Finding Buffalo House Plans

First Floor of Buffalo City Hall, courtesy of Buffalo City Hall

You may be looking at this page because you are not one of the lucky home buyers who found a set of plans & drawings stashed in your attic. Or inherited them from the previous owner when you bought the property.

When seeking plans and drawings, it helps to know that the the three parties most likely to have them are the architect’s own office; the client/owner; and the government office that approved the plans and issued the building permit. In the city of Buffalo, that is the Permits & Inspections office.

The three parties most likely to have plans & drawings are the architect’s own office; the client/owner; and the government office that approved the plans and issued the building permit.

If the firm is defunct and the client long deceased, your local government may have something. Dates vary as to when cities, towns & villages required you to submit plans & drawings in order to get a building permit, but today, they all do. Some have required it for over a century. The newer the building, the greater the chance that the municipality has plans for it. And, frustratingly, sometimes a government office just doesn’t have certain records.

One important category of drawings that governments rarely dispose of are the plans for their own buildings: schools, libraries, fire houses, police stations, town halls, courthouses, garages, etc. If you are researching a public building, reach out to the public works office in the government that built it.

Some of you have plan book houses. For over two centuries, Americans have been able to purchase pre-made plans for houses, barns, churches, and other buildings. Almost 250 of those plan book catalogs are online at Google Books.

If you did not inherit your house plans from a previous owner or find them at city hall and you don’t have a plan book house, now what? First, the bad news: your chances of finding plans are low. There are two reasons why.

  1. There is no guarantee that plans & drawings survive. Architects are under no obligation to give their papers to libraries, universities, archives, or museums.
  2. When plans & drawings do survive, they may not represent 100% of the office’s output. Stuff gets destroyed in fires & floods. Stuff gets lost or damaged when people move. Stuff gets discarded when people retire or pass away.

The good news is that some architectural plans & drawings end up in institutions such as universities, libraries, and museums. The purpose of this page is to help you locate those surviving collections.

This Google Doc is what we know about surviving Buffalo plans & drawings:

A Tedious Essay About Government Record-Keeping Practices

A man stand at a counter, surrounded by enormous stacks of paper.
New York State Assembly Document Room, 1914, courtesy of the New York State Archives

One of the most obscure departments in New York State government, unless you are a historian or genealogist, is the New York State Archives (NYSA or State Archives). Even its own homepage does not convey to the casual visitor what, exactly, it does.

The NYSA does not, for example, collect cool stuff about New York State and its communities from wherever it may be found: books, newspapers, maps, scrapbooks, letters, diaries, your attic. That is the role of the New York State Library (NYSL).

While you can learn a lot about businesses, nonprofits, families, and more at the State Archives, it does not collect records created by businesses, nonprofits, families, or any other non-governmental entities. This distinction is important.

The primary role of the State Archives is to house and make available the records of New York State government after they are no longer needed for everyday business. There are about 3 centuries of government records from the colonial era to the present in the State Archives.

The secondary role of the State Archives is to oversee and standardize government record-keeping practices in the counties, cities, towns, villages, school districts, police & fire departments, etc., in New York State. They have additional duties, but today we’re going to focus on their role regulating local government records.

Let me pause here to make a distinction between a record and a publication.

Let me pause here to make a distinction between a record and a publication.

For the purpose of this essay, a record is the kind of stuff those of us with office jobs generate all day long: emails, spreadsheets, schedules, budget proposals, payrolls, memos, statistics, sign-in sheets, strategic plans, procedural manuals, Powerpoints, databases, and so on. These are not usually designed for public consumption, so we also call them unpublished records. New York State is proactively putting a lot of born-digital records online (publishing them) at its Open Data Portal. Plus, the Freedom of Information Law (FOIL) enables citizens to request unpublished records from their governments.

A publication or government publication is a document designed and released by a government department for public comment and consumption, such as an annual report, a budget, a revitalization plan, a recycling guide, council meeting minutes, an environmental impact statement. Unlike records, publications issued by state & local governments and commercial publishers end up in the New York State Library.

Let’s look back to 1971. This is when the State Archives was established as an official department of New York. The state of New York had no formal, centralized government record-keeping function until 50 years ago, making it a relative newcomer in Albany.

