Before Memorial Auditorium was built in along Buffalo’s waterfront in 1940, the city looked at several different sites for a new convention center and auditorium.
At the time, the Broadway Auditorium was the largest and most-used event space in the city. Still standing as “the Broadway Barns” and the home of the city’s snow removal and other heavy equipment, the old Broadway Aud almost didn’t make it into the 1940s.
The 1930s aerial photo above shows one idea for a potential footprint of a new, modern Broadway Auditorium. Early proposals called for parking for 12,000 cars and at least 100,000 square feet of floor space.
The rancorous political banter over whether Buffalo needed a new auditorium and convention space, and where it should be built if needed, doesn’t sound too much different that the debates which continue on the same subject now, 90 years later.
“We don’t get big national conventions that should come to Buffalo for the reason that we have no decent place in which to house them,” said Niagara District Councilman John C. Montana, during a debate on the subject in 1929.
Many hoped that the new building would be in place by the start of Buffalo’s city centennial celebration in 1932, but the Aud didn’t open in what is now Canalside until 1940.
The aerial photo also shows the complete campus of St. Mary’s Redemptorist Roman Catholic Church.
When work was started on the building on what was then “the Old Batavia Road” in 1848, the area was still rural and on the outskirts of the city. The church took 10 years to build and was consecrated by Bishop John Timon in 1859.
When the church closed in 1981, it was the oldest active house of worship in the city. After a massive fire in 1986, the church was lost to an emergency demolition.
More than any one building, the photo shows the Michigan Street African-American Heritage Corridor at a time when many of the now-long-gone buildings of the area were still active.
The Michigan Avenue YMCA is the large building just below the “Broadway Auditorium” label on the image. Built in 1927, it was torn down in 1977.
There’s also quite a bit of history nestled right around the “Broadway” label on this photo.
Built in 1845-49, Buffalo’s first African-American church and Underground Railroad stop, the Michigan Avenue Baptist Church, is visible to the left of “Broadway.”
Just below the “B” stands the Colored Musicans’ Club. Above the Broadway label stands Ann Montgomery’s Little Harlem Hotel.
“Green Book” opened in movie theaters across the country over the weekend. It’s the story of a world-class black pianist on tour in the racially segregated South in the early ’60s.
The film’s title refers to a mid-20th century annual travel guide, compiled by Victor Green, that acted as a GPS and Yelp for African-American motorists who might have difficulty finding amenities that would be available to them as they traveled across the country.
Just as water fountains and lunch counters were segregated, so, too, were lodging and gas pumps.
“The white traveler has had no difficulty in getting accommodations, but with the Negro it has been different,” said the forward of the 1957 guide. “He, before the advent of a Negro travel guide, had to depend on word of mouth, and many times accommodations were not available.”
The New York Public Library has digitized about two dozen editions of “The Negro Motorist Green-Book,” which are available on its digital collections website.
Here are pages describing accommodations that were safe for black travelers in Buffalo from 1949 and 1955.
By the end of the 1960s, the book was no longer in print. One of the final editions of the book from 1966-67 goes state by state to outline laws that add to the 1964 Civil Rights Act, and what a person’s recourse is if that law was violated.
To a large degree, that landmark legislation was the fulfillment of the hopes of the publishers of “The Green-Book,” as outlined in the 1949 edition.
“There will be a day sometime in the near future when this guide will not have to be published. That is when we as a race will have equal opportunities and privileges in the United States. It will be a great day for us to suspend this publication for then we can go wherever we please, and without embarrassment.”
As he stood on the curb watching the 70-year history of the Little Harlem Hotel being swallowed in bright orange flames, former City Court Judge Wilbur Trammell reflected that the place was the only landmark the black residents of Buffalo had.
Trammell recalled being one of 10 African-American students at UB in the 1940s, and how they all met at Little Harlem for 10-cent Buffalo-brewed Manru draft beers. Trammell purchased the building a few years before a February 1993 cooking accident rendered the place a total loss and left the burned-out, salmon-colored shell of one of Buffalo’s foremost entertainment landmarks on the emergency demolition list.
Hundreds of the earliest purveyors of jazz played and sang at Little Harlem, especially in light of the fact that they might not have been welcome at other clubs around the city. The Little Harlem’s owner, Ann Montgomery, described in a 1934 article as a “middle-aged negro of motherly appearance,” was welcoming not only to those of her own race in a heavily segregated society, but also to anyone of any group who couldn’t find a place to fit in.
One night, as she ordered a round of drinks for everyone at the bar, she looked to the lone white woman there and told the bartender, “Give that lesbian a drink, too.”
