A Buffalo survivor: The Cyclorama Building

By Steve Cichon
steve@buffalostories.com
@stevebuffalo

Looking at the Cyclorama from Main Street, 1890. (Buffalo Stories archives)

Few buildings mirror the battered and unlikely history of Buffalo better than Buffalo’s Cyclorama Building at Edward and Pearl.

Buffalo Evening News ad, 1888.

Within a decade of its construction in 1888, the building was obsolete, becoming a stable, a roller rink and a junk storage warehouse until it was bought by the city and left to sit until condemned. Rebuilt by the out-of-work men of Buffalo during the Depression as part of the Works Progress Administration, the Cyclorama became home to one of the city’s most beloved spaces, the Grosvenor Library.

Again abandoned when the new library opened at Lafayette Square in 1964, Cyclorama sat mostly empty for the next quarter-century.

When Ciminelli Development bought Cyclorama to renovate the nearly century-old structure for its headquarters in 1985, it looked as though Edward and Pearl could have been home to a new parking lot at any time.

Cyclorama’s future was secured when Ciminelli opened its doors in 1989. It was an early testament to smart preservation and reuse, and it became a beacon as downtown Buffalo’s fortunes slowly stopped eroding and, eventually, became a sign of the city’s rebirth and progress.

‘America’s Greatest Attraction’

When the Queen City Cyclorama opened its doors in 1888, Buffalo was a growing city with a bright future and the cyclorama was one of the world’s trendy entertainment vehicles.

When built, the large round building was open in the middle and on the outside walls were hung massive paintings, depicting historical stories.

The first painting snaked around the inside walls of Buffalo’s Cyclorama was “Jerusalem on the Day of The Crucifixion.” The mammoth artwork was 200 feet long, 50 feet high, and weighed five tons — offering those who viewed it an emotional and historical depiction of what the holy city looked like on Christ’s last day. Lifelike figures and objects were added to the foreground to give the scene depth and take the viewer to the place in a way like no other media of the time could.

The cyclorama of Jerusalem attracted crowds of people last week. The gay laughter is hushed and the smile fades from the face of the most worldly spectator when gazing at this wonderful representation which seems to bring the days of the great tragedy terribly near. There all classes mingle — the bright-faced girl who comes from a feeling of curiosity, the artist who regards it from an artistic standpoint, and the grave-faced clergyman who seeks inspiration for his next Sunday’s sermon in the wonderful scenes portrayed. The Bible is to many as a twice-told tale that has lost its first awful significance, but such scenes as this and the remembrance of the patient, suffering, noble face of the man who, in all His majesty, was portrayed in the great picture at the fair standing before Pilate, make it all seem terribly real.

— The Buffalo Evening News, Sept. 23, 1888

“The Grand Cyclorama” was billed as “Buffalo’s Greatest Attraction,” and that might have been true. Tens of thousands paid 50 cents to gaze upon the detailed artwork, which remained in place for about two years, when it was replaced by a similar installation of the Civil War battle at Missionary Ridge and Lookout Mountain.

Many sources incorrectly state that “The Battle of Gettysburg” was the second exhibition, but as can be seen in the ad at left, it was indeed “Missionary Ridge and Lookout Mountain.”

Sixty years later, people who were children when the war-themed exhibit was on display recalled the “life-size wax figures fought a gory battle with real Army equipment.”

By the end of the two years’ run of the Civil War, the form of entertainment had begun to run its course, and by 1892, the Gurnsey Co. had purchased Cyclorama and was using it as a stable, livery barn and for-hire store house for sleighs and carriages.

In 1906, the old barn was brought to new life with a stripping down to the walls and a complete interior rebuild. The Cyclorama was renamed the Coliseum and marketed as the greatest new roller skating rink in the nation.

1907.

“The appropriate music furnished by the large Coliseum band under the direction of J. B. Lampe is one of the pleasing features of the exercise, and makes roller skating one of the most delightful amusements that can be found in the city at this time, ” wrote The Courier about “the society fad” in 1906. As many as 300 skaters filled the floor, with hundreds more watching from the balcony.

The spectators were as important as the skaters, as there was “a splendidly furnished sitting room especially for the ladies and a well-appointed smoking room for the gentleman.”

As the Coliseum, the Cyclorama Building was also home to a unique, extremely popular but short-lived sport, “Basketball on Roller Skates.”