The state of New York had no official, centralized government record-keeping department until 50 years ago, making it a relative newcomer in Albany.

When the State Archives was founded, it was authorized to develop records retention schedules: legally binding rules about how long certain kinds of government records must be kept. For example, vital records must be kept in perpetuity. Your mileage log, if your government job requires travel? Probably not in perpetuity. These record retention schedules apply to all counties, cities, towns, and villages in New York.

Before 1971, elected and appointed officials and civil servants in New York more or less decided on their own what to keep or toss. Even today, there are lots of people in local government offices who are not well-trained in the record-keeping requirements pertaining to their job or department and they unilaterally delete or discard files.

If you work in a public school anywhere in NY State and you find an ancient attendance ledger in a closet, you might be inspired, with the best of intentions, to offer it to the nearest historical organization. And you’d be wrong. Your school district has a records management officer who must first be consulted about that ledger, because it is public property and isn’t yours to dispose of. In cities, towns & villages, the city, town, or village clerk is the records management officer.

This is a very long way of explaining why local government offices might not have the records you are expecting to find. And why “there must have been a fire” is a convenient explanation, even when it is false. Sometimes it means Oops, someone threw that stuff out.

I Can’t Find A Book Online, Now What?

You Googled every which way to Sunday and you can’t find an online copy of a book you need. You tried Amazon and your book is either unavailable or priced beyond your reach. We’re assuming that you already searched your local public library. If you’re a student, you checked with your campus library, right?

Millions of books are now online. But not every book in the world has been digitized or will be. You may need to track it down in hard copy. Here are 8 suggestions.

Where else to tryWhy
1. WorldCat WorldCat is a free searchable database of a billion distinct items (books, audiobooks, videos, periodicals, etc.) in the libraries of the world. If you find your book, contact the library and ask if they can produce a PDF. Or bring the link/record to your public or campus library. Ask if they can borrow a copy for you via ILL.
2. Interlibrary Loan (ILL)What’s ILL, you say? Libraries have been borrowing stuff from each other since before you were born. Your public or campus library will handle the logistics. You may pay a nominal service fee or none at all.
3. Archive.orgMillions of books are online here either in full text, or borrowable as e-books if you sign up for a free account. Why you need an Archive.org account.
4. Google BooksMillions of online books & periodicals here. Lots in full text, some in preview (only certain pages), some in snippet (the relevant paragraph) or not at all (placeholder for future full text).
5. HathiTrustMillions of books online here either in full text, or borrowable as e-books if you are affiliated with a participating institution.
6. AddAll
Bookgilt
BookFinder
BookFinder4U
ViaLibri
Maybe there’s a used copy on the market. These metasearch tools search across multiple bookselling sites for you, including Amazon & eBay.
7. Bookshop.orgHad to add a plug for this site because the proceeds support independent booksellers
8. The publisher’s websiteBooks go out of print and publishers go out of business. But if you can figure out who published a book, see if they have a website. I have often beaten Amazon’s price by going right to the source.

Photograph courtesy of Wikimedia.

Why You Need an Archive.org Account

Disclaimer: I have no connection to Archive.org beyond than having a free account and being acquainted with one of their employees.

Most of my readers already know about Archive.org, also known as the Internet Archive, as a place to find cool old stuff online. While I spend my time with their full-text, online books, Archive.org also offers audio and video, including TV, films, and concert tapes. Patents. Podcasts. Census microfilms. Outdated software. Plus the magnificent Wayback Machine, which has been crawling the web and saving websites for 25 years.

Here’s another service they offer: community uploading. Anyone may register for a free account and start contributing their stuff. From their Help screen:

Having an Archive.org account allows you to:

Upload files to the site

Have collections for your uploads (50 items minimum required)

Borrow books from the lending library

Leave reviews

Participate in forums

View and use some items that are restricted

Receive monthly newsletters and event notices

excerpt From: Accounts – A Basic Guide

Why is this important? A lot of individuals and groups — now that we all create and accumulate digital property without even trying, let’s call ourselves collectors — are turning to libraries, educational institutions, historical organizations, and museums, asking them to put the collector’s stuff online. It might be photos, letters, or home movies that have or have not been digitized. It might be original essays or artwork by the collector. It might be by-laws, minutes, spreadsheets. It might be articles and downloads from elsewhere.

