Genealogy & Local History in Buffalo, NY

 What I Learned About Women in Buffalo's Architectural History

A Speech Delivered to the 20th Century Club, April 6, 2001
Cynthia Van Ness, ©2001

In 1999, I published a book called Victorian Buffalo: Images from the Buffalo & Erie County Public Library. In it, I reproduced about 100 non-photographic images culled from 19th century publications about Buffalo in the collection of the Central Library.

By non-photographic images, I mean steel engravings, woodcuts, and lithographs, for this is how publishers illustrated periodicals, books, and pamphlets before it was technologically feasible to use photographs.

Each illustration was accompanied by some historical commentary about the building or scene, and if you read the book, you know I said a few tart things about preservation, or the lack thereof, in Buffalo. I'm going to refrain from being tart today, mostly because I'm so much better at it in writing than in person.

I wanted to feature women in my book whenever possible, and Buffalo's history did not disappoint me. Here are some women and buildings that every Buffalonian should know about.

Margaret St. John

Margaret St. John's cabin was the only dwelling to be spared by the British when they burned the tiny village of Buffalo to the ground during the War of 1812. St. John had already lost her husband and son during the war. She sent her youngest children to safety and appealed to the British commanding officer. The story goes that he posted a guard at her door. St. John singlehandedly rescued the village of Buffalo, feeding and sheltering many homeless villagers until they could rebuild. Presently the site of the Main Place Mall.

Buffalo Seminary

Nearly every Buffalonian who read Lauren Belfer's City of Light knows that the Macauley School for girls is based on Buffalo Seminary on Lincoln Parkway. Buffalo Sem is the first high school for girls in Western NY and is now celebrating its 150th anniversary. It began its life in Mayor Ebenezer Johnson's mansion on what is now Johnson Park. When it was completed in 1832, Johnson's estate was the most extravagant in Western NY. It was the centerpiece of 30 acres on what was then the rural outskirts of the small city. Johnson had an artificial lake with a flock of swans, a deer park, and an orchard. Around 1850, a few years after Johnson left Buffalo, the grounds were divided into Johnson Park and Johnson Place, and the cottage became the first home of Buffalo Seminary.

Louise Blanchard Bethune

This is another name that City of Light fans will recognize. For this part of my talk, I am indebted to the research of Adrianna Barbasch. Louise Blanchard Bethune is considered by architectural historians to be the nation's first professional woman architect. By this, we don't mean that she was the first woman to ever design a building. Far from it: American women have been a part of designing and building everything all along, whether they got credit for it or not. It means that she was the first woman architect to open her own practice, here in Buffalo, and she was the first woman admitted to the American Institute of Architects.

Louise was born in Waterloo in 1856 and the family moved to Buffalo in 1866. She graduated from the Buffalo High School in 1874. Two years later, she was hired as a draftsman by architect Richard A. Waite, a Buffalonian who is best known for designing the Legislative Building of Ontario.

After advancing to become Waite's assistant, Bethune used the occasion of the 9th Congress of the Association for the Advancement of Women, held in Buffalo in October 1881, to announce the opening of her office. Louise was 25. (Incidentally, at this same conference appeared Belva Ann Lockwood, the first woman to run for President of the United States.)

In December 1881, Louise married a former colleague from Waite's office, Robert Bethune, who became her business partner. At the birth of the Bethunes' only child Charles, in 1883, a third partner was added, William L. Fuchs.

Bethune, Bethune, and Fuchs specialized in industrial, commercial, and educational buildings, but Louise is best remembered today for designing the Lafayette Hotel on Lafayette Square, which opened in 1904 and still survives today as a rooming house.

The firm did not produce many single-family residences. For Louise, domestic architecture represented professional ghettoization; she considered it the lowest paying and most stressful work in the field.

Louise also held firmly to the principle of equal pay for equal work. In 1891, she refused to enter a design of the Woman's Building for the World's Colombian Exposition in Chicago on the grounds that male architects were appointed and paid $10,000, while women had to compete for a prize of $1,000.

Louise retired in 1908, probably due to ill health, and died in 1913 at the age of 57. A partial list of the works of Bethune, Bethune, and Fuchs is:

  • Iroquois Door Plant Company
  • Chandler Street complex, Buffalo Weaving Company
  • Lockport Union High School
  • Griffith Institute, Springville
  • Erie County Penitentiary, Women's Prison
  • Offerman Baseball Stadium grandstands
  • Seventy-Fourth Regiment Armory, later the Elmwood Music Hall
  • Kensington Church
  • Denton & Cottier Music Store
  • Louisiana Street Police Station
  • Railroad Station, Black Rock
  • 18 school buildings or additions in the Buffalo Public School system
  • Transformer Building for the first power line in the nation, bringing electricity from Niagara Falls to Buffalo's trolley system

She was also a member of the now defunct Buffalo Genealogical Society, the modest holdings of which are in the Central Library. The small collection includes several ledgers on the Blanchard family, no doubt written in Louise's own elegant hand.

