This week, we’re taking a look at Delaware Avenue.
Few spots along Delaware Avenue, or anywhere else in the city for that matter, are at the center of more interesting stories of Buffalo’s – and America’s – history than the home generally referred to as the Ansley Wilcox Mansion.
1. The house wasn’t always “on Delaware Avenue.”
In the midst of a complicated diplomatic crisis between the U.S., Britain and anti-British Canadian rebels known as the Caroline Affair, the federal government built an Army post in Buffalo in 1837 to help protect the border. The Buffalo Barracks were built on what was then Buffalo’s northern outskirts, between North and Allen streets to the north and south and Main and Delaware to the east and west.
Only four years later, construction began on the more strategically located Fort Porter, which stood where the Buffalo side of the Peace Bridge now stands. The Buffalo Barracks were dismantled, except for one building – the home of the commanding officer and post surgeon. Part of the row of housing for officers, the house “faced” the parade ground – and therefore Main Street – even though it was much closer to Delaware.
The house was remodeled and expanded by architect Thomas Tilden in 1848, when the home was occupied by Judge Joseph G. Masten (of Masten Avenue, Masten High School and Masten District fame).
Masten called the place “Chestnut Lawn.” An 1852 visitor described it as “a beautiful residence in the upper part of the city toward Niagara,” where “the sounds of dropping chestnuts could almost be heard” as one “drove into the grounds that front the pleasant mansion.”
As Delaware Street became Delaware Avenue, and the address carried with it an increasing social status, a porch and front entrance were built on the Delaware Avenue side of the building, sometime before it was given to Ansley Wilcox as a wedding present in 1883.
Under the direction of Wilcox, architect George Cary – who also designed the Buffalo History Museum – redesigned the two parlors of the original barracks residence into the library where Theodore Roosevelt would be sworn in as president.
The Wilcox House in 1901.
2. The Buffalo connection to the naming of the poinsettia.
The Buffalo Barracks were formally known as the Poinsett Barracks for Joel Robert Poinsett, who was a visitor to Buffalo during the time of uncertainty with Britain and Canada as President Martin Van Buren’s secretary of war.
His previous diplomatic posts included a stint as the ambassador to Mexico, where the envoy’s interest in botany led him to send clippings of a wild-growing red plant back to his stateside greenhouse. Poinsett introduced the species to Americans, and lives on in Christmas celebrations with the poinsettia – which is a good thing because the base named in his honor didn’t last even a decade.
3. Theodore Roosevelt wasn’t the home’s only presidential visitor.
The Poinsett Barracks and final remaining vestige, the Wilcox Mansion, have quite the presidential pedigree.
President William Howard Taft, front, stands on the steps of the Ansley Wilcox House. Wilcox is over Taft’s left shoulder, with a white mustache.
The first presidential visitor – President Van Buren – was there to dedicate the barracks on May 6, 1839.
Future President Zachary Taylor visited the Buffalo Barracks in 1840 – his daughter was the wife of the post surgeon. They lived in the house that became the Wilcox Mansion.
Scholars have listed President John Tyler as one of the presidential visitors to the home; he may have done so on a visit to Niagara Falls in 1841.
Former President John Quincy Adams visited Buffalo and the barracks in the summer of 1843 where “he was received with every possible demonstration of respect.”
Millard Fillmore was known to have visited many times in the days before he was president when the place was still the Buffalo Barracks, all the way through several owners of the property up until his death in 1876. One of Grover Cleveland’s law partners owned the home and the future president was a guest there as well.
Presidents Abraham Lincoln, Ulysses Grant, William McKinley, William Howard Taft, Woodrow Wilson, and Franklin Roosevelt were all visitors to the barracks and/or the Wilcox House.
If 13 U.S. presidents aren’t enough, you can also add a Confederate president. Jefferson Davis was stationed at the Buffalo Barracks during his time serving in the Union Army.