Some large and well-funded organizations might store or host your digital assets. Smaller organizations, though, rarely have enough server space to digitize collections they already own and have title to. Under the circumstances, they may be reluctant or simply unable to commit the time and server space to additional stuff.

While server space is definitely cheaper than bricks and mortar storage space, it is not free. Neither is the labor, software, and hardware needed to do all of the processing that makes digital files findable and usable online. Whether it is tangible objects in boxes or digital files on hard drives, we all simply own more stuff than institutions can possibly house and care for in perpetuity.

Here’s where Archive.org comes in. You or your organization can take out an account and scan and upload. Here’s why I recommend Archive.org:

  • Archive.org is a non-profit, so your stuff won’t get monetized for stockholder benefit
  • No ads or paywalls
  • No intrusive and unnerving suggested content pop-ups
  • Superb access options for those with vision limitations
  • Accepts files in almost any format
  • Your stuff joins an international community of individuals and organizations who have already shared bazillions* of collections for public access and benefit

If you join and start contributing, please donate what you can to offset their server, software and labor costs. Here’s where to sign up.


*A technical term that roughly translates as More than I can count

Who wants to crowdsource Buffalo place names?

Anyone up for crowdsourcing Buffalo-area place names? By which I mean neighborhood nicknames such as Elmwood Village or The Hooks, and names of features on the landscape. At this time, I am not thinking of street names or building names, which could be separate projects unto themselves.

Here’s a Google sheet that I set up for anyone to add to. Notice there are two tabs: one for the City of Buffalo and another for Erie County, for those with village or town-specific knowledge.


https://tinyurl.com/BuffaloResearch-PlaceNames

What nicknames are we seeking?

  • Landscape features such as creeks, canals, or hills
  • Entire city nicknames, such as Queen City or New Amsterdam
  • Names of real estate developments, such Nye Park
  • Parks that aren’t there anymore or changed names
  • Picnic groves. So often in Buffalo newspapers I see so-and-so’s grove as the location for an event, with no address. It was assumed that readers knew where it was.

Some data entry suggestions to maximize the value of the spreadsheet:

In the location column, use contemporary street/road names.

Please cite your sources. If you find a source online, pasting in the URL is excellent but insufficient. The link you found today may be invalid or paywalled a few years from now. Please add enough info (author, title, date, page number, etc.) that a future researcher can seek out for the source if the link is 404.

Consider having mercy on readers and use a link-shortening service.

Print sources that are not online are perfectly fine!

You don’t have to give your full name as a contributor if you’d rather not, but at minimum, initials would be good. Credit where credit is due and all.

Okay, have at it, people! Please let me know if you’re having trouble entering data.


Map of New York County place names from Reddit/r/Buffalo.

A Prediction About “Draft Dodger” Discourse

Buffalo is a border city. From the observation deck at the top of Buffalo City Hall, you can look across the Niagara River to Fort Erie, Ontario, Canada. We even fly the Canadian flag in front of City Hall.

Ferry service between Buffalo and Fort Erie began around 1795, to be replaced by the opening of the Peace Bridge in 1927. Many Buffalo families own vacation homes on the Canadian shore of Lake Erie. Before 9/11 and the COVID-19 pandemic, a daily summer commute across the Peace Bridge was common and casual.

This easy border access positioned Buffalo to be an important stop on the Underground Railroad. which I have already written about. Historians and laypersons continue to seek evidence of the efforts and lives of freedom seekers and their allies.

In my own lifetime, Buffalo was likewise well-positioned to enable another movement of fugitives. I refer to young American men who avoided the draft during the Vietnam War and settled in Canada, either permanently or until President Carter granted amnesty. Most entered Canada illegally. The legend is that Ontario understood what was going on and the officers at the border turned a blind eye. I don’t know if this legend is true or false.

There is a lot I don’t know about how the mechanics of how these men entered Canada. For example:

  1. Did they act independently and take their chances at the border?
  2. Or did they have help from friends or relatives?
  3. Or did they get advice or assistance from organized groups on how to get past customs & border officers? If so, who were these groups? Do their records survive?
  4. What communication networks informed those deciding to leave the US at this time?
  5. What were the most heavily-used crossing points?
  6. Once they were in Canada, what assistance did they find?

