great place to de-stress after a busy day!  Bring the kids too. There’s a playground for them to enjoy as well.  Very family friendly.  

We moved on to Main Street and zig zagged through a few of the streets just south of Main.  We saw plenty of gorgeous homes, felt a very ‘village’ vibe.  We wound our way to over to Garrison Road, and another quaint little park, Garrison Park.  This one is smaller, is all about kids, and is every bit as lovely as Island Park.  Again it’s just one block over from Main Street and all that’s going on there.

We swung back around to Main Street where, by the way, local businesses absolutely abound!  This is a perfect place to support local businesses.  We had a conversation about the new brewery coming to Main Street.  There are so many new breweries all over Buffalo. Do people really drink that much beer?  We decided that this is Buffalo so yes, yes they do.  And this one is perched at the edge of  Ellicott Creek and promises very pretty views.  Welcome Britesmith Brewing.  We’ll sample your brews and your views soon!

We walked past the library where we came upon this little walkway that always draws me in.  Love the arrow sign telling me what I already know, that the Village of Williamsville is a walkable community, giving the minutes to each spot instead of miles.  Sweet.


Really, really enjoyed getting to know Williamsville again.

By the way, my friend is Cathy Lanzalaco, owner of Inspire Careers, and is in her third year as a small business owner located in this historic and thriving community.  She says of Williamsville, “I love working in the village!  I have been here for almost three years and I love the people, the energy, and the vibe.”  Inspire Careers  offers career advisement, resume writing, and job search strategy coaching.  Her most recent addition is a Student Professional Launch Program.  Check out her website here.  That’s the end of my shameless plug for a great friend…

Neither of us had a lot of time that night so this was a short walk.  Maybe I’ll continue this little tour another day, I’ve enjoyed getting to know Williamsville again.  It’s good to get out in your community and walk.  Explore a little.  Talk to people. Get to know your neighbors.  Become a tourist in your own city!  

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Unity Island – Then & Now

Unity Island – Then & Now

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.

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Buffalo’s Residential Parks, Part 2 of 3:  Arlington Park

Buffalo’s Residential Parks, Part 2 of 3: Arlington Park

Several years ago now, I heard a story about a particular house in Arlington Park.  The person telling it spoke about the architectural detail, the unique building process and the care that has been taken to keep the structure original. I had no idea where Arlington Park was. Of course I asked a few questions and the next chance I had, I took off to explore. Here’s a photo of that house.  To my eye, it’s enchanting. And it sparked a real interest in residential parks.

In the beginning (1856), Arlington Park was designed and laid out as a private park on the estate of James Wadsworth.  The estate was accessed from North Street and extended to Allen, bordering on Wadsworth Street. Private parks were quite common among the rich in Buffalo at the time.  For us, that’s hard to imagine today, even among the rich.

Wadsworth was wealthy to be sure.  He was from Durham, Connecticut, and was a Yale graduate who settled in Buffalo in 1845, to open a law practice.  By 1850 he was chosen as the city’s attorney, and by 1851 he was elected Mayor of Buffalo. He served one term, which was one year at the time.  He was then named president of Buffalo, Brantford and Goderich Railroad after his mayoral term ended, and also served as a New York State Senator from 1856-58.

Basically, you could say he was successful enough to have a private park on his estate.  Wadsworth left Buffalo for New York City in 1859.

The city grew up around the park and through pedestrian use, the park was eventually ruled to be part of public domain in 1884.

Frederick Law Olmsted lived on Arlington Park while he was working in Buffalo designing our Park System.  He actually designed the green space in the park, going off of his own notion of what a common city space should be. After experiencing the park, I have to agree with that notion. It is everything a residential park should be! Trees, shrubs, flowers, meandering walkways, pretty light posts.  Enough space to throw a frisbee around or have a picnic, but not enough space for a baseball diamond. You get the idea.

Arlington Park is in Allentown just one block off of the busiest end of Allen Street.  It’s a small 300’ x 100’ plot of land. But standing in the center of the park, you would never believe the shenanigans that go on one block over.  The park is such a haven. It’s quiet (it really is!), it’s picturesque, and the homes. They are nothing short of spectacular!

