Buffalo’s most popular diners … before they were in Buffalo

By Steve Cichon
steve@buffalostories.com
@stevebuffalo

There’s something about eating in a diner that makes us feel closer to some unique piece of America that exists only in our peripheral vision these days.

While diner car restaurants were popping up in various forms around the country from the 1920s through the 1960s, here in the City of Buffalo, the dining category defined by quick, cheap food served in a sparse, sometimes questionable environment was dominated Deco Restaurants.

Deco at Pearl & Eagle, late 50s.

In the 1940s, there were more than 50 tiny Deco lunch counter restaurants tucked into every neighborhood in Buffalo, in much the same way that other big cities of the time had diners.

The good news is that the pre-fab diners that dotted America’s landscape were made to be moved, so just because Buffalo didn’t have any diners during the diner heyday doesn’t mean we can’t eat in authentic, decades-old manufactured diner cars today.

 Lake Effect Diner

Lake Effect Diner, 2013.

What we know as the Lake Effect Diner today was manufactured in 1952, one of 400 or so built by the Mountain View Diners Co. in Singac, N.J. It began life in Wayne, P.A., as the Main Line Grille.

Elsie D’Ignazio was a cook there, and when the business came up for sale, she bought the place.

Owner Elsie D’Ignazio on the steps of the Wayne Diner in 1952.

The place operated as the Wayne Diner for about 20 years; then it was sold and became Orient House Chinese restaurant. A few years later, the place was renamed China Buddha Restaurant and was an area landmark known as much for its giant red, green and white sign as its cuisine

Ad for the Wayne Diner, now, the Lake Effect Diner, 1963.

Lake Effect owner Tucker Curtain bought the diner and went to great lengths to bring it back to its original look, with lots of stainless steel and pink tiles. Today you’ll find the Lake Effect Diner on Main Street in University Heights.

A drawing of the Deco restaurant at Main near Englewood, from a newspaper ad, 1933

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While the people of Wayne, P.A., were eating meatloaf at the Wayne Diner, people at Main and Englewood — a few blocks from where the diner now stands — were eating at Deco Restaurant.

Built as a Deco Restaurant, for decades, the building was home to Chabad House. Currently, the storefront is back to its restaurant roots as the home of Wholly Crepe.

Inside the Deco at Main near Englewood, 1948.

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 Swan Street Diner

With baked enamel walls and mahogany window trim, the classic Newark Diner opened in 1939.

Only three families operated the restaurant for the more than 70 years it was open in Newark, N.Y.

“It’s not so much fancy stuff as it is plain food, good cooking with flavor,” said John Reynolds, the second owner, in the Finger Lake Times in 1984. “But the most important thing we have isn’t for sale — it’s simply friendship, a place to go. The people who come in here, they have all the virtues you would consider American — a very strong work ethic. They go to work in the morning, stop in for coffee, to see their friends, to talk or complain about work.”

Newark Diner ad, 1951.

That description of the blue-collar folks shuffling through the diner when it was in the small Steuben County town sounds a lot like what was happening a block away at the Deco on Seneca Street just on the other side of Emslie Street from the diner’s current location.

This image is looking in the southeast direction from the corner of Seneca and Emslie Sts.

While slinging quick meals was the understated every day at the Newark, the tiny diner in the tiny town did have one moment in the sun.

In 1993, ABC’s General Hospital descended on the restaurant, changed the sign and made “The Triple L Diner” part of the Luke and Laura story line.

Scenes were shot both inside and outside the Newark for the daytime soap.

Starting in 2013, the Zemsky Family, which runs the Larkin Development Group, had the J.B. Judkins Co. “Sterling-brand” diner moved and renovated.

It opened on Swan Street in 2017.

The Buffalo You Should Know: How we lost the Larkin Administration Building

By Steve Cichon
steve@buffalostories.com
@stevebuffalo

At the turn of the century, The Buffalo-based Larkin Company was one of the nation’s largest retailers, first selling soap, and eventually a range of items — second only to Sears & Roebuck — from its catalogs that reached 1.5 million homes.

Drawing of the company complex from a Larkin publication, 1925 (Buffalo Stories archives)

The money being sent into the Larkin complex near Seneca and Swan streets was unprecedented. It was enough that $4 million didn’t seem too steep when executives, impressed with Larkin Secretary Darwin D. Martin’s Frank Lloyd Wright-designed home, asked Wright to design a new administration building for the company. The structure, the cost of which would be close to $100 million in 2016 dollars, was completed in 1906.

