What happened at the Great Northern? Why no one actually knows.

What happened cover 1

The Campaign for Greater Buffalo, currently engaged in a battle to overturn or have revoked an emergency demolition order on the historic Great Northern grain elevator, has contended from the start that owner ADM's submittals in support of demolition were far from ironclad. Buffalo Commissioner of Permits & Inspections Jim Comerford testified in court that he relied, in part, on the "engineering reports" provided by ADM in making his decision to require the emergency demolition of the giant waterfront landmark—the world's oldest electrically powered grain elevator, and the very last of its kind (a brick-clad working-house elevator, which gives it its distinctive profile in Buffalo's renowned industrial landscape). Now it seems ADM's reports are thin-sliced baloney.

Tim Tielman, Campaign executive director, asked SUNY Distinguished Professor Andrew Whittaker of UB's Department of Civil, Structural and Environmental Engineering what should be in a condition assessment of buildings such as Buffalo's "outstanding collection of 1860-1920 industrial and commercial architecture," in order to aid the Campaign in evaluating the structures. Dr. Whittaker has spent his adult life figuring out why buildings fall down, stand up, and can be made to keep standing. His response throws more doubt on the usefulness of the ADM material to come to any conclusions about the condition of the Great Northern or whether those conditions require an emergency demolition.

Dr. Whittaker, a registered California civil and structural engineer and a Fellow of the Structural Engineering Institute, responded by email and provided an eight-point list of what should be included in a condition assessment of an older building. There may be additional information needed for a particular assessment. Dr. Whittaker's eight points were:

  1. Review of as-built drawings and calculations, and construction photographs, if available.
  2. Walkdown of the building to document the as-built construction, including the elements of the gravity- and lateral-load-resisting systems (i.e., for wind and earthquake loadings), and non-structural elements.
  3. Survey of the building to confirm physical geometry (e.g., floor elevations, envelope shape), reinforcement of concrete elements, etc.
  4. Testing of in-situ material properties (e.g., steel framing, masonry and grouting, timber, concrete and reinforcement) sufficient in scope to inform mathematically modeling of the gravity- and lateral-force-resisting systems.
  5. Documentation of foundations and condition, if as-built drawings are not available.
  6. Development of a 3D mathematical model of the building, using information from the above steps, sufficient for analysis of the building for gravity and lateral loads.
  7. Analysis of the 3D model for gravity and lateral loadings.
  8. Performance evaluation of elements of the gravity- and lateral-load-resisting systems, and non-structural elements (e.g., cladding, interior masonry walls).

None of these were provided in any of the reports ADM placed before Comerford. Comerford made no attempt to get any other information from outside his office, nor did he return phone calls from Paul McDonnell, an architect and president of the Campaign, and Tim Tielman, Campaign executive director, who sought to discuss the building with him in the days after the windstorm of Dec. 11 during which a part of the north cladding wall failed. The question is, what didn't Comerford know, and why didn't he know it?

One thing is certain, based on court testimony, ADM documents, and now Dr. Whittaker's Eight Points: No one can actually knows what happened at the north wall of Great Northern, or whether its condition requires demolition, much less that it constitutes an emergency. McDonnell sent the mayor a detailed letter  on Sunday pointing out the lack of reliability in the ADM documents and Comerford's interpretation of video and photographs. The Campaign has submitted affidavits and argued that netting and fencing could abate any hazard from falling debris that might occur while repairs and further understanding of the condition of the Great Northern can be obtained.

The Mayor should revoke the demo permit and cite ADM for its serious building code violations and order them repaired. That places liability back on ADM, abates any public danger, and gets the landmark repaired.


Emergency demo bids threaten to be new normal

You can bet every bad-actor commercial property owner in Buffalo is closely following Archer Daniels Midland's (ADM) attempt to use the emergency demolition powers of the Commissioner of Permits and Inspections to ram through, under the cloak of public safety, demolition of the landmark Great Northern  elevator. If the ADM action succeeds, it will be a blueprint for every other bad actor in town. Campaigns for emergency demolition— orders which should either not be considered at all (in place of ordering repairs) or should go through the normal Preservation Board review of public hearings, document preparation according to city standards, and possible site visits by experts—will be normalized.

To be sure, many negligent owners have pleaded in Housing Court for non-emergency demolition orders as a way to address egregious building-code violations, but requesting an emergency demolition order as a business model is a dangerous precedent for public accountability and invites corruption. ADM, according to Permits & Inspections commissioner James Comerford, approached him in 2020 about granting it and emergency demolition order, presumably after sharing much of the dubious evidence the company submitted for the present emergency demo order.

The ADM action has all the hallmarks of a legal strategy long in the making; the recent windstorm that contributed to the toppling of the north wall of was a godsend for ADM.

That is one of the reasons Paul McDonnell, president of The Campaign for Greater Buffalo, urged Mayor Byron Brown to rescind the Order of Condemnation (the emergency demolition order) in a letter hand-delivered to City Hall today. McDonnell also explained why the engineering submissions provided by ADM— more short expressions of opinion than substantiated conditions reports—are not reliable foundations for decisions on emergency demolition. McDonnell also provided drawings and photographs to demonstrate the robust design and construction of the Great Northern that were easily available to Comerford but were not consulted by him.

The Campaign is seeking a preliminary injunction against the Great Northern demolition from the Appellate Division 4th Part of State Court pending a hearing.

You can make a donation to support the Campaign's work on the Great Northern and other issues highlighted in the pages of Great Buffalo: https://www.paypal.com/donate/?hosted_button_id=RCQVHYM7ZECBN

Great Northern before:after 4
Abandonment and lack of maintenance since 1982 caused the weakening at the top of the north wall, where deteriorated and missing flashing designed to protect against water infiltration was never fixed. Bushes were growing on top of the wall in 2018. Only the backing strips of the flashing were left after the brick cladding below gave way in a windstorm on December 11. Illustration included in Campaign for Greater Buffalo letter to Mayor Byron Brown.

Imagine the Great Northern as a case of beer in a cardboard sleeve

Six pack 1The Great Northern grain elevator, despite the tear in its brick wrapper, is in no more danger of collapsing than a six pack of Genny cans left out on your deck in the rain. That's because not only is the 30-pack of steel cylinders strong on its own (each can withstand internal pressures of 17,000 lbs. per square inch), each is bolted to eight massive steel columns, which are then bolted to every adjacent cylindrical bin. On top of everything, the roof and cupola (themselves composed of girders up to 60 inches deep) are supported by a series of these same columns. The entire vast assemblage is attached to gargantuan footings which rest on 6,000 piles that go to bedrock.

Great Northern  Hole  Full Moon_12.12.2021 NancyJParisi-1Why the big hole, then? Imagine someone left your six-pack out in the rain. It is sitting on the deck next to the cooler, pathetically soggy, as you start cleaning things up. Your foot bumps against it, tearing the cardboard sleeve. But the cans stay put! Now imagine those cans attached to each other with one of those plastic thingamabobs. Then add a hundred more. That's how solid the Great Northern is. You could pick up that six-pack and throw it across the yard. It is going to be intact after it lands, even if the cardboard sleeve is totally shorn off. The sleeve doesn't support anything.

Screen Shot 2022-01-08 at 9.36.25 AMIf you want a more wholesome image, imagine a vintage steel milk crate. Imagine instead of holding bottles it is holding steel cans. The cans are riveted to the carrier's steel frame.  Nothing is tearing that framework asunder.

Below are illustrations of the ingeniously engineered structure of the Great Northern as documented by the Historic American Engineering Record ( a collaboration of the American Society of Civil Engineers, the National Park Service,  and the Library of Congress) and in the 1990 application for landmark status on file in City Hall. Buffalo Commissioner of Permits and Inspections James Comerford never availed himself of this information before he came to the irrational decision that the Great Northern could collapse or its cupola blow off in its entirety and ordered an emergency demolition. The order can be revoked by Mayor Byron Brown.

Great Northern Scientic Am cover image
The 30-pack of the Great Northern's primary bins is standing on its own in this depiction of the elevator from the cover of Scieniftic American, Dec. 25, 1897. The workhouse or cupola, supported by columns rising from the foundation and anchored to bedrock is under construction from the north end. The brick wrapper is being raised last.
Great Northern bins & columns
Diagram of the primary bins and secondary bins interconnected with primary and secondary structural columns. A set of primary columns rose from the basement to support the roof and cupola.
Great Northern HAER Basement  clean-up cart 1985
Massive 29” x 30” main columns, plus scores of others, combine with the steel bins to form a single immovable mass of steel that will keep the Great Northern standing for centuries
Great Northern bin bolts & rivets
Each bin is bolted to each of eight surrounding columns, which are bolted to all abutting bins, forming a monolithic construction which would survive the strongest earthquake imaginable. View of a Great Northern bin interior.

Brown Administration conjures fire, ADM fans flames

ADM Scare Talk 2 2
No, the Great Northern is not going to burn, and there is nothing inside it that will burn either.

The Brown Administration, apparently seeking to bolster its emergency demolition order on the Great Northern grain elevator, obtained a letter from the fire commissioner advocating for the demolition. The letter was and included in court documents filed and referenced during testimony of Permits & Inspections Commissioner James Comerford in an evidentiary hearing on Monday January 3 in the Campaign for Greater Buffalo's lawsuit against the City of Buffalo and owner ADM. Attorneys for ADM stoked the flames during Comerford's testimony and a summation before State Supreme Court Justice Emilio Colaiacovo.

The letter did not include any references to any BFD personnel inspecting the site in person, and all information and conclusions seem to be based on a briefing in Comerford's office. There were three interesting points, beyond the expected blather of "a multitude of life safety hazards."

The first was that BFD was told the demolition would take six months. Six months not because of the brick sheathing, but, we assume, the almost comically overbuilt steel framing featuring over almost 50 main support columns 30" x 29" in section that rise all the way to the top.

The second is that the fireboat Cotter "travels that section of the canal quite frequently, especially during the upcoming winter season [sic] as it is tasked with keeping the canal clear of ice for the ships that dock at various locations..." Um, there is only one commercial site on the City Ship Canal that would require passing the Great Northern: a sand company well to the south on the opposite bank. It generally plans to store enough sand to make it through the winter by November. The winter navigation season is determined by the Welland Canal and Lake Erie. There's no need for breaking ice in the City Ship Canal if there is no shipping.

Third, and the reason anyone would be interested in what the BFD thinks of the Great Northern: "Firefighting access to any section of this building will be severely limited due to the potential of collapse." But to need firefighting access one presumes there could be a fire. In a structure built to be fireproof? That has never in its 125-year history had a structural fire? Not while it was storing almost 3,000,000 bushels of wheat on any given day, not since the bins were emptied out in 1981, not since ADM bought it in 1993? That doesn't have any vagrants trying to keep warm besides the odd pigeon?

The BFD offers this: "there are still combustibles that will burn inside." What, historic Henry's Hamburgers wrappers from 1981? The odd rope? The fire commissioner offers no evidence.

Here is what Scientific America said about the Great Northern in a cover article about its construction in 1897: "The structure is com­posed wholly of stone, brick and steel,and there is no wood or' other inflam­mable matter in the building or used in its construction...excepting the roller top des k of the elevator superintend­ent, and this is locat­ed in his office. which is nothing more or less than a brick vault with a brick and steel ceiling.

"The transformer room is a solid brick vault with arch brick sills resting on steel girders. The construction of the building is such that it is absolutely proof against fire, and the protecting of grain stored therein by insurance is almost a sentimental safeguard. The structure has been so recognized by the Board of Underwriters in the making of the rate for this hazard so low that the cost of insurance is of but little moment."