The fortunes of the Coliseum were altogether short-lived, and the facility reverted back to a garage and headquarters for Buffalo Taxi Cab, which remained a tenant in the building even after the city bought it for the use of the Grosvenor Library.

Buffalo Taxi Cab used only Buffalo-built, high-end Pierce automobiles in its fleet, which means the cars stored at Cyclorama in the 1910s were built at Elmwood and Great Arrow at the Pierce-Arrow factory.

The City of Buffalo bought the building for the use of the Grosvenor Library in 1913, but it instead continued to rent space to a series of taxicab companies.

The Grosvenor Library, c.1900, with the Cyclorama in the background, the beginning of the word “Warehouse” just barely visible. (Buffalo Stories archives)

In 1937, the building was condemned — but a year later, it was selected by the Works Progress Administration as rehab project for the unemployed men of Buffalo. At least 84 laborers and skilled craftsmen worked on the building during the first winter of work, when the structure was stabilized.

WPA workmen have begun the task of transforming the interior of the old Cyclorama Building in Edward Street from a gloomy garage into a brightly lighted, properly ventilated addition to the Grosvenor Library, in which will be stored priceless books, records and research catalogues in neatly arranged shelves.

— Buffalo Courier-Express, Jan. 3, 1938

Work took four years, but the results were a building that became a landmark that generations of Buffalonians warmly remember.

The large, rotund building in Edward Street, which in its 53 years has housed a cyclorama, a skating rink, a stable and a garage, today was opened as the Grosvenor Library’s magnificent modern reading room.

Vaunted as one of the most unusual library rooms in the country, it is circular, with high leaded windows and the latest designed fluorescent lighting that provides daylight illumination at all times …

The reading room, which is entered through a ramp from the Grosvenor’s main building, is 125 feet in diameter and about 400 feet in circumference. Actually it is 16-sided. The bookcases, of gumwood, are fitted into 13 sides and these, with a few other shelves placed in the room, open to the public a reference collection of 6000 volumes and a seating capacity of 242.

— Buffalo Evening News, Feb. 16, 1942

For the next 20 years, the Cyclorama Building was home to much of the reading, studying and research being done by Buffalo’s leading scholars. When a new Central Library building was opened in 1964, though, the Grosvenor Library was folded into the Central Library — once again casting doubt on the future of the Cyclorama Building.

“If it cannot be sold because of legal restrictions, or if there is no buyer, the county will either board up the building or have it razed,” said County Public Works Commissioner H. Dale Bossert in 1963.

Cyclorama, 1974. (Buffalo Stories archives)

Boarded up it was, for 25 years. Ciminelli Development bought the building in 1985 and spent two years bickering with state agencies about upgrading windows and the roofline of the historic structure. A compromise was reached, and a $2.6 million restoration project added a second floor to the building, which was home to Ciminelli Development through the 1990s.

Today, the future of the Cyclorama seems secure, with its prime location amid the Theater District and Chippewa District, the renewal along Delaware Avenue and the expanding footprint of the Medical Campus.

The history-rich building that you might not notice driving by — unless you were looking for it — has been the home of accounting firm Lumsden McCormick since September 2012.

Torn-Down Tuesday: The Century Theatre and Harvey Weinstein

By Steve Cichon
steve@buffalostories.com
@stevebuffalo

They pulled out all the stops.

One of the great actresses of the silent film era, Norma Talmadge was brought in amid a parading caravan of 25 touring cars when Marcus Loew of the Loew’s Theater chain threw open the doors of his 3,000-seat Century Theatre on Main Street between Mohawk and Genesee in 1921.

The movie house with a grand reputation passed through the hands of several icons of the Buffalo movie theater business. Michael Shea ran the place starting in 1928, and Nikitas Dipson took it over in 1939, along with the Basil Brothers.

By 1967, the movie house had “an image problem,” after “a gang of hoodlums” showed up to watch a twin-bill featuring biker movies.

When Aerosmith played at Harvey & Corky’s Century Theatre in 1975, they were unknown to the point where the band’s name was misspelled “Arrowsmith.” (Buffalo Stories archives)

“Taking their cue from the violence on the screen, they erupted in a blood-chilling manner, and the repercussions are still being felt,” reported the Courier-Express weeks after the incident.