4. Roosevelt had previously spent time in Buffalo
Theodore Roosevelt, with a Buffalo Police officer and others, around 1900.
Both before and after his swearing in as president at the Wilcox Mansion, Theodore Roosevelt made no fewer than two dozen trips to Buffalo and Western New York.
Theodore Roosevelt speaks at Buffalo’s Music Hall, Main and Edward streets, 1898.
5. From the 1930s to the 1950s, the Wilcox Mansion was more a home of light refreshments than a historic site.
In September 1935, the original furnishings of the Wilcox Mansion were sold at auction – and soon after the Lawrence family bought the place to serve as a home to its restaurant.
Eventually the Kathryn Lawrence Tea Room became the Kathryn Lawrence Dining Room when the Senate Bar was added, but from 1939 to 1959, Buffalonians were eating and drinking in the Ansley Wilcox and White Rooms, which were decorated to remind patrons of the history that had happened there.
6. One of Buffalo’s most revered historical sites nearly became a parking lot.
After the restaurant closed, Benderson Development bought the property and announced that a wrecking firm had been contracted to clear the property to make way for a parking lot.
Congressman Thaddeus Dulski worked to find money in Washington to save the building, but a unanimous vote of the house was needed – there were three no votes. Dulski’s efforts were bolstered by Buffalo native Leo O’Brien, a congressman from Albany.
“One of the things that bother me is that we don’t recognize history soon enough,” O’Brien told reporters as the efforts to save the Wilcox Mansion faltered. “About 50 years from now, a great many people are to cuss us as they realize that the Wilcox House is under a parking lot or hot dog stand.”
Luckily, it never came to cussing.
Liberty Bank eventually bought the building, and worked to raise money in the community until it made sense for the National Parks System to take over the building as a national historic space.
Victor Hugo’s was a mainstay restaurant at Delaware Avenue and Edward Street for a generation, from 1945 to 1977.
The family of owner Hugo DiGiulio was involved the management of many of Buffalo’s night spots and hotels, including the attached Victor Hugo Hotel, DiGiulio’s Club 31 on Johnson Park and the Hotel Buffalo – which stood at the corner of Washington and Swan streets, now filled by Coca-Cola Field.
In addition to a restaurant and hotel, the property was also home to a furrier in 1942.
When the home was built for grain elevator owner Charles Sternberg in 1869, the Second Empire style with mansard roof lines and tall bay windows was popular in Buffalo and around the country.
The Trubee family bought the property in the 1880s, building an annex in what is now the Buffalo Club’s parking lot. It was a mixed-use space with offices, apartments and hotel rooms. The hotel service was widely advertised during the Pan-American Exposition in 1901, which was a quick streetcar ride up Delaware Avenue away.
When Victor Hugo’s closed and the building became vacant after more than a century in the service of the Trubee and DiGiulio families, the building spent the late ’70s, ’80s and ’90s either up for sale or in the midst of lengthy renovation projects.
In 2001, after $2.7 million in further renovations, The Mansion on Delaware Avenue opened in the space. Known for its butler service and Land Rover transportation, the consistently nationally rated hotel’s website says “The Mansion on Delaware Avenue is a AAA Four Diamond Award-winning historic boutique luxury hotel that combines Second Empire architecture with modern elegance and comforts.”
Providing very discreet lodging, The Mansion has become the Buffalo address for movie stars and billionaires visiting Buffalo.
It’s almost difficult to imagine Western New York and especially a Western New York snowfall without the phrase that Jimmy Griffin joked would wind up on his tombstone. But while Buffalonians have likely been drinking their way through snowstorms for as long as there have been people here, we’ve only been “staying inside and grabbing a six-pack” for the 32 years since a blizzard descended on Buffalo in January 1985.
It had been only been eight years since the Blizzard of ’77 and Western New Yorkers were still a little jumpy with memories of being stranded, 12-foot drifts, and people freezing to death in their cars.