There hasn't been a structural fire at the Great Northern in its 125-year existence. There is not, despite ADM's attorney so stating, "a likelihood of fire." The letter from the fire commissioner and the touting of it in a nearly hour-long radio interview given by Mayor Brown and Comerford on the afternoon the emergency demo order was announced, not to mention affadavits and court proceedings, is a shameful CYA operation. The only thing at risk of fire is a fibber's pants.

Brown Administration swallows ADM's scare talk whole

ADM Scare Talk w:o caption 1

The Brown Administration seeks to reward the 29-year maintenance negligence of the landmark Great Northern grain elevator by Archer Daniels Midland Milling (ADM) by rushing to issue an emergency demolition order after a partial collapse of a non-bearing brick cladding during a Dec. 11 windstorm. The Campaign for Greater Buffalo went to court to block the demo. The case is being heard in State Supreme Court before Justice Emilio Colaiacovo.

In court documents and testimony, Permits & Inspections Commissioner James Comerford admitted that he and no one on his staff is a licensed engineer, and that he relied on reports by ADM engineers and his experience in judging that the only way to abate an imminent threat is to immediately begin a 6-month-long demolition of the elevator.  Comerford also admitted he consulted with no one outside his office or ADM, including historic preservation professionals, before he made his decision to order the condemnation and immediate demolition of the Great Northern.

ADM, which has attempted to demolish the elevator since it bought it in 1993, in documents and court threw out a number of unsupported allegations, hoping some would stick. A piece of scare talk ADM and the City continually returned to was the notion that the elevator's superstructure is somehow unsupported since the brick cladding below it has given way, and represents an imminent danger to the public. Comerford and his crew ate it up.

In his Notice of Condemnation ordering the emergency demolition of the Great Northern, Comerford offers several rationales for his decision, including this easily belied notion: “The roof deck and penthouse/cupola lacks structural support where the northern brick wall failed. The roof deck and penthouse/ cupola appear to cantilever for approximately 15 feet without support at the north end.” Had Comerford deigned to look at building data on hand in City Hall to determine the structural characteristics of the building, he would have understood what drone footage and contemporaneous  drawings, photographs, and descriptions make clear: the cupola is supported by a steel frame that is independent of the brick walls.

Great Northern close-up 1985  detail Jet Lowe  McCurdy
Detail from 1985 Historic American Engineering Record photograph of Great Northern documents condition of top of north wall four years after Pillsbury company stopped using the unionized elevator. Part of the flashing on top of the wall is missing, corresponding with the spalled brick pattern below it. To the right, flashing with drip edge still intact.

Great Northern cupola-wall interface
Deteriorated flashing and bare backing straps where flashing is entirely gone mark the junction of the cupola wall and the Great Northern's brick north wall, which was built in front of the plane of the cupola. The flashing was meant to protect the top of the wall from water infiltration. ADM has not repaired the flashing since it bought the Great Northern in 1993. City inspectors have never cited ADM or previous owner Pillsbury for building code violations.

Drone footage and photographs that Comerford looked at shows that the brick wall is constructed well in front of the plane of the cupola. A length of  deteriorated flashing is clearly visible at the base of the cupola wall where it formerly met the top of the north wall and bare backing straps, where flashing is entirely gone, cover the rest of the run. The flashing was meant to protect the brick from water.

But you don't see what you don't want to see if you have a case of confirmation bias. Instead, as offered in his affadavit, Comerford sees this: "The roof deck and penthouse/cupola support structure appear to have failed anchorage points where the northern masonry wall failed."

Great Northern Scientic Am cover image
View of Great Northern under construction, from southeast. At the north end, (the location of the recent wall damage) the workhouse has been completed, including its corrugated sheathing. It stands, atop massive steel columns and bins (which themselves can support over 4,000,000 lbs. of wheat each), with nary a brick near. Were one to remove the Great Northern's brick wrapping down to the basement level today, this is exactly what would safely remain.

Hogwash. The Historic American Engineering Record (HAER), a collaboration of National Park Service, the American Society of Civil Engineers and the Library of Congress, states it simply: "The cupola consisted of a structural steel trussed framework clad in corrugated iron and rising to a height of 184'. The entire weight of the structure was carried by the extensions of the basement columns."

The superstructure, sometimes called the cupola or workhouse, was erected before the brick cladding was built up from below and in front of it. This can be seen in the widely reproduced and posted engraving published on the cover of Scientific American on December 25, 1897. The view is from the southeast. The primary bins have been completed and brick envelope is being built up, with the basement level complete. At the north end, the workhouse has been completed, including its corrugated cladding. There it stands, atop massive steel columns and bins (which themselves can hold over 4,000,000 lbs. of wheat each), with nary a brick near. Were one to remove the Great Northern's brick wrapping down to the basement level today, this is exactly what would safely remain (thereby abating any alleged collapse hazard!).

This information was freely available to Comerford and Mayor Brown in the landmark application of 1990, on file in City Hall. The application, in the main text and in appendices, contained detailed descriptions of the structural components of the elevator and the sequence of its construction. A simple internet search would have turned up the in-depth HAER report, including over 50 documentary photographs.

Comerford did not avail himself of this information. Nor did he return phone calls from architect and former Preservation Board chair Paul McDonnell and Campaign Executive Director Tim Tielman made days after the collapse. Both McDonnell and Tielman sought to inform Comerford of the construction details of the building, methods of abating any hazard at the site, and recommend other preservation architects and engineers who could be consulted, and directed him to the HAER report.

Imagining a future for Great Northern as its fate is back judge's hands

Great Northern Cover perspective A
The Campaign for Greater Buffalo released concepts of what the landmark Great Northern elevator could look like restored. In this late-day perspective, the elevator serves as a beacon on the City Ship Canal, with the city name proclaimed in three-story high letters visible from miles overland and on Lake Erie. It also proposes to restored the filled-in canal boat slip on the north side of the elevator, which recently suffered damage during a prolonged windstorm.

The Campaign for Greater Buffalo History, Architecture & Culture, the City of Buffalo, and Archer Daniels Midland Milling (ADM) are heading back to court after a court-directed mediation was concluded Thursday and referred back to State Supreme Court Justice Emilio Colaiacovo. The Campaign filed suit against the City and ADM on Friday, December 17 to block an emergency demolition order issued by the city late that day. The Campaign was granted a Temporary Restraining Order (TRO) by State Supreme Court Justice Dennis Ward on December 19th. The case was assigned to Justice Emilio Colaiacovo, who heard arguments in the case on Monday December 27.

The Campaign is fighting to compel the City and ADM to act to preserve the 1897 elevator, while ADM, which has owned the elevator since 1993 and has not so much as replaced missing and damaged gutters and downspouts, wants to demolish the elevator. A section of brick cladding on the north side of the elevator tumbled down during a December 11 storm with historic wind gusts, precipitating the City's emergency demolition order.

This is the third time ADM has attempted to demolish the elevator, citing engineering reports it commissioned that detailed maintenance-related problems which it then failed to correct. Meanwhile, the Brown Administration in 16 years had never inspected the building, even after ADM presented Permits and Inspections Commissioner James Comerford with its data in recent years. There is no getting around the fact that Mayor Brown can direct Buffalo Permits & Inspections Commissioner James Comerford to rescind his order based on error and misrepresentations by ADM. He'd rather have someone else make the decision. Credit will be taken if the judge decides to save the Great Northern, blame will be spun onto the judge otherwise.

Judge Colaiacovo vowed that should the matter be referred back to him he would issue a decision in short order. He has called for an evidentiary hearing on Monday to gather information to help decide whether Comerford acted arbitrarily and capriciously in ordering the emergency demolition of the building.

Resto math 1
The Campaign also released renderings of what the Great Northern could look like if repaired and restored. It needn't cost ADM or any other owner to much to restore because of the various tax credits available. Ninety-four percent of such csts could be effectively reimbursed, according to an affidavit prepared by developer Rocco Termini.

These illustrations presume the current owner, ADM, or another private party repairs and adapts the building after being ordered to do so by court or by the city after a decision favoring preservation. Developer Rocco Termini provided the following scenario if ADM were compelled by the city and court to repair the building. 
Pick a number, say $20,000,000. That is up-front, out of pocket by ADM. It can claim 20% federal historic tax credit, 20% NYS historic tax credit, and 24% Brownfield tax credit, for a total of almost 2/3 of cost, or $12,800,000. Those are spread over the first five years. In the fifth year, ADM could donate the building to a non-profit (ADM could create its own non-profit expressly for this project) and claim another 30% tax credit. (ADM reports its most recent net income as over $16 billion) In all, 94% of clean-up, fix-up, and restoration, or $18,800,000.
While this may be interpreted as "taxpayer money" in an indirect sense, these are programs set up to encourage the recycling of sustainable older buildings. The public gets a preserved historic landmark, a clean site, a new recreation and employment hub, and much more tax revenue, directly and through spin-offs.

"The Great Northern has a huge ground floor—almost an acre—on the City Ship Canal that could conceivably house dozens of small enterprises and offices," said Campaign president and architect Paul McDonnell. "Not only is there a 400-foot wharf on the canal, there is also a filled-in canal boat slip that we'd like to see re-watered. Add that to the 4-story workhouse at the top, and you can begin to imagine the potential. We'd definitely like to see the word "BUFFALO" on it in letters three stories high. That would be the city's calling card."

The beauty is in the box

The ground floor of the Great Northern is almost one acre in size and accessible through a regularly spaced set of doors around the entire perimeter. The doors were designed to give onto a 400-foot long, 22-foot wide wharf on the City Ship Canal, a 400-foot long (as originally designed) wagon shed along Ganson Street, and its own canal boat slip. Adapting the ground floor alone could accommodate dozens of businesses. Maintaining the historic integrity of the brick box is important in facilitating historic investment tax credits and brownfield credits that could cover two-thirds of the costs of cleanup, repairs, and renovations. That brings other opportunities to leverage the unique structure.

The immense volume of the Great Northern's brick box could accommodate, with interior modifications, any use that requires large sheltered windowless spaces—museums, galleries, theaters, waterparks, markets, retail—that would complement whatever ground-floor and workhouse (the 4-story cupola that tops the building) uses can be dreamed up. Buffalo is fortunate to have it. Rotterdam just spent over $200,000,000 to build a space similar in size to the great Northern to shelter a food hall and market.

Tate interior
The Turbine Hall at the Tate Modern, London. The Great Northern is wider and taller.

The Tate museum in England has practically made raw industrial brick its international brand, with the Tate Modern housed in another former power station and the Tate Liverpool housed in an immense brick warehouse on the Albert Dock in Liverpool. The center of the Tate Modern, its immense Turbine Hall, has been visited by 20,000,000 people since it opened in 2002. The Great Northern is both wider and taller.

As a grain elevator, the Great Northern is unique in the world and an irreplaceable part of what makes Buffalo's collection of grain elevators a cultural landscape of national distinctiveness. If anything gives Buffalo a sense of place, it is the elevators.

As a building the Great Northern also stands in rare company in global architecture. Distinguished Professor of Art History Francis Kowsky has said of the Great Northern that experts "around the world see the Great Northern grain elevator as an incomparable asset. No other shed style grain elevator of this magnitude exists anywhere on earth. As a monument of the early industrial era, it ranks with the Stanley Dock tobacco warehouse in Liverpool and the Battersea Power Station  in London... The Great Northern, however, excels both of them for the sheer magnitude of its brick walls, surely among the largest expanse of brick surfaces on any structure in existence. Its monumental enclosed volume is a tribute to the skill and daring of a former generation of Buffalo brick craftsmen."  Both Battersea (a Grade II British Landmark) and the Stanley Dock (a World Heritage Unesco Site) have been saved and repurposed and helped revive entire districts.


The immense volume of the Great Northern's brick box could accommodate, with interior modifications, any use that requires large sheltered spaces—museums, galleries, theaters, waterparks, retail—that would complement whatever ground-floor and workhouse (the 4-story cupola that tops the building) uses can be dreamed up. As a brick building, The Great Northern has evoked favorable comparisons to a UNESCO World Heritage site in Liverpool and the Battersea Power Station in London.

