Iconic Voelker's Lanes threatened; Campaign on the case
May 25, 2021
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, 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
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.