Thoughts on Little Libraries

Free Book Exchange, corner of Grant & Lafayette outside Sweetness_7 Café, Buffalo, NY, December 2011. Photo by author, (c)2011, all rights reserved. This essay was originally published at LinkedIn in May 2019. It has been lightly edited.


Because Little Free Library™ (LFL) is a trademarked brand, for the purposes of this article, I will call book boxes on posts Little Libraries (LLs). 

Over the 2018 Labor Day weekend, I got the idea to do a Google map of LLs in Buffalo, which I later expanded to Erie County. Several LLs had appeared in my neighborhood and most were not registered with the international LFL organization, so they did not appear on the official LFL map. It was a fun holiday project that grew into an ongoing spatial record of LL activity.

In May 2019, the Elmwood Village Association asked if they could incorporate my LL addresses into their own map. I agreed on the grounds that I get credited, with a link back. BuffaloRising.com, in turn, ran a story on the two maps, including a screenshot and link to my map. Whereupon debate ensued in the comments. I decided to post a single response here, rather than exchange tit-for-tat with testy BuffaloRising readers.

LLs are a creative solution to the fact that in many places, book supply exceeds demand. There are more books than there are collectors or libraries or used bookstores or rummage sales who want or need them.

At the LLs I frequent, the selection is usually popular fiction and children’s books. Once everyone who is likely to read the latest bestseller has read the latest bestseller, thousands of surplus copies will be available. Their market value is negligible. Most fiction has a short shelf life and minimal lasting significance, research value, or long-term collectability. It makes sense to give these books away.

Most LLs are voluntarily erected at a private expense on private property. The vast majority of Buffalo LLs I mapped are on residential property, a front lawn adjacent to the sidewalk. If people installed them on the tree lawn between the sidewalk and street, which is public property, the City could legally remove them, though in the absence of safety or nuisance issues, I hope they would not bother.

There is no centralized agency that funds LLs or capriciously concentrates them in well-off neighborhoods. The official Little Free Library organization does have a grant program to fund installations in marginalized neighborhoods, however, and they underwrite around a dozen per month.

While searching online for LL mentions in Buffalo, I learned of four organized LL campaigns. Two were led by neighborhood associations, which explains two of the clusters on my map. It would fall outside the geographic scope of their mission to install LLs anywhere other than the areas they serve.

  1. In 2013, the Parkside Community Association organized an LL program
  2. In 2016, the University Heights Collaborative held a fundraiser to support LLs in the University district
  3. In 2017, the Buffalo Architectural Foundation ran a design competition with the goal of placing LLs in low-income Buffalo neighborhoods
  4. From 2016-2018, Slow Roll Buffalo installed some LLs in low-income neighborhoods

At the moment, LLs are a popular lawn accessory, just as artificial ponds were the must-have garden feature 15 years ago. If I could map artificial ponds in Buffalo backyards, I imagine that the densest clusters of them would pretty much line up with the densest clusters of LLs. Both are markers of disposable income. The difference is that LLs are easier to maintain than pondlets and offer public rather than private enjoyment.

While LLs are charming, they are no help to anyone who needs to do meaningful research: school reading assignments, term papers, local history, family history, job-hunting, health & medicine, learning English, studying for your citizenship exam. They do not offer free computer and internet access, proprietary database access, personal how-do-I-find-X advice, computer training classes, story hours, maker spaces, book clubs, e-books, kids’ activities, copy machines, all the things offered by public libraries. LLs may offer random recreational reading but they do not provide professional librarians. I think most people understand this.

At this point I should mention Free Book Exchanges. They predate LLs and a few appeared here in Buffalo. In addition to the one I photographed in 2011, I recall another Free Book Exchange on Allen at Franklin. What I don’t recall is any opposition. The only difference between a Free Book Exchange and a Little Library is branding: LLs appropriate the library name and its dense web of associations.

Which brings us to the heart of the debate at BuffaloRising. Readers criticized LLs on the ground that they represent yet another maldistribution of resources and their existence might embolden funders to cut public library budgets. This fear is articulated in an essay that ran at CityLab in 2017:

“We submit that these data reinforce the notion that [Little Free Libraries] are examples of performative community enhancement, driven more so by the desire to showcase one’s passion for books and education than a genuine desire to help the community in a meaningful way.”

“The journal article names one place where Little Free Library exchanges may have grown at the expense of the public library system. In September 2014, the mayor of tiny Vinton, Texas, announced plans to install five Little Free Library book-stops across town—while implementing a $50 fee for access to the El Paso Public Library system to balance state-imposed budget cuts.”

The authors accused LL owners of “virtue signaling,” which makes me wonder: if installing a free book box in your front yard is virtue signaling, then what to these librarian authors is working in an actual library or serving on its board? Virtue broadcasting?

