Originally published at my LinkedIn page in December 2019, then reprinted by BuffaloRising.com with the title Buffalo’s Newest Urban Legend at both sites. Reproduced here with edits and updates. Article about 1863 fire added in January 2022. Image of Buffalo City Hall courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
The assertion first came to my attention in 2018 in the comment section at a popular Buffalo website. Then some folks expressed it to me in person. We may be witnessing the birth of a brand new urban legend in Buffalo, specifically:
“City Hall had a fire and all of the records were destroyed.”
We were talking about doing Buffalo house research when this claim was conveyed to me. My informants then, and those who have expressed it since then, have heard it from landlords, relatives, and contractors at public works projects.
Let’s start at the beginning. For over a decade now, the City of Buffalo has made available online a free searchable property database, which they call the Online Assessment Roll System (OARS).
If you spend much time poking around in OARS, you notice a curious pattern: the majority of houses apparently went up in 1900! Statistically speaking, this just isn’t likely. Buffalo wasn’t built in a year. What’s up with that chronic 1900 build date?
Enter the Fire Theory. Maybe it goes something like this: If that 1900 build date is the wrong information, it must be because City Hall doesn’t have the right information. If City Hall doesn’t have the right information, it must be because records were lost or destroyed. If the records were destroyed, there must have been a fire.
This is a plausible hypothesis. Lots of courthouses and government buildings have suffered catastrophic fires, resulting in losses of all kinds of records. One of the most famous was the 1921 fire in the Commerce Building in Washington, DC, that destroyed the 1890 census. It occurred before the invention of inexpensive reproduction technologies such as microfilm and copy machines, so there were no copies housed (or, as we would say today, backed up) elsewhere. Another was the 1911 State Capitol fire in Albany which destroyed most of the New York State Library collection.
The good news for researchers is that there are two flaws with the Fire Theory. First flaw: We all know that the little village of Buffalo was burned by the British in the War of 1812, right? After 1812, my research has turned up only two minor fires in City Hall.
The first one was in January 1863. “None of the city records, however were destroyed in the [City Clerk’s] department. We understand that some papers in the Auditor’s and Comptroller’s office were consumed.” The City Clerk is the designated record-keeper for city government. The Assessor’s office, where tax records are kept, was not damaged.
Here it is the only other fire in a Buffalo government building that I could find:
If you have a Newspapers.com subscription, you can now search the full text of Buffalo newspapers from 1811-1923. You will find lots of articles about city hall & courthouse fires in other cities and states, which suggests that when something like this does happen, it makes national news.
This Index of Buffalo Fires, 1850-1977, provided by the Buffalo and Erie County Public Library, cites no fires in municipal buildings.
Had a major City Hall fire happened here, it would have had front page headlines. It would have been reported in other cities. It would have been an ongoing story as the scope of damage was assessed, salvage and clean-up began, repair budgets were approved, and so on. A record-destroying catastrophe would be easily substantiated with period sources, like the fact that Buffalo was burned during the War of 1812. Now that we have a growing selection of digitized newspapers, this kind of claim is more easily proved or disproved.
Second flaw with the Fire Theory: A quick look at the records housed in the City of Buffalo Inactive Records Center (this link doesn’t list all of them, just the most in-demand) shows an intact collection of 19th and 20th century records, including tax records dating back to 1814. Had there been a record-destroying fire, surely those tax records would have been lost.
Luckily for researchers, we have two centuries of city records with no chronological gaps. Government websites are usually quite forthcoming about disaster-related record losses, such as this example from Virginia. There is even a page that alerts genealogists to burned counties, none of which have been reported in New York State.
Let’s go back to the mystery of the chronic 1900 build date. At the risk of launching a new and only slightly improved urban legend, here is a hypothesis of my own.
Remember the name of the property database? Online Assessment Roll System. Its purpose is to ensure that the City is taxing property owners legally, correctly, and transparently. It was not designed to be a house history database.
Right here is where I am going to go out on my own theoretical limb because I have never worked in tax assessment or in City Hall. For the purposes of tax collection, I imagine that there are certain things that they absolutely must get right: for example, the dimensions of the parcel, the location of the parcel, the correct name and address of the owner, the current assessment. The build date in this database is like your house paint color: it does not materially affect your assessment.
My initial guess was that 1900 was the default date used by the database designers because it was close enough for taxation purposes. But Jacqueline Hovey offered an even better hypothesis: The Year 1900 Problem.
If there was no fire that destroyed these records, then why didn’t they just skip the 1900 default date and plug in the right dates instead? Here is where I venture even further out on my theoretical limb. I think this is because building records aren’t in the Assessor’s office. They’re in the Permits & Inspections Department. In hard copy, they may not be all that portable. Establishing the build date for every address in Buffalo probably requires a manual look-up. Not the best use of tax department staff for an inessential field in a big database.
Since OARS is not reliable when it comes to build dates, then how do you determine when your Buffalo house was built? Leaving the realm of hypothesis, we now return to the factual world.
The best and often only source is Buffalo Common Council Proceedings, some of which are online. Council Proceedings date back to 1832, when Buffalo was incorporated as a city. Every week, when Council convened to deliberate on the public’s business, they also officially approved the building permits applied for that week. Even in 1832, the City required and issued building permits, though the scope of work requiring a permit has no doubt greatly expanded since then.
The permits were then listed and published in the Proceedings, one volume for each year. The volumes that are not digitized can be found in hard copy in various libraries. The oldest editions are available only on microfilm. Here is what a typical permit listing looks like. Notice that Caroline’s house number on Hudson was not yet assigned.
Since I first published this essay, our friends at the Buffalo & Erie County Public Library compiled an index of building permits from Common Council Proceedings, 1887-1906. It is an 1,800 page PDF in A-Z order by street name.
I’ve also watched the urban legend morph in real time to Well, actually, I heard it was a flood. Fair enough, but the burden of proof is still on you. Search newspapers and Common Council Proceedings and get back to me when you have the date of the flood and a description of the damage.
Because this essay relies heavily on guesswork, I welcome comments and corrections from anyone with first-hand experience working on OARS.
Postscript: A Tedious Essay About Government Record-Keeping Practices