In 1923-1924, the Ku Klux Klan set up shop in Buffalo. The Klan was not just an organization, it was an ideology of racism, anti-semitism, anti-Catholicism, and nativism. Buffalo rejected that ideology. Buffalo fought back, Buffalo fought dirty, and Buffalo won. This was the one of our finest moments as a city.
The first iteration of this page went online in 1999. I knew it had changed the discourse around snow in Buffalo when I started hearing elected officials using arguments that I first presented here.
Some Top Ten US Weather Facts
10 Snowiest Cities 1. Blue Canyon, CA 2. Marquette, MI 3. Sault Ste. Marie, MI 4. Syracuse, NY 5. Caribou, ME 6. Mount Shasta, CA 7. Lander, WY 8. Flagstaff, AZ 9. Sexton Summit, OR 10. Muskegon, MI
10 Coldest Cities 1. International Falls, MN 2. Duluth, MN 3. Caribou, ME 4. Marquette, MI 5. Sault Ste. Marie, MI 6. Fargo, ND 7. Williston, ND 8. Alamosa, CO 9. Bismarck, ND 10. St. Cloud, MN
10 Windiest Cities 1. Blue Hill, MA 2. Dodge City, KA 3. Amarillo, TX 4. Rochester, MN 5. Casper, WY and 6. Cheyenne, WY [tie] 7. Great Falls, MT 8. Goodland, KA 9. Boston, MA 10. Lubbock, MA
Source: Williams, Jack. The USA Today Weather Almanac. New York: Vintage Books, c1994, p.125
Okay, Listen Up, Class
What supposedly synonymous-with-Siberia city is entirely absent from these lists? Did anyone notice that the only place in New York (Syracuse) to make a Top Ten is almost 200 miles east of Buffalo? We used to get a lake-effect blizzard every year, but winters in the new century have failed to live up to reputation. The annual Winterfest in February has been canceled more than once due to lack of snow.
Yes, we had a truly spectacular storm in 1977, although it wasn’t fierce enough to make the Top Ten Storms of the Century. The famous Blizzard of 1977 didn’t begin in Buffalo and end at the city line, it crippled the entire northeastern US and southeastern Ontario, Canada.
Here’s the big secret: blizzards are kind of fun. We go home and relax. We shovel each other out. We make cookies and hot cocoa. Heavy snow is the only weather extreme that is so benign it can be used for recreation. I refer, of course, to skiing, ice skating, hockey, and snow sculpture.
But, hey, if these aren’t your cup of tea, then by all means kick back, pop open your beverage of choice, and enjoy your tidal waves, tornadoes, hurricanes, earthquakes, mudslides, wildfires, heat waves, volcanic eruptions, acid rain, droughts, floods, and insect plagues.
Okay, you’re thinking, blizzards still tie up a city, don’t they?
They didn’t used to. I am indebted to the late George Kunz for the following insight. In his posthumously published Buffalo Memories, Kunz wrote about the streetcar era and the heavy-duty trolley plows used to clear routes in the winter:
“I do not remember any protracted urban paralysis following those storms of half a century ago. The reason lies partially in the fact that transit ridership was high, and streets were free of disabled cars. [Trolley] plows were unhampered. Today most workers rely on motor cars for commuting to jobs. Many live outside the reach of mass transit in the country or in the suburbs. Many others shun public transit, seized by a jejune reliance on the personal car. Given these facts, modern storm paralysis is understandable. Workers drive cars, cars get stuck and are abandoned, snow plows cannot get through to do their job. Result: traffic bans, closing of businesses and ultimately loss of future commercial contracts. The city bleeds.” (p.52)
This is quite logical. If you have to clear only two dozen streetcar routes, your chances of success are much greater than if you have to clear every one of an estimated 800 miles of streets (in the City of Buffalo alone) for, say, 300,000 vehicles. In other words, snowstorms don’t necessarily paralyze cities, but automobile dependence certainly does.
Metro Rail, our short light-rail line, works fine in any weather. Service has been curtailed or canceled due to snow only three times since Metro Rail opened in 1985.
Consider Johnstown, PA, which once had a spectacular flood. Buffalo has something in common with Johnstown, in that we do not spend our winter under six feet of drifts any more than Johnstown residents spend their summer under six feet of water. Thus it is that the atypical event stands out, attracting widespread notice, thereby obscuring the fact that it is, in fact, not typical. There must be a name for this well-understood media distortion effect.