The story goes that because Olmsted lived here, architects were attracted to building here, and they all tried to outdo each other.  Whether it’s true or not, we’ll never know. But you have to admit, it must have been a rare opportunity to be able to build on a park designed by Frederick Law Olmsted, the greatest landscape architect our country has ever seen. What we do know for sure is, the homes that were built here make living on Arlington Park quite a charming prospect.

They are all different styles and sizes.  Some are apartments, some are single family homes.  They are all well maintained. They are very close together.  Some people think this lends itself to the sense of community here.  My husband and I have always joked that the reason we have great parties is because our house is small and people are forced to mingle.  There’s something to be said for that.

Same thing applies to this type of city living.  There is a sense of community when you know your neighbors.  Some neighborhoods have it. Arlington Park definitely does. I’ve wandered through many times, and each time, I get into friendly little conversations with residents and visitors alike.  This is truly what a community should be.

There also appears to be an active block club in Arlington Park who keeps the residents in touch, the park in good shape, the flowers planted etc. The overall effect of all of it is serene, appealing and friendly.

If you think about it, Arlington Park is actually a microcosm of what Buffalo truly is.  A warm, welcoming, friendly place to live.

As I mentioned in part one of this series, residential parks are a great place to do a bit of urban exploration. Arlington Park is no exception. Take some time this spring and summer to get out and experience it and the surrounding neighborhood.  Fair warning, you may find yourself getting into some great conversations with the locals. Enjoy it!

Missed the first of three posts about our residential parks? Read about Day’s Park here.

Look for my third and final post about Buffalo’s residential parks next week.  It’s going to be a good one!

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Old County Hall

Old County Hall

Several years ago I worked in the Seneca One Tower (then the HSBC Building).  One lunch hour I walked over to city hall for a tour with my sister, who had her office there at the time. On the way I passed by the Old County Hall.  The last time I even noticed this building was when I had Erie County jury duty roughly a month after 9/11/2001.  While waiting to be called for selection, there was a bomb threat and we had to evacuate the building.  Probably why I never noticed the incredible architecture the building holds.  And since then, I’ve learned a lot of the equally incredible history of the building as well.

The story of this building begins in Buffalo’s earliest days.

It was built on the site of Franklin Square Cemetery, which was one of Buffalo’s first burial grounds.  The cemetery operated from 1804-1836, and primarily held the war of 1812 dead, but civilians were buried there as well.

It was also on this site on December 10, 1813, that Colonel Cyrenius Chapin surrendered the village of Buffalo to the British. The British rejected his authority to do so, and proceeded to burn the entire village, leaving only four remaining structures. They did this in retaliation for when American forces burned the British settlement at Newark (now Niagara on the Lake) in Canada.

The property at the northwest corner of Franklin and Church was purchased by the city in 1851 from Hiram E. Howard. The land was used for the Mayor’s office and other city offices until shortly before the City and County Building was completed in 1876.

Both photos are from:  “The Picture Book of Earlier Buffalo,” Severance, Frank H., ed. Buffalo Historical Society, Vol. 16, 1912, 218

The bodies from the adjacent burial ground were moved to Forest Lawn Cemetery in 1852.

In 1857, Seth Grosvenor left the city $40,000 to be used for a library. The property was strongly, yet unsuccessfully, proposed for the library. Had that proposal been successful, I very possibly would not be writing this post.

The building was a joint effort of the City of Buffalo and Erie County to house all the government offices under one roof.  It was built between 1871-1876.

Photo source unknown.

The architect was Andrew Jackson Warner, who was arguably Rochester’s most famous architect. He was also the supervising architect for the Buffalo Psychiatric Center, now The Richardson Olmsted Complex.

Warner described the style as Norman, referring to Romanesque architecture in England. It is generally described as High Victorian Romanesque or simply Norman Romanesque. The style is evidenced here by the use of rounded arches in the windows and entrances, and the use of piers instead of columns.

