Torn-Down Tuesday: Buffalo’s public bath houses

By Steve Cichon
steve@buffalostories.com
@stevebuffalo

Buffalo’s position as one of America’s largest and most sophisticated cities was strikingly on display with the Pan-American Exposition in 1901. The City of Light. Advanced transportation. The most modern manufacturing ideas put into practice. Many of the wonders of the Industrial Revolution were on display for the world to take in and enjoy in Buffalo.

Sitting around a spittoon, men and boys wait for their turn for a free bath. (Buffalo Stories archives)

But behind that picture of a flourishing city was an undeniable underbelly: Thousands of Buffalonians had no running water in their homes or access to bathing facilities.

It was universally acknowledged as a growing problem, but one without a clear solution.

“A great number of Buffalonians do not feel the need of public baths in the summer months,” wrote the Buffalo Courier in 1895, “because there are many much frequented bathing places along the lake and river fronts and along the numerous creeks in Buffalo.”

Buffalo had two public baths in 1895. They were at the foot of S. Michigan Avenue, along the lakeshore close to the General Mills complex, and at the foot of Porter Avenue, near the Buffalo Yacht Club.
Buffalo had two public baths in 1895. They were at the foot of S. Michigan Avenue, along the lakeshore close to the General Mills complex, and at the foot of Porter Avenue, near the Buffalo Yacht Club.

Buffalo, it was written, didn’t need bathing facilities, because people bathed in lakes, rivers, and creeks.

A day at the beach was more than just a day of sunshine and relaxation—it was a matter of hygiene. Resort beaches south of the city, places like Wanakah, Idlewood and Bennett Beach, were appropriate for women and children, but men and older boys would bathe wherever they could.

The foot of Court and Georgia streets — which once led from the West Side to the banks of Lake Erie — were popular spots, as were Squaw Island and the foot of Ferry Street.

One man was arrested trying to wash up in the Johnson Park fountain. “The Polish Boys,” wrote The Courier, frequented a bathing hole along Buffalo Creek near South Ogden and the railroad bridge of the Jammerthal area— now the northern East Side of Buffalo. One still-open quarrying area is along Amherst Street as it approaches Bailey Avenue coming from Main Street.

In 1895, Buffalo’s two public baths—one at the foot of S. Michigan Avenue, one at the foot of Porter Avenue – were “small box-like arrangements,” more or less “dilapidated, dirty, and disgraceful” sheds.

Street urchins and pickpockets would use the places, it was said, but no respectable boy or man would be seen there—where a nickel would provide use of a locker and a pair of “bathing pants.”

“Buffalo is deplorably, disgracefully deficient in public baths,” wrote the Courier. Especially during winter months, when bathing alternatives were needed, working men couldn’t afford the luxury of the widely available $1 Turkish baths.

City leaders took the health crisis and turned it into one of the nation’s first public welfare programs.

Men and boys wait for their turn in Buffalos public bath, 1901. (Buffalo Stories archives)
Men and boys wait for their turn in Buffalo’s public bath, 1901. (Buffalo Stories archives)

Buffalo Health Commissioner Wende called the bath houses in two of Buffalo’s most crowded tenement areas a long time in coming.

“While the luxury and benefit of public baths have reached their highest stage in Europe, it remained for Buffalo, an American city, in competing for the supremacy in the realization of the conditions desired by a cultured public, to establish a bath where the indigent, the fatigued, and the unclean could find shelter and care without money and without price.”

In 1897, a brick structure was built on the Terrace as a sanitary bathing facility for the men of Buffalo, particularly the mostly Irish immigrants of the First Ward and the Italian immigrants of The Hooks.

Soap and towels were provided to bathers free of charge. The facility was the first free, open bath house anywhere in the country, and put Buffalo on the cutting edge of health and sanitation.