Fighting to save landmark, Campaign for Greater Buffalo needs your help

Great Northern perspective 1 cover
The Great Northern grain elevator is just one of the many important efforts The Campaign for Greater Buffalo is working on right now.

A letter from Campaign for Greater Buffalo Executive Director Tim Tielman:

Dear Friend in Preservation and Friend of Buffalo,
We are engaged in an epic battle to save the Great Northern grain elevator, a Buffalo icon which many of us worked to preserve and landmark over 30 years ago. Buffalo mayor Byron Brown made a classic Friday-afternoon-holiday-season emergency demolition declaration. We worked mightly from that moment to now, as I write these words, to block the demolition, get into court, and start planning for a renewed Great Northern.

This doesn’t happen by magic. The capacity to wage these battles comes from our members and donors combined with our knowledge and passion. When the rubber hits the road, it is The Campaign for Greater Buffalo that shows up. We need your help now in the form of an annual or monthly recurring membership to the Campaign, or a special donation that can reduce your taxable income by up to $600.

Our income has taken a big hit in the last two years, as we haven’t been able to operate our Open-Air Autobus and our LearnAboutBuffalo tours. But our work has not stopped:
•We are developing plans for a post-Thruway downtown, including “urban hamlets” on the East Side, West Side, and The Terrace.

Cloudwalk 1a from Central Wharf•We are advancing proposals to link the historic DL&W train shed with the Connecting Terminal Elevator via a pedestrian bridge OVER the Skyway (see our December newsletter).


Voelker's dusk Ed Healy• We put fighting to save Voelker's Lanes and put together the landmark application that is now before the Buffalo Common Council


•We are celebrating our work in saving the North Park Library from demolition for a strip plaza and the adaptation of the building into the Italian Heritage Center.

Meidenbauer House•We are urging the city to fix or give us the Fruit Belt’s Meidenbauer House, part of the High Street Historic District, which we created.


•We released the massive Big Picture plan in April, stretching from the foot of Main Street to Court Street behind City Hall.
•We are continuing our Green Book project to catalog all Buffalo Black-friendly business sites listed in the famous directories for Black travelers. published from the 1930s to 1960s, with the hopes of landmarking and restoring key buildings.

I urge you—no, beg you—to act now. On a your phone, go to https://www.paypal.com/donate/?hosted_button_id=RCQVHYM7ZECBN. On your laptop or desktop, go to the sidebar on the left and click on the DONATE button to give any amount, one-time or monthly. Or choose a membership level and click ADD TO CART. You can or mail your check (dated Dec. 31 or earlier) or charge card information to us at Campaign for Greater Buffalo, 403 Main Street, suite 705, Buffalo, NY 14203. Finally, you can call me at 716-854-3749 (after hours or weekends leave a message) and I’ll take you charge information over the phone.

The new year promises new challenges. Spirit willing and resources ready, we can be prepared. For that, we’ll need your help. Please donate as generously as you can, today. 

Thank you in advance and best wishes for 2022,

Tim Tielman
Executive Director

Campaign for Greater Buffalo wins temporary reprieve of emergency demo of Great Northern

The Great Northern elevator suffered damage to its north wall on Dec. 11, prompting the Brown Administration to issue an emergency demolition order. Similar damage to its south wall in 1907, which was repaired

State Supreme Court Judge Dennis Ward this afternoon signed a temporary restraining order preventing the emergency demolition of the 1897 elevator. The Campaign for Greater Buffalo had filed suit against the City of Buffalo and the Archer Daniels Midland Milling (ADM) to block demolition of  the landmark Great Northern grain elevator. The city announced its demo order on late Friday afternoon. The judge’s prohibition of demolition extends at least to Wednesday, December 22, at which time the parties will appear before a yet to be assigned judge.

The city announced that it would permit emergency demolition of the elevator after a section of brick cladding on the north elevation was lost in a wind storm of historic fury on Saturday, December 11. One-hundred fourteen years earlier, the south side suffered almost mirror-image damage in another epic storm and was repaired.

Paul McDonnell, AIA, the chair of the Campaign for Greater Buffalo, who was broad and deep experience with historic structures, provided an affidavit for The Campaign in which he stated that the elevator was not in danger of collapse, nor would other sections of the brick curtain wall, were they to fall, pose any threat to the public that could not be mitigated, rather than demolishing the entire building.

Anthony Barker, President of the Bakery, Confectionery, Tobacco Workers, and Grain Millers union, Local 36G, also provided an affidavit.

Attorney Richard Lippes, representing The Campaign, said he was gratified with the TRO and the opportunity to argue the merits of the case. “Taking down the Great Northern would be akin to the demolition of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Larkin Administration Building. You’d think we’d have learned our lesson.”The elevator has many claims to fame. It was the first elevator in the world to be designed to run on electricity (together with the demolished Electric elevator formerly on Childs Street), the largest grain elevator in the world upon completion, the first to employ the ranks of tall, slim cylindrical grain bins that gave the building type its distinctive look familiar around the world, and the last "brick box" grain elevator in North America (and probably the world).

The Great Northern is an invaluable piece of Buffalo's architectural and cultural heritage and has been a designated city landmark since 1990. According to the sccopers' and millers' unions engaged at the elevator and the adjacent flour mill, the Great Northern has used by either ADM or previous owner Pillsbury since 1981 to thwart union employment. Pillsbury bought the Standard elevator a short grain-truck ride away and equipped it with a vacuum to siphon grain out of ships, eliminating the need to employ scoopers, who were part of the Longshoreman's union. ADM has continued that practice and has not maintained the building to code during its entire history of ownership. According to James Comerford, Commissioner of Permits and Inspection Services, ADM sought him out for an emergency demo last year. Comerford claims he refused, but did not otherwise act to even inspect the building despite being notified of possibly dangerous conditions.

The emergency demolition order was another Friday Afternoon Holiday Special, made public by the Mayor via the media late on Friday afternoon, after he notified ADM on Thursday that the Administration would be granting the emergency demo order. That raised the specters of the Harbor Inn demolition by Carl Paladino, the Samuel Wilkeson House and other Prospect Hill houses, the Scottish Rite Cathedral on Colvin Avenue, and, most of all, the attempted demolition of the Squier Mansion on Main Street days before Christmas in 2001. The Wilkeson House was, and the Great Northern is, a designated city landmark.

It does not make the saving of endangered city landmarks any easier when the city issues demo permits and emergency orders on that day and at that time. The Campaign and its dedicated network of volunteers mounted a great effort simply to overcome the barriers the city put in its way. Citizens will be asked to do further work to assure the survival and restoration of another irreplaceable landmark.

The only thing that is structually deficient at the Great Northern is ADM's plea for emergency demo

ADM cover2
ADM must be pretty certain it will get it 30-year record of malignant neglect at the landmark Great Northern grain elevator rewarded with an emergency demolition order from the Brown Administration: It didn't even bother filling out the standard application to request demolition, but submitted a custom request for an emergency demolition to Commissioner of Permits and Inspection Services James Comerford.
This is, of course, to evade public review, rodent baiting, asbestos removal and a Preservation Board hearing and review by
independent experts. And who wouldn't want to avoid public review of the slipshod logic and demonstrably untrue assertions that litter ADM's papers? ADM offers, among other things, the results of its 30-year neglect as reason for the demo.
 Buffalo News reporter Mark Sommer writes that Congressman Brian Higgins immediately responded that the city "should hold firm" against ADM's shirking of responsibility for the historic landmark, calling Saturday's storm damage a pretext "to allow ADM to do what they have wanted to do for three decades."

Peg Overdorf, Old First Ward resident and Valley Community Association Executive Director also voiced strong objections to any demolition.

The Campaign for Greater Buffalo, whose members submitted the original city landmark application in 1990 and have fought off several previous attempts at demolition by ADM, would fight to the utmost to save it from the greatest threat the landmark has yet faced. Paul McDonnell, Chair of the Campaign, said he "saw nothing that would conclude that the elevator cannot be restored and adaptively reused." The elevator was phased out by previous owner Pillsbury and remained closed by ADM as a way to eliminate union jobs at the elevator and in the unloading of grain ships, according to union officials.
Mayor Brown will make the ultimate decision on whether his inspections department submits to ADM's structurally deficient logic and demands or allows the normal public review process to take place. The mayor's office has said it would decide today, Thursday.

Buffalo suffers yet another collapse. Will mayor act?

Great Northern cover 1
Part of the north wall of the Great Northern grain elevator was lost Saturday in a gale, 114 years after another storm caused nearly a mirror image of damage to the south wall. Will Mayor Brown follow up on his pledge "not to allow problem properties to exist" or will powerful agri-giant ADM be granted its wish to demolish a property it has wanted to demolish for decades?

The Great Northern grain elevator, a City of Buffalo landmark since 1990, for the second time in its history suffered extensive damage to its north brick curtain wall in a windstorm late Saturday afternoon. The resulting opening has the effect of a giant cutaway model, revealing a secret of the historically important elevator—the brick cladding is merely a curtain covering ranks of giant steel grain bins inside. The mammoth cylindrical bins—there are 30, each of which can hold 74,000 bushels of grain—were an important advance over the prevalent 5,000-bushel wooden bins of the time. The bins, including smaller interstitial bins between, stand on a steel frame and themselves support a steel platform on which sits a steel 4-story work house. The brick curtain wall was completed after everything else. It was thought by the designer that the brick cladding would guarantee that the steel bins would not be effected by solar exposure or weathering.

A storm in 1907 caused a failure of  Great Northern's south wall that was mirror image of Saturday's failure

The Great Northern has been owned by the agribusiness giant Archer Daniels Midland (ADM) since the early 1990s. ADM, with revenues of $64.6 billion in 2019, with net income of $16.3 billion (for comparison, Buffalo's most recent budget was about $740 million). ADM has wanted to demolish the Great Northern since the day it bought it during the Masiello Administration. Preservationists, led by Sue McCartney of the Preservation Coalition and the Grain Shovelers Union, fought off demolition in a long battle in the mid-1990s. Despite the landmark designation and obvious water damage to the brick envelope, neither the Masiello or Brown administrations has ever compelled ADM to so much as fix a gutter or downspout. The Preservation Coalition and The Campaign for Greater Buffalo repeatedly urged city officials over the years to address the building code violations.

Perhaps ADM, caught rigging the corn-sweetener market at the same time as it was trying to first demo the Great Northern, is too intimidating for the city to take on. Not many companies can pay $400 million settlements and $100 million fines for price-fixing, tax dodging, bribery, polluting, and violating the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/ADM_(company)). Not many companies have books written about them called "Rats in the Grain: The Dirty Tricks and Trials of Archer Daniels Midland, the Supermarket to the World "

The cladding failure at the Great Northern is just the latest in a series of high-profile collapses or flagrant and consequence-lite building code violations during the last few years, including 435 Ellicott Street (the City performed a quick emergency demolition itself after the roof collapsed on the occupied building in December of 2019), 324 Oak Street (catastrophic structural collapse last July). In addition, two other local landmarks are endangered through malignant neglect, the Meidenbauer House at 204 High Street in the Fruit Belt and the iconic buildings of the Cobblestone Historic District, 110 and 118-120 South Park Avenue. The Meidenbauer house was seized by the city in 2005, shortly before Mayor Brown took office and has been left to rot as the city entertains a series of developers who only want to demolish the building for the land.

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The embarrassing Ellicott Street collapse and demo prompted Brown to institute an inspection blitz to take on neglected commercial properties. Announcing the effort in February 2020, Brown said "We simply will not allow problem properties to exist." Commissioner of Permits and Inspection Services James Comerford added "We're not going to put up with it anymore." Having put up with it for 14 years, the Administration was going to put it foot down. Here is the chance to deal with a very big problem and save a city landmark from a very unpleasant and irresponsible multi-national enterprise that has demonstrated contempt for the city.