The center of the building is dominated by the 270 foot tall clock tower. The clock itself was backlit by reflected gas light, which was lit each night by the clock mechanism itself. This was quite possibly the first use of an automatic pilot light. The tower reportedly became a destination for evening walks and carriage rides. You can imagine that seeing a clock tower lit up at night was a sight to see in 1876, especially 270 feet in the air! Think about it, when it gets dark today, we have so many lights that stay on. It never really gets too dark. In 1876, when the sun went down, it got dark. The clock tower must have been a real beacon in the night!

Resting on the tower are four, 16 foot tall, stylized female figures, each carved from 30 ton blocks of granite.  Each is slightly different, representing Agriculture, the Mechanical Arts, Justice and Commerce respectively.  They were sculpted at Clark Island, Maine, by an Italian immigrant, Giovanni F. Sala.

Interesting little tidbit about the sculptures.  In 1974 they were removed to repair their pedestals.  On the day Agriculture was scheduled to be hoisted back up to its spot, a crack in her base was noticed requiring additional repair time.  The team went ahead and put Commerce into the southeast corner, the spot where Agriculture belonged, because the placement of the crane that day necessitated it.  When Agriculture was properly repaired, she was placed in Commerce’s spot.  When the error was noticed, the public works commissioner at the time, Edward Umiker was very upset, but it was eventually decided that it wasn’t worth the time and money to switch them back.  There they will apparently stay.

Like the Ellicott Square Building, two sides of the Old County Building are mirror images, save for the imposing tower.  Unfortunately for us, in 1965 a four story addition was added to the Delaware Avenue side of the building with a hallway that joins the two, so you cannot see the Delaware Avenue side of this historic building.

In 1882 Grover Cleveland became the mayor of Buffalo.  He had his offices in the building, before moving on to become Governor of New York State and eventually the President of the United States.

In 1891, a tunnel was built connecting the Erie County Jail on Delaware Avenue and County Hall, providing safe and simple prisoner passage to the courts.  The tunnel is still in use today.

President William McKinley lay in state in the building after being tragically assassinated at the Pan American Exposition here in Buffalo in 1901. To commemorate this, there is a bronze plaque in the floor of the lobby where his body lay, and an American flag stands watch where the spot is cordoned off by ropes.

Also, McKinley’s assassin, Leon Czolgosz, was tried in this building. It seems likely that Czolgosz walked that tunnel between the Erie County Jail and the County Building. His trial was reportedly very quick, not more than a day or two, and he was also sentenced to death in the building.

In 1932, both the city and the county offices had outgrown the building, and the City of Buffalo offices moved into their new (at the time) and now current home on Niagara Square.

The Old County Hall Building is an official Buffalo Landmark and was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1976.

It is still functioning as a County building to this day, housing Erie County Courts and Records. If you live in Erie County, and get called for County Jury duty this is where you’ll go. If you do, don’t make the same mistake I did.  Take a moment to take in your surroundings, and really look at the treasure that is Buffalo’s Old County Hall.  Check it out on Franklin Street at Church.

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The Ellicott Square Building & Its Namesake

The Ellicott Square Building & Its Namesake

As long as I can remember the Ellicott Square Building has always just been there.  Over the years, I’ve eaten lunch here.  I’ve shopped here. I’ve paid my monthly parking fees here.  I’ve even passed through the building in order to warm up on my way to or from someplace close by. What I mean is, I knew it was beautiful, but I was always too busy to really take notice.

Let’s take notice now.

To do that, we’ll start with its namesake.  It was named for Joseph Ellicott, who was an agent for the Holland Land Company, who owned all of Western New York at one time.  In 1804 Ellicott laid out the streets of Buffalo. While doing so, he purchased the piece of property that the Ellicott Square Building stands on. The plot was originally much larger and spanned from Swan Street to Eagle Street (now South Division), and from Main Street all the way out to Jefferson Avenue.

Joseph Ellicott, photo from wnt.ecc.edu

The original property itself had a half moon shape that jutted out into Main Street.  Ellicott had planned to build his family estate on the property, with the mansion sitting in the half moon.  But that plan never came to fruition, and he never developed the property.