The theater had been boarded up for some time when Harvey & Corky Productions took over the space as a concert venue in 1974.

“This structure will allow the audience to get into the music,” said Harvey & Corky principal Harvey Weinstein just before the venue reopened. “If people want to get on their chairs and dance, we’ll let them. We’ll treat the people like adults, not children.”

The space went on to host many legendary Harvey & Corky shows, but at a cost.

Even before Weinstein’s place in history was secured as the man whose misogynistic behavior inspired the #MeToo movement, his popularity in Buffalo was mixed at best. For decades, one of Weinstein’s biggest detractors has been former News Arts Editor Jeff Simon.

The marquee of the Century Theatre in 1974. (Buffalo Stories archives)

On more than one occasion, Simon talked of Weinstein’s having destroyed the Main Street landmark. In one 1997 piece, he wrote that Harvey and Corky “gutted and ruined the venerable old Century Theater.”

In 2012, The News’ Colin Dabkowski further expounded on a dislike for Weinstein and his mistreatment of the Century when he wrote, “And then Harvey and brother Bob compounded the crime in their film ‘Playing for Keeps’ by concocting a putrid demographic us-vs.-them fantasy about righteous big city youth trying to bring a rock ‘n’ roll hotel to a community full of sclerotic bumpkins.”

The Century, a block up from Hengerer’s, 1978. (Buffalo Stories archives)

In 1978, the Century Theatre met the wrecking ball after a balcony inside began swaying during a Lynyrd Skynyrd concert and housing inspectors warned that another such show could turn deadly.

Some of the Buffalo-crafted Flexlume neon signs that graced the Century for generations wound up a few blocks away. The Century Grill on Pearl Street featured a sign from the theater while it was open, from 2003 to 2014.

While developer Rocco Termini proposed a “Century City Lofts” development project in 2007, the spot where the Century lobby once stood remains an open lot.

 

Torn-Down Tuesday: Main and Swan, kitty-corner to today’s Ellicott Square

By Steve Cichon
steve@buffalostories.com
@stevebuffalo

This is a 1912 look at the southwest corner of Main and Swan, a block west of Coca-Cola Field and kitty-corner to the Ellicott Square Building.

Buffalo Stories archives

The following year, the buildings were torn down to make way for a new M&T Bank headquarters on the site. That building eventually served as Buffalo’s Federal Reserve Bank branch.

Buffalo Stories archives

The spot has been a parking lot now for nearly 60 years.

When the bank building was demolished in 1959, its columns were shipped to the University at Buffalo for a project that was never completed. In 1978, the columns had been lying in storage at what had become UB’s South Campus for almost 20 years when they were cleaned and placed at Baird Point on UB’s North Campus.

What It Looked Like Wednesday: Main Street in postcards

By Steve Cichon
steve@buffalostories.com
@stevebuffalo

Buffalo Stories takes postcards of several parts of Main Street from the past and compares them with current street views.

Two views of Shelton Square, Main at Niagara.

Main no longer intersects with Niagara Street. That portion of Niagara Street was gobbled up by the Main Place complex.


Main at Court

The corner once famous as a stop for the yellow street car to Niagara Falls is now famous for Tim Hortons coffee.


Main at Huron


The Main and Huron intersection has completely changed several times since the days of the horse and buggy.


Main at Chippewa

In the 1950s, from Main and Chippewa, you could see the Harvey & Carey Drug Store, MacDoel’s Nightclub, Whiteman Music shop, and a handful of movie theaters.


The only immediate similarity with today’s view is the restored Shea’s Buffalo marquee.


Main from Tupper


This is nearly the same view from the other direction a few years earlier. It shows Laube’s Old Spain, now Shea’s Smith Theatre, Shea’s Buffalo and the Paramount Theatre.

Torn-down Tuesday: Shelton Square in 1964

By Steve Cichon
steve@buffalostories.com
@stevebuffalo

Until the lifeless and drab Main Place Mall and Tower replaced its character-filled old buildings, billboards and neon signs, Shelton Square was more or less Buffalo’s version of Times Square.

Buffalo News archives

Buffalo News archives

It was the city’s crossroads; it was bright and vibrant. It was the place where people transferred streetcars and buses — just about every line in the city came through. Standing in Shelton Square, you were a few blocks from the Crystal Beach Boat in one direction, a few blocks from the Town Casino the other way. It was the middle of the action that was Buffalo.