Great Northern UC 1897 Sci Amer
Merry Christmas, America. The front cover of the December 25, 1897 Scientific American featured this drawing of the Great Northern elevator under construction in the summer of 1897. The bins and working house were completed first, and the non-load-bearing brick curtain wall went up last. The elevator was the largest in the world and designed to run on AC power from Tesla-designed dynamos at Niagara Falls

At the Great Northern, it is clear from construction documents and the 1907 incident, that the mere failure of cladding, spectacular though it seems, does not dictate demolition, nor is it a danger to the public. It lies far from the public way and the City Ship Canal exposure can be controlled by a buoy line. ADM should be compelled to fix it (insurance would pay for most of it), as well as to, finally, install the gutters and downspouts that you and I would have to do on our houses. Thirty years is long enough to have put up with it.

Campaign for Greater Buffalo proposes to bridge access gap on waterfront

Cloudwalk from Wharf
The Campaign for Greater Buffalo is proposing that a new type of pedestrian bridge is the solution to a problem hiding in plain site: The Buffalo Outer Harbor is practicably inaccessible to people using public transit or simply walking or riding their bikes. As the crow flies (or cars speed across the Skyway), only 1000 feet separate Central Wharf and downtown Buffalo from the opposite shore of the Buffalo River, yet this becomes 3.8 miles on the ground for walkers, bikers and transit users, who must, if they can, make due with existing roadways. The problem will only become more glaring as the hundreds of millions of dollars proposed to be spent on Outer Harbor parks and other improvements forge ahead.

Members of the Campaign for Greater Buffalo have advocated for preserving, restoring, and appreciating the historic assets of the Buffalo River since the 1980s. This includes creating the Cobblestone Historic District and waging a federal court battle to save and restore the Commercial Slip, Central Wharf, and the Canal District’s historic streets.

Greater Buffalo Cloudwalk Dec 2021 1
The Campaign for Greater Buffalo's proposal for a pedestrian Cloudwalk is detailed in its December newsletter. Download Greater Buffalo Cloudwalk 1a

Those goals are more important than ever to the success of both the Inner Harbor, Outer Harbor, and social justice. Recently, the Empire State Development Corporation's Erie Canal Harbor Development Corporation approved controversial plans for spending millions of dollars on an outdoor concert facility at the far south end of its Outer Harbor lands. The plan is to take the decades-old summer concert series from downtown, where it is accessible to everyone, and place it where it is only practically accessible by car.

Congressman Brian Higgins has unveiled proposals for expanding a public park along the south bank of the Buffalo River from the Buffalo Light upstream to the head of Fuhrmann Boulevard and a proposed boardwalk and park connecting stretching to the Connecting Terminal Elevator. Public transit, bicycle, and, pedestrian access are overlooked, other than as an adjunct to existing roadways. Those impose an almost eight-mile roundtrip barrier from Central Wharf on walkers, bike riders, and transit users.

The tremendous unspoken success of the Canal District and Central Wharf is their accessibility and use by all classes of residents and visitors. That springs directly from the fact that they are directly on Metrorail at the base of downtown. We must extend that success to the Outer Harbor. Especially in light of the vision set forth in the 2004 masterplan mandated by the federal district court, wherein the Canal District is to be built-out in the manner the neighborhood was before being demolished for, among other things, the Skyway and Memorial Auditorium. The  Canal District and Outer Harbor would be two mutually supportive parts of a livable whole. The Canal District being historically dense, complex, and full of urban recreational opportunity, and the Outer Harbor offering open-space recreation and learning.

But the livable whole can only exist if everyone can benefit. Access must not be denied by distance, cost, or season, but must be convenient, comfortable, abundant, and free. A pedestrian bridge is essential. It makes the downtown and the Old First Ward livability index go up. Soaring over social, mobility, and equity barriers, it points toward a sustainable future. And actually, it is not a new type of bridge type, but one that is thousands of years old. It only is just now becoming used in new ways, primarily in the rugged, windy, and wintry mountains of central Europe.

Bridging the access gap on the Buffalo waterfront is just the beginning. Regionally, long-span low-cost pedestrian bridges  solve a lot of access problems particular to Western New York and nearby Canada. Think of spanning the Niagara River between Prospect Park and Clifton Hill in Niagara Falls. Connecting Youngstown with Niagara-on-the-Lake. Crossing the Erie Canal below the Flight of Five in Lockport. Economically useful all. That they’d be fun is a bonus.

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Death Star: County plan for Convention Center doesn't address problems it created. Our 1999 plan does.

As a 17-year-old, I went to look at the model of the brutalist Buffalo Convention Center on display in the lobby of the Bank of Buffalo at Pearl and Court Street in 1976. I worked next door at the Otto Ulbrich Company as a helper in the shipping department and was very familiar with the neighborhood and its daily routines. I was a tiny actor in its urban ecosystem. The Convention Center would destroy all of that. That was easy enough for a 17-year-old with a GED to see.

First, it would cause the demolition of the Andrews and Tucker buildings on Court Street for the fire egress from the main exhibit hall. Then the elegant classical Edwards Department Store building that fronted on Genesee and wrapped around to Franklin and Pearl. Lastly, some smaller buildings on Franklin and Pearl, including the Second-Empire style Ace's Steak Pit restaurant building.

Second, it would shut off and occupy West Genesee and West Mohawk streets between Franklin and Pearl. Not only that, the new building and its over-scaled and overhanging roof truss enclosure—crushing scale and threatening horizontal projections are a feature of brutalism, after all—come so close to Green & Wicks's YMCA building as to "disappear." The Y's grand entrance portal was closed off and two buildings demolished for a new entrance court and offices on the north side of the building. The already-narrow walk connecting Franklin and Pearl is further narrowed by emergency egress and stairs from the ground floor level of the Convention Center. This sinister clove, shadowy at mid-day, was made darker and narrower still by an ill-conceived later overhead rat run to the former Hyatt Hotel, seldom ever used, even in winter.

Third, the immense four-front dead zone created by this proto urban death star reduced pedestrian traffic to almost nothing. Stores spaces in all directions closed for lack of foot traffic. For decades. Even McDonald's, Burger King, and a shoe store at Main and Mohawk—a documented 100% corner, in real estate parlance—failed when the pedestrian stream between Main and Niagara Square was constricted.

There's more, but you get the picture.

Fast-forward to the late 1990s and calls for a larger convention center to address the failure of the current one to transform Buffalo (in a positive way). It would have been the mother of all urban death stars, leveling four blocks east of Main. Having lived through this story before, your correspondent was part of the leadership of an ad hoc group called Citizens for Common Sense which, with the Preservation Coalition of Erie County (I was executive director) helped turn the tide against the project.

Part of that effort was to come up with a cheaper-better-faster mitigation of the current convention center. Herb Guenther of Premier Presentations donated his architectural rendering skills to the cause. We called it the GEM—General Entertainment and Meeting— Center.

Twenty years later, we have a new set of drawings released by the County that seeks to mitigate the brutalist harshness of the Franklin Street facade by hanging a 1960s-style screen over it. That may strike some as an improvement, it does nothing to waken the surrounding precincts from the coma the convention center itself induced. While we might change some of the details, our mitigation strategy to help the host neighborhood remains valid and should be implemented. In terms of urbanity, a building is a gem only if it makes everything around it better.

CC from Main & Mohawk  2016
The Convention Center blocked both West Mohawk and West Genesee, cutting off foot traffic between Main Street and Niagara Square, dooming businesses and the attractiveness of the very place the convention center purported to uplift.
CC from Mohawk & Franklin
Convention center's Brutalism, scale, and obstruction are evident in view eastward near Franklin Street.
CC Walkway Mohawk
Mohawk Street passage between Franklin and Pearl is the stuff of urban nightmares.

GEM Mohawk to East jpg
Reestablishing the Mohawk viewshed between Delaware Avenue and Main Street is critical. Removing failed skywalk, reducing roof overhangs, and eliminating Pearl St. access ramp enclosure would open vistas, reveal historic YMCA facade.


Pearl St facade CC
Pearl St. facade of convention center is a 600-ft-long spirit-sapping, commerce-killing concrete rasp.


GEM Pearl St. south
Reducing scale with canopy, softening facade with ceramic mosaics of Buffalo scenes and brick walls, and eliminating enclosure of truck ramp would humanize this deadening stretch. (County is seeking to install artwork here as part of current project) Glazed north wall of main hall would offer views of YMCA facade.


CC Franklin facade
Nightmare on Franklin Street: Mostly bereft of activity, the Brutalist building was a hated imposition from birth.


GEM from N. Sq. jpg
1999 concept attempts to soften Franklin Street facade by replacing the rough concrete wall panels with tall window bays
Gem City Hall View
Opening up the main hall with windows to City Hall and the YMCA building creates a sense of place and wonder.

Gem site plan 2
Site plan as conceptualized in 1999 mitigation proposal


The author offered alternative to a new convention center in 1999 in an influential article in the Buffalo Preservation Report

Hearing to decide fate of Voelker's 1pm Tue. Sept 14 in Council Chambers

Voelker's hearing 1
Campaign for Greater Buffalo flyer urging public to attend public hearing on fate of Voelker's Lanes.

The Campaign for Greater Buffalo urges preservation-minded citizens to attend a public hearing and speak in favor of saving the historic Voelker's Lanes-Hotel Elmwood building at the corner of Elmwood and Amherst Streets. The Buffalo Common Council's Legislative Committee will hold a public hearing on Tuesday September 14 in Council chambers on the landmark application The Campaign prepared at the request of the Preservation Board. The Preservation Board voted unanimously in June to designate the building as a City of Buffalo landmark.

Previous articles on Voelker's and its fascinating history can be found by scrolling to posts below, where the full landmark application can also be read and downloaded.

Can't make it to City Hall? You can write a  message voicing your support of landmark status for Voelker's and what it means to you to the City Clerk Tianna Marks, who will copy it so all Council members have it on their desks in the hearing packet. Access the online form—making sure you tick the "Common Council Proceedings" circle— at https://www.buffalony.gov/forms.aspx?FID=68.

Endangered Voelker's wins Pres. Board vote, goes to Council

Voelkers animated sign

The Campaign for Greater Buffalo History, Architecture & Culture scored a victory for the preservation of a pop culture landmark on July 8 when the Buffalo Preservation Board unanimously approved an application it had prepared to designate the Hotel Elmwood/Voelker’s Lanes complex an official Buffalo landmark. For Campaign members and supporters it was a satisfying first step in process to save the endangered building.

Download Hotel Elmwood-Voelker application med-res1

The fourth-generation owner of Voelker’s, who also owns Kenmore Lanes, filed for a demolition permit in April. That initiated the process by which the Preservation Board reviews all demolition applications. The Board reached out to the Campaign for assistance. The application was prepared by Campaign Executive Director Tim Tielman with valuable contributions from Black Rock historians Doreen DeBoth and Monica Rzepka. Voelker wants to demolish the site at the corner of Elmwood and Amherst Streets and “build-to-suit.” By her own testimony, she has allowed the building to suffer from lack of maintenance, citing her evident negligence as reason to deny landmark status.

While many signs and pop-culture sites across the country are official local-, state-, and national landmarks, the Voelker’s building would be the first individually listed building of its kind in Buffalo. Voelker’s is known to most Western New Yorkers for its bold neon signs, but it has a much longer and varied history stretching back to before the Pan American Exposition opened across the street. It was operated as a bar probably from the beginning in 1886, when Grover Cleveland was President.
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Prior to Thursday’s vote, Preservation Board Chair Gwen Howard reported that the number of people expressing an opinion in favor of landmarking dwarfed the numbers against. That was despite the Board bending over backward and allowing Voelker more time to seek out neighbors supporting her demo request. For now, barring mischief, Voelker’s is safe until the Common Council Legislation Committee holds a public hearing—probably in September—on the merits of the application as it pertains to the Preservation Code. The Committee then sends its recommendation to the full Council for a vote.