Richmond Grain Elevator

When you start looking for women in Buffalo's history, they suddenly turn up everywhere. You find them where you are least expecting to. Again and again I have come across women who took over their husbands' businesses when they became widows. One of those widows was Mary E. Richmond, who owned and operated the Richmond grain elevator, which was on the Buffalo River opposite the foot of Main Street.

The Richmond was built in 1865 by Dean and J.M. Richmond, who were probably brothers or father and son. It was wooden construction, 125 feet tall, and had a capacity of 300,000 bushels. It was one of the first grain elevators built on the Buffalo harbor and boasted that it had the largest dry kiln in the US. A year after it was completed, Dean Richmond died and Mary bought out J.M.

I was not able to determine what happened to Mary Richmond, but in 1909, the Richmond even as an aged structure, was sold for about $100,000. At this time, canal traffic was dropping off due to competition from the railroads and wooden grain elevators were being replaced with concrete ones, so I suspect that the Richmond did not last much past World War I.

McDonnell & Sons

McDonnell & Sons Monument Company was founded in 1857 in granite-rich Quincy, Massachusetts by Patrick McDonnell, an Irish immigrant who started out as a stonecutter in the local quarries. Patrick retired in 1881, handing the reins to his son John Quincy McDonnell. In 1884, John brought his wife Emily and seven children and the company headquarters to Buffalo, opening an office between Allen and Virginia streets. John's brother Thomas remained in Quincy to manage the family's quarries.

The McDonnell office still stands at 858 Main Street. The structure's elaborate granite facade served as a promotion for the company's products. An arched pediment is surmounted by finials in the shape of funerary urns. Supporting it are polished pilasters with rough-faced florets. An early company advertisement describes the facade as being "the handsomest in the United States -- a recognized work of art that attracts the attention of every passer-by and excites admiring comment from all." These days, residents of Allentown call it the Mausoleum Building, because that is exactly what it looks like.

As originally built only 16' on a side and one-story tall, the showroom quickly proved inadequate for the growing company. A second story was added, and the building was extended in stages to fill the entire length of the 100' deep lot, assuming its final elongated form by World War I. Window openings puncture the north wall at frequent intervals, washing the interior with shadowless, even light.

Significantly, the later expansion of the building -- and the company as a whole -- was overseen by John McDonnell's widow Emily, after John died prematurely in 1894. Emily did something bold for a middle class, middle-aged Victorian widow with dependent children: She bought out her brother-in-law Thomas's interest in the company and became the President of McDonnell & Sons.

By 1900, McDonnell & Sons had two additional local branches, another two in central New York, one in Connecticut, and one in Indianapolis. Emily served as company president until her death in 1926. In a circa 1925 company brochure, McDonnell & Sons claimed to be the largest granite firm in the country. Emily's obituary in the Courier-Express described her as a nationally-known businesswoman.

Wealthy shoe merchant John Blocher went to McDonnell & Sons with his plans for an extravagant memorial to his son Nelson, who died shortly after the Main Street showroom opened. The Blocher Memorial is Forest Lawn's most famous monument. Other notable Forest Lawn commissions include the Philip Becker monument, the Volunteer Firemen's monument, and the imposing Main Street entrance arch.

Other area projects include the Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry monument in Front Park, soldiers monuments in Springville and LeRoy, Hamburg's Soldiers' and Sailors' Monument, the Father Hennepin Memorial in Niagara Falls, NY, and the Laura Secord Memorial in Queenston.

The 1925 company brochure also boasted of commissions for public memorials throughout the U.S. and Canada.

Emily died in 1926 and was succeeded by her son. The McDonnell family sold their interest in the company in the 1940s and the Main Street office was abandoned. The next owners retained the McDonnell & Sons company name until 1968, when they sold out to Stone Art company in Lackawanna, across from Holy Cross cemetery.

The mausoleum building housed an electrical supply store from the 1940s to the late 1970s and has been vacant ever since. The City acquired it in tax forfeiture around 1995. Subsequent efforts to purchase and renovate it by developers including myself have been thwarted by the City, which appears to be pursuing a policy of demolition by neglect on this block.