If you remember it, it was a special place.

It was filled with character and characters. There was Domenic Battaglia, who ran the newsstand shown at Niagara and Main starting in 1929 “with his oversized cap, news apron and halfchewed cigar.” His News obituary called him “a goodnatured curmudgeon who was out daily in all kinds of weather to sell newspapers and magazines. He never wore gloves even on the coldest days and often heckled his customers who did.”

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Battaglia’s newsstand is in front of the Harvey & Carey Drug store at Main and Niagara.

He moved to Main and Church when the entire Niagara Street was eliminated from the map, now underneath the Main Place Tower.

In the very foreground of the photo is the top of the Palace Burlesk sign. George Kunz, whose beautifully crafted memories of days gone by used to appear in The News, wrote “the Palace exuded life. Pedestrians passing during showtime heard raucous, robust sounds of extravagant fun. The orchestra blared, drums rumbled and laughter, a rollicking outrageous laughter, tumbled out the doors onto Main Street.”

“Such was the theater’s fame that for years the Palace was used as a focus for any downtown geographical instructions,” wrote Kunz in 1993. “’You know where the Palace is . . . well, you turn right there.’ Everybody remembered the lively marquee with the dancing girl figures kicking endlessly to the rhythm of blinking lights.”

Right next door to the Palace, disc jockey Tom Clay — known as “Guy King” on WWOL Radio – ushered in the rock ‘n’ roll era in Buffalo on July 3, 1955, when he climbed out of the station’s window and onto the giant WWOL billboard.

There, he urged the teens in his audience to drive to Shelton Square and honk their horns if they wanted to hear Bill Haley and The Comets’ “Rock Around the Clock.” They did in huge numbers, and he kept playing “Rock Around the Clock” until the fire department showed up with a ladder truck to help police get him off the billboard. After climbing back in the station window, he was arrested and charged with disorderly conduct for the stunt.

On the pages of The News, Janice Okun wrote about Hughes Restaurant, “the dingy old coffee shop on Shelton Square where you sat on high stools at even higher marble tables and injected fat into yourself in the form of Snappy Cheese Sandwiches, while drinking coffee from a clunky mug carefully. Because if you dropped the mug, it would break a toe.”

Minnie Feiner’s had high tables, too. And there was Minnie Messina’s cafeteria through the ’50s and ’60s.

In 1965, most of the buildings in this photo started to come down. In December, it was announced the new $20 million complex being built in its place was given a name “big enough for such a big project — Main Place.”

This part of Niagara Street is now covered by the Main Place Tower.

This block of Niagara Street, between Main and Pearl, is now covered by the Main Place Tower. City Hall (upper left) and the McKinley Monument were visible from Main Street at Shelton Square until 1968.

At the time, editorial page writers panned the name, saying it wasn’t distinctive and was “anything but appealing.”

One writer said, “It’s a terrible name. It grates on one’s ears. … It certainly wasn’t given too much thought.”

In hindsight, though, it’s probably better that the name many wanted to keep — Shelton Square — was retired. It makes it easier to give a name to the memories.

A 1980's view of Main Street, with the Main Place Mall and Tower on the right, and Woolworth's and AM&A's on the left.

A 1980s view of Main Street, with the Main Place Mall and Tower on the right and Woolworth’s and AM&A’s on the left.

What It Looked Like Wednesday: Main Street in transition, 1981

By Steve Cichon
steve@buffalostories.com
@stevebuffalo

This photo of Main Street was snapped just before a handful of 1980s projects would change the thoroughfare’s look and feel forever.

Buffalo News archives
Buffalo News archives

Absent are the MetroRail, the Hyatt, the TGI Friday’s/Comfort Suites building, the former KeyTower and the former Goldome Headquarters (now used by M&T.)

Buffalo News archivesBuffalo News archives 

In the very foreground of this section of the larger photo, there’s the two-floor Burger King at Main and Mohawk, and the Century Theatre next door. You can also see some of the storefronts in the ground level of what is now the Hyatt.

Buffalo News archives
Buffalo News archives

This photo shows more of what is now the Hyatt and the beginning of the clearing of buildings for Fountain Plaza on the west side of Main. On the east side, the buildings soon to be cleared for the Goldome headquarters are still intact, as are the buildings which would make way for TGI Friday’s north of Chippewa Street.