From a postcard (Buffalo Stories archives)

At the time, the office space was the latest in modern design. It was lauded by those who appreciated art and architecture around the world, and pointed to as an example of the country’s “coming of age” in design innovation. When an exhibition showcasing three centuries of American architecture moved from New York’s Museum of Modern Art to the Albright (now Albright-Knox) Art Gallery in Buffalo in 1938, Buffalo’s Larkin Administration Building was one of the stars.

“It has received considerable praise for the boldness with which the architect cut with tradition in order to bring light into hitherto gloomy interiors,” said one review. Wright took credit for designing the country’s first metal office furniture for the structure.

The design also made it a pleasant place to work, with a mix of natural and artificial light, waterfalls, and a pipe organ all meant to make the day’s toil a bit less burdensome for the everyday Joe working there. It was the jewel in the Larkin crown for 30 years.

In a gross simplification, through the Depression business dwindled for the Larkin Company. The Frank Lloyd Wright-designed headquarters building, where incoming mail-order cash was once loaded into quickly filled bushel baskets for easy carrying, was renovated into a Larkin storefront in 1939 when the mail-order business died out.

Larkin Co. collectibles were shown in a 2004 exhibit at the Larkin at Exchange Building. These Larkin Co. products were part of a collection from Gail Belliveau of Willington, Conn. (Sharon Cantillon/News file photo)

Announcements of the building’s conversion mix awe of Wright’s “sensational” and “outstanding” structure, while also bragging of the “modernizing” of the interior — stripping it of most of Wright’s design.

Larkin stumbled into the war years. In 1940, Larkin and subsidiaries were $38,000 in arrears to the City of Buffalo for taxes and looking to make payment plans. Three years later, cash-strapped Larkin sold its headquarters building to a Pennsylvania real estate investor, who had hoped to turn a profit with possible federal government interest in the building.

The hopes of that out-of-state investor were never realized, and the City of Buffalo seized the building for back taxes.

As one of the few open spaces in the city that could accommodate such an enterprise, in 1946 it was hoped that the building might become Buffalo’s new Veteran’s Administration headquarters, but the current Bailey Avenue structure was built instead.

Once that plan fell through, the City Council discussed an offer to buy the building — which was assessed at $237,000 — for $26,000. City Comptroller George Wanamaker said the offer was too low, and asked that he be allowed to advertise the building nationally and locally.

The council approved $6,000 to advertise the building, although Council Majority Leader George Evans called it “gambling with the taxpayers’ money,” saying that every real estate person in Buffalo knows the building is available.

In January 1947, large ads were taken out in a total of seven papers in New York and Chicago, as well as The Buffalo Evening News and the Courier-Express.

Buffalo Stories archives

Three months after the advertising blitz, there were plenty of inquiries, but no bids. Wanamaker also tried to market the 92,000-square foot building to someone who might convert it to housing, but city engineers eventually determined that the site wasn’t appropriate for housing. The state was offered the building as a record storage facility, but the offer was declined.

Based apparently more on the structuring of the contract than the money, the Common Council rejected a second offer, this one $25,000, in Jun, 1947.

During a time when The Buffalo Evening News and the Courier-Express rarely agreed on any editorial stance, both papers took up one official’s calling the Wright masterpiece “a white elephant.”

Admitting that the building seemed to have no commercial appeal, Mayor Bernard Dowd offered it to the county, which was looking for space to house some offices. He said the building had “attractive features” for municipal work, but it never came to be.

Nearly a year passed before another offer was received. It was again for $26,000, and it was again rejected as too low. A month later, however, a $500 option to buy the building for that amount was accepted. Whether the councilmen who voted to accept the offer knew who the actual bidder was or not is unclear, but published reports named Chestor, Inc., a local real estate company, as the buyer on behalf of an undisclosed client.

It was eventually unveiled that the bidder was Magnus Benzing, manager of the Magnus Beck Brewery. While he wouldn’t unveil his plans, he did say they weren’t brewing or housing related. Benzing eventually declined his option, and the building sat empty.

An informational marker on Frank Lloyd Wright’s Larkin Administration Building stands at Swan and Seymour streets. (Buffalo News file photo)

During the spring of 1949, Ellicott District Councilman Joseph Dudzick — famous as the inspiration for the gin mill owner in his son Tom’s “Over the Tavern” plays — proposed the Larkin Administration Building be transformed into a recreation center.

“This once-beautiful structure that attracted visitors from all over the world has become an eyesore and a tax-devouring white elephant,” said ‘Big Joe’ Dudzick. “Practically everybody who has looked at it with the intention of using the building for business purposes has declared it beyond repair for practical business use. There is no wisdom in allowing the building to deteriorate further until it becomes a pile of crumbling brick, especially when it can be put to good use in building the bodies, minds and character of the city’s youth.”