In any event, yes, there are bad actors who promote bad ideas. Like this author at Forbes magazine, who argued that it’d be cheaper to shut down public libraries and just give everyone Amazon digital services.

The backlash was loud and swift.

Another bad idea is that we don’t need public libraries now that we have the internet. This bad idea long predates the advent of LLs and will continue to rear its ugly head after the Little Library fad has peaked. Why this is a bad idea is the subject for another essay, but here is just one of many arguments.

While it is true that LLs are concentrated in wealthy neighborhoods who do not lack for book access, the claim that LLs might inspire public library budget cuts has little merit. Garage sales have not put Goodwill out of business. The Lexington Co-op has not closed down because of church & school bake sales. Annual neighborhood and park clean-up days do not inspire sanitation worker layoffs. Individuals taking in stray animals does not prompt anyone to defund the SPCA.

I suspect that had the Free Book Exchange name been widely adopted instead of Little Free Library™, no one would worry that they would inspire budget cuts to public libraries. Today’s debate is an unintended consequence of appropriating the library brand.

If you want to see more LLs in low-income neighborhoods, then by all means find someone who is willing to host one on their property — a family, church, business, or nonprofit. If you initiate or underwrite the installation of one, adopt it for the long haul and commit to keeping it stocked. Discard and replace books that are worn, damaged, or sit for weeks unclaimed.

Just don’t argue that Little Libraries are bad and there should be more of them.

No, City Hall Has Not Lost Records in a Fire

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.

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.

Buffalo Commercial Advertiser, January 24, 1863, p. 3

Here it is the only other fire in a Buffalo government building that I could find:

Buffalo Evening News, April 23, 1907

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.

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.

OARs 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.

Caroline M. Stuart to erect double wing frame dwelling 24x34 feet, 1 3/4 story high with kitchen attached 14x24 feet on lot east side Seventh Street 190 fet northwest of Hudson Street.
Buffalo Common Council Proceedings, Minutes No. 13, March 31, 1879, p. 273

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 now 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

Why We Need Municipal Sidewalk Plowing

This essay originally appeared as a My View column in The Buffalo News on Feb. 5, 2013 and has since been edited, updated, and expanded. Image shows elderly couple walking in street due to unplowed sidewalks. One of them is pushing the other in a wheelchair. Photo taken by author on Elmwood Avenue, Buffalo, NY, January 2020, all rights reserved.


When I moved to Buffalo 30 years ago, I was shocked to discover that the city does not plow sidewalks. How could that be, in a place that gets so much snow?

I grew up in Rochester, where sidewalks were and still are plowed at public expense. Rochester has 37 square miles; Buffalo has 42. Its population is 210,855; ours is 261,025 (2010 census). Rochester’s population and economy have declined as much as Buffalo’s, yet its government continues to provide sidewalk plowing while ours pleads poverty. It plows sidewalks for average cost of $40 per household per year (as of Nov. 2022).

In Buffalo, property owners are required by law to clear sidewalks in front of their homes and businesses. We are expected get out and shovel to show the world that we are truly the City of Good Neighbors. If we don’t, it must be because we are antisocial lazybones who deserve their annual scolding from The Buffalo News. This popular sentiment reflects idealism about who we wish we were more than realism about how to maintain essential public infrastructure. This law is a failure.

When I walk my 1.5 mile route to work, let us say for the sake of argument that I pass 250 houses and businesses. For me to have a fully cleared path, all 250 must shovel, sweep, snowblow and/or salt to the same standard after each and every snowfall. What level of compliance constitutes success? Eighty percent? Meaning that for every five addresses, four are shoveled, so I have to detour into the street for only 20 percent of my route? How about frequency of shoveling? If owners shovel their sidewalk after four out of five fresh snowfalls, is that satisfactory?

Let’s say that Buffalo’s 15 percent vacancy rate, the highest in the state, is reflected in my route and 15 percent of the addresses I pass are vacant or demolished. Who shall we ticket for impassable sidewalks in front of abandoned lots and buildings? Who is responsible for clearing the sidewalks fronting city-owned parking lots? These are purposely situated near commercial corridors that depend on foot traffic. The city, which is now our single largest land owner, does not obey its own shoveling laws.

Next, let us factor in everything that interferes with adjacent-owner sidewalk clearance: physical limitations, out-of-town travel, lack of awareness, absentee landlords, too many other responsibilities and, most egregiously, snowplow operators who clear streets, parking lots, and driveways by dumping snow onto sidewalks.

Nevertheless, since we’ve decided that owner shoveling is the ideal way to clear sidewalks, then why don’t we sell our street plows and lay off snowplow drivers to save on taxes, and require car owners to shovel out their own streets, with a hefty dose of editorial page shaming if they do not?

Why don’t we sell our street plows and lay off snowplow drivers to save on taxes, and require car owners to clear out their own streets?