Buffalos Public Bath House Number 1, was located on the southern tip of The Terrace playground. The building was in the approximate area of Channel 7s studios today. (Buffalo Stories archives)
Buffalo’s Public Bath House No. 1 was located on the southern tip of the Terrace playground. The building was in the approximate area of Channel 7’s studios today. (Buffalo Stories archives)

In 1901, a second public bath house was built on Buffalo’s East Side at Woltz Avenue and Stanislaus Street.

Buffalos Public Bath House Number 2 at Woltz Avenue and Stanislaus Street. (Buffalo Stories archives)
Buffalo’s Public Bath House No. 2 at Woltz Avenue and Stanislaus Street. (Buffalo Stories archives)

This larger building had separate bathing facilities and waiting rooms for both men and women. While there were bathtubs for women and infants, men were offered showers. The idea of showering was brand new — so new, in fact, that a 1901 article in The Buffalo Express explained how a shower works.

“The bather stands erect in the shower, and the water falls down upon him. There is a depression in the floor, with perforations which carry away the water that has fallen.”

The interior of the shower area had stalls separated by wrought iron. Water was heated to approximately 100 degrees, and bathers were allowed 20 minutes in the showering and adjoining dressing rooms.

The buildings’ rules were written on the walls in English, Polish, Italian and German. They read:

  1. Smoking prohibited
  2. No swearing or obscene language
  3. No intoxicated person allowed in the building
  4. Walls, furniture, and property must not be defaced or injured
  5. Soiled clothing must be taken away by the bather
  6. Towels must be returned to the keeper or matron
  7. No bather may occupy an apartment longer than 20 minutes

There were also laundry facilities for underclothes to help further improve sanitation.

Dr. Wende said the free services, with more than 394,000 baths taken in the first four years, cost Buffalo taxpayers 3 cents per person per year, with most of that cost going toward the purchase of soap.

Well into the 1950s, these two bath houses, along with two more at Grant and Amherst and 249 William St., remained in demand providing as many as a million baths a year.

One slight modification was made as time went on — a new rule prevented singing in the showers.

“If we let people sing in our 52 showers,” said the keeper of Bath House No. 2 Stanley Molik, “we’d be in trouble for disturbing the peace of the neighborhood.

What it looked like Wednesday: LaSalle Park and the Erie Canal, 1932

By Steve Cichon
steve@buffalostories.com
@stevebuffalo

What we now know as LaSalle Park was a canal-side dumping ground before it was developed into parkland in celebration of Buffalo’s 100th year as a city.

Buffalo Stories archives

Buffalo Stories archives

Twenty years after the million-dollar purchase of the lands were made, the area between the Erie Canal and Niagara River on Buffalo’s West Side was finally christened Centennial Park in 1932.

The best reference for figuring out what you’re looking at here is the Col. Frank Ward Pumping Station, which still sits at the northern end of LaSalle Park.

The portion of the Erie Canal shown in this view — likely taken from Buffalo’s then-new City Hall looking north — has since been replaced with the I-190.

What it looked like Wednesday: Lines at the grocery during World War II rationing, 1943

By Steve Cichon
steve@buffalostories.com
@stevebuffalo

The Office of Price Administration was actually established several months before the bombing of Pearl Harbor, as the country prepared for the possibility of war.

Weeks after the declaration of war, price controls and rationing were implemented on all manner of consumer goods except agricultural products.

Ben Dykstra, butcher and grocer at the corner of Main and Merrimac in University Heights, shows off the full March, 1943 ration of canned goods for a family of four.

Buffalo News archives

Buffalo News archives

Families had to register for ration books, as Mrs. EW England was doing at School 16 on Delaware and Hodge in 1943.

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Women jammed markets when they knew they could get good meat. Such was the case at Neber & McGill Butchers on William Street in 1943.

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Additional ration points could be earned by turning in food waste, like grease, for the war effort. Mrs. Robert Bond of Hampshire Street collected four cents and two brown ration points for turning in a pound of rendered kitchen fat to Anthony Scime, of Scime Brothers Grocery, at Hampshire and 19th on the West Side.

