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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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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There is a rock solid connection between Buckingham Palace, the Brooklyn Bridge, the NYS Capitol Building’s grand (and I do mean grand!) staircase, and Buffalo’s Richardson Olmsted Complex.
All of these were built with, or partially with, Medina sandstone.
So what exactly is Medina sandstone?
Medina is a village roughly 40 miles northeast of Buffalo. Sandstone is sedimentary rock made up of sand, usually quartz, cemented together by various substances, such as silica. The color can range from light grey or white to a dark reddish brown.
The sandstone was discovered in Medina when the Erie Canal was being dug in 1824. A man by the name of John Ryan opened the first quarry in 1837. And the rest so to speak, is history.
You see, for the next hundred years or so, sandstone became the ‘go to’ building material, being utilized in everything from parts of Buckingham Palace to curbs. That’s right, I said curbs. Take a look at the curbs in some of the older, or more historic communities here in Buffalo. They are a lovely shade of pinkish red. Medina. Sandstone.
Many, many churches in Buffalo were built with red Medina sandstone, including St. Paul’s Episcopal Cathedral.
Sandstone also feels somewhat gritty to the touch, and never really wears smooth, making it perfect for cobblestone streets (horses hooves wouldn’t slip back in the day) and sidewalks. It is also much easier to work with than limestone, although sandstone is a much harder, more durable material. Add that the sandstone was relatively inexpensive to move along the Erie Canal into Buffalo, which was building like mad through most of the 19th and well into the 20th centuries, and you have a perfect storm.
Sandstone is strong, fireproof, and durable making it perfect for building everything from homes to bridges to, well, palaces. In Buffalo it was used to build the now infamous Richardson Olmsted Complex, many churches, multiple buildings, and private homes, including that of William Wicks (partial), of Green & Wicks, one of Buffalo’s most prolific architectural firms.
The Richardson Olmsted Complex on Forest Avenue was built with red Medina sandstone as well.
Sandstone also built a huge economy in Orleans County, where Medina is located. At one point the Orleans County quarries employed upwards of 2,000 workers.
By 1920, however, cement became a more popular, more economical substitute for sandstone and the quarries began to shut down. Today, there is still plenty of sandstone out there, but only one quarry remains in Orleans County. It’s just become too expensive when compared with the alternatives.
So, you could say that Medina Sandstone has played a significant role in Buffalo architecture. And the next time you’re out and about in Buffalo, look around. You’ll be noticing it everywhere now. You’re welcome. 🙂
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