“We’ve got a community blight on our hands,” said Dudzick, “But it can be transformed into a worthwhile medium to combat juvenile delinquency.”

It was another idea to save the building which never made it past the proposal stage.

On Sept. 13, 1949, the Common Council voted to sell Frank Lloyd Wright’s Larkin Administration Building — once the most modern office building in the world — for the sum of $5,000, with the knowledge that it was another unknown bidder’s intention to demolish the building and then replace it with a new structure to add back to the tax rolls.

Immediate reaction to the sale to Buffalo’s Western Trading Company was positive. The term “white elephant” and a relieved sigh of “finis” were thrown around, as it was clear the city wanted to be rid of the burden of this building.

Unlike his predecessor Wanamaker, new City Comptroller Edward Neider had been doing his best to “dispose of” the property and bring it back to the city tax rolls since he’d “inherited it” upon assuming the office.

“I believe the city has made the best possible disposition in accepting an offer of purchase for $5,000,” the comptroller said. Outside City Hall, however, the impeding demolition was panned by architects and architecture historians everywhere, including on the pages of New York City newspapers.

In this photo from 2006, a wall stands at Swan and Seymour streets marking the location of the Larkin Administration Building. The Seneca Industrial Complex on Seneca Street looms in the background. (Buffalo News file photo)

While vandals had begun the work of demolishing the building, stripping it of nearly every light fixture, doorknob and plumbing line, the solidly built steel framed and poured-concrete girded building took an agonizing six months and six figures to demolish.

Larkin historian Jerome Puma writes that pieces of “the building that was meant to last forever” do live on, however humbly. Chunks of stone and brick from the building were used to backfill the Ohio Basin, and the 24-inch steel floor beams made by Bethlehem Steel were last known to be holding the earth in place above a West Virginia coal mine.

After the world-famous structure was cleared away, Western Trading petitioned Buffalo’s Common Council for a variance to move the truck terminal they had planned for the site, saying in part that the newly opened up land would just be too valuable as a parking lot for the rest of the Larkin complex. The council agreed, and the space remains a parking lot to this day.

Torn-down Tuesday: A ’30s look at Larkin Square

By Steve Cichon
steve@buffalostories.com
@stevebuffalo

For most of recent memory, the Seneca and Swan intersection in the Hydraulics neighborhood has had an undeniably industrial feel.

Even with the small businesses and taverns which dotted Seneca Street well into the ’90s, the area’s presence was dominated by the buildings that were built as the Larkin factory and warehouse.

Buffalo News archives

Those buildings were just as large in 1930, but the surrounding buildings offered much more of a neighborhood feel.

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By 1955, the buildings on the Y between Swan and Seneca had been torn down to make way for Buffalo Fire’s new Engine 32/Ladder 5 house, which replaced an older fire house just out of the photo.

Over the last decade, this area has seen a renaissance precipitated by Howard Zemsky’s development of the Larkin Terminal Warehouse property into offices and a veritable city within a city, hosting music, entertainment, and food truck Tuesday events.

The “Larkin” behind the Larkin District

By Steve Cichon
steve@buffalostories.com
@stevebuffalo

Thirty-five years ago this week, The News began celebrating the 100th anniversary of the paper’s starting a daily edition.

In the special section called One Hundred Years of Finance and Commerce, The News recounted the history of a handful of Buffalo’s financial and commercial industries and provided ad space for many companies involved in those industries to tout their own contributions.

Except for perhaps attending a concert or food truck Tuesday in the Larkin District, most Buffalonians aren’t aware of the impact that Buffalo’s Larkin Soap Co. had on the national and world economy and the way we all shop.

While many of us remember the Sears catalog, it was John D. Larkin’s company that created many of the processes that became standard in mail-order retail and remain the basis for the systems used by Internet age mail-order retailers to this day.

Buffalo in the 1910s: Not quite ‘Food Truck Tuesday,’ but visitors are welcome at Larkin Factory

By Steve Cichon
steve@buffalostories.com
@stevebuffalo

While today visits to Larkinville are made to enjoy food, music or culture, 110 years ago, visits to Larkin were all about taking in the majesty of one of the world’s largest manufacturers and retailers of personal items.

Just as Larkin Square represents what’s new and happening in Buffalo for many in 2015, in 1910, the Larkin Company revolutionized how products were bought and sold and was America’s leader in catalog and mail order retail.