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.
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.
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.
The IRC, International Railway Company, was the forerunner of the NFTA in providing mass transit options in the City of Buffalo and some surrounding areas. Caring for more than 400 miles of track and several hundred individual streetcars left the IRC chronically in debt and left the transit rail infrastructure chronically in a poor state of repair.
In 1928, The Buffalo Courier looked around the city at six different areas where the IRC was updating tracks and surrounding pavement around the city. Here’s what those areas looked like then and now.
His only crime was being a member of the Communist Party.
Charlie Doyle’s story is one that I learned not from McCarthy-era newspaper articles, but from sitting in kitchens and on front porches on Seneca Street in South Buffalo.
“He was a commie, but he was always trying to help people,” I’d hear. “A good guy.”
You’d expect that kind of talk from his family — from my family. Charlie Doyle was my grandmother’s uncle. Aunt Agnes’ brother.
I grew up in the ’80s, not the ’50s, but Communists still weren’t good. They were the bad guys, but there was still Doyle, the Communist who caused people to smile when they talked about him.
I didn’t realize until later that the story of Doyle was a bigger deal than just family lore. Though he continually denied it publicly for his safety and the safety of his family, he was a member of the Communist party. He was also a talented labor organizer and helped workers force safer working conditions and better pay at places such as Bethlehem Steel, Republic Steel and Carborundum.
Despite having been a legal U.S. resident for 25 years with an American wife and family, because he was born in Scotland, he wasn’t allowed to re-enter the U.S. after a trip to Canada in 1949.
He spent the next several years in and out of prison based on illegal entry charges before– at the height of the McCarthy era– he was deported in 1953.
Being deported from the US wasn’t the end of Charles Doyle’s trouble.
In London, Doyle picked up where he left off in Western New York– leading labor organization efforts at a nearby power plant.
The resulting nationwide labor slowdowns caused massive power outages, including at London’s famously lit Piccadilly Circus. Those outages came during one of the coldest snaps of weather on record in London, and nearly two dozen people died from the cold. Doyle was tried in their deaths but exonerated.
In 1963, London’s Daily Mirror tabloid front page was filled with his photo and the bold-faced underlined words, “The most hated man in Britain.”
And it wasn’t just America that didn’t want him. Despite having being deported from the US to his native UK, the House of Lords discussed trying to send him back.
Buffalo’s most famous Communist– labor leader and playwright Manny Fried– wrote about Doyle in a piece which was rejected for publication by The Buffalo News called “Democratic Leaders Are at a Fork in the Road.”
When (John L.) Lewis broke with the American Federation of Labor and sponsored the Congress of Industrial Organizations to organize production workers, he said that he hired the communists to organize the workers because communists were the best organizers, idealists sacrificing everything to get workers organized — and when they got the workers organized, he fired them.
Charlie Doyle, the leading open Communist Party activist in Western New York, was hired by Lewis to work for the Steel Workers Organizing Committee. Charlie played a major role in organizing workers into the union at the Lackawanna Bethlehem Steel plant. Then Lewis fired Charlie, and others were credited with
what Charlie had done.
When Lewis subsequently split with CIO leaders and formed District 50 of his Mine Workers Union to organize chemical workers in Niagara Falls, he again hired Charlie Doyle. When Charlie finished organizing those chemical workers into the union, Lewis again fired Charlie.
The CIO Chemical Workers Union then hired Charlie — and the unions Charlie had organized switched from District 50 to CIO. Then CIO fired Charlie. And then Lewis rehired Charlie – and those unions switched back to District 50 with Charlie. AFL and CIO merged into one organization and their AFL-CIO Chemical
Workers Union hired Charlie — and all those same unions of chemical plant workers switched over to the AFL-CIO with Charlie.
Carborundum workers went out on strike in connection with contract negotiations and leaders of the union in Washington held a meeting about the strike across the river in Fort Erie, Canada. U.S. Customs and Immigration wouldn’t let Charlie back across the bridge into U.S. But Canadian authorities looked the other way while Charlie crossed the river back into U.S. in a boat.
