Torn-Down Tuesday: The Lafayette Theatre

       By Steve Cichon

The original Lafayette Square Theatre, on the northeast corner of Lafayette Square at Washington and Broadway, was built in 1901. It held 1,600 people in balcony seats – there was no gallery. It was devoted “entirely to the burlesque” when it was opened, although by 1916, it was hosting baseball fans when the Bisons were out of town.

Overhead view shows the Lafayette Theatre and the old Central Library with the top of the Soldiers and Sailors monument in Lafayette Square.

A “paragon playograph” was set up on the stage, and allowed baseball fans to follow the action via ticker tape in the days before radio and television broadcasts.

Inside the old Lafayette Theatre, 1912.

Next door, the New Lyric Theater opened in 1913 – only to be taken down in 1921 to build what was Buffalo’s largest theater, the massive Lafayette Theatre.

Originally built for both motion pictures and vaudeville, when it opened in 1922, the Lafayette boasted the most seats and the largest sign in Buffalo.

Lafayette Theatre, 1922.

“The brilliancy in the front of the theater will fairly startle the eye when the myriad of lights are turned on in the gorgeous signs which bedeck the front of Buffalo’s largest, newest, and most beautiful playhouse,” gushed The Buffalo Times when the theater opened in the new Lafayette Square Building.

Inside the Lafayette, 1922.

The Lafayette was the first to bring sound to Buffalo movies with Vitaphone technology in 1927. The Vitaphone apparatus weighed 12 tons and took four weeks to install. Buffalo’s Willis Carrier, the inventor of modern air conditioning, was there when the building’s original “airwashing” equipment was replaced with newer equipment in 1936.

The Basil family took over the operation of the Lafayette in 1943 and renovated the theater, adding new comforts and an updated marquee.

At the time, it was one of the largest real estate transactions in downtown history when Benderson Development bought the theater to raze it for a 100-car parking lot in 1962. Benderson offered the organ and theater seats to “any qualified charitable organization or institution whose request seems justifiable.”

The Pulaski Day parade in 1962, which featured a speech from President John F. Kennedy, marched past the Lafayette on the march up Broadway to the steps of City Hall where Kennedy’s address took place.

The rest of the Lafayette Square Building came down in the early 1970s, and the location has been a parking lot ever since.

Torn-down Tuesday: Looking east from Lafayette Square in 1937

By Steve Cichon

The address is still familiar 78 years later, but there’s not much from this December 1937 view of Lafayette Square that survives.

Buffalo News archives

The very top of the Soldiers and Sailors monument in the middle of the square is visible in the lower left corner.  That, and the Hotel Lafayette — the Clinton Street wall of which is visible on the right side of the photo — are the only easily seen remaining structures in this photo.

When the Romanesque-Revival old Central Library was opened in 1887, it was said that “no library in all the land is more nobly housed.”  By the 1950s, however, the old building was seen as leaky, cold and difficult to adapt for new technology.  The current Central Library replaced the 1887 building in 1964.

Most, if not all, the buildings visible behind the library and Hotel Lafayette are gone. Most that survived into the ’60s and ’70s were torn down to make way for the never-built Elm-Oak corridor expressway. By the 1980s, modern bunker-like government buildings were built on the vacant blocks between Oak and Elm. The Lafayette Theatre building was torn down in 1972 to make way for a parking lot.

The triangle in the background of the wider view photo, where Broadway and William come to a point, is now occupied by a gas station.