Heading into a late January weekend in 1985, forecasters were calling for as much snow as the city had seen since ’77. Ultimately, three feet of snow fell in three days, but the weekend timing was actually perfect. One of the lessons learned in ’77 was to keep people off the roads so you could keep the roads cleared.
One would expect the mayor to be out front with snow emergency communications, but during the Blizzard of ’85, Mayor James D. Griffin was Buffalo’s acting Streets Commissioner, coordinating snow removal efforts from City Hall and the heavy equipment depot at Broadway Barns.
Why? The Common Council had repeatedly rejected the mayor’s nomination of Joseph Scinta as Streets Commissioner. After the fifth rejection, in November 1984, Griffin told Buffalonians to “blame their councilmen when the snow was piling up” on city streets.
When the blizzard hit two months later, Griffin was determined to show Buffalonians what he was doing personally to get the streets cleared. He even rode a few shifts on the plows. The mayor issued a driving ban and ordered the police to enforce it. But he also encouraged people to stay home and watch the 49ers and Dolphins in the Super Bowl that weekend, maybe with beverage in hand.
Police enforce a driving ban during the Blizzard of ’85. Buffalo News archives
“Stay inside, grab a six-pack, and watch a good football game,” Mayor Griffin was caught saying on a Channel 7 camera. “Have a six-pack handy so you can enjoy yourself. Don’t take this too seriously.”
The consensus was that most Buffalonians liked seeing Don Shula, Dan Marino and the Dolphins beat up in the Super Bowl, and most liked the job Griffin did in beating back the Blizzard of ’85. The News later gave Griffin high marks for his handling of the blizzard and its aftermath, saying he did “a good job” acting as his own commissioner.
1985 was a mayoral election year, and the Blizzard of ’85 was a central campaign issue. Common Council President and primary opponent George Arthur questioned the city’s preparedness and overall plan for snow fighting.
“When you get 45 inches of snow, I challenge anyone to come up with a plan that works,” said Griffin.
Others attacked the six-pack advice as “unbecoming a mayor.” Griffin would have none of it.
As quoted by Brian Meyer and David Breslawski in their 1985 book “The World According to Griffin,” the mayor hammered back with, “I’m proud of the statement. You get a blizzard here in Buffalo, you have to get off the street. I’ll probably use it again. I don’t see anything wrong with it. It was a humorous statement.”
Griffin was elected to a third term in 1985 and a fourth in 1989.
Did we grab six packs?
But did people heed Mayor Griffin’s advice, that first time it was suggested Western New York grab some beers and relax?
Delaware Avenue, The Blizzard of 1985. Buffalo News archives
In the days following the Blizzard of 1985, The News checked in with a handful of stores to see how they fared.
The Tops Market at 2226 Delaware Ave. – today the spot is Big Lots— and the 7-Eleven on Sheridan Drive—now Romeo & Juliet’s Bakery & Café—reported big runs on junk food and beer as Western New Yorkers apparently dutifully followed the mayor’s advice.
A decade after leaving the White House, Harry S. Truman spent 38 hours in Buffalo during the spring of 1962.
The highlight of the trip was an honorary doctorate from Canisius College. During an address at the Jesuit college, Truman spoke for 30 minutes, mostly about the Cold War.
“You can make agreements with them but the record shows it won’t do any good. I wouldn’t trust them across the street even if I could see them,” said Truman. He also said that Josef Stalin, who died in 1953, and the Soviets lied to him personally at least 32 times.
He also touched on “the race for space” and continued nuclear development and testing, saying all were vital, likening the work being done to that of Thomas Edison.
“If he had stopped then, we’d be sitting around here in candlelight,” Truman told about 300 students in attendance.
Truman told reporters that he’d never had so many intelligent questions asked of him as he did by the students of Canisius. “And I have been to Yale, Harvard, Columbia and my own University of Missouri,” he said as he smiled.
Among the tough questions was one about the famous letter “threatening the manhood” of a Washington Post music critic who had panned his daughter’s singing. It was written on White House stationery.