These questions are critically important to answer now, while so-called draft dodgers are still living and can be interviewed. Why does this matter?

Because we’ve seen what happens when participants in major events begin dying off. This is when popular culture worship and wishful thinking begin. Underground Railroad efforts began to be romanticized in the 1920s and 1930s, 60+ years after the end of the Civil War, when few witnesses were left to refute anyone’s stories. This is when some claims about Underground Railroad sites first appear in print, to be treated as gospel truth ever after.

Across the Northeast, when people discover that a building predates the Civil War, they are eager to claim it for the Underground Railroad, without being expected to produce any evidence.

Vietnam-era draft evaders are due for a romantic revival in popular culture. When it happens, I predict that we will see the same phenomenon with automobiles that we see with old houses. Everyone near the Canadian border with a 1960s or ’70s junker in the garage will be eager to claim that it was used to sneak draft dodgers into Canada. Every activist who led anti-war protests will be lauded as a Draft Evasion Agent.

The best way for historians to head off these retroactive bids for glory is to find and interview draft evaders now, and get detailed accounts of the process of crossing the border, while they can still speak for themselves.

Do you know of oral history interviews with draft evaders? Suggested reading? Please drop it in the comments.


Photograph of Peace Bridge by By Óðinn, 2008 – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3621392

Top Twenty Reasons for Municipal Sidewalk Plowing in Buffalo


  1. Because sidewalks, like streets, parks, and schools, are public property. Nowhere else in municipal management is it legal to fine and shame private citizens for failing to maintain public property.
  2. It promotes year-round walkability for all residents, workers, and visitors, thus serving the explicit goals of the new Green Code.
  3. It promotes better air quality. People who can count on consistently cleared sidewalks will leave the car at home more often.
  4. It promotes healthy movement and exercise. People who can count on consistently cleared sidewalks will walk more often to their destinations.
  5. Because there is no such thing as 100% compliance with private shoveling mandates, resulting in patchwork accessibility at best.
  6. Sidewalk plowing can be contracted out to bidders who provide their own equipment, thus avoiding a larger public payroll and higher capital expenditures.
  7. It makes city living more affordable and competitive by reducing the need to support a private automobile.
  8. It addresses the problem of high-vacancy neighborhoods, where there are no owners to fine for not shoveling.
  9. It saves lives of shovelers. Every year, Buffalonians suffer heart attacks when they shovel snow. In a region with an increasingly graying population, it is unethical for cities to fine people for opting out of a deadly activity.
  10. It saves lives of pedestrians. People forced to walk in the street risk being injured and killed by drivers.
  11. It enables customers to continue patronizing businesses during storms and driving bans.
  12. It reduces the demand for ever more on- and off-street parking.
  13. It serves the roughly 30% of Buffalo households who do not own automobiles.
  14. It is cheaper per household than hiring neighborhood kids or private contractors to do it
  15. It complies with the Americans With Disabilities Act
  16. It enables children to develop independence instead of having to be chauffeured everywhere by their parents.
  17. It enables senior citizens to retain their independence instead of having to be chauffeured everywhere by their kids.
  18. It enables all who do not or cannot drive to get from here to there.
  19. It complies with the constitutional principles of equal access and equal protection.
  20. It promotes Buffalo as a year-round destination and shows the world that we control snow, it doesn’t control us.

Share and use the hashtag #PlowSidewalksToo

Sign the petition for sidewalk plowing in Buffalo

Edited November 21, 2021. Photograph courtesy of @D_S_F_J_, location unknown

Who Was Buffalo’s First Woman Property Owner?

I don’t recall anyone ever identifying the first woman to acquire property in the city of Buffalo so I set out to find her. The Holland Land Company, which had title to what are now the eight counties of western New York, began selling lots to settlers in 1801. Many Buffalonians reading this will find the name of one of the principals of the Holland Land Company on their deeds. Often it is Wilhelm Willink.

What makes women property owners unusual at this time is that once they married, they could not buy, hold, or sell property under their own names. On their wedding day, by law, husbands automatically acquired all right and title to whatever land or fortunes women brought to the marriage.

