From 1880 to Today: Buffalo’s Birge Wallpaper

       By Steve Cichon

If Buffalonians know anything about the old Birge Wallpaper Company on Niagara Street, chances are they know that one of Buffalo’s great artists worked there. Charles Burchfield first came to Buffalo as a wallpaper designer for Birge in 1921, but the Birge family was well-known in Buffalo in its own right.

Martin Birge came to Buffalo in 1835 and started a general store in the 200 block of Main Street near Seneca Street. A decade later, he started a “new paper hanging warehouse,” making French and Italian wallpapers available in Buffalo for the first time. In 1877, he founded M.H. Birge & Company and soon became world-renowned as a manufacturer of wallpapers.

During his earliest days in Buffalo, Martin Birge was “a familiar sight along Main Street, with his immaculate suit of broadcloth, beaver hat, and gold headed cane and great dignity of manner.”

A generation later, his son George K. Birge was one of Buffalo’s leading citizens. He was not only president of his family’s company, but also president of the George Pierce Company – the makers of the Pierce Arrow luxury automobiles used by presidents and movie stars. The Georgian Revival mansion he built in 1897 on what we now call Symphony Circle remains as one of Buffalo’s architectural treasures.

He was a leader in industry and civic affairs. In a 1918 obituary, the Buffalo Times called Birge “one of Buffalo’s most spirited public citizens.” He was a major donor to the American Red Cross and First Presbyterian Church, which was located just across the street from his home. He was on the executive committee of the Pan-American Exposition and was the leading proponent in the efforts to have a highway built from Buffalo to Niagara Falls. That highway, Niagara Falls Boulevard, remains a lively part of life in Western New York.

The first Birge Wallpaper store opened near Main and the Terrace in 1846, in a spot now covered by the elevated I-190. A few years later, there were relatively few wallpaper factories in the country when Birge opened a plant on Perry Street near Washington Street in the old Tifft Furniture Manufactory. That spot is currently pretty close to center ice at KeyBank Center.

After two fires gutted two different factories, Birge moved into the Niagara Manufacturing on Niagara between Maryland and Hudson streets. During the year Burchfield joined Birge, 1921, that Niagara Street factory was described in the Buffalo Courier as “a veritable modern wonderland, peopled with real art craftsmen, artisans who have devoted their lives to this calling which requires a highly developed sense of artistry and painstaking accuracy.”

Birge remained one of the most respected names in wall coverings, until tastes began to change and wallpaper was no longer fashionable. The Niagara Street plant closed in 1976; a McDonald’s now stands on the site.

The West banked on a couple of Buffalonians: Henry Wells & William Fargo

By Steve Cichon

Henry Wells and William Fargo both came to Buffalo when it was the nation’s western frontier during the 1830s and 1840s. Both were involved in shipping and transportation to the West. They were the leading forces behind the founding of American Express — then primarily a shipping and mail company — in Buffalo in 1850.

The Fargo Mansion took up an entire city block and was bounded by Fargo and West avenues and Jersey and Pennsylvania streets. It was demolished in 1901.

Wells and Fargo also separately formed Wells, Fargo & Co. when others at American Express resisted their desire to extend their footprint into California.

The combined assets of those Buffalo-born institutions is $2.2 trillion as of 2017.

William Fargo

To support this family, William Fargo dropped out of school to deliver mail on horseback at age 13. He came to Buffalo in 1843 as a railroad freight agent. Soon thereafter, he went to work for Henry Wells. After running his own express company for several years, he merged his company with Wells’ and one other to form American Express.

Fargo was one of Buffalo’s wealthiest citizens when he was elected the city’s mayor in 1861. As he left office in 1867, he bought up 5.5 acres around what is now the corner of Jersey & Fargo. Then, it was Buffalo’s mostly undeveloped and somewhat rural west side.

The New York Times said it was “one of the show places of Buffalo that strangers desired to see” when the home was finished in 1872. Fargo died in 1881, and his wife, Anna, died in 1890. The house stood vacant for a decade before it was torn down, making way for the West Side neighborhood we know today.

Henry Wells

Henry Wells spent time in Buffalo starting in 1836 as an agent on the Erie Canal, and in the 1850s, he moved to Cayuga County. In the interim, he lived at several different Buffalo addresses while plying his trade on canals, railroads and stage coach lines, building the foundations for what are now two colossal international corporations.

His final, most grand home in Buffalo was at 69 East Seneca St., not far from the canals and rail lines. Wells’ home “did a great deal to publicize the express business and help give it its start,” according to Buffalo Evening News Financial Editor Hilton Hornaday, writing in 1938.

The listing for the Henry Well residence in a 1848 Buffalo City directory.

People in Buffalo saw the worth and value in Wells’ shipping abilities when barrels of raw oysters would show up to be served first at his home, then at area taverns.

Hornaday quoted a Wells text from 75 years earlier.

It may amuse you to hear that the oyster was a powerful agent in expediting our progress.

That very delicious shell fish was fully appreciated by the Buffalonians — and deeply they felt the sad fact that there was one occasion toward spring, no oysters in Buffalo. James Leidley, the tavern keeper, asked me why the express could not bring them.

“Bring oysters by coach over such roads!” was my astonished exclamation.

His answer was the keystone to all success in enterprise.

“If I pay for them — charge just what you will.” They were brought — opened in Albany and brought to Buffalo at the cost of $3 the hundred — and the arrival of those oysters by express at Buffalo created a sensation as great as would today the coming hither of a section of the Atlantic Telegraph.

Wells’ Seneca Street home stood at the corner of Seneca and Ellicott sreets.

By the 1880s, there was a furniture store on the site. Today, if a shortstop plays a little deep at Coca-Cola Field, he’s standing about on the spot where Henry Wells once lived.

Wells’ last Buffalo residence was gone by 1880, but an earlier Wells residence might still be standing in the city, even if it’s off our 1880 map by a mile or so.

An old home that remains near the corner of Niagara and West Ferry streets may have belonged to a young Henry Wells. Its fate is before the Buffalo Preservation Board now, as Rich Products hopes to demolish the structure, along with several other newer commercial buildings to make way for future development.

Buffalo in the 50s: The ‘new’ Connecticut Street opens with a carnival and parade

By Steve Cichon

Repaved and widened, Connecticut Street was poised to become a center of Buffalo’s Italian neighborhood. It later hosted Buffalo’s Italian Festival in the ’70s and ’80s before that event moved to Hertel Avenue in 1988.

Buffalo in the ’40s: Bicycle safety on The West Side

By Steve Cichon

The rules of the road haven’t changed since 1949.  Thomas Dickerman, 13, of Auburn Ave, Buffalo, demonstrates the right way and the wrong way to operate a bicycle in the City of Buffalo 65 years ago, as appeared in The News on May 5, 1949.

The safety tips were offered as Police Commissioner McMahon urged Buffalo parents to stress Bicycle Safety Week to their children.

Some safety do’s and don’ts for Buffalo bicyclists