As Prohibition agents raided “The Little Harlem Resort” in 1930, it was described as a place “where the color line faded under the stimulus of silk drapes and glittering pianos.”
Those were the days they were trying to relive in June 1984, when Catherine and Clyde Collins came in full costume for 1920s night at the landmark. Today, that site is a parking lot at the corner of Michigan and William.
Feb 13, 1993: Fire destroys landmark club for black stars: Little Harlem Hotel lost
HAROLD McNEIL – News Staff Reporter
The Little Harlem Hotel, a historic Buffalo entertainment landmark, went up in flames Friday.
The curious joined former patrons who looked on in shock but who recalled all the great black entertainers who performed there over a 70-year history.
The two-story nightclub and hotel at 496 Michigan Ave., near William Street, was gutted in a two-alarm blaze that was apparently caused by a grease fire that began in a second-floor rear apartment at 4:15 p.m.
Damage was estimated at $150,000 to the building and $60,000 to the contents. Fire officials were expected to request emergency demolition for the building, owned by former City Judge Wilbur Trammell.
Trammell said he was in the building when the fire began. He said the fire was accidental, triggered when a Little Harlem employee and building tenant began heating oil to cook chicken wings.
“I was there. The waiter was there. He went upstairs to cook himself some wings and a grease fire took off. Just three minutes he was downstairs,” Trammell said.
The tenant, who identified himself as James Gordon, stood outside and watched the building burn. He said he left the apartment briefly to use the downstairs bathroom.
“When I came back the whole place was on fire,” Gordon said. “I couldn’t believe it.”
Trammell and several others watching the fire recalled snippets of the landmark’s history. “Any number of outstanding black entertainers (have been here). I met Sarah Vaughn here and Lena Horne, ” Trammell reminisced. “It’s all gone just like that.”
Many African-American entertainers — especially those considered jazz royalty — who appeared in Buffalo in the 1930s through the 1950s either performed or stayed in the Little Harlem Hotel in the days when blacks were restricted from other downtown hotels.
Trammell, a longtime patron of Little Harlem, bought the establishment four years ago.
“I bought this for one reason: I thought it belonged to the center-city community. I just thought it was the only landmark blacks had, quite frankly,” Trammell said. “I just thought we ought to keep it and I tried my best to keep it.”
“Ohh,” he groaned, as bright orange flames shot through the roof and a huge chunk of the building’s salmon-colored facade crumbled to the ground. “It hurts to see it. Oh,look at that!”
Back in the late 1940s, Trammell recalled, he and other black students attending the University of Buffalo used to meet every Friday night at the Little Harlem.
“There were only 10 blacks at the University of Buffalo at that time and we all came by here. We
used to drink 10-cent Manru beer. It was made here in Buffalo,” he said.
Tommy Fugate of Buffalo said some of his earliest memories are associated with the nightclub.
“When I was just a little boy I can remember Joe Louis being there . . . Billie Holiday, Billy Eckstein — all of them used to come right there,” he said, pointing to the burning building. “It’s a sense of loss because, face it, black people don’t have that many places to go to now anyway. And this was one of the main spots.”
Conde Peoples, a Buffalo firefighter who was born and raised in the neighborhood around the Little Harlem, said it’s been a part of his life, too.
“My mother and father, I can remember them going out. It was a big night out for them to come to the Little Harlem,” Peoples said. “I grew up and couldn’t wait until I got to the drinking age where I could come to the Little Harlem.”
“I really get choked up when I start talking about it,” he said. “It’s like a part of my life is dying right here. Over 20, 30 years of my life, I’ve spent some good times at the Little Harlem.”
Longtime patron Carl Johnson noted that it was long a favorite watering hole for many of the movers and shakers in the black community.
“A lot of political decisions that affected the city,
particularly the black community, were all discussed here,” Johnson said.
Buffalo firefighters received the first alarm at 4:21 p.m., and the second six minutes later. They brought the fire under control at 6:30 p.m. Fire officials said the fire was difficult to fight because the flames had penetrated a loft inside the building.
At about 9 p.m., one of the walls of the building caved in, leaving debris in the streets, which fire officials sought to have removed.
Brent Trammell, 30, who ran the business for his father, said the property is insured but it was too soon to say if the business will be rebuilt.
“It’s a shame that so much history is gone and especially when things were looking up business-wise,” the younger Trammell said. “We were doing some renovation in the back and, you know, this was my thing. It’s killing me to see this.”
Meanwhile, Pam Kehoe, a neighborhood resident, snapped photos of the fire — for posterity.
“The people in the neighborhood care for the businesses that are surrounding us and supporting (us),” Miss Kehoe said. “I’m taking pictures to compare the old building to what the new building will be like because I know Little Harlem will be open again.”