We do not burden individuals in this way because one household failing to shovel would impede all drivers and all vehicles. We plow our streets at public expense to provide safe, consistent, and equitable access. We also recognize that streets are public, not private property, and must be maintained at public expense.

Here’s the kicker: so are sidewalks. “My” sidewalk does not belong to me at all. Pedestrians deserve the same safe, consistent, and equitable access to public right-of-ways as vehicles. Automobiles spend over 90% of the time parked, meaning that 90% of the time, we are pedestrians instead of drivers. Thirty percent of Buffalo households do not own cars. Street budgets should reflect these realities.

The present situation is an equal protection violation: Buffalo taxpayers inside of motor vehicles are entitled to right-of-ways cleared at public expense, while Buffalo taxpayers outside of motor vehicles are not. Even worse, they are subject to penalties if they fail to maintain public property.

So tax me. Please! Then tax me some more to pay for sidewalk plowing in low-income neighborhoods.

#PlowSidewalksToo


Related: Top Twenty Reasons for Municipal Sidewalk Plowing in Buffalo

Updated December 3, 2020

Build the Larkin Rowhouses

Originally published in Buffalo Spree, July-August 2006, p. 150. Illustration from Ausgeführte Bauten und Entwüürfe von Frank Lloyd Wright. Perspective, ground and floor plans for the Waller Workmen’s Cottages. Plate XL (40). Published by Ernst Wasmuth A.-G., Berlin, 1910.


Most architecturally-aware Buffalonians know how the Darwin Martin-Frank Lloyd Wright friendship led to commissions for the now-demolished Larkin Administration building and homes for the top Larkin Company officers. Demolished portions of the Martin House complex are being rebuilt as the site undergoes a complete restoration. Martin also commissioned Wright’s only cemetery monument, the Blue Sky Mausoleum, which was constructed in Forest Lawn in 2004, decades after the passing of the Martins.

Additional executions of unbuilt Wright designs are underway in Buffalo. James and Mary Ann Sandoro of the Buffalo Transportation-Pierce Arrow Museum are constructing Wright’s Tydol gas station, originally designed for Buffalo in the 1920s, on Michigan Avenue. Fundraising is underway to put up Wright’s ca. 1905 Yahara boathouse, originally designed for Madison, WI, on the Niagara River near Porter Avenue.

Some scholars argue that these new constructions should not be considered genuine Wright creations because the architect is not present to make the many major and minor adjustments necessary to transform two-dimensional intentions into three-dimensional structures. New sites, new building codes, new construction materials, and new techniques present challenges to authenticity. So let’s concede the point, call these projects Re-Wrights, and lead the world in posthumous Re-Wrighting.

Here is the next candidate for Re-Wrighting Buffalo. In 1904, the Larkin Company, known for a corporate culture of benevolent paternalism, commissioned Wright to design rowhouses for its workers. This was a progressive response to overcrowding and slum conditions in industrial Buffalo, decades before the advent of public housing. The rowhouses were probably planned for the vicinity of the Larkin factory complex on Seneca Street. Further research is needed to determine how and why Larkin decided to provide company housing, if a site was ever selected, why they were never built, and what materials Wright had in mind.

Wright designed little with which to compare them. Apparently the only Wright rowhouses ever to be built are the Roloson apartments in Chicago, which date to 1894 and have a Tudor-style steeply-pitched gable facades and Louis Sullivan-inspired ornament above the windows.

The Larkin Rowhouse design was first published in 1910 in Germany in the famous Wasmuth Portfolio, the publication that established Wright’s reputation in Europe. At that time, the client was identified as Mr. E.C. Waller of Chicago. In 1942, Henry-Russell Hitchcock determined that the client was actually the Larkin Company and praised the design as an early prototype for European worker housing and US defense housing. Hitchcock’s attribution appears to be uncontested, probably because the design shows such strong affinities with the Larkin building and the Buffalo prairie houses, most notably in the prominent vertical piers segmenting the façade, the low-pitched roof with deep overhangs, and horizontal bands of windows.

The Larkin Rowhouse plans survive today in the archives of Taliesin West, awaiting a licensing agreement with a visionary builder. Buffalo has all too many “shovel ready” sites and a growing downtown housing market. Let’s build the rowhouses for everyone who wasn’t lucky enough to be a Larkin company executive.

Buffalo Hotels and the Niagara Movement: New Evidence Refutes an Old Legend

The widely-accepted story of W.E.B. DuBois’ venue choice for the inaugural meeting of the Niagara Movement cites racial discrimination as the cause. Recent research by local scholars, however, suggests that this was not the case after all.

Originally published in Western New York Heritage Magazine, vol. 13, no. 4, Winter 2011.

If All of Buffalo Read About the Klan

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 Buffalo KKK membership list is online here.

We defeated this ideology once. We can and must do so again. Hooded Knights on the Niagara is the book that all of Buffalo needs to read right now.