“Both my wife and daughter wept after that. They’d said that I ruined them. But in the 1948 election there wasn’t a man with a daughter who didn’t vote for me. It isn’t what I did it for, but that’s the way it worked out.”
That was near the end of the student questions. “I stood there an hour answering their questions and when they got too tough, I quit,” said Truman.
Mark Twain came to Buffalo as a swashbuckling, young writer in 1869. He bought a piece of the Buffalo Express newspaper, hoping to have a home base from which he could travel to speaking engagements and write a book about his adventures out West.
As a single man, he lived in boarding house in a space now swallowed up by Coca-Cola Field. Shortly into his 20-month stay in Buffalo, he married Olivia Langdon, the daughter of a wealthy Elmira coal magnate.
While it was Twain’s intention to continue to live the boarding-house life he had come to enjoy, it wasn’t to be. It wasn’t high society of the New England or New York City variety, but there were wealth and good people among what we’d today call Buffalo’s upper-middle class — plenty of those just like one of Buffalo’s other prominent citizens, Grover Cleveland.
Twain called what happened next “a first-class swindle.”
After marrying in Elmira, instead of returning to an action-filled neighborhood close to the canal and all that was happening in Buffalo, Twain and his bride were introduced to their new home on Buffalo’s most stylish and posh address — Delaware.
The resplendent mansion was fully furnished with the finest things and a staff of servants. One newsboy remembers the sign tacked to the front door of 472 Delaware — “Mark Twain lives here, his father-in-law pays the rent.”
Though the home was far more elegant that what he was used to, Twain might have become more comfortable in the accoutrements of Buffalo’s (and one of the country’s) finest avenues had tragedy not struck at least three times.
His wife Olivia was heartbroken when her father — and Twain’s financial backer — died after a long illness. One of Olivia’s close friends became ill while visiting her in Buffalo and died in the house. Then after the premature birth and death of their first child, the couple moved to Elmira, then to the family’s longtime home in Hartford, Conn.
The home remained a residence until it became the office of Dr. Alfred Bayliss in 1905. In 1956, after the brick had been painted white and the building was chopped up into apartments and offices, owners submitted a plan to take down the house and replace it with a $150,000 office building.
Roland Benzow, an attorney who had also served on Buffalo’s Common Council, proposed an effort to buy the building and turn it into a Twain manuscript museum.
The Buffalo Mark Twain Society, headed by Benzow, had several ideas and offers over the next handful of years trying to save the landmark — but flames of a never-determined origin sealed the structure’s fate.
When a three-alarm blaze broke out in the house on Feb. 7, 1963, newspaper headlines blared that the Mark Twain House was “saved from flames” in a “close call,” but after seven years of effort to raise money to save the house, Buffalo’s Twain mansion was torn down. The site became a parking lot for the Cloister restaurant, which opened in the home’s still-intact carriage house and a small structure built after the fire where the carriage house once connected to the main house. After the Cloister closed, the building was home to Buffalo Business First in 1989.
Buffalo Business First moved downtown, the 1960s building was taken down in 2012, and a new $4.5 million mixed-use building named “Twain Tower” was built on the site. The home’s original carriage house still stands.
The subject of the photo is clearly the women marching in a World War II era Memorial Day parade, but happily captured along with the ladies paying homage to our nation’s war dead is Buffalo’s original Howard Johnson’s Restaurant.
With wartime sugar rationing in effect, it was written, “At Howard Johnson’s the waitress will bring one lump; two if you insist, and carefully oversees dishing out the bulk sugar for iced tea or coffee.” (Buffalo News archives)
Generations of Americans remember the homestyle dinners and 28-flavor ice cream selection at the more than 1,000 Howard Johnson’s orange-roofed locations around the country.