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Even after the war, shortages continued. This is the scene at the Mohican Market on Main Street near Fillmore in 1946, on a day when butter was available.

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The News called it “a mob scene” inside, where Office of Price Administration rules dropped the price to 53 cents. Some markets, confused by the change in rules, were selling for 64 cents.

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The OPA was dissolved and price controls ended in 1947.

What it looked like Wednesday: Guercio’s, Grant Street, 1985

By Steve Cichon
steve@buffalostories.com
@stevebuffalo

Any of us who have spent time away from Buffalo have our rituals when we return to Western New York. Loganberry. Wings. Super Mighty. Hot dogs (Texas hots). Hot dogs (Char-broiled). Hot dogs (so long as it’s a Sahlens).

Guercio & Sons’ Grocery during a construction project on Grant Street in 1985. (Buffalo News archives)

Aside from — you know — seeing mom, many of our immediate “musts” revolve around food. One stop for many who grew up in or have roots on Buffalo’s West Side, one stop combines food and family.

The mention of Guercio’s can fill a West Sider with a yearning for the pungent aromas of cheese and pickles and cured meats. It’s the type of old-world store which barely exists anymore, making a visit to Grant Street special whether you’re coming from Amherst or the Carolinas.

Guercio’s was known as the Grant Street Market in the days before Vincent and Nancy Guercio came to Buffalo from Sicily in 1954. They bought the place in 1961, and in 1967, the name was officially changed to Guercio & Sons.

Guercio & Sons has been a bastion for the ingredients that make food Italian, and for generations the shop has made the experience of buying those ingredients part of the experience of being an Italian in Buffalo or a West Sider or just someone who appreciates great food and great service.

From the fruit and vegetables displayed on the sidewalk to the cheese and meat counter inside, Guercio’s is a throwback without feeling like an anachronism. Even if you’ve never been there before, somehow walking in, it feels like it’s already etched in your DNA. It’s one of those places you can take your grandkids to.

While it’s the nonnas and bambinos who are mostly likely to wax poetic about Guerico & Sons, it’s the newer Buffalonians hailing from Africa, Asia and Latin America who make up more and more of the everyday neighborhood shoppers there. This is the wonderful little store for current West Siders, just like it was for a previous generation or two.

Neither Grant Street nor the entire West Side have too many institutions that help bridge the gap between yesterday’s West Side and today’s West Side. At Guerico’s, there really hasn’t been a yesterday and today, just a long-standing commitment to being the kind of place that feels right for anyone who walks in.

Torn-Down Tuesday: Pierce’s Palace Hotel in 1880

By Steve Cichon
steve@buffalostories.com
@stevebuffalo

Dr. Ray V. Pierce’s Palace Hotel brought taste and opulence to the West Side spot now occupied by D’Youville College.

Buffalo News archives

Opened in 1877, the place was half hotel, half hospital. Two generations of Pierces were known for the sale of patent medicines and the cutting-edge “curing” of disease. The baths and gymnasiums on the campus were known nationwide for their healing and restorative powers.

1879. (Buffalo Stories archives)

It was from the Prospect Avenue balcony of the Palace Hotel that Buffalo industrialist Frank Baird introduced Gen. James Garfield to Buffalo shortly before he was elected president in 1880. The throng of people welcoming the candidate stretched from the Central Depot at Terrace and Court (behind today’s City Hall) all the way to the hotel. President Ulysses S. Grant was also a guest at the Palace.

Pierce’s Palace Hotel was open only four years before it burned down in 1881. After that, Pierce opened his Invalids Hotel and Surgical Institute on the 600 block of Main Street; that survived until 1941.

Buffalo in the ’60s: Torso found in Black Rock Canal solves mystery of missing banker

By Steve Cichon
steve@buffalostories.com
@stevebuffalo

In 1959, Buffalo industrialist, banker and former Assistant Navy Secretary Edward Germain seemed to vanish without a trace.

