(Not quite) Torn-Down Tuesday: The remnants of the Shea’s Empire

       By Steve Cichon
       steve@buffalostories.com
       @stevebuffalo

When Michael Shea decided to build a movie house in a neighborhood, it generally meant that the great theater owner saw some promise and some means to make some money there. Many followed him to invest in those areas.

Fast forward a century later, and the story is the same for neighborhoods where the once-opulent Shea theaters have been renovated.

Main looking north from Chippewa, with the Shea’s Buffalo marquee looming, from a postcard from about 1957.

In 1975, Shea’s Buffalo Theatre was a signature away from the wrecking ball. After the Loews movie chain left the once beautiful grand old theater empty, demolition orders were written to tear down the landmark. Buffalo Comptroller George O’Connell, however, wouldn’t sign. He instead intensified efforts to find people willing to help save the place.

The movement to save Shea’s blossomed into the 1980s efforts to rebuild and revitalize Buffalo’s Theatre District. Renovation and reconstruction of Shea’s continues to this day – but one major milestone was the replacement of the 65-foot-tall Buffalo sign on the building’s Main Street façade in 2004, making the theater one of downtown’s most photographed landmarks.

The complete renovation of the Shea’s theater on Hertel Avenue also helped usher in a new era on that North Buffalo strip.

The 2014 multimillion dollar, eight-month restoration of the 1920-built theater underscored Hertel’s rebirth as a trendy spot filled with boutique shops, and plenty of taverns and restaurants with outdoor seating.

The reopening of the Shea’s Seneca theater as a banquet facility earlier this month is the latest instance of a retrofitting of Michael Shea’s notion that a movie house should help create the sense of wonder and amazement reflected in the films being shown there.

Shea’s Seneca, Seneca at Cazenovia

The Shea’s Seneca was built in 1929, and after the theater portion of the building was torn down in the 1970s, what was left of it – the still glorious and opulent lobby – had spent most of the last four decades as a storage facility.

It’s all a part of a larger renovation to the attached building that was once home to the Skyroom, Woolworth’s and D & K through the years.

Like so many other great places, any of these three Shea’s landmarks could have been torn down in a past era of Buffalo’s history with a sense of forlorn but also a sense of helplessness. Today, it’s clear, that the buildings that have survived are helping to usher in an era where Buffalo’s future is built on its great past.

Explaining the mystique: WNY’s love affair with Mighty Taco

       By Steve Cichon
       steve@buffalostories.com
       @stevebuffalo

Forty-five years later, it’s hard to imagine Mighty Taco as anything other than a Buffalo institution, but in 1973, three Army buddies opened what was Buffalo’s first taco stand inside a tiny store front on Hertel Avenue, right in the heart of North Buffalo’s Little Italy.

The original Hertel Avenue location of Mighty Taco, 1986.

“We’d have old North Buffalo Italian ladies come in and ask what they were,” co-founder Andy Gerovac told News reporter Sharon Linstedt in 1997. “We’d tell them they were Mexican sandwiches and they’d say, ‘Thank you,’ and leave.”

Just as the chicken wing and beef on weck were created as bar food, Mighty was catering to hungry folks leaving bars from the very beginning. “The Mighty Taco,” as the chain was known in the beginning, didn’t open until 3 p.m. in the earliest days, but was open through the overnight hours.

Mighty Taco’s popularity grew with the use of interesting advertising in print and on rock radio stations.

“Mighty Taco generally caters to a younger crowd who are ultimately under high states of intoxication and virtual unconsciousness,” reported The (UB) Spectrum in 1979, naming Mighty Taco the area’s best taco stand. “Munched out patrons – engulfing whole tacos at a time – are not concerned with the true versions of Mexican food. Nonetheless, Mighty’s food comes closest to my idea of a quick-serviced yet well-developed epitome of Mexican culture.”

Within a few years, “The Mighty Taco” was slinging tacos and burritos from 11 a.m. to 5 a.m. on Hertel, then on Seneca Street near Cazenovia in South Buffalo, then Bailey and Minnesota, then Forest and Elmwood.

Employees outside the Forest Ave. location in 1979.

A 1986 review of Mighty Taco in the Canisius College student newspaper The Griffin called Mighty Taco “a place where daytime enemies can coexist peacefully. A place where middle-aged executives and punk rockers stand side-by-side without their usual feelings of animosity.  Under the harsh glare of fluorescent lights, and amidst the mingled smells of beer, cigarettes, gin, marijuana, and Mexican food they line up, patiently waiting for their number to be called.”