FBI and U.S. Immigration then picked up Charlie for deportation on grounds that years earlier when he came here from Scotland he was a communist. Charlie had his first papers to become a citizen, but hadn’t been granted his second papers to complete the process. Jailed for deportation, Charlie staged a hunger strike, but
finally agreed to be deported to England in return for U.S. government authorities persuading his Catholic wife to agree to end their marriage so he could marry the woman he loved.
(Several decades later the Buffalo AFL-CIO Central Labor Council passed the resolution offered by University of Buffalo Chapter of United University Professions recognizing Charlie’s contribution to organized labor in Western New York.)
–Democratic Leaders Are at a Fork in the Road, Emanuel Fried
Doyle died in London in 1983. His obituary appeared in the Chicago Tribune.
In 1932, Buffalo was swept up in the celebration of the city’s centennial, and many groups and organizations that had existed through those 100 years took the opportunity to celebrate their own existence as well.
The Buffalo Academy of Medicine — particularly proud that Buffalo’s first mayor, Ebenezer Johnson, was a medical doctor — wrote a lengthy history of the practice of medicine from Buffalo’s frontier days right up to the most modern advances 1932 could offer.
The most interesting part, however, might not be that dryly written narrative, but the index of hospitals open in Buffalo in the centennial year.
Buffalo Stories archives
The directory offers a glimpse of medical care in a different era: the J.N. Adam Memorial Hospital devoted to the “various phases of tuberculosis.” The Moses Taylor Hospital in Lackawanna “chiefly for the care of industrial accident cases.” Buffalo State Hospital, “a special state hospital of 2,400 beds devoted entirely to mental diseases.”
Several of the hospitals also took out ads in the booklet — they give a look at some of the hospital buildings around Buffalo as they stood 85 years ago.
The buildings in this photo have been modified but are still standing. The look of the Seneca & Indian Church intersection has changed through the years.
What was the Dunlop Tire store was soon to become Babe Boyce’s. It’s been Hong Kong Kitchen now for decades. Babe Boyce eventually took up several storefronts with bikes and exercise equipment on display in the windows, but when this photo was snapped, David Samuels’ cleaners, William Brennan’s variety store, William Ulmcke’s grocery and Phil Magano’s barber served the needs of South Buffalonians a few blocks north of the city line.
Model train collectors in South Buffalo, all of Western New York, and all around the country knew of “Spoonley the Train Man” from ads in The News, the Courier-Express, and dozens of national magazines that catered to the dreams of little boys and train enthusiasts of all ages.
Chet Spoonley’s South Buffalo home on Choate Street, off South Park Avenue, doubled as his model train store – the basement shop was a place where young boys could see their H-O gauge dreams come true.
He started the train business in 1937, while still working as a pressman for three different newspapers: the Buffalo Times, the Buffalo Courier-Express and the Buffalo Evening News.
The Train Man’s attic was really Spoonley’s personal train museum — which also happened to sell and repair Lionel trains. Among the items on display — but not for sale — at Spoonley’s was a lantern that lit the parlor car of President Lincoln’s Baltimore & Ohio funeral train as it rolled through Buffalo in 1865.
Advertisements for Spoonley, which appeared in magazines around the country from the 1940s through the 1970s. (Buffalo Stories archives)
In 1974, Spoonley handed the model train business — by then moved to West Seneca – over to his son, Chester Jr.
Spoonley Sr. died in 1980. The 74-year-old suffered a heart attack while shoveling snow.
Business lagged, and Spoonley the Train Man shop closed in October 1981, and Spoonley Jr. went missing three months later. His body was found in the Niagara River the following spring.
The story of Spoonley, his trains and the eventual dying off of a model train empire, was written in book form by radio newsman John Zach in 1988 and examined by News Reporter Anthony Violanti as the book was published.
“It doesn’t take very long for a newcomer to become acquainted with Buffalo’s banks,” wrote News Reporter Robert J. Summers in 1980. “Stand at a corner like Main and Court, and you can see most of the big buildings where they are headquartered.”
Of the five bank headquarters Summers listed as visible from that intersection, only one remains in business 36 years later.
As the names involved in Buffalo’s banking scene are changing once again, BN Chronicles looks back at the names that might have been stamped on the front of your first savings account passbook or at the top of your first paycheck.