In practice, whether Voelker’s gets demolished or saved is in the hands of North District Councilmember Joe Golombek, who has said he is undecided pending review of the application and the public hearing.

Iconic Voelker's Lanes threatened; Campaign on the case


Voelker's Last Call
Voelker's Lanes—the former Hotel Elmwood of the Pan-Am expo, is seen here shortly after a 10-lane bowling alley was added in 1941 (far left, brick). The bar was leased to another operator at the time.

The fourth-generation owners of Voelker’s Lanes, the neon- and krypton bedecked landmark at the corner of Elmwood Avenue and Amherst Street, are seeking to demolish it, along with several other buildings in what could be called Voelkerville. It is a two-block section on the west side of Elmwood Avenue, from Woodette Place to Marion Street. It is where working class Black Rock, the industrial Belt Line, and the upper class ranges of the north end of Lincoln Parkway bump into each other. A long block away on Amherst Street from Voelker's is a horseback riding academy, while two short blocks north is the huge Pierce-Arrow Motor Car factory.

The Buffalo Preservation Board, which must review all demolition applications, acted to prepare a landmark designation for the site, and accepted an offer from The Campaign for Greater Buffalo to assist in the effort. Doreen DeBoth, of the Black Rock Historical Society, and Monica Rzepka also volunteered their research. Campaign Executive Director Tim Tielman did further research and wrote the narrative. The board will consider the draft application at its Thursday May 27, 2001 meeting.

Download Hotel Elmwood-Voelker application med-res1

The Hotel Elmwood-Voelker’s Lanes building at the Northwest corner of Elmwood Avenue is the oldest and most familiar structure in precinct. It was constructed c1886 as a saloon with one or more residential units above. It was designed to be a landmark, both in its incarnation as a saloon that grew into a hotel, and as an apartment building with a saloon that grew into a bowling alley. Its signage—neon and krypton—are landmarks not only on the ground, but from the sky, where pilots use them as a nighttime navigational aid.


Caroline Rochevot 1897 Courier-Record
Caroline Rochevot, President of the Lion Brewery under whom the Hotel Elmwood was transformed in the lead-up to the Pan-American Exposition

Caroline Rochevot, president of the Lion Brewery, drove the transformation of a modest frame saloon into a hotel anchored by the saloon (1897-1900) directly across from a main gate of the Pan American Exposition, held in 1901. Rochevot, with Mary Cass of F.N. Burt, was one of few female corporate leaders in the city at that time. It is the sole survivor of the several hotels built proximate to the expo’s Elmwood Avenue gates.

The Rochevot family teamed up with the Voelker family to run several saloons in Buffalo. The Rochevots supplied the beer and the premises, and the Voelkers leased the saloons. The Voelker association with the site dates to c1896, when Karl Voelker (a.k.a. Carl a.k.a Charles. He preferred to be formally known by the German in old age) is known to be operating the saloon in the building owned by the Lion Brewery.

Voelker went on not only to acquire the Hotel Elmwood, but to build and assemble what could be called Voelkerville, a collection of properties that included a 1920s “taxpayer” building with four shopfronts and a gas station on the south west side of Amherst St., several houses and commercial buildings, and a coal yard for a family coal business.

The Hotel Elmwood-Voelker’s Lanes buildings embody Buffalo’s— and New York State’s—complicated and colorful relationship with alcohol and laboring, ethnic commercial ties, neighborhood development, and mass leisure activities. The core structure’s first known proprietor was a Mary Hemmert, as listed in the 1886 City Directory. The building appears in an 1891 atlas as the sole structure at its intersection. Amherst Street, running east from Lower Black Rock at the Niagara River, was the principal street. The New York Central’s Belt Line was ran several blocks north, connecting the industries of Black Rock with those on the East Side. Residential and industrial growth originated in the former lower Black Rock and spread east along Amherst Street and the railroad, especially after 1884.

The promise of the location was realized in 1892, when the Elmwood Avenue horsecar line was electrified and extended to Amherst Street, allowing rapid connections to downtown. Hemmert was moved to sell the property to George Rochevot, owner of the Lion Brewery. Saloon and tavern premises at this time could be owned by breweries, which leased them to saloonkeepers obligated to serve the breweries’ products. This ended with Prohibition in 1920; when the 18th Amendment became law in 1933, manufacturers had to sell to wholesalers, rather than directly to consumers.

Rochevot (1832-1897) was a native of the Rhenish border region of Germany. He emigrated to the

Lion Brewery
The Lion Brewery and Rochevot home on Jefferson Avenue south of Best. A section of the brewery survives.

United States in 1856 at age 24. By the next year he had established the Rochevot Brewery on Spring and Cherry streets, in the broad belt of German settlement on the East Side. By 1871 Rochevot had secured a large parcel of land on Jefferson Avenue south of Best Street on which he built a much larger and architecturally impressive brewery, and the family home. The compound gradually expanded, complete with a saloon and bowling alley managed by Caroline Rochevot, company vice-president and George’s spouse. Parts of this brewery survive.

George Rochevot died in January 1897. His widow Caroline inherited his estate of nearly $1,000,000, the presidency of the brewery, and property. Caroline soon commenced upgrading the Amherst Street property. Perhaps wishing to demonstrate the family company was in good hands, Caroline was featured in a company profile in the Buffalo Courier-Record in August of that year, along with three of her children. The Courier waxed enthusiastic of her leadership: “She is as active now and as keen in intellect as she ever was, and controls her large and diversified interests in a manner that would put to shame many so called smart business men.”

In 1898 Caroline, probably reacting to the enactment of New York State’s Raines Law of 1896, expanded the premises into a hotel. The Raines Law raised the drinking age from 16 to 18, and allowed only hotels of 10 rooms or more to serve alcohol on Sundays. During the era of the six-day work week, Sunday would have been the biggest day of beer sales to the working and middle classes, and saloons could not easily sacrifice their most profitable day. This led to a boom of small hotel construction across the state.

The building gained a two-story wing and additional entry along the Elmwood Avenue frontage (This addition was given the address of 1620 Elmwood Avenue). A crested Second Empire tower with flag pole emphatically marked the Elmwood-Amherst corner, and a snappy veranda united the Elmwood frontage.  A second impulse was perhaps the announcement, in the summer of 1898, that Buffalo would be hosting a Pan-American Exposition three years hence on the Rumsey farm across Elmwood Avenue. The Rochevots were not hoteliers, but it would have been hard to ignore the prospect of housing not only fair visitors for a six-month run three years off, but the much surer prospect of housing construction workers and staff.

The 1899 season may have provided proof; at the tail-end of the year they applied for a permit to extend the Elmwood wing to its final dimensions. Census records of 1900 showing a full house of largely immigrant lodgers at the hotel. On May 2 of that year, day laborers staged a strike for an eight-hour workday. They gathered at the Hotel Elmwood. They posed for a picture in front of the hotel with their shovels, tool boxes, and lunch pails. This would have been the logical place to anchor themselves, where working-class Black Rock met striving Elmwood at a worker-friendly establishment. Already the building had become a neighborhood landmark.


Hotel Elmwood envelope detail
The Hotel Elmwood, seen here in a 1901 hotel stationary cover, was conceived as a landmark, with its mass culminating in a pyramided tower with iron cresting and a flagpole. Signage bedecked the building from its earliest days.

The Rochevot’s first saloon keeper documented on the site was Frederick Ebling, from c1892 through 1895. After Ebling came Karl Voelker (d. Nov. 1953) in 1895. Karl had emigrated from Germany in c1886. He wasn’t the only Voelker running a Rochevot establishment at the time. W.J. Voelker was a proprietor of two Voelker & Rochevot restaurants in downtown Buffalo, one on Seneca Street opposite the Main Post Office, and another on Ellicott Street near Genesee.

Karl’s first stint as saloonkeeper at the corner of Amherst and Elmwood came to an end in 1900, as the Rochevot’s Lion Brewery plowed a substantial sum into improvements and leased the saloon to Caroline Rochevot’s son-in-law (company vice-president), Henry Mesinger. According to a later affidavit, Mesinger then flipped the lease to a company investor in February 1901 for a substantial profit. After the fair the lease went back to Mesinger.

The Rochevots were a feuding family, however, with battles over cash and control spilling out into public view through lawsuits that played out through 1905, when the Lion Brewery was taken over by the Schoellkopf family, which renamed it Consumers Brewery. The Hotel Elmwood was sold to local power broker and brewer Henry W. Brendel. Brendel served as both president of the East Buffalo Brewing Co. and secretary/treasurer of the Lake View Brewing Co., and was for a time an Assemblyman, Erie County Republican party chairman, and Customs Inspector.

Karl Voelker, meanwhile, wasn’t sitting still. He proprietor of at least two eating and drinking places, one across from a brass factory on Military Road, and another, the Amherst Hotel at 572 Amherst at Bridgeman St., which he owned outright. Like the Hotel Elmwood before and after the fair, this would have been akin to a boarding house rather than the modern conception of a hotel, catering to single working men who sought to live within walking distance of employment or public transportation.

It is unknown how long Karl Voelker owned or operated these or other establishments, but by April of 1910 he was back running the saloon at the Hotel Elmwood, this time to stay.

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In 1918 Henry Brendel, in what appears to have been a three-party agreement, deeded the Hotel Elmwood to the Consumers Brewery, which turned around and sold the property to Karl Voelker. Karl, according to later notice, then turned over the day-to-day running of the saloon to his 22-year-old son James C. This scion proved to be a troublesome branch of the family tree. That very January, James—Jimmy— made possibly his first appearance on the police blotter, arrested for allegedly fencing stolen jewelry. Perhaps Karl thought minding the store would keep Jimmy out of trouble. The entire Voelker clan at this time lived over the tavern.

Trouble of another kind was brewing in the form of anti-alcohol and anti-saloon legislation. Prohibition went into effect on January 1, 1920. The alcohol, saloon, and restaurant industries were devastated, and countless establishments went out of business. The Voelker family was fortunate in owning their building, one that was located at a streetcar turnaround and within walking distance of the new Pearce Arrow Motor Car factory and Belt Line industrial node. Still, the loss of legal alcohol revenue was apparently too much for James to take lying down.

James told the city directory enumerator in the fall of 1921 that he worked in soft drinks and lived at the Hotel Elmwood (as did his father, mother, sister Anna and her husband Anthony). That was a cover. James Voelker was a bootlegger.

By early 1921, James had become, according to authorities, involved in methodical thievery of railcar

James Voelker  1926
Jimmy Voelker, Buffalo's bootlegger king, 1926

shipments of alcohol, starting with a heist in the Black Rock Yard. A year-long investigation culminated in the arrest of dozens in a mammoth sting operation, including James, who was released on $5,000 bail. The outcome of this case is unknown. but it would have been clear that James could not afford to be associated with operations of the Elmwood Hotel. Anna Hartmann (nee Voelker) was hence forward listed as the operator of Hartmann’s Restaurant in the former saloon space of the Elmwood Hotel for the duration of Prohibition. She lived upstairs with her husband and son.

Karl and James had acquired neighboring houses across the street from the hotel, at 663 and 659 Amherst Street, respectively, modest Arts and Crafts bungalows in the dominant style of the post-Pan-Am development of the neighborhood. Each had a garage—a new residential accoutrement—and James’s became, according to published reports over the years, a veritable liquor warehouse. It became perhaps the most famous garage in Western New York. 