In 1901, before the advent of down parkas, Polarfleece, snowproof boots, central heat, warm vehicles with snow tires, mechanized snow plows, home insulation, weather sealing, and snowblowers, this author thought that our climate was “delightful.” Other 19th century sources chide us not for snow but for high winds.
“The climate of Buffalo, with the exception of high winds during certain portions of the winter, is probably as delightful as that enjoyed by any city on the globe. In summer, the temperature is nearly always moderate, and when other cities suffer from extreme heat, the people of Buffalo are blessed with the conditions common to late summer in other regions.” –Powell, Lyman, ed. Historic Towns of the Middle States. New York: Knickerbocker Press, 1901, p. 387. [Emphasis added.]
My favorite weather proverb, of unknown Scandinavian origin, is, There is no such thing as bad weather, only inadequate clothing.
The Real Story: The Best Summers in the Northeast
Percent of Sunshine June through August 1. Buffalo: 67 2. Boston: 65 3. New York City: 64 4. Baltimore: 63 5. Washington, DC: 63 6. Philadelphia: 62 7. Albany: 61 8. Pittsburgh: 58
Average Rainfall, Inches June through August 1. Buffalo: 8.69 2. Albany: 8.99 3. Boston: 9.39 4. Pittsburgh: 10.47 5. New York City, 10.65 6. Philadelphia: 11.90 7. Baltimore: 12.05 8. Washington, DC: 12.27
Average Temperature July afternoon 1. Buffalo: 80F 2. Boston: 81F 3. Pittsburgh: 83F 4. Albany: 84F 5. New York City: 85F 6. Philadelphia: 87F 7. Baltimore: 87F 8. Washington, DC: 88F
Source: Vogel, Mike. “Buffalo is Sunshine Capital of Northeast.” Buffalo News, May 18, 1989, p.A-1
The Bottom Line
Buffalo has more days per year in which the temperature is above 60F than days with snow on the ground. Now, will smug out-of-towners please start aiming your climatological condescension at other targets?
Parks officials were mortified at the malfeasance. The Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Monument in Lafayette Square was cracking and crumbling only six years after its erection in 1882 during the city’s semi-centennial year. A structural review was undertaken, revealing careless workmanship throughout the foundation of the monument. The core of rubble and mortar was inadequate to the task of supporting the granite shaft and statuary, which topped out at 85′. A copper box meant to serve as a time capsule was not found in its intended chamber, but three feet lower, embedded like just another foundation stone. It had been cracked under the pressure and its contents destroyed by water seepage.
The Parks Department annual report for 1890 was candid:
The plans, the specifications, the superintendence, and the masonry — all exhibit, or imply, gross ignorance or carelessness. It is really a disgrace to our civilization that so prominent a structure, designed to stand as a memento of our patriotism to all generations, should be built so insecurely that it must be taken down within six years of its erection.
The monument was designed by George Keller, a Hartford, Connecticut architect. It was erected by the Mount Waldo Granite Company of Bangor, Maine.
McDonnell and Sons
When a contract was let to repair the foundation, however, it went to a local mortuary monument company, McDonnell & Sons. In rebuilding the foundation, McDonnell & Sons altered the open stepped base of the monument, creating a tight walkway around the shaft by eliminating some of the base and walling in what remained, forming stairs at each point of the compass, an arrangement which survives today.
In 1889, when McDonnell and Sons rescued the Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Monument, it was a relative newcomer to the Buffalo scene, having opened their Buffalo office only five years earlier.
McDonnell & Sons was founded in 1857 in granite-rich Quincy, Massachusetts by Patrick McDonnell, an Irish immigrant once employed as a stonecutter in the local quarries. Patrick retired in 1881, handing the reins to his son John Quincy McDonnell. In 1884 John moved with his wife and seven children to Buffalo in order to open a branch office, which came to be located at 858 Main Street, between Allen and Virginia streets Another son stayed in Quincy to manage the family’s business there.
The old McDonnell office still stands. 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 façade 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.”
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, John having died prematurely in 1894. After her husband’s death, 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.
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 1926 company brochure, McDonnell & Sons claimed to be the largest granite firm, by sales, in the country. Emily’s obituary in the Courier-Express described her as a nationally-known businesswoman.
While tiny as a building, when read as a grave marker — itself a sign — the granite façade must have struck many as grand indeed. (In simultaneously serving as shelter and sign, McDonnell & Sons predated Robert Venturi’s building-as-sign, “Decorated Shed” coinage by 80 years).
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. 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. Company brochures also boasted of commissions for public memorials throughout the U.S. and Canada.