1979 ad. Buffalo Stories archives
Manufacturers and Traders Trust Company was founded in Buffalo in 1856. M&T was and is headquartered in the 318-foot, 21-floor building at One M&T Plaza that opened in 1966. That block has seen plenty of history.
M&T branch on Abbott Road at Stevenson, South Buffalo. (Buffalo News archives)
In 1865, Abraham Lincoln’s body laid in state at the St. James Hotel on the site. The Hotel Iroquois, and then the Bond Men’s store, occupied the north part of the site until 1964. M&T’s headquarters was first built on the southern half of the block now occupied by the headquarters building in 1916.
1964, just before the demolition of the circa-1916 M&T headquarters and Bond Menswear. AM&A’s is in the background. The block with H. Seeberg and the Palace Burlesk was torn down and is now green space. (Buffalo News archives)
In 1980, Marine Midland Bank was Buffalo’s oldest bank and headquartered in Buffalo’s tallest building.
Marine Trust’s Main & Seneca office, 1951 (Buffalo News archives)
Founded in 1850, Marine Midland was the nation’s 12th largest bank with $12 billion in assets in 1980. It was acquired by HSBC Bank in 1999. HSBC sold off its Buffalo-area branches to First Niagara in 2011. By the end of the summer, it’s expected that First Niagara will be acquired by KeyBank. The former Marine Midland Center is now known as One Seneca Tower.
Marine Midland ad for a “groovy Bills bank,” 1969. (Buffalo Stories archives)
Western Savings Bank’s headquarters was right on the corner that Summers chose as his 1980 vantage point for financial institutions. It’s the building with CVS Pharmacy currently occupying the ground floor space that was once Western’s main office.
Western Savings Bank ad, 1979. (Buffalo Stories archives)
While Western joined other area banks in demolishing decades-old Roman-inspired headquarters buildings for flashy new high-rise towers in the 1960s, by the early 1980s, deposits were falling and Western was losing money. In 1981, Western merged with longtime rival Buffalo Savings Bank.
Buffalo Savings Bank opened a temporary branch serving skiers at Kissing Bridge in 1980. Buffalo News archives
Buffalo Savings Bank’s famous gold-domed headquarters, designed by E.B. Green, is the rare survivor of our city’s magnificent bank buildings. As it expanded and acquired outside of Buffalo, Buffalo Savings Bank changed its name to Goldome — as a nod to its great headquarters with a name a bit less parochial sounding.
The Buffalo Savings Bank building with its famous gold dome, photographed in 2009. (Buffalo News file photo)
Like many banking institutions around the country, Goldome grew too quickly and went under during the savings and loan crisis of the late 1980s. In 1991, Goldome’s assets were split between KeyBank — which entered the Buffalo market after Empire of America succumbed to the S&L crisis — and another bank in 1989.
Buffalo Stories archives, 1960
For the same reasons Buffalo Savings Bank became Goldome, “The Big E” changed its name from Erie County Savings Bank to Empire of America in 1981. After nearly a decade of borrowing to acquire other banks around the country, in 1989 Empire told regulators it was insolvent and posted a $158 million loss in the third quarter.
Big E celebrated 125 years in business in 1979. Ten years later, the federal government assumed control of the bank. (Buffalo Stories archives)
As longtime Buffalo banks Buffalo Savings and Big E were busy buying up other deposit bases, longtime Buffalo institution Liberty Bank instead was bought up.
Liberty Bank’s branch at Bailey & Kensington, 1930s. (Buffalo News Archives)
While the twin Lady Liberties atop the bank’s headquarters still stand proudly on Buffalo’s skyline, in 1985 Liberty Bank became Liberty Norstar. Boston’s Fleet Bank bought Norstar in 1987, and in 2004, all Fleet branches became Bank of America branches after those two institutions had merged.
Buffalo Trust, previously known as Buffalo German Bank, was headquartered in a Victorian Italianate structure that was torn down in 1957 to make way for the Tishman building, the longtime headquarters of National Fuel. Today the site is home to a Hilton Garden Inn. (1924 ad, Buffalo Stories archives.)