In it, James had stored in July 1926 at least 400 gallons of methyl alcohol (“wood alcohol”) that he had bought in New York. He began distributing it, in bottles labeled as Gordon’s gin, that month. Soon, a woman and a man at an Allentown house party died of methyl alcohol poisoning. Within days, scores of others across Western New York and Ontario were poisoned, resulting in 45 deaths. New York State papers called the unfolding events the alcohol horror, and the British House of Commons debated whether to lodge an official complaint with the United States government, charging that subjects of the crown were being killed by U.S. citizens.

Only the Allentown woman could be definitively tied to drinking the counterfeit gin from a bottle she had acquired from James Voelker. Police raided his house, finding bank records indicating income of up to $20,000 per week (Over $300,000, adjusted for inflation, in 2021).

He turned himself into authorities. He cooperated in naming associates, negotiated a plea-bargain and eventually was convicted of manslaughter and sentenced to 15 years at Auburn Prison.

Voelker was paroled after five years. A scant two years later, while still on parole, Voelker’s garage was found to contain a quantity of smuggled ale. A mob gathered. Two “dry” agents loaded the beer onto a truck and were promptly attacked and beaten by the mob as they attempted to drive away. The mob made off with the load of liquor. A federal commissioner discharged Voelker, who was not implicated in the mob action, the same day. It was a small story in that day’s news, which may indicate how routine such events were, and the Robin Hood aspect that resistors to duly constituted authorities sometimes acquire.

After Prohibition James was enumerated as a vendor of cigarette and candy machines typically found in bars. Indefatigable, he was also arrested as part of a ring of slot machine operators. The consequences are unknown. He died unexpectedly in August 1953. Pursued after death, his estate had to pay the IRS a five-figure tax lien.

James’s brother Edward and sister Anna proved to be the saving graces of the family. Anna ran her restaurant throughout Prohibition and Depression without public notoriety. In the early 1940s, brother Edward assumed ownership of the premises. Edward was responsible for shifting the business from being primarily a bar-restaurant to a bowling center with a beer habit. Edward added a 10-lane bowling alley in 1941 with a separate entrance on Amherst Street. It is probable that the animated neon sign that exists today over the bricked-in entrance was installed during that period. This became known as Voelker’s Bowling Alley, 686 Amherst Street. The lanes ran perpendicular to Amherst Street.


Voelkers animated sign
Ed Voelker was responsible for the animated neon blade sign placed over the entrance to the 10-lane bowling alley he added to the family tavern in 1941. Ed Healy photo

The alley at 686 Amherst was a clear dependency of the bar-restaurant at 692 Amherst, whether viewed from Amherst Street or Elmwood. In this, the alley was similar to many built as additions to bars and taverns across the city. Operators could guarantee a steady stream of customers by sponsoring teams and hosting leagues during the cold-weather months.

Edward was casting Voelker’s net beyond a neighborhood walk-in tavern, although the original hotel building would have been recognizable to anyone who had visited the Pan-Am. The corner tower had been truncated, and the veranda shortened to serve only the apartments in back and above, but the siding and fenestration was unchanged.

The postwar bowling business proved fruitful, and Edward more than tripled the number of lanes in 1951. The identity of the establishment was transformed. Voelker’s was now a bowling center, perhaps the most successful such mom-and-pop enterprise in the area. The old address of 692 Amherst even disappears from city records as 686 was lent to both flanking structures.

This second addition was a simple but large concrete box with a brick veneer on the Amherst Street side to match the brick of the earlier alley. The new lanes were placed perpendicular to the first set of lanes. The business became known as Voelker’s Alleys and Voelker’s Bar-Restaurant.

This expansion also brought with it changes to the original hotel building. The brick of the alleys was carried over to the ground-floor storefront on both Amherst St. and Elmwood Avenue. The restaurant fenestration was changed to large metal sash windows, the entrance was flanked by glass block sidelights, and the Elmwood facade received an Art Moderne strip window stretching from the corner entrance to the side door. Each end is semi-circular. It is probable that the rooftop neon signs were installed shortly after.

Edward had gone all-in with bowling. With the tremendous increase in overall business came a much greater geographical reach, with most patrons now arriving by car, necessitating parking lots, built on scattered adjacent parcels. Bowling was also a seasonal affair, with patrons seeking out the warmth, light, and camaraderie of bustling bowling alleys during cold and dark winters. During summer, the appeal of indoor activities waned.

A third generation of Voelkers, brothers Glenn and Mark, took over the business in the late 1970s. They bought their nearest competitor in, Kenmore Lanes 1979, and caused the final changes to the original Hotel Elmwood. The facade, previously covered with faux brick above and brick veneer below, was covered with an exterior insulation and finishing system (EIFS). The small freestanding hotel addition, the last of the Pan-Am construction campaign. was demolished in 1969. It had been long converted to a small shop and apartment.

The prominence of Voelker’s has long been noted in local media. For example, a recent Buffalo News article, “The Ultimate Western New York Bucket List: 100 things every Western New Yorker should do at least once,” states, at number one, “Bowl a few games at Voelker's Lanes on Amherst Street near Elmwood. Think ‘bowling alley’ and what you see in your mind's eye looks like Voelker’s.’” It does, to the extent that filmmakers use it to set a “typical Buffalo” scene and magazine editors spalash it on their covers. It is difficult to think of another Buffalo business so fused with symbolism and place consciousness.

Voelker's at dusk
Voelker's at dusk. A Buffalo landmark since the day it was built.Ed Healy photo.

Through its sheer presence and eagerness to please, at a location that many Western New Yorkers have had occasion to pass many times during the course of their lives, if not entered to bowl or socialize, Voelker’s has long been a landmark of the populist kind. It is not only a physical landmark, it is a landmark of the mind. Donation banner2 1

A new expressway to solve an old city-killing expressway? Leave it to NYS DOT.

SST post Madness 1
The New York State DOT’s proposed solution to closing its Route 5 Skyway is to build or expand over five miles of limited-access highway (in red, above) away from where people want to go. At staggering expense, it fails to address Buffalo’s problematic highway history, and reduces citizen access to the waterfront.

Hey, Highwayman! Put down your mouse. Back away from the screen.

Stop trying to rationalize building an entirely new limited-access highway that goes 2.6 miles in the wrong direction and dumps traffic onto a crowded Thruway, threatening new congestion for 2.3 miles that you propose to build yourself out of by expanding on/off lanes for the entire length, and building three spirit-killing, street-life-sucking, pedestrian-alienating, conflict-inducing interchanges with city streets. And generally coarsening neighborhood life to fulfill your through-traffic bias.

At a cost of almost $550,000,000, plus generations of maintenance and life-cycle costs that would exceed the original construction cost.

You’re not helping. Get a grip on how the rest of us live, and want to live.

Slow down, for one.

Look at the two-mile stretch of Route 5 in Woodlawn and Lackawanna. Three lanes in each direction max, a 40mph posted speed, intersecting streets, and stop lights here and there. Almost 38,000 vehicles use it per day, more than the Skyway itself. Ohio Street (until 2009 striped as four lanes) and a new two-lane, one-mile Ganson Street extension across the City Ship Canal connecting to Michigan Avenue would give you six traffic-calmed lanes, minimum, into the city.

That is better than reducing waterfront access to just one lane in each direction (the current configuration of Ohio Street). Further, diverting four lanes on an epic 5-mile detour through railyards, junkyards, and tank farms will not prove attractive to people who can see downtown Buffalo directly ahead of them, and will opt to go straight ahead. (On Day One this will jam up Ohio Street thicker than jelly, and we’ll have to wait years for its common-sense return to four lanes and a Ganson Street extension anyway.)

Even without the 30%-50% traffic diversion to the Thruway (via the Milestrip Expressway) that you yourself predict in your Route 5 Project Scoping Report, more than enough reserve capacity exists on local streets to handle foreseen traffic. Elmwood and Hertel avenues, in their most popular stretches, handle much more vehicular and foot traffic than presently crosses the Buffalo River on any street.

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The distributive ability of the universal-access local street network to get people directly where they want to go is better, by definition, than a limited-access highway. The north-south streets of Ganson, Michigan, Ohio, Louisiana, and Abby, plus the east-west connectors of Exchange and South Park (both four-lane width), renewed as “complete streets,” could profitably accommodate the traffic.

Can you prove, Mr. Highwayman, that Buffalonians and their neighborhoods would be better off with another expressway? That the construction-, maintenance-, environmental-, and social costs would be worth the foregone benefits?

The benefits? They start with access for all, including walkers, bikers on an iconic Cloudwalk, with a Metrorail station at the bottom. Acres of downtown land restored to neighborhood and park use along the lines laid down by Joseph Ellicott in 1800 (A reclaimed Terrace Park). A downtown waterfront that is complex, rich, dynamic, and layered with history. An Outer Harbor a walk away that is a human and natural refuge, with walkway and ridge-top views over a Great Lake. Allow us to explain. See the Big Picture

Buffalo's Big Picture, Kensington, Scajacquada plans could gain in "Reconnecting Communities Act"

Canal west from Pearl
Rebuilding the Erie Canal between Pearl and Erie Streets and the rest of Big Picture Plan could be realized under federal highway remediation bill


Big Picture cover
The full folio of Big Picture images can be had here Click to view and download Big Picture folio

For those who have worked for decades to remove barriers to the Buffalo waterfront, downgrade the Scajaquada Expressway, and mitigate the Kensignton Expressway, help is on the way. The Campaign for Greater Buffalo's Big Picture Plan, released last week (it includes the Cloudwalk, released seperately in February) is in the wheelhouse of a proposed "reconnecting Communities Act," which targets "infrastructural barriers that create to mobility or economic development, or expose the community to air pollution or other health and safety risks.” The Big Picture seeks to do all of those things, in addition to building new workforce housing, parks, and canals to support downtown retail and public transportation, as well historic preservation.

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The Washington Post reports "Key Democratic senators are introducing legislation to reconnect neighborhoods cut off by the Interstate Highway System.  The “Reconnecting Communities Act” is aimed redressing some of the historic inequities and racial disparities in the federal government's transportation investments.

"The legislation mirrors the $20 billion fund to take down highways outlined in President Biden's infrastructure proposal: it calls for the same levels of funding to be distributed through a grant program that would live in the Department of Transportation, according to an advance copy of the bill.

"The undertaking is also intended to alleviate traffic-related pollution — a continuation of the Biden administration's push to address environmental justice."

Cloudwalk and Skyway: Where would drivers go?

Ground-level Route 5 sheet 39
A lot of people are wondering what the 37,000 vehicles a day using Route 5 between Woodlawn and downtown Buffalo would do if the Skyway were closed to vehicles and reprogrammed as the Cloudwalk for walkers, bikers, picnicking and the like. Route 5 in Woodlawn and Lackawanna is at-grade, with cross streets, traffic lights, a 40mph posted speed limit, and six moving lanes (three in each direction).

The short answer is to merely insure that there are six lanes crossing the Buffalo River along the waterfront. You don't have to build a new $550,000,000-inland-expressway-and-Thruway-widening to do that. Just return Ohio and Louisiana streets to four lanes (as they were until 2009) and add a two-lane bridge and a Ganson Street extension on the west bank of the City Ship Canal. A few other details here and there, and you save a lot of time, money and angst, and you get a much nicer transportation network for people and neighborhoods. The DOT hasn't yet considered such a solution.

Considering DOT itself estimates that 12,000 vehicles will use the Thruway instead, the local street network (which could use a re-paving, new sidewalks, and flanking bike paths anyway) has enough reserve capacity to handle the remainder. All that, plus the Cloudwalk? Yes, please! Here is a sheet from the Big Picture folio that explains it. You can access the full folio of images here: Download Big Picture folio 40pp

The Big Picture: A Plan for Buffalo

Big Picture cover mailbox
The Campaign for Greater Buffalo History, Architecture & Culture is calling on the NY State Department of Transportation, with other state agencies, to restore reclaimed land from Skyway removal to conditions established by founder Joseph Ellicott in 1800 and Erie Canal builder DeWitt Clinton in 1825. The aim is to reclaim Buffalo's heritage, economic advancement, and a measure of social equity.