Map of Buffalo Village showing part of Ellicott’s original 100 acres.  Map from “Discovering Buffalo, One Street at a Time: Can’t You Hear the Whistle Blowing on Exchange Street?”

Ellicott divided the rest of Buffalo into lots and sold them at a fair price, with interest, to homesteaders, businessmen and investors alike.  Ellicott was a fair man, and he was reportedly lenient with people who had trouble paying their mortgages, and at times accepted goods for payment when necessary.

It could be said of Ellicott that he foresaw the success that Buffalo would one day enjoy, and he worked hard to contribute to that success.  He in fact, was one of the first supporters of the building of the Erie Canal along with such local leaders as George Coit and Charles Townsend, among others.

On a side note, the city and the highway commissioners later decided that Main Street needed to be re-routed to cut straight through that half moon section of Ellicott’s land.  He responded by changing his will, so that the 100 acre plot that was to be donated to the city for a park, would remain with his family members. Had that not happened, the Ellicott Square Building most certainly would not have been built.

Joseph Ellicott passed away in 1826.  He never married or had children, but the rest of his family members inherited the property.

Fast forward almost 70 years, to 1895.  Ellicott’s family members and their heirs still own part of that original 100 acre property. Namely, the part that the Ellicott Square Building sits on today.  At that time, it was already a thriving city block, known as “Ellicott Square”. 

Buildings on the thriving “Ellicott Square” before the Ellicott Square Building was built in 1895-96.  Both Photos from Picture Book of Earlier Buffalo, Severance, Frank H., ed. Buffalo Historical Society, Vol. 16, 1912

The Ellicott Company (Joseph’s family & their heirs) wanted to erect an office  building that would span the entire block.  They commissioned the Daniel H. Burnham Company, specifically Charles Atwood as the architect to do the job. The result was the Ellicott Square Building, which opened in May of 1896.  

The razing of buildings aside, which was commonplace in Buffalo at the time, you can understand the vision they had in designing the Ellicott Square Building.  They looked at it as merging all the existing buildings into one cohesive, and very efficient, working building.

When completed it was the largest office building in the world.  It indeed spans the entire city block. It is 10 stories of steel frame construction with the capacity to support 10 more, had 60 offices, 16 counting rooms and 40 retail spaces.

The exterior is terra cotta, granite, iron and brick facade.  The elaborate cornice was removed in 1971 when it began to crumble.  The building was painted a uniform grey at that time, as the building materials had not worn to the same color.  There are still medusa heads lining the roof of the entire building.

The Main Street side and the Washington Street side are mirror images. Minerva, the Roman Goddess of wisdom & war, and Mercury, the Roman god of travel & commerce appear above the elaborate entrances on both of those sides of the building.

The interior is nothing short of magnificent.  The building is referred to as a square doughnut design because the first two floors are open to an incredible skylight, which admittedly needs work both inside and out. The courtyard underneath the skylight is beautiful with elegant staircases on either end leading to the second story retail spaces and offices above.  

The elaborate elevator doors were added in 1926 and the panels show the history of Buffalo, the top four panels depicting pre-industrial Buffalo, and the bottom four show a more modern industrial Buffalo.  The almost unbelievable mosaic floor was added in 1930, created from 23 million individual pieces of Italian marble. It was designed by Winthrop Kent & James A. Johnson, and includes compass points in the center of the court, with depictions of sun symbols from civilizations around the globe spanning out to the four corners.

The Ellicott Square Building was billed at the time as the place you could get two days worth of work done in one day.  You see, the idea of having so many retail shops in one office building, referred to now as mixed use, was a very new idea in 1896.  It was a time when most office workers went home for their noontime meal. Or left in the afternoon for a haircut and a shave. Or to pick up that special something for that special someone.  All that took time away from their work.  In the Ellicott Square Building, all of those places were now contained within the same space.