At BuffaloResearch.com, local history matters and #BlackLivesMatter.

Hooded Knights on the Niagara is the best book about Buffalo that no one has read

The Truth About Snow in Buffalo

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.

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?

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?


Weather map at top courtesy of: Wood, Jefferson. “Creating a Climatological Snowfall Map for the National Weather Service Buffalo County Warning Area Using an Ordinary Least Squares Regression of PRISM Data with Residual Correction Scheme. Eastern Region Technical Attachment No. 2018-01, January 2018

The Old Curiosity Shop: McDonnell and Sons Monument Company

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.


©Cynthia Van Ness. Originally published in the Buffalo Preservation Report, June 1996.  Advertisement courtesy of 1891 Buffalo city directory. The building has since been remodeled as The Granite Works.  A sales brochure from the company is online at Archive.org.

In Search of Buffalo’s First Professional African-American Architect

Some Preliminary Findings by Cynthia Van Ness, ©2001-2013

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.

Michigan Avenue YMCA

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.

Update, June 3, 2013: Brent’s gates for the Buffalo Zoo have been added to the National Register of Historic Places.


Sources Consulted

  • Online Sources, Which Turned Up Nothing

Brief Biographies of American Architects
http://www.sah.org/aame/bioint.html

Buffalo News Archives, 1989 to present
http://www.buffalonews.com

Circle Association’s African-American History of Western New York State
http://www.math.edu/~sww/0history/1900-1935.html

Cyburbia.org
http://www.cyburbia.org

Digital Schomburg
http://www.schomburg.org

National Association for the Advancement of Colored People
http://www.naacp.org

National Union Catalog of Manuscript Collections
http://www.lcweb.loc.gov/

New Deal Network
http://www.newdeal.feri.org/

U.S. Social Security Death Index
http://ssdi.rootsweb.com/cgi-bin/ssdi.cgi

Western New York Index, 1983-1996
http://www.wnyindex.com/

World Biographical Index
http://www.biblio.tu-bs.de/

  • Proprietary Databases

Dialog@Carl Architecture Database

Ethnic Newswatch

Galenet Biography Resource Center

  • Monographs & Pamphlets

Avery Index to Architectural Periodicals. Boston, MA : G.K. Hall, 1963.

Avery Obituary Index to Architects & Artists. Boston, MA : G.K. Hall, 1963.

Hasauer, Kenneth. The Second Fifty Years: A History of the Young Men’s Christian Association of Buffalo and Erie County, 1902-1952. Buffalo, NY: YMCA, [1952].

Noles, Eva. Buffalo’s Blacks: Talking Proud. Buffalo, NY: Eva M. Noles, 1986.

Twenty Years in the Service of Youth: The Michigan Avenue YMCA. Buffalo, NY: Young Men’s Christian Association, 1943

Who’s Who in Colored America. New York: [various publishers], 1927-1944, 1950.

Who’s Who of the Colored Race. Chicago, IL: Frank Lincoln Mather, 1915.

Williams, Lillian Serece. Strangers in the Land of Paradise: The Creation of an African-American Community, Buffalo, New York 1900-1940. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, ©1999.

  • Articles & Serials

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.

  • Unpublished Sources

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

  • Picture Credits

Brent portrait:
Twenty Years in the Service of Youth. Buffalo, NY : Young Men’s Christian Association, ©1943: 5

Michigan Avenue Branch:
Hausauer, Kenneth C. The Second Fifty Years … 1902-1952. Buffalo, NY : Artcraft Printers, [1952?]: 29

Special thanks to Sharon Holley for supplying Brent’s date of death and burial place.


This article is fully protected by copyright and may not be copied and pasted anywhere without written permission. Last updated  3 June 2013.

Top Ten Urban Legends in Buffalo

In the old David Letterman format, these are the ten most bogus urban legends about Buffalo & its history:

10.  Buffalo has the longest, coldest, snowiest, harshest, worst winters in America.

9.   Every house in Buffalo was photographed during the Pan-American Exposition and the Buffalo History Museum has the pictures.

8.  The “Historical Society” or the “Preservation Society” won’t let me demolish/remodel/alter my building.

7.   The stone farmhouse at 60 Hedley Place was built as slave quarters.

6.   My title abstract dates back to 1804, so that is when my house was built.

5.  The City of Buffalo Property database says my house was built in 1900 so that is how old it is.

4.  The towers at the Richardson Complex (Buffalo State Hospital) were used to chain up mental patients.

3.  Grover Cleveland lived at 51 Johnson Park.

2.  The Niagara Movement (1905) met in Fort Erie because of racial discrimination at Buffalo hotels.

1. My house was a stop on the Underground Railroad.  [Alternate version: my house was a speakeasy during Prohibition.]

New addition: City Hall had a fire and all of the records were lost.

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