Buffalo’s most popular HoJo’s was this one at Delaware and North starting around 1941. The restaurant was a part of the sometimes-strange development of Delaware Avenue. Working class families piled out of wood-paneled, American-made station wagons right across the street from the home of News Publisher and Buffalo aristocrat Edward Butler.
The restaurant was remodeled in 1960, and remained a familiar landmark for the next three decades.
Buffalo Stories archives
Walgreens purchased what was Buffalo’s last Howard Johnson’s location and built a drug store at the site on Delaware and North in 1994.
Pointed to as one of Buffalo’s finest examples of Art Moderne architecture, the National Gypsum Headquarters building was built on Delaware Avenue between Chippewa and Tupper starting in 1941.
Buffalo News archives
National Gypsum moved its corporate headquarters from Buffalo to Dallas in 1976, and the building was sold in 1978. The original metal windows were removed during the years the building served as Conrail’s Buffalo office, 1978-88.
Now known as Marshalls Plaza, the strip mall has also been known as Great Arrow Plaza and, when it first opened in 1948, the Delaware Park Shopping Center. The apartment buildings in the background are still recognizable.
The big tenants when this photo was snapped were the A&P market and the Western Savings Bank branch — which was opened after state law changed allowing savings banks to open two branch locations. Episcopal Bishop Lauriston Scaife was joined by about 6,000 onlookers when the bank location opened.
Buffalo Stories archives
The plaza was built on the northeast corner of the 1901 Pan-American Exposition — on the site of the 12,000-seat stadium.
Shot in 1962, probably out a window in the Statler Hotel, this view of Delaware Avenue has evolved slowly but changed drastically through the last 54 years, essentially creating a new gateway to Buffalo’s City Hall and Niagara Square.
Buffalo News archives
The building we see the front and center still stands with some changes. It was built as the Federal Reserve Bank in 1955, and it remained so until it became the headquarters for New Era Cap in 2006. The most substantial change came in the years immediately after the photo was taken, when the block of 19th-century mansions was cleared for the building of what would become the Thaddeus Dulski Federal Building, now known as the Avant.
The most remembered and revered building on that block was, in 1962, the Normandy Restaurant — one of Buffalo’s more swank dining spots.
It was built by Dr. Walter Cary in 1851. Cary was one of Buffalo’s cultural elite, and for more than a century, his home was considered one of Buffalo’s finest. It was also the boyhood home of Dr. Cary’s son George, one of Buffalo’s leading architects at the turn of the century. He designed what is now the Buffalo History Museum for the Pan-Am Exposition, the Pierce-Arrow building on Elmwood and the gates and offices of Forest Lawn Cemetery, among others.
These few blocks saw many of Buffalo’s elite diners during this era.
The Normandy is front and center, but across the street and out of view was Foster’s Supper Club. At the very bottom of the photo is the Chateau Restaurant, which lives on in the ghost sign still visible on the side of the only 19th-century home that still stands on that part of Delaware Avenue.
The Chateau offered a “Choice of 25 entrees,” and it painted the offer on the building’s brick façade. The words “Choice of 25” are clearly legible today. Later, as the Roundtable Restaurant, the building at 153 Delaware Ave. served as the venue from which shipping magnate and restaurant co-owner George Steinbrenner announced that he was purchasing the New York Yankees.
Toward the top of the photo, we see a corner that has undergone massive changes in the last 15 years.
The Hotel Richford, previously known as the Hotel Ford, was torn down in 2000 to make way for the Hampton Inn & Suites on the corner of Delaware and Chippewa. Just past Chippewa is the Delaware Court Building, which was torn down in 2014 to make way for the 12-story headquarters of Delaware North.
The northwest corner of Delaware and Chippewa was once the southeast corner of Dr. Ebenezer Johnson’s large estate. He was Buffalo’s first mayor in 1832, and his home, at the time, was on the rural outskirts of the city. A home built by Philander Hodge on that corner in 1835, which later served as the home of the Buffalo Club, was torn down to make way for the Delaware Court Building in 1913.