YWCA and Women's Educational & Industrial Union

One hundred years ago, Niagara Square was the center of feminist activism in Buffalo. Apparently, this bothered no one at the time. Today, two comparable organizations would never find a home in Niagara Square. On one side was the YWCA, designed by Edward Kent, who is best known for going down on the Titanic. On the other side was the Women's Education & Industrial Union, whose nondenominational mission was "to increase fellowship among women in order to promote the best practical methods for securing their educational, industrial, and social advancement."

The WEIU organized job training programs. It represented the first time in Buffalo that Jewish and Christian women joined forces across religious lines. I wish I knew if this spirit of inclusiveness extended to African-American women.

Sidway Building

At the corner of Main and Goodell in downtown Buffalo is the handsome brick and terra cotta Sidway Building. In the late afternoon sun, the Sidway practically glows. It was originally built in 1907 with two stories, and in 1913 three additional stories were added.

Once upon a time, the ground floor had retail shops, one of them being the showroom of Kurtzmann pianos, which were manufactured on Buffalo's west side.

The Sidway Building was built by Charlotte Spaulding Sidway, who lived from 1843 to 1934. Charlotte was the daughter of Buffalo mayor Gerry Spaulding and his second wife, Nancy Strong Spaulding and I think she was also descended from Margaret St. John, who I spoke of earlier.

Gerry Spaulding went on to become a congressman from Buffalo, and as a child, Charlotte witnessed President Lincoln's inauguration. She married Franklin Sidway in 1866 and had five children.

As a member of one of Buffalo's wealthy families, Charlotte invested heavily in Buffalo real estate. The Spaulding estate on Grand Island, which had been her father's, eventually became part of the Beaver Island State Park.

No doubt everyone in this room knows that Charlotte was a member of the Twentieth Century Club. In fact, aren't you all related her?

She was also a graduate of the Buffalo Seminary, and a member of the DAR, the Buffalo Historical Society, and the Buffalo Society of Natural Sciences.

Today, the Sidway Building's most famous tenant is Righteous Babe Records, the recording company launched by Buffalo's nationally-known independent folk/punk musician Ani DiFranco. Ani and Righteous Babe are presently negotiating to purchase the Asbury Methodist Church on Delaware at Tupper for company headquarters.

Jane Jacobs

I will end with a non-Buffalonian who everyone should be familiar with. Jane Jacobs is a New Yorker who now lives in Toronto. In 1960, she wrote a book that is a milestone, the urban counterpart to Rachel Carson's Silent Spring. That groundbreaking book is The Death and Life of Great American Cities and it is still in print today. The highlight of my vacation in February was finding a first edition in a used bookstore on Cape Cod.

Jacobs had this to say about old buildings:

"Cities need old buildings so badly that it is probably impossible for vigorous streets and districts to grow without them. By old buildings, I mean not museum-piece old buildings, not old buildings in an excellent and expensive state of rehabilitation--although these make fine ingredients--but also a lot of plain, ordinary, low-value old buildings, including some run-down old buildings."

Now, why did she say this? Isn't new construction the ultimate measure of good economic health? Not necessarily, because very few businesses can afford new construction. If your district or city has too many new buildings, you have priced creative people and creative uses out of your market.

As Jacobs put it, "New ideas need old buildings," whether it is new manufacturing companies, new retail concepts, new human service organizations, new cultural organizations, new technologies, new entrepreneurs.

Try and picture the most vibrant, appealing, successful districts in Buffalo: Allentown, Elmwood Avenue, Hertel Avenue, Chippewa Street without old buildings. It is impossible. Now picture the utter lack of similar vibrancy around every new building of the last 50 years.

Last fall, I was asked by a reporter to name something wonderful that Buffalo has built in the last 50 years and I could not and neither could she. Kleinhans Music Hall, which opened in 1940, is perhaps the last major building to go up that enhances rather than damages the area around it.

None of the buildings I talked about today are museum pieces. None rank with the Darwin Martin House or the Guaranty Building or the Richardson Towers. Cities unblessed with anything even close to these architectural superstars are still managing to thrive, so Buffalo is long overdue in capitalizing on its unique treasures.

But no city can thrive without the ordinary, sometimes plain, sometimes rundown office and commercial buildings that make up the very connective tissue of our city, the kind of old buildings championed by Jacobs 40 years ago, the sturdy, well-made pre-war stock that newer cities would kill for.

Buffalo is making great progress in recognizing the historical value of its architecture, which is what I am best at communicating, but if it also understood the economic value of its architecture, it would halt the bulldozers tomorrow.

Updated  March 18, 2010