Buffalo News archives
Buffalo News archives

The area known for a generation now as the Theatre District was a block more or less in disrepair.

MORE: Buffalo in the ’80s: Pre MetroRail Buffalo


This first appeared at history.buffalonews.com.

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What It Looked Like Wednesday: Main Street in transition, 1981

By Steve Cichon
steve@buffalostories.com
@stevebuffalo

This photo of Main Street was snapped just before a handful of 1980s projects would change the thoroughfare’s look and feel forever.

Buffalo News archives

Buffalo News archives

Absent are the MetroRail, the Hyatt, the TGI Friday’s/Comfort Suites building, the former KeyTower and the former Goldome Headquarters (now used by M&T).

Buffalo News archives

Buffalo News archives

In the very foreground of this section of the larger photo, there’s the two-floor Burger King at Main and Mohawk, and the Century Theatre next door.  You can also see some of the storefronts in the ground level of what is now the Hyatt.

Buffalo News archives

Buffalo News archives

This photo shows more of what is now the Hyatt and the beginning of the clearing of buildings for Fountain Plaza on the west side of Main. On the east side, the buildings soon to be cleared for the Goldome headquarters are still intact, as are the buildings which would make way for TGI Friday’s north of Chippewa Street.

Buffalo News archives

Buffalo News archives

The area known for a generation now as the Theater District was a block more or less in disrepair.

Buffalo in the ’40s: the Ford Buffalo Assembly Plant

By Steve Cichon
steve@buffalostories.com
@stevebuffalo

In the wake of World War II, there was a nearly five-year period where no American passenger cars were being built. As the war effort gave way to renewed consumerism, Buffalo’s Ford Assembly Plant saw its first postwar car roll off the line in September 1946.

Buffalo News acrhives

Buffalo News archives

The plant was built on Fuhrmann Boulevard in 1930 to replace Ford’s facility on Main Street in Buffalo. Six hundred thousand Model T Fords were built in the building known now as the Tri-Main Center and shipped off on the adjacent New York Central Beltline railway.

Ford Plant, 1920. Now the Tri-Main Building. (Buffalo Stories archives)

Ford Plant, 1920. Now the Tri-Main Building. (Buffalo Stories archives)

About 1,400 workers lost their jobs when Ford closed the Buffalo Assembly Plant in 1958. It was replaced by a new facility in Lorain, Ohio.

Ford’s nearby stamping plant remains in operation to this day, having turned out body parts for many different cars through the years, including the then-new Ford Escort, shown here in 1980 with Mayor James D. Griffin behind the wheel.

Buffalo News archives

Buffalo News archives

What it looked like Wednesday: The Village of Williamsville, 1933

By Steve Cichon
steve@buffalostories.com
@stevebuffalo

This airborne shot of Main Street in the Village of Williamsville looks down Main from what is now the Creekview Restaurant, past what is now Amherst Town Hall, down to what is now the Beach-Tuyn Funeral Home and beyond.

Buffalo News archives

Buffalo News archives

Williamsville Island is now Island Park, and the home to Old Home Days.

What it looked like Wednesday: The Zamboni drives up Main Street, 1975

By Steve Cichon
steve@buffalostories.com
@stevebuffalo

The City of Buffalo owned Memorial Auditorium and ran the day-to-day operation of the venue in a way that doesn’t happen with Erie County and First Niagara Center. This included apparently, changing the oil on the Zamboni.

Buffalo News archives

Buffalo News archives

So, as Sabres fever in Buffalo was hitting a high point in February of 1975 — as the Sabres where destined for the Stanley Cup Finals that year — Jim Lombardo took the Zamboni in for “routine maintenance.”

Buffalo News archives

Buffalo News archives

Whatever exactly that meant, it involved driving the Zamboni from Memorial Auditorium up Main Street to a city garage for repairs. The maximum speed for this vehicle — which is cruising the 600 block of Main in these photos — was 8 mph.

Likely the heads of a few lunch patrons at the Swiss Chalet’s original location (across Main from Shea’s) were turned, as The Aud’s ice resurfacer incongruously schlepped its way past the window.

The repairs must have worked. The ice was so great at The Aud the following night that the Sabres and Flyers combined for 12 goals in a 6-6 tie.