That includes restoration of Buffalo's first public park—The Terrace— as well as the run of the original Erie Canal between Pearl Street and Erie Street and the parallel famed Canal Street, and the Prime Slip, another historic canal which is possibly an archaeological motherlode.The Campaign is urging DOT to embrace the Big Picture—and to fund it with money from the Skyway project—to repair the damage caused to Buffalo's historic core by highway construction. Indeed, The Campaign is calling its proposal just that: The Big Picture Download Big Picture folio 1

The DOT is currently working on a Draft Environmental Impact Statement for Skyway removal.

The Big Picture incorporates a number of opportunities that could change the prospects of the city. Canyon Research Southwest, a real estate analytics firm, estimates that development on the reclaimed land as proposed (mostly 3-4 story residential) in the Big Picture would yield over $82,630,000 in real estate and sales taxes over a 20-year period. Spin-off benefits beyond the Skyway reclamation area were not calculated. This suggests the enormous lost opportunity cost since the Skyway opened in 1955, and the ongoing lost revenues if the Skyway is not removed.

Among the infrastructure and rehabilitation works proposed:
• The long-overdue reconstruction of the Union Block, site of Dug's Dive, the documented stop on the Underground Railroad once operated by William "Uncle Dug" Douglass. The Union Block in its last days was also an Italian tenement (so called on maps of the day).
• The systematic archaeological excavation, preservation, and rewatering of the main section of the Prime Slip, a private canal filled in by the Civil War and in which sits a pier of the Skyway.
• The restoration of the Canal District streets to their exact historic locations, with historically accurate paving.
• The restoration of Canal Street and the Erie Canal between Pearl and Erie Streets.
• The retention and adaptation of all of the Skyway from the north bank of the Buffalo River to Tifft Street as the Cloudwalk (detailed in an earlier proposal of February)
• The restoration of the DL&W train shed and a multi-use viaduct to connect it with the Cloudwalk ,Central Wharf, and the Cobblestone Historic District (also detailed in February)
• The reconstruction of Terrace Park, including Terrace Station.
• Construction of a local bus hub on The Terrace and under the Thruway viaduct between Pearl and Washington streets
• Re-platting all state lands into much smaller lots than typically planned in Urban Renewal projects and closer in spirit to those of Joseph Ellicott’s survey of 1803-4, with a goal of individual ownership.

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The scope of the Big Picture may seem vast, but it is small compared to what Buffalo lost in the 1950s and 1960s," says Tim Tielman, Executive Director of the Campaign.

“The Big Picture plan would reclaim 12 acres of the 292 acres that were totally destroyed in combined highway and urban renewal projects along the waterfront. Buffalo has been in an induced coma since. We now have the knowledge, means, and motivation to correct this massive historic, social, and economic injustice. We cannot defer justice any longer. The times call upon us to act.”

Richard Berger, a Campaign boardmember and lead attorney in the federal case which resulted in the 2000 lawsuit that reversed an earlier state project and a later attempt to put a Bass Pro megastore, says “We must restore our heritage sites to restore our economy and social equity. That begins with insuring that the Environmental Impact Statement is thorough and unbiased.”

Joseph Ellicott's original Buffalo street plan can be restored once downtown Skyway goes

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The Campaign for Greater Buffalo is proposing that The Terrace, a blocks-long public park and promenade linking several squares, be reconstructed as part of the state and federal project to remove all or parts of the Skyway.
The Campaign released proposals for the DL&W train shed and the Cloudwalk in January (see Cloudwalk: Skyway recycled), as part of the overall process to reinvigorate historic sites and re-establish the historic street patterns of Joseph Ellicott’s New Amsterdam plan, and the neighborhoods destroyed by highway construction and Urban Renewal. The Canal District streets and Central Wharf were the first fruits of that effort.

Until Frederick Law Olmsted's Park and Parkway system was laid out in the 1870's, Terrace Park was Buffalo's primary outdoor recreation and social space. You want a balloon ascension? The square at The Terrace and Church Street was the place. You want to build a market or raise a liberty pole? The square at The Terrace, Main & Lloyd was the spot.

The implementation of the Olmsted plan ironically led to the piecemeal destruction of the Terrace; The Terrace was largely forgotten as a civic space for the larger population. Its northern reaches between Court and Church streets became known mostly as neighborhood parks, its center section appropriated by the New York Central for its principal Belt Line and International station, and the southern section cut in half by a NY Central trench into the slope between Main and Evans streets.

Ellicott New Amsterdam proposed plan 1800
Joseph Ellicott’s first sketch of plan of Village of New Amsterdam, October 1800.
The steep slope—represented by black shading— fronting the lakeshore is the topographical feature which determined the orientation of streets. The slope between Seneca street and Court was set aside as a public park, Buffalo’s first, in Ellicott’s survey of 1803-4.

Terrace Park goes back to Joseph Ellicott’s very first sketch of his proposed Village of New Amsterdam. As Ellicott explained to his employers at the Holland Land Company in October 1800, New Amsterdam had lowlands at the western end of Lake Erie and along Buffalo Creek which, being flat and just four feet above the surface of the lake, could readily be laced with a network of canals and used for marine commerce. His canal at the foot of the Terrace and terminating at Little Buffalo Creek near Main Street so logically fit the natural geography that state engineers placed the Erie Canal along this path 25 years later. The lowlands ended at a steep slope, above which residential streets could be laid out from the upper terrace of land and eastward.

1872 Hopkins Terrace and Niagara Square
1872 map demonstrates the roles of border and promenade intended by Ellicott in his sketch of 1800.

The determining factor in his orientation of the entire future city was the disposition of the edge of the slope virtually parallel with the lake shore. He sketched lanes along the flat land at both the top of the slope and the bottom. Thus, Upper Terrace, Lower Terrace, and the sloping Terrace Park, set aside for public recreation. From the Upper Terrace, fine views of the Lake could be had, while the Lower Terrace could act as the interface between maritime commercial enterprises and the upper town.

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In addition to re-establishing Terrace Park, Campaign for Greater Buffalo proposes that economical housing be built to replace that taken for Skyway and the Waterfront Urban Renewal Area. This view, with stylized railroad crossing arms signifying a former use, to northwest from Erie Street. The roadway is a lane meant for access, not speed, flanked by broad sidewalks, bicycle paths, and a “logistics strip” for deliveries and drop-offs. On the right is a new mixed-use building that recalls St. Stephen’s Hall, where Grover Cleveland was nominated for mayor in 1871. It was demolished during the Depression.

Then, starting in the 1950s, the Skyway and Thruway set in train the events which would reduce the Terrace to a short stretch of stone wall between Genesee and Church streets. Everything else—parks, schools, apartment houses, commercial buildings, restaurants, corner stores, train station, civic gathering spots—was destroyed.

In the early 1880s, the city permitted the New York Central to build tracks across Main Street (these would shortly be routed through a tunnel) in exchange for establishing a passenger service on a belt line. The trench was cut across the slope to create a gradient to Church Street, where the tracks turned west to run along the Erie Canal. A Stick Style station with landscaped approaches was built between Swan and Church streets. Several footbridges were built to cross the trench and keep the Canal District connected with downtown. A four-block stretch of Terrace Park was thus abandoned to casual recreation (although the railroad carefully landscaped its section and erected an ornamental station, it was perceived as railroad property. The city even built what could have been its first public parking lot in the arc of greenery between Lower Terrace and the tracks).

The block south of the station grounds became the site of a new and imposing Buffalo Police Headquarters in 1884. With the building frontages on lower Pearl and Lock Street, a de facto square was created. 

Buffalo balloon ascension
Samuel Archer King, pioneering aeronaut, prepares to launch his Buffalo from Terrace Park at Church Street, 1873. Building at left is St. Joseph’s Academy, forerunner of St. Joe’s Collegiate Institute.

Another square was created where The Terrace met Church Street. This was the closest open space to the civic heart of the city, the interface between the commercial-industrial waterfront and emerging office and government precincts. This square was where perhaps the most famous aeronaut of the 19th century, Samuel Archer King, launched his hot-air balloon Buffalo, on September 16, 1873. The balloon was manufactured on an upper floor of the Aetna Building on Prime and Lloyd streets in the Canal District, and its ascension warranted a story in the New York Times. King called it the largest balloon in the world; it contained over 94,000 cubic feet, and the airship’s name was spelled out in letters seven feet high. King took the Buffalo all across the country. In 1877, it delivered the first airmail-stamped letters on a flight from Nashville to Gallatin, TN.

The Little Station That Could

Historically, the modest Terrace Station played an outsized role in the history of transportation in the city for several reasons. First, it was the chief station on Buffalo’s commuter rail network, include the Belt Line. Demand was so great it soon became, by the testimony of the NY Central itself, the third-busiest station in the entire NY Central system at a time when the Central was the second-largest transportation enterprise on the planet. (Grand Central Depot in New York was first, Buffalo’s Exchange Street Station, second).

Second, it was the station through which the NY Central ran its chartered excursion trains. Right through to the 1950s, Rochester travel agencies were running promotions to the Terrace Station for the Ice Capades and sporting events at Memorial Auditorium. Third, it was the Central’s station for trains to Niagara Falls and points north and west, thus many Canadians and Michiganders stepped onto its platform.

Train at Lower Terrace and Church St.
Until the early 1950s, New York Central commuter, excursion, and International trains used tracks laid in Terrace Park and Church Street. Terrace Station was for a time the thrird-busiest in the Central’s system. Train turning from Church Street onto The Terrace.

The Terrace Station was a stealth stop for very important people. In September 1901, for example, Theodore Roosevelt made his first-ever public appearance as President on the platform of the Terrace Station when he alighted from a special express train from North Creek, NY after the assassination of President William McKinley.

Roosevelt became president at the moment of McKinley’s death early in the morning of September 14th (he had been shot on September 6th) while hurtling down from Mt. Marcy after receiving a message that McKinley would likely die; when he boarded the train in the morning darkness at North Creek, he was told that McKinley had, indeed died. That afternoon, thousands gathered around the Exchange Street Station waiting for Roosevelt’s train to arrive at the Central’s main Buffalo Station. Unknown to the general public, plans were in place to have the train pass the station and stop several blocks away at The Terrace, where a detachment of soldiers and other security personnel cleared his path across the platform to a waiting carriage, which took the new president directly up Delaware Avenue to the Wilcox house near North Street for the Oath of Office.

(A week earlier, McKinley’s assassin had been taken to police headquarters on The Terrace immediately after the shooting. The NY Central tracks to the Terrace Station passed directly behind the building, and the two buildings were easily seen from each other.)

It was standard fare for newspaper reporters to be sent to stake out train stations for arriving celebrities and politicos, and the Terrace Station had its share, from entertainers to six-day-bicycle racers arriving for competitions at the Broadway Auditorium. Exclusive platform interviews were the stuff of reputations and circulation. None could possibly be bigger than the King and Queen of Britain, and one newspaper reporter, Courier-Express police beat writer Manuel Bernstein, was on hand for the unscheduled stop on the night of June 7, 1939. It wasn’t by accident.

Reconstructed Terrace station would act as a stage, picnic shelter, and cafe for re-established Terrace Park, occupied since 1954 by the Skyway. Theodore Roosevelt and the King and Queen of Britain were among unscheduled transients to the site.