And that might be the entire appeal of Mighty Taco. Whether you’re a retiree meeting a buddy for lunch, one of those middle-aged executives grabbing something quick between meetings on the road, or an expat whose first stop after the plane lands in Buffalo is for a couple of Super Mightys, there’s something about Mighty Taco that touches that punk rocker that lives inside of most us.

Torn-Down Tuesday: Hills on Delaware near Hertel, 1998

By Steve Cichon
steve@buffalostories.com
@stevebuffalo

Hills was still going strong in Buffalo 20 years ago. This is Hills Plaza, Delaware Avenue near Hertel Avenue in 1998.

Just the mention of the name Hills conjures up smells of popcorn and roller dogs, washed down with an Icee, of course. Through the ’80s and ’90s, this was the time of year when Hills was usually the cheapest place to buy back-to-school supplies. From generic sneakers to spiral-bound notebooks with the Hills discounted price emblazoned in the top right corner, kids like me would sometimes try to think of creative ways to obscure the fact that we hadn’t done our shopping at more fashionable retailers.

Hills was in Buffalo for about 20 years. In 1979, there were two Hills stores in Western New York. Store number 77 was in Garden Village Plaza (French and Union roads) in Cheektowaga, and store number 79 was on George Urban Boulevard (at Dick Road) in Depew (until recently, a Hobby Lobby location).

There were 11 Hills locations around Western New York in 1984, making the discount retailer just about ubiquitous — and a likely stop for most Western New York shoppers over the 20 years the company operated here.

By the time the local Hills stores were bought out by Ames in 1999, there were 10 Hills locations. With a combined 20 stores, Ames closed its local outlets in 2002.

This particular Hills location was torn down in 2007 to make way for a Kohl’s store, which was built on the Hills lot plus the lot created when the northern half of an old Tops store was also torn down. The southern half of that Tops store remains today as a Big Lots.

Before Hills and Tops, there were strawberry patches along Delaware Avenue, next to the vine-covered abandoned factory ruins the neighborhood kids called “The Hidden City.” That structure was once a part of the American Radiator Co., which was fronted on Elmwood Avenue.

American Radiator’s coal pulverizing unit was among the outbuildings put up on lands that had even earlier served as part of a New York Central railroad stop for the Pan American Exposition.

Torn-Down Tuesday: Spohr’s Department Store, Hertel Avenue

By Steve Cichon
steve@buffalostories.com
@stevebuffalo

Most Buffalo neighborhoods had one, if not several, stores like Hertel Avenue’s Spohr’s — a relatively small storefront department store, with the local owner as an important part of the fabric of the community and found in the store six days a week.

In 1919, George Spohr’s first store was at 2262 Seneca St. at Indian Church Road. The spot was later home to Jahraus-Braun, Hens & Kelly, and PM Berst Furniture. While in South Buffalo, Spohr headed a Seneca Street business group and helped raise money for the building of Mercy Hospital on Abbott Road.

He moved his business to the corner of Hertel and Sterling in 1928, and was president of a Hertel Avenue businessman’s group. He was also the longtime treasurer of Central Presbyterian Church at Main Street and Jewett Parkway.

A new season approaches — a new buying era — really an epoch in which Spohr’s will take a leading part NOW in our new Hertel avenue store — pleasing, airy, comfortable store of convenience we will present, from week to week, many distinctive, merchandise values.

It’s like starting out on some gay adventure to make a tour of our store and there to discover for yourself the unusual thrifty Spohr prices. In a department store of wide selections, featuring tomorrow’s merchandise at today’s prices.

Many North Buffalo children fondly remember Mr. Spohr warmly greeting them at the door and offering children who came through the door a wax paper bag with a coconut cookie inside.

Spohr sold the business in 1951 and died in 1956, but the name lived on and even expanded.

“Spohr’s Discount Stores” had locations on Hertel, Young Street in Tonawanda, and Main Street in Niagara Falls.

Through the ’60s and ’70s, the building was home to King Chang Koo’s Willow Garden restaurant, one of Buffalo’s most lauded Chinese restaurants of its time.

The storefront was the home of Martino’s TV for decades through the 1990s and 2000s, but it was torn down to make way for a Family Video store, which is now also the home of Hertel Poutine and Cream.

Bennett’s snack time hangouts of the 50s & 60s

By Steve Cichon
steve@buffalostories.com
@stevebuffalo

It’s a bit of Happy Days in North Buffalo.