Ellsworth Statler (of the famed Statler Hotel chain) had a restaurant in the building.  He advertised heavily and brought people in to the 500 seat restaurant by placing $5 gold coins in five random bowls of ice cream each day. He contributed to the changing dynamic of downtown Buffalo by keeping people downtown during the lunchtime hour. His restaurant operated in the building until 1940.

I should add here that the reason I am writing about the Ellicott Square Building is by the suggestion of my Aunt.  She worked in the building in the early 1970’s and fondly remembers her time there working in such beautiful surroundings.  She remembers being very conscious of the quality of the building materials used to make it last as long as it has. She also fondly remembers eating at Brinkworth’s restaurant in the southwest corner of the lobby.  Apparently their soups and their open faced Reuben sandwiches were as memorable as the surroundings.

Restaurants were only a part of what was going on in the building in 1896.  Brothers Mitchell and Moe Mark opened the world’s first dedicated movie theater in the Ellicott Square Building in October of that year. Previous to this theater, movies were only shown in traveling shows in lecture halls and vaudeville theaters. This was the first cinema designed as a moving picture theater.  It was reportedly very opulent, with a white & gold color scheme, was carpeted in rich velvet and featured elaborately carved woodwork. People who paid the fee, which in the beginning was 3 cents, would be shown a series of short clips that were roughly one minute long.  In the first year alone, Mitchell Mark stated that 200,000 people came through its doors.

Statue of Mark Twain (aka Samuel Clemens, who lived in Buffalo for a short time) in the courtyard.

While inside the building now, with my eyes wide open, I feel the rich history here.  I feel the Italian tile floor beneath my feet, the beautifully worn marble on the stairs, the intricate wrought iron work on the railings, the huge skylight, the brass elevator doors…and the energy.  The place is bustling. But there are people sitting at the tables, relaxing, taking it all in as well.

They are enjoying lunch at one of four food stands (delicious food I might add!).  There is a barber shop (it’s considered cool to go to a barber shop these days), doctors, lawyers, a dentist, a gym, real estate companies, a bank, several shops, NYS offices, and the list goes on and on.

Ironically, the present owner of the building is the Ellicott Development Company, which is owned by Carl Paladino, who is no relation to Joseph Ellicott or his heirs.

It’s pretty cool that today, almost 125 years later, this building is still incredible and still being used for the same basic vision the Ellicott Company had when they first built it.  A mixed use office building with retail space to serve the people who work in the building and the surrounding downtown area.  My aunt with her story of working in the building, made me think about how many people have passed through the revolving doors at the entrances and have spent time enjoying the wonders that are the Ellicott Square Building.  Aunt Judi, let’s go to lunch there together soon!

Check it out next time you’re downtown, maybe grab a bite to eat on your lunch hour, or do a little shopping, or get a haircut, or…

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The Brisbane Building on Lafayette Square

The Brisbane Building on Lafayette Square

Several years ago now, I took a job with an accounting firm.  I started on the first day the firm opened in their new building.  The reason I mention this is because they had just left the Brisbane Building.  Everyone talked about it as if it was the oldest, draftiest building the city has ever seen.  They were happy to be out of it.

I, of course, was fascinated.  I’d seen the building, but had never been in it.  I’d spent years attending the Thursday in the Square concerts that used to take place in Lafayette Square, right in front of the Brisbane Building.  I would look up and wonder what those beautifully curved glass windows have witnessed over the years.  Just who they’d seen, and what they’d heard.

Let’s travel back in time to before the Brisbane Building was built.  

The Arcade Building, pictured below, occupied the space where the Brisbane is now.  It was built in the 1850’s after a fire devastated the entire city block.  Housed in the Arcade, the largest office building in the city at the time, was the Buffalo Fine Arts Academy (the organization that became the Albright Knox Art Gallery), Shea’s Music Hall, and T.C. Tanke Jeweler’s, among other businesses.  It was built for George and Albert Brisbane.  Wish I could have seen this one.

Photo from Albright Knox

Unfortunately, in December of 1893, The Arcade Building was also devastated by fire.

As a side note, during the 19th century, fire was a recurring theme in Buffalo’s city center.  It was in the last years of the 1800’s that architects and builders began to pay special attention to the possibility of fire and took steps to prevent total loss through the use of more ‘fireproof’ building materials.