Bernsein had a long career as a police reporter and—making up for the penury of a writer’s wage—a pharmacist. Reporters would lounge around the front desk at police headquarters waiting for stories to come across the transom as perps were dragged in or calls went out. With multiple dailies, police reporting was more voluminous than today (yes, hard to believe), ranging from bloody mayhem to incompetent capers of juveniles and pick-pocketing around train stations. A New York Central railroad cop stopped by Bernstein’s desk one day, as recollected in a story for the Buffalo News over 50 years later, and complained that Bernstein never wrote up his collars. Bernstein told him the next time he made an arrest and could take him to the thieve’s lair, he’d write up the story. Within a week the cop had an arrest, Bernstein had an exclusive, and the cop a measure of crime-fighting fame. This earned Bernstein a favor from the cop that got the reporter an exclusive with the Queen, a $200 bonus, and a two-tiered Page One headline.

The railroad cop let Bernstein in on a little secret. The Royal train would be sitting at the Terrace Station, hard by police headquarters, while track work went on ahead. King George IV and his wife Queen Elizabeth (not the present Queen, but her mother. The Queen Mother). King and Queen were on the first-ever visit to the dominion of Canada of a British monarch. They would make a trip to St. Catherines to dedicate a highway named after the Queen, and see Niagara Falls (the monument she and the King unveiled that day is still to be seen, whizzing by on the QEW over a small bridge). That night they would cross into the US directly to Washington to meet with President Franklin Roosevelt (thence to Hyde Park for hot dogs), becoming the first King and Queen to set foot in the U.S.

They would have to switch tracks in Buffalo, from the NY Central to the Pennsylvania Railroad. The switchover would occur along Seneca Street near Hamburg Street. It was a complicated maneuver that would take teams of men working in coordinated fashion in the dark (the Central and the Pennsylvania were bitter rivals and did not share track; a temporary link would have to be engineered in a busy train yard and Pennsylvania engines attached to both the Royal train and a press pilot train). This time, they would be viewed by thousands, despite the best efforts of police to keep people from the overlooking viaducts. Time for stealth.

Terrace station
Detail of the south end of the Terrace Station highlights the Stick Style architecture with decorated brackets, panels of drop siding, and contrasting framing sticks. The tracks were about five feet below Upper Terrace (rear) and the buildings of St. Joseph’s Cathedral.

Despite the late hour, thousands of people gathered at crossings and viaducts to witness the Royal Train. Cross-streets were closed off. Mobs of people were gathering at the Pennsylvania yards. The plan: The Royal train, rather than parking on a Pennsy siding, would stop at The Terrace, the press in the pilot train would sit on the siding near Hamburg Street until all work, except for the switching of engines, was over. That was Bernstein’s tip. He didn’t tell anyone else, not even an editor. When the train arrived, he was the only civilian in the station.

Bernstein, as quoted in the News: “It was at night, and City Hall was all lit up,” Bernstein recalled. “The queen stepped out on the back platform of the caboose and asked, ‘What's that beautiful building?’ I told her, ‘Your majesty, that’s our new City Hall.’ Then, I said, ‘I hope you enjoy your visit here with the president.’”

Nice chap. The Queen decided to chat. She told Bernstein (it is not clear he identified himself as a reporter) that she had important business in Washington

Bernstein, coy: “What’s so important, your majesty?”

Elizabeth spoke of war clouds and the need for British allies against Hitler’s Germany. That was no secret, but a royal saying it, that was news (British royalty are forbidden to engage in overtly political or diplomatic discussions). Scoop.

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King George VI and Queen Elizabeth in Canada during their 1939 grand tour

“But out walks King George onto the platform. I can see he’s mad as hell. He whispers something in the queen’s ear and really roughly pulls her inside the caboose.” That didn’t make the story, but everything else did. Queen Elizabeth and King George set foot in America at Terrace Station, the Queen had an eye for architecture, and war was all but declared.

This somewhat foreshortened view shows the run of The Terrace between Main and Court streets as it appeared in 1932. Terrace Park once extended from police headquarters to Court St. Buffalo History Museum Collection.

The Little Station That Could almost did not survive its first decade. The Central wanted to build a much grander station of stone with another platform to handle the traffic and symbolize the line’s third-busiest depot. It sat on land the city owned, and the agreement hammered out permitting the Central to build the Belt Line gave the city the upper hand in negotiations. Despite two concerted attempts to obtain demolition permits, the Central was unable to overcome the resistance of Lower Terrace bar owners, whose establishments directly overlooked the wooden station and its platform. Thirsty commuters, travelers, and horseplayers going to Fort Erie, could, and did, walk directly across the tracks to the bars. The new station would have presented a solid stone wall facing them.

WURA 1950 overlay 1932 1

The Terrace in 1932. Buffalo History Museum Collection. By 1952, when the station faced its imminent demise to make way for the Skyway, it had progressed from the calumny heaped upon it by its owner to become a source of civic recollection, fond newspaper stories, and pleadings for its preservation, even moved offsite for restoration and display. It was not to be. The station closed at noon on August 1, 1952.

That needn’t be the end of the story. The state’s ongoing environmental review of the Skyway’s closure must take into account the possibility—and the funding—of the restoration of Terrace Park, both as a recreational, cultural, and historic piece of topography, but also as an arrow that points straight to the Canal District and the Cloudwalk.

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Buffalo’s birthplace, re-established. Joseph Ellicott established the Village of New Amsterdam to take advantage of two geographic features at the eastern end of lake Erie: Buffalo Creek and The Terrace. Removing downtown section of Skyway would open opportunities to reconstruct historic parks, canals, neighborhoods, and redress 60 years of social and environmental injustice. Over 12 acres of land would be freed by Skyway removal alone. An Urban Renewal superblock behind City Hall that has been mostly parking lot since St. Anthony’s Park and the surrounding buildings were destroyed, is envisioned as an “urban hamlet.”

Upcoming posts will look at The Campaign’s proposals for the northern sections of the former Terrace Park, the so-called Two-Park and St. Anthony’s Park, lost to highway building and Urban Renewal. In the meantime, the status quo isn’t working. It should become clear that removing the downtown section of the Skyway and replacing lost public amenities is a tremendous opportunity that should not be frittered away.

Want to help realize the vision of rebuilding The Terrace and Canal District, extending the Erie Canal, restoring the DL&W train shed, and do the Cloudwalk? Contact the Campaign for Greater Buffalo at [email protected]

Cloudwalk: Reduce, Reuse, Recycle the Skyway. It's good for Canal District, Cobblestone District, and DL&W

Cloudwalk one-minute
The Cloudwalk would transform the lives of bike riders and walkers. For bike riders, getting to the Outer Harbor becomes a scenic one-minute ride across the Buffalo River and City Ship Canal. A walker could traverse the distance in five minutes. What happens when you deliver such a radical improvement to a transportation mode? You induce traffic. In this case, the virtuous kind, for urban vitality as well as personal vitality.

The New York State Department of Transportation’s Skyway environmental review process is being steered to a pre-determined outcome featuring a new inland limited-access highway with three interchanges, a de facto additional two lanes of the Thruway, and a total scraping away of 3.3-miles auto-free infrastructure, whether that is necessary or desired. What started as a good idea by Governor Cuomo in 2018—how to undo the urban damage inflicted on Buffalo by an obsolete state highway —has morphed into a $600,000,000 Trojan Horse.

Download Cloudwalk - DL&W folio

We need a reset while it can still happen, as the environmental review process moves from scoping to draft stage. For starters, if a decision is made to abandon the Skyway for vehicular use and to deconstruct the damaging parts (the 3,300-foot viaduct north of the Buffalo River and its massive Thruway interchange), there is no legitimacy in removal of the urbanistically useful parts of it (14,000 feet, from the north bank of the river to Buffalo Harbor State Park). Parts that were just rebuilt at a cost of almost $90,000,000 in 2010.

The poster child of that reset—a reset of the very idea of expressways in the hearts of our cities— must be the conversion of the former Skyway, after deconstruction of the north viaduct, to a Cloudwalk connecting the historic DL&W train shed and Central Wharf to the Outer Harbor.

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The Cloudwalk would be active transport link (walking, pedaling, wheelchair) and observation deck. It transforms noisy, blighting piece of infrastructure into civic and mobility asset. It provides close-ups of General Mills grain elevator, which architectural historian Reyner Banham called “the most influential structure ever put up in North America,” as well as unparalleled, unhurried, and otherwise unattainable views of Buffalo’s grain elevators, a globally unique cultural landscape. Once Cloudwalk is built to Buffalo Harbor State Park, it should become part of the park.

This public-works project can continue to do public work by serving other transportation modes
, i.e., walking, bicycling, even skiing in winter. And, oh, there is that 50-mile view across the lake. And the views of the city. And the views of the unique cultural landscape of the grain elevators along the Buffalo River and City Ship Canal. And a direct, safe route for potentially millions of users per year from downtown to the Outer Harbor.

The Campaign contends that, once abandoned to vehicular traffic, removing the entire complex serves no transportation function and therefore there is no legitimacy for that action. Rather, removing the crossings and viaduct over the river and to Buffalo Harbor State Park prevents this expensive public work from serving other transportation modes, i.e., walking, bicycling, even skiing in winter.

“It is inexplicable from a transportation perspective that the primary goal of the DOT project is not transportation, but to ‘disappear’ all parts of the Skyway,” says Tim Tielman, Executive Director of The Campaign. “While there may be reasons to abandon it for vehiclular use, there is no argument to remove all the urbanistically useful parts of it along with the urbanistically damaging parts of it.”

Removing the northern approach, which prevents rebuilding the Canal District and whose massive interchange with the Thruway has cast a pall on all links between downton and the water for decades, is a good thing. It would free up over 12 acres of valuable land that could be restored to its historic purpose.

The crossing over the Buffalo River itself, however, and the southern approach (a viaduct and mile-long earthen embankment), can play a vital role in transportation and economic development and do it in a way that gives the city a new icon. Deconstructing the northern section while adapting the southern section for pedestrians and bikers would be a transportation and recreational asset for the millions of people who, even now, visit that area.

The Campaign fears that, if DOT gets its way, Buffalo will end up with a Trojan Horse, bringing ever more traffic, ever faster, to new and expanded limited-access highways, at a cost of $600,000,000, when the project could create new attractions, opportunities, and leverage other state projects instead.

Richard Lippes, attorney and Campaign Board member, says "This is a reasonable alternative to simply scraping away three miles of potentially transformational infrastructure built and rebuilt at great public expense. All reasonable alternatives must be considered under State and National environmental law, and we certainly will take whatever action necessary to assure that DOT and the public has this alternative to consider"

DOT owes a lot more to Buffalo than merely removing damaging pieces of infrastructure. It also must help rebuild the neighborhoods its highway policies destroyed, and their capacity for sustaining urban life. That’s something the Campaign will take up soon. Right now, Priority One is to save the infrastructure for a Cloudwalk.

“We should be thinking of Universal Access, and of ways to reduce traffic on the Thruway by looking at other modes and routes. We should be redistributing some of it along the local business routes that played such an important role in the Old First Ward,” says Tielman.

DLW elevated shed p9 9
The historic DL&W trainshed is an evocative industrial shelter directly under the current Skyway. Connected to the Cloudwalk, it would work spectacularly well as an open-air platform for all kinds of civic, recreational, social, and commercial uses. It even has an outdoor deck of enormous proportions on the Buffalo River overlooking the Michigan Avenue bridge. A pedestrian bridge linking it to the existing parking garage and the Cobblestone Historic District at Illinois street would be an obvious enhancement. A key to rejuvenating the DL&W is emphasize its historic character, not to waste time and treasure trying to make it into something it isn’t and should not be: a de-natured 365-day-a-year indoor shopping mall in an environment that, experience shows, is only optimally active during fair weather months. To be a success, the DL&W must have ramped access at multiple, visible points to advertise accessibility in easily understood ways. The most visible is Cloudwalk.