A defining feature of any high school experience is what you ate and how you ate it. But during the post-war and baby boomer years, the students at Bennett High School, Main & Hertel in Buffalo, not only enjoyed eating– but also seemed to do a pretty decent job of chronicling lunch time and snack time.

Boys drink milk from Kart’s Dairy, across Main Street from Bennett High School, in the Bennett cafeteria in the 1956-57 school year. (Buffalo Stories archives)

Looking through newspapers and yearbooks and a pile of other resources, here are some great photos showing what teenage-life was like for the students of North Buffalo, University Heights, Central Park, Parkside and other neighborhoods in the north-central part of the city.

Some of the locations are obvious, but some of the them aren’t labelled. If you have any idea which soda fountains, coffee shops, or pizza places are represented in these photos– from Hertel, to University Heights, to The Central Park Plaza– please drop me an email at steve@buffalostories.com.

Van Slyke Pharmacy and Luncheonette, Hertel Avenue corner of Parkside Avenue. (Buffalo Stories archives)

Bennett students Judy Silverstein, Lynda Sturner, Bonnie Sandler and Sunny Weinstein at an unnamed soda fountain, 1957. Possibly Bargar and Wright’s pharmacy at Hertel and Colvin?  What do you think? Any idea where this photo was taken? Email steve@buffalostories.com (Buffalo Stories archives)

Bennett boys eating pizza, 1957. Do you know where? Drop me an email, steve@buffalostories.com (Buffalo Stories archives)

Larry Nadel, Judy Rovall, Susie Silverman, Alan Carrel, Jane Stiller and Irwin Falk eating hamburgers and sodas,at The Salad Bowl Restaurant– in what was then The Delaware Shopping Plaza, later the Great Arrow Shopping Plaza, and today, Marshall’s Plaza.  (Buffalo Stories archives)

Bennett girls doing homework, talking on the phone, and drinking Queen-O, 1959. (Buffalo Stories archives)

Girls eating pizza in front of the jukebox, 1959. Any idea which pizza joint? Drop me an email, steve@buffalostories.com (Buffalo Stories archives)

Coffee, water, and a jukebox remote. 1957. Louis Trachtman writes: “These guys are (left to right) Richard Kulick (now deceased); Gordon Cohen (now deceased), Elbert Siegel and Murray Munshen.  I feel certain this photo was taken at the Salad Bowl on Delaware Avenue, which was a popular “hangout” for teen agers from North Buffalo.  We all graduated from Bennett High School together, class of 1957. ”  That sounds definitive to me– but earlier, two folks thought it might be Clarence’s Diner. Clarence would give the kids food for helping keep the place clean, and would even let kids fry their own french fries. Clarence’s Diner was in a typical storefront building at Hertel and Starin, where Deep South Taco now stands. (Buffalo Stories archives)

 

 

 

Mister S Hamburgers. Now the site of the LaSalle Metro Station, just north of Hertel, before the viaduct was removed. 1967. (Buffalo Stories archives)

What It Looked Like Wednesday: Grocery wars of the ’50s spark deja vu on Hertel

By Steve Cichon
steve@buffalostories.com
@stevebuffalo

North Buffalo and the neighborhoods around the Hertel strip are abuzz with excitement over what promises to be a revolution in grocery shopping in the very near future.

A&P and Loblaw’s fought grocery wars on Hertel Avenue in the 1950s from the same storefronts where the Lexington Co-Op and Dash’s will be vying for customers 60 years later. (Buffalo Stories archives)

The Lexington Co-Op is slated to open a new branch in what was most recently a CVS drug store on Hertel Avenue. Renovation and construction have been ongoing at the 10,000-square-foot store, which will boast a sidewalk café and meat and seafood counters.

Meanwhile, Dash’s Markets caused an uproar in 2013 when plans to close the current Hertel Avenue store and merge it with a larger facility on Kenmore Avenue were made public. Speculation has been rampant about plans for an enlarged Dash’s store in the footprint of buildings owned by the Dash family, taking up nearly the entire block from Starin to Voorhees avenues.

2017 rendering

If the speculation comes true and consumers soon have two gleaming modern supermarkets within a block of each other — it won’t be the first time that’s happened. It won’t even be the first time for the two buildings involved.

In the 1950s, the same North Buffalo neighborhood watched two grocery behemoths battle for their shopping patronage from the same exact locations.

While the building at 1678 Hertel Ave. has been known for the last several decades as a CVS drugstore, for several decades starting in the 1940s, the location was home to an A&P Supermarket.