When he left a small group of friends at the Buffalo Club, the longtime president of Dunlop Rubber told friends he was going to drive to his summer home just over the Peace Bridge in Canada.

He never arrived. A 32-state search ensued, and the case made national headlines.

A $10,000 reward was offered, but the only information on the case came from a man who watched Germain’s blue 1958 Chevrolet scrape along several parked cars on Buffalo’s Lower West Side. The car was moving slowly enough that the man could run alongside and offer to help, but the man behind the wheel — who appeared to be the 69-year-old Germain — seemed to be in some sort of trance and unable to stop or move.

Another less-certain report told of a car like Germain’s traveling the wrong way on a I-190 offramp.

When this was all the investigation netted, one doctor supposed that Germain could have had a stroke, but those who knew him said that he was as healthy as a man going on 50 even though he was going on 70.  Germain’s family seemed to think the wealthy man, who lived on Nottingham Terrace, was robbed. They feared they wouldn’t find him alive.

Germain’s Nottingham Terrace home. (Buffalo News archives)

Police seemed hung up on the fact that the car hadn’t been found. Divers searched the Niagara River but found nothing, and the case went cold for four years.

Then in 1963, kids playing in the Black Rock Canal found the decomposed remains which were matched to Germain by the still-intact clipping of his sister’s obituary in his pocket. Robbery didn’t seem to be a motive. Along with the newspaper article, his wallet also was filled with cash.

Buffalo News archives

Divers searched the river again — this time north of the Peace Bridge, instead of south near where his car was last seen.

Buffalo News archives

After 365 search hours, the mangled remains of Germain’s car were found, with the key still in the on position, and a shoe with bone fragments in it near the accelerator.

Buffalo News archives

Once the car and car were found, the case was closed. No further reporting was done on any investigation after the accident. The final mentions of the incident came with the probate of Germain’s $740,000 estate.

Buffalo in the ’50s: West Side Italian radio with Mama and Papa Rico

By Steve Cichon
steve@buffalostories.com
@stevebuffalo

They were the heart and the voice of Buffalo’s Italian-American community. For 50 years, Emelino Rico — known to listeners of “Neapolitan Serenade” as “Papa Rico” and the head of “Casa Rico” — broadcast Italian music, in Italian, for Italians, from his home on Seventh Street on Buffalo’s Italian West Side.

Mama & Papa Rico in their studio at their Seventh Street home on Buffalo’s West Side. (Buffalo Stories archives)

For most of five decades, come 10:30am, the Liberty Bell March would open another program of cultural pride, personal warmth and a taste of the old country. While he was heard on many stations through the years, often two or three stations at the same time, for 45 years the Ricos were heard on WHLD 1270-AM.

Emelino came to America as a movie producer in 1922. Ten years later, on a stop in Buffalo, he met Mary Pinieri, who was destined to become the West Side’s beloved Mama Rico.

Their lives, Mama Rico told listeners to their 50th anniversary celebration on WHLD in 1985, were spent highlighting the best in Italian music and culture, “helping others, and doing charitable work.”

Heavily edited publicity photos of Mary and Emelino Rico, from the Buffalo News archives.

The Ricos worked to bring some of Italy to Buffalo, and some of Buffalo to Italy, with many trips and exchanges. Papa liked to tell the story of a 1967 audience with Pope Paul VI, when His Holiness greeted him immediately by saying, “You run the Italian program in Buffalo.”

Many of Buffalo’s most famous Italian-Americans said the time spent at Casa Rico helped jump start their career — those like Tony Award-winning choreographer Michael Bennett and pianist Leonard Pennario.

Papa Rico died in 1985, Mama Rico in 1993, but the Rico name has continued on — sons Lenny and Joe Rico have continued the family tradition of broadcasting in Buffalo.