Construction of the Brisbane Building began in 1894 and was completed in 1896.  It was designed in the Beaux Arts style by architects Milton E. Beebe and Son, a firm that was quite prolific in the Buffalo area. The building was originally named the Mooney and Brisbane Building because it was built for James Mooney of Buffalo and James Brisbane of New York City.  Mooney’s brother Henry was also a partner.  By 1906, James Brisbane had assumed full ownership, thus the name became simply The Brisbane Building.

It is a U-shaped building which was quite common for its time in order to bring  natural light into the offices. The first two floors filled in the ‘U section’ and  the second floor was covered with a beautiful skylight to bring in even more natural light.  The entire building has large windows for the same reason. Although the building was built with electricity, electric lighting was not what it is today.  We use Edison bulbs for ambiance nowadays, but back when the Brisbane was built, they didn’t quite cut it for lighting up offices, hence the shape of the building, and the large size of the windows.

When The Brisbane was completed, it was the largest mixed use ‘mercantile and office’ building in the city.  It was designed to house a large retail establishment on the first floor and the second floor contained sixteen retail spaces for smaller stores, with an open center court covered by that skylight I mentioned a minute ago.  (See below.)  The remaining five floors were offices.

Photo from Architectural Portfolio of Some of the Buildings Erected by M. E. Beebe & Son, Architects Buffalo, N. Y.

In 1908 the building tenants included three of the largest name brand stores of their day.  They were Kleinhans Men’s Store, Seymour Knox’s largest location of his Five and Ten Cent Stores (which he later merged with his cousin’s chain of stores to become Woolworth’s), and Faxon, Williams and Faxon, the largest grocer in WNY.

Many of the tenants stayed for years.  One of the most notable was Hunt Real Estate founder Stanley Hunt, who ran his business out of the Brisbane Building for 47 years, and only left in 1960 when he purchased the nearby Hurst Building.  Being that he was in real estate, pretty sure that was to be expected.  I only wonder why it took so long.  Could be that he was just happy in the Brisbane Building.

When the city fell on hard times, so did the Brisbane.  In 1986, the building was bought by Stanley Hunt’s son, C. Stuart Hunt, when it was in desperate need of renovation as well as tenants, having just lost the building’s anchor tenant, Kleinhans (talk about a long time lease).

Stuart Hunt, along with his team oversaw the very thorough and very expensive renovation, complete with new roof and windows, all new mechanicals, the creation of new suites, and a renovation of the lobby.  It really is a tribute to his belief in Buffalo that he undertook such an extensive project at a time when businesses were still leaving the city. In 2010, while undertaking more capital improvements, the original Main Street entrance was uncovered.  It has since been restored, and is quite beautiful.

Photo Credit:  Matthew Zelasko

Perhaps following Hunt’s lead, the area around the Brisbane has been coming alive in the past fifteen years or so as well.  Rocco Termini purchased and renovated the Hotel Lafayette, and transformed the former AM&A’s warehouse building into loft apartments. The area has also seen the addition of several very popular restaurants and breweries. Within short walking distance are Big Ditch Brewery, Deep South Taco, Tappo Italian Restaurant and the Lafayette Brewery which is right across the street, just to name a few. Sometimes all it takes is one person to start the ball rolling.

View from the bottom of the “U” across Lafayette Square

It hasn’t happened overnight, but the future of the Brisbane Building is looking bright.  It’s buildings like this one with both history and beauty that will help Buffalonians continue to treasure the past while looking forward to the very promising future ahead.

To this day, I have no explanation for the disdain of the Brisbane Building by my accounting firm colleagues.  I even have it on good authority that the building is definitely not drafty, and I’ve seen the offices.  They’re lovely.  I guess I’m glad they brought this building to my attention though.  It’s become one of my favorites.

See it for yourself.  Check out The Brisbane Building at Main, Clinton and Washington Streets, on Lafayette Square. Don’t forget to look at the restored Main Street entrance, you’ll be glad you did.

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