1950 ad for the renovated A&P Market on Hertel Avenue. It’s expected that the Lexington Co-Op will open in the building sometime in 2017. (Buffalo Stories archives)

Renovations to the existing store in 1950 promised the ladies of North Buffalo modern shopping like none they’d ever experienced. “Step down the aisles,” the ad invites. “You’ll find them lined with new departments, sparkling new refrigerated cases and modern marketing equipment of every sort.”

The A&P lasted in the spot through the late 1970s.

Perhaps feeling the heat from the sparkling new A&P, in 1955, Loblaws closed its dated location at Hertel and Parkside (now the site of Walgreens) and opened a new store just up from Hertel and Starin.

1955 ad for the grand opening of the Loblaws supermarket on Hertel Avenue. The same building is now the home of Dash’s Markets. (Buffalo Stories archives)

In 1971, the store – which had also been known as Star Discount Market for a brief time – was sold to become a B-Kwik Market. It was operated as B-Kwik by the Dash family for decades, until a corporate sale mothballed the name B-Kwik and the store became Dash’s in 2003.

 

What it looked like Wednesday: St. Margaret’s Church, 1930s

By Steve Cichon
steve@buffalostories.com
@stevebuffalo

Three different buildings have served as St. Margaret’s church since Fr. Thomas Timmons was assigned to start a parish on a swampy plot of land in the growing Hertel Avenue/North Park neighborhood in 1916.

Rev. Thomas Timmons stands in front of the temporary St. Margarets Church on Hertel Ave., 1917. Buffalo Stories archives

Rev. Thomas Timmons stands in front of the temporary St. Margaret’s Church on Hertel Ave., 1917. Buffalo Stories archives

St. Margaret’s church and school, early 1930s. This building is currently under renovation into street-level retail and apartments. A façade was added to the building in the 1960s for the use of the school after the current St. Margaret’s church building was built in 1957.

Early the following year, a temporary church was consecrated and open to serve the Catholics in North Buffalo.

Interior of the temporary St. Margarets Church. 1917. Buffalo Stories archives.

Interior of the temporary St. Margaret’s Church. 1917. Buffalo Stories archives.

Within a year, the cornerstone was laid for the second St. Margaret’s Church. This is the building which was most recently St. Margaret’s School, and is currently under development by Iskalo to create 2,000 square feet of retail space and 24 apartments.

More than 1,000 people showed up to watch Bishop Dougherty lay the cornerstone for the building that served as St. Margarets Church from 1918-1957, and school from 1918-2012. The building is now being developed into a mixed use retail and residential space. Buffalo Stories archives

More than 1,000 people showed up to watch Bishop Dougherty lay the cornerstone for the building that served as St. Margaret’s Church from 1918-1957, and school from 1918-2012. The building is now being developed into a mixed use retail and residential space. Buffalo Stories archives

The rectory was built in 1924, and the current St. Margaret’s church building was built starting in 1957.

St. Margaret's School, 2015. Buffalo News photo

St. Margaret’s School, 2015. Buffalo News photo

Rick James on Buffalo: ‘It’s a great town, but it’s a strange place’

By Steve Cichon
steve@buffalostories.com
@stevebuffalo

“The people of Buffalo are beautiful. There’s a lot of talent here,” said Rick James upon his return here in 1977 to start a record distribution company.

Rick James sits on the hood of his Cadillac in front of the Buffalo Savings Building, 1977. (Buffalo News archives)

Rick James sits on the hood of his Cadillac in front of the Buffalo Savings Building in 1977. (Buffalo News archives)

He told The News he left Buffalo not by choice, but because he’d been called to Vietnam with the Navy after missing too many reserves meetings. After a few more clashes with military brass, he fled to Toronto, where he formed the group “Mynah Bird” with Neil Young.

In concert at Memorial Auditorium, 1982. (Buffalo News archives.)

In concert at Memorial Auditorium in 1982. (Buffalo News archives)

Just as Motown was ready to release that group’s first album, the old Navy trouble resurfaced and James spent a year in prison. Young split to join Buffalo Springfield, and the future Super Freak went to work writing and producing for Motown.

Rick James and former heavyweight champ Leon Spinks chat with a couple of Buffalo Bills on the Rich Stadium sidelines, 1979. (Buffalo News archives.)

Rick James and former heavyweight champ Leon Spinks chat with a couple of Buffalo Bills on the Rich Stadium sidelines in 1979. (Buffalo News archives.)