This did not change in New York State until the passage of the Married Women’s Property Act in 1848. This law granted married women the same right as unmarried women to buy, hold, and sell property in their own names. No longer were husbands able to take control of wives’ land or money. New York was the first state to pass such a law and it was an important landmark in the emancipation of American women.

The first place I looked for our woman property owner was Tobias Witmer’s Deed Tables…in the County of Erie, originally published in 1859 and reprinted in 1981. I wish it was online for free, but it is not. Our link shows which libraries have a copy. Here is a list of more early lot holders in Buffalo.

The first feminine name I found was Letitia M. Ellicott (1782-1864), daughter of Andrew Ellicott and niece of Joseph Ellicott. On May 6, 1811, at the age of 29, she purchased a half acre in one of Buffalo’s inner (downtown) lots, next to Juba Storrs. It is possible that she did not spend much time in Buffalo; she was reportedly born and died in Pennsylvania.

Source: Witmer, Tobias. Deed tables…in the county of Erie, as sold by the Holland Land Company, the Farmers’ Loan and Trust Company, and the State of New York. Knightstown, IN : The Bookmark, 1981, 1859, p. 4

Letitia’s half-acre was on lot 48, between what is now Main (Van Staphorst), Eagle, Clinton (Cazenovia), and Pearl (Cayuga). Today it is the site of the Main Place Mall.

Map of Buffalo in 1805, drawn by the Matthews-Northrup Company, probably in the 20th century
Map courtesy of Buffaloah.org and Picture Book of Earlier Buffalo, based on the original drawn by Juba Storrs

Her parcel was still vacant just before the burning of Buffalo in 1813.

Letitia Ellicott married John Bliss at West Point in 1819. He served as a captain in the U.S. Army during the War of 1812. His military career took them to several cities but she must had a fondness for Buffalo because she is buried in Forest Lawn Cemetery with her husband. I was unable to find a portrait of Letitia.

Use These Five Simple Tricks to Get Research Assistance

What we want to do here is help you, the person with local history, family, or house history questions, get help from libraries, archives, museums, historical organizations, government record offices, and genealogical societies; all the organizations that might have old stuff. We’ll refer to them collectively as repositories.

Here’s a gentle reminder: what you think of as a simple request for information is actually a request for labor. If everything was digitized and online, then your search engine results would likely suffice. The repository you contact probably has to do in-person, by-hand retrievals and searches of pictures, letters, microfilm, maps, or other undigitized, physical artifacts to find your answer. Fortunately, they often know of online resources that aren’t found by search engines and may also be able to provide stuff in digital form as well.

Most historical & genealogical organizations are small and have no paid staff. Sometimes they don’t have enough volunteers to keep up with inquiries. Their volunteers may be prudently sheltering at home in the pandemic.

Having a big budget doesn’t always solve this problem. Large, high-profile institutions get a correspondingly high volume of requests. Their staff may be laid off or working from home during the pandemic. We know of an Ivy League university who rations the time librarians spend on outside inquiries to 20 minutes per request. They actually use timers.

The desire for free labor will always exceed the supply. Here are five simple tricks to make the most of the limited time that someone can commit to your question.