At some point in the 1940s, with Emily’s son James in charge, McDonnell & Sons moved out of 858 Main and into a comparatively plain brick building further north on Main Street. James died in 1951, the last family member to head the operation. In 1968, after 84 years in Buffalo and 111 years after its founding in Quincy, McDonnell & Sons vanished from the Buffalo Polk Directory, the annual “City Directory” of households and businesses.
The old headquarters building was continuously occupied until 1978. It is now vacant. The city acquired the building last year in a tax forfeiture. The building is structurally sound, but needs new mechanical systems, roof work, and windows to bring it up to current city codes — work estimated at $150,000.
This monument of a building — some neighbors call it the Mausoleum Building — is more than a pretty face, as finely cut and polished as the day it opened 112 years ago. It represents a telling slice of Buffalo’s architectural, social, and women’s history.
In the New York State census of 1925, John E. Brent reported his age as 33, making his year of birth around 1892. According to a biographical profile of him in the Buffalo American, which does not reveal his age, Brent was born and raised in Washington, D.C. He entered Tuskegee Institute in 1904, graduating with an architecture degree in 1907. After two years as a schoolteacher in Washington, he entered the School of Architecture at Drexel Institute and graduated in 1912 at the ripe age of 20. Brent then moved to Buffalo, NY. Further research is needed to confirm this apparent precocity.
The unsigned article in Buffalo American goes on to list the architectural firms which employed Brent between 1912 and 1926: Max G. Beierl; H. Osgood Holland; Waterbury & Mann; Julius E. Schultz; North Shelgren & Swift; Oakley & Schallmore. While in the employ of Holland, Brent worked on the Hutchinson High School plans. While in the employ of Waterbury & Mann, he worked on plans for the Wanakah Country Club.
In 1926, John E. Brent became the second African-American to design a “colored” YMCA, Buffalo’s Michigan Avenue YMCA. It opened in April 1928 and became the cultural center of Buffalo’s African-American community. It cost $200,000 to build, half of which was donated by Buffalonian George Matthews. It boasted a cafeteria, gymnasium, swimming pool, barber shop, tailor shop, library; and classrooms, locker rooms, dormitory rooms, and billiard tables. It was demolished in April 1977.
Lillian Serece Williams wrote extensively about the significance of the Michigan Avenue YMCA in Buffalo’s African American community in her book, Strangers in the Land of Paradise (1999).
Eva Noles, in Talking Proud: Buffalo’s Blacks (1986), attributes another building to Brent: Dr. Myron McGuire’s dentist office. Post-war city directories for Buffalo show a Dr. Myron McGuire at 482 Jefferson Avenue. This address is now the site of recently-built infill housing.
Upon winning the commission for the Michigan Avenue YMCA, Brent opened his own practice, and may have been self-employed from 1926 into the 1950s, when Buffalo City Directories list him as an architect with the Buffalo Parks Department.
Brent remained involved with the Michigan Ave. YMCA, serving as a board member and fundraiser. He was also a founding member of the Buffalo chapter of the NAACP, serving as its first president. Later he served on the Local Council of the State Commission Against Discrimination.
Brent lived at 219 Glenwood Avenue with his wife Neeton, and was active in St. Philip’s Episcopal Church, earning the Bishop’s Medal for meritorious service. He died on October 27, 1962, and is buried in Forest Lawn Cemetery, Section 37, Lot 94.
Buffalo City Directories. Buffalo, NY: [various publishers], 1926-1965.
Biography and Genealogy Master Index. Detroit, MI: Gale [various years].
“John E. Brent, Second Negro Architect of the United States to Have Charge of Building ‘Y’ for Colored Men.” Buffalo American, May 4, 1926: page unknown. Preserved in Local Biographies scrapbook,” v.4, p. 165, Grosvenor Room in the Buffalo & Erie County Public Library (BECPL).
Locke, Henry. “Blacks Should Mourn Michigan Ave. ‘Y’ Loss. Buffalo Courier-Express, April 17, 1977: F-9.
“Michigan Ave. ‘Y’ Has Vital Role in City.” Buffalo Courier-Express, July 19, 1953: 20-A.
Young Men’s Christian Association. Annual Report. Buffalo, NY: Young Men’s Christian Association, 1920-1930.
Local History File, a card file to periodicals & newspapers in Buffalo, compiled 1930 to present
BECPL Prominent Black Buffalonians File [card file compiled 1980s]
New York State Population Census, 1925, Ward 17, City of Buffalo, Erie County, New York State