When James came back to Buffalo in 1977, his name was not a household one, but his star was on the rise. C. Antony Palmer wrote in The News that James “is a performer who gives that little extra effort.”

After several well-received singles, James’ 1981 release “Super Freak” made him a world-renowned funk star.

MC Hammer and Rick James stop feuding, and meet before Hammers concert at The Aud, 1990. The two battled after Hammers hit U Cant Touch This sampled music from James hit Super Freak. (Buffalo News archives.)

MC Hammer and Rick James stop feuding and meet before Hammer’s concert at the Aud in 1990. The two battled after Hammer’s hit “U Can’t Touch This” sampled music from James’ hit “Super Freak.” (Buffalo News archives)

The rocker returned to Buffalo again in 1997, this time shooting a “Behind the Scenes” documentary for VH-1. He hadn’t been back to Buffalo in six years. Three of those years away were spent in prison. James told News reporter Anthony Violanti that the years in prison were the first of his life that he tried to clean up, dry out and grow up.

A reflective James said he could never move back to Buffalo or his Orchard Park home — the memories were too painful. He did visit School 53, the Masten Boys Club and Masten High School — though school officials demurred on the chance for James to meet with students.

James joined by his girlfriend-- Exorcist actress Linda Blair, and Bobby Militello at Mulligans, on Hertel Avenue in 1982. (Buffalo News archives.)

James was joined by his girlfriend, “Exorcist” actress Linda Blair, and Bobby Militello at Mulligan’s on Hertel Avenue in 1982. (Buffalo News archives)

“It’s a great town,” James said of Buffalo, “but it’s a strange place.” He said there was nowhere else that had more influence on his music than his hometown.

Seven years before he died of heart failure, he had one wish for the city.

“There should be more love between blacks and whites in Buffalo,” James said. “It’s so cold, and winter’s coming.”

Torn-Down Tuesday: The Sample’s flagship store on Hertel Avenue

By Steve Cichon
steve@buffalostories.com
@stevebuffalo

Anne Bunis started the Sample Shop in the front parlor of her Hertel Avenue home in 1929. Soon after, her husband, Louis, had the idea to have “living mannequins” in the front window. What had been static displays had become fashion shows for passersby on Hertel.

Anne and Louis Bunis inside Samples flagship Hertel Avenue location. Buffalo News archives

Anne and Louis Bunis inside Sample’s flagship Hertel Avenue location. (Buffalo News archives)

That one house grew into a string of five houses within a decade. In 1947, the houses were torn down and the long familiar Sample store was built.

The Sample, Hertel Avenue, 1990. Buffalo News archives

The Sample, Hertel Avenue, 1990. Buffalo News archives

In 1989, as 88-year-old Anne Bunis watched her company open a store in the Walden Galleria and even as the cake was being cut in celebration of the Sample’s 60th anniversary, the end was in sight.

The 11-store chain dwindled to three, and those remaining Sample stores were ordered closed by a bankruptcy judge in 1990.

In 1993, the flagship store on Hertel Avenue was razed to make room for a senior apartment complex.

As noted in a 1990 editorial, the loss of the Sample to Hertel was as big a blow to the neighborhood as the loss of Sattler’s was to Broadway-Fillmore.

1974. Buffalo News archives

1974. Buffalo News archives

 

What it looked like Wednesday: Hertel flooded out at Colvin, 1959

By Steve Cichon
steve@buffalostories.com
@stevebuffalo

Unless you lived in a time when Hertel and Colvin still looked like this, there are very few clues to orient yourself to this view in 2016.

Buffalo Stories archives

The buildings in the immediate foreground have been replaced by the Sunoco gas station. The first building still standing is the old post office. The current Gabel’s building is also easily identifiable on the next block up at Crestwood Avenue.

Some of the signs can be made out on the businesses, others can’t, but the listing from the 1959 City Directory offers some explanation. The odd side of the street is shown.

1959 City Directory. (Buffalo Stories archives)

The photo was taken as an icy January was hit by a wind storm bringing warmer air and flood waters to much of Western New York.

It was during this same week that the SS Michael Tewksbury slammed into the Michigan Avenue bridge after winds blew it away from its moorings. The 20-year-old lift bridge in the shadow of the General Mills plant was completely destroyed.

Buffalo News archives

The gale and flash floods left millions of dollars of damage, with South Buffalo and Lackawanna hard hit. Six feet of water filled the Republic Steel plant on South Park Avenue, and the shutdown of the two blast furnaces and nine open hearths made costs climb into the millions alone.