Try This Rationale
1. Reach out by email if possible. The information you seek probably has to be delivered electronically anyway, so you might as well start out electronically. Google the repository and use their Contact Us page. The repository will then have a legible, searchable written request to work from. They will have the correct spelling of your name. It prevents erroneously conveying or transcribing an email address over the phone.When you call with an complex request, you’re not only asking for research assistance, you’re also asking them to serve as your stenographer and take dictation. Your email request will be more accurate and complete than sketchy, easily misplaced phone notes. Save the telephone requests for the computer-naive, people with disabilities, and those without internet access.
2. Not sure who can help you at an organization? Pick one or two likely-sounding departments or staffers to send your inquiry to. They will forward it if a co-worker can better answer your question. And give it a few days. Some questions take more time than others.We understand the temptation to Cc everyone at the Contact Us page as an insurance policy, but it creates extra labor for the person whose help you need. Now they have to acknowledge all the forwards from peers & superiors, which cuts into the time they could be using on your inquiry.
3. Repositories need to hear what you don’t know, not what you do know, in order to determine if they can help you. No need to have a lengthy family history narrative or other justification prepared. Reach out when you’ve identified which gap in your knowledge you hope to rectify.Government record offices which require proof of relationship to release certain records will require it in writing, not verbally. At non-governmental repositories, the individual you’re researching can be your ancestor, or not. The building you’re researching can be your property, or not. No personal connection is required.
4. Focus on one or two life events, or one or two names, or one or two documents per request. For example, “Do you have obituaries for John & Mary Smith?” “Do you have pictures of these two addresses?” Less is more when it comes to getting your request filled.No one is born knowing how to do family or house history research. Repositories know that and want to help you anyway. But if the only way you can answer questions about what you’re trying to find is “Anything, anything!”, then you may benefit by starting out with a researcher for hire.
5. When you can finish the sentence, “Well, what I’m really looking for is…”, then you’ve greatly increased the chances that someone can help you. You may even get a hug.Example: if you want to learn where a certain factory was and when it closed down, we encourage you to skip the “Do you have anything on old businesses?” opener. Indirect questions never produce worthwhile answers.

Remembering City’s Martyr in Fight Against Klan

Originally published as a My Voice column in the Buffalo News, December 7, 2017. It has since been lightly edited. Portrait of Edward Obertean courtesy of the Buffalo Courier, Sept. 3, 1924.


As white supremacists and neo-Nazis explode across headlines and screens, I thought back to events in Buffalo from 1922-1925. We were one of several otherwise progressive Northern cities that experienced a resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan.

One of the most inspiring books about Buffalo history is Shawn Lay’s Hooded Knights on the Niagara (1995). He recounts the full story of Buffalo’s successful battle with the Klan. I am indebted to him for these highlights.

The Buffalo Klan members were not rural, undereducated whites with poor economic prospects. Here, the Klan’s 4,000 members were drawn mostly from the Protestant, educated, professional and merchant middle class. Their office was in the Calumet building on Chippewa and their base was the Delaware District.

This demographic joined the Klan because it picked a very specific battle that resonated with them. The Buffalo Klan apparently decided that it would not gain much ground by attacking African-Americans or Jews, though these communities did organize in opposition to it. Instead, the Buffalo Klan focused on lax enforcement of Prohibition.

The 18th Amendment, banning the production and sale of alcoholic beverages, was heavily supported by Protestants, who associated alcohol abuse with Roman Catholics and immigrants.

Buffalo’s first Catholic mayor, Francis X. Schwab, had just been elected. Schwab, who was German-American, owned a brewery that was caught selling alcohol. During Prohibition, the booze flowed freely in Buffalo. This incensed the city’s Protestant elites. They flocked to this new organization, which promised civic improvement and fraternal fellowship.

The battle lines were drawn: Protestant vs. Catholic; native vs. immigrant; upper class vs. working class. Recognizing the Klan as a mortal enemy, Schwab recruited an undercover officer to infiltrate the Buffalo chapter. Someone, probably recruited by Schwab, burgled the Buffalo Klan office and stole the membership list. It ended up on display at police headquarters. Buffalonians flocked downtown by the thousands to look for names of friends and associates. It was then published as a pamphlet, a copy of which survives in the Buffalo History Museum and is now online at NYHeritage.org.

Embarrassed by the exposure, the Klan sent its own investigator, Thomas Austin, to Buffalo. Austin soon figured out who Mayor Schwab’s spy was: Officer Edward Obertean. On Aug. 31, 1924, in front of 128 Durham St., Austin confronted Obertean. Both men drew weapons, exchanged gunfire, and died. Edward Obertean was 35 years old. He was Catholic.

Buffalo has never properly recognized our martyr in the fight against the Klan and the bigotry and hatred for which it stands.

As plans proceed to convert the Dillon Federal Courthouse on Court Street into Buffalo Police Department headquarters, I propose renaming it the Edward Obertean Building. It would be a powerful statement that we embrace the highest and best American values in the City of Good Neighbors. Let’s give our hero something more lasting than a column in the daily newspaper.


Sign the petition to name the new public safety building after Edward Obertean

If All of Buffalo Read About the Klan

Buffalo Takes on the Ku Klux Klan

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