 

Torn-Down Tuesday: When the Erie Canal wandered through the West Side

By Steve Cichon
steve@buffalostories.com
@stevebuffalo

Many Buffalonians know that the Erie Canal started in Buffalo — at the old Aud site at Canalside. Where it went from there is a little less well-known, but even easier to picture — the canal bed as it ran through the Lower West Side is essentially paved over for a very familiar roadway. Between Erie Street (next to the old Aud site) and Porter Street (next to the Peace Bridge), the Erie Canal ran on the path of what is now I-190.

The Canal was part of life on the Lower West Side, but not in the “low bridge” and “mule named Sal” sense. It was, for intents, a garbage dump. An illegal dump, but a dump nonetheless.

The garbage-filled waterway is the long-defunct Erie Canal in this 1938 photo. City Hall is seen to the south, and the bridge crossing the canal is at about the same place where the pedestrian bridge now crosses the 190 from Hudson Street to LaSalle Park. (Buffalo News archives)

In the 25 years following the snapping of the photo above, the Lower West Side would go through a series of scorched earth “Urban Renewal” type projects that left the area entirely unrecognizable to someone who would have been familiar with the canal.

When the Lakeview Housing Project was announced, residents were told the canal bed would be transformed into a playground for children. If this ever happened, it only lasted for about a decade with the 1950s building of the “Ontario Thruway.”

Gone would be tightly packed “slum areas” like the one below.

Buffalo News archives

This image, probably taken in front of 370 Trenton Ave. near Hudson Street, was provided to newspapers in 1938 as the typical sort of “slums” which would be condemned to build the new Lakeview project. By 1939, Trenton Avenue looked like the photo below, with 696 units of housing planned, costing renters on average about $4 per month.

Buffalo News archives

Today, the corner of Trenton and Hudson has gone through another transformation, with a new generation of subsidized housing built there over the last several decades.

 

What It Looked Like Wednesday: West Side corner store, 1955

By Steve Cichon
steve@buffalostories.com
@stevebuffalo

This corner store was at the corner of Dewitt and Helen, behind PS 19 (now the Native American Magnet School) on Buffalo’s West Side in 1955 — but it could have been on any corner, anywhere in Buffalo.

Buffalo News archives

The photo was taken as Mrs. Frank Ott was forced to close the store, because young hoodlums were driving away women customers with “foul language and insults,” while also stealing about $1,000 in merchandise over the course of a year.

From Iroquois, Carling and Genesee beer to Squirt and Vernor’s pop — and Rich’s Ice Cream — the place was crowded with groceries and merchandise that were unique to Western New York.

A reader points out that this storefront and the neighboring home were destroyed in a fire in 2014.

 

Buffalo in the ’80s: Cars into buildings, the prequel

By Steve Cichon
steve@buffalostories.com
@stevebuffalo

Over the last several years, cars crashing into buildings — particularly restaurants like Schwabl’s in 2014 and Kosta’s in 2015 — have led some to begin to think of Buffalo as the “cars crashing into buildings” capital of the world. Recent accidents have even been plotted into maps.

Western New York’s attention became focused on vehicles crashing into buildings in 2011, when a car driven through the window at Cheeburger Cheeburger on Niagara Falls Boulevard in Amherst resulted in two deaths of patrons inside the restaurant.

At the scene of a car crashing into a bank several years ago, one police captain told me he doesn’t think these crashes happen more than they used to — it’s just that several high-profile cases have called our attention to these types of incidents and the fact that everyone is now carrying a phone in their pocket makes it easier to report on every case.

Buffalo News archives

A woman was seriously injured when a conversion van slammed into the side of the McDonald’s on the corner of Union and Main in Williamsville in 1989.

In fact, as long as there have been cars, they have been hitting buildings. Here’s another example from 1959.

For more on the trend, and whether Buffalo is actually unique in our number of vehicle/structure crashes, read Ben Tsujimoto’s analysis from last May.