On Delaware Avenue just south of North Street, Temple Beth Zion was “the first Reform Judaism temple in the East.”
The Medina brownstone synagogue – boasting North America’s largest wooden dome – was built in 1890, a Byzantine structure with Romanesque details.
It was a landmark on Delaware Avenue until a massive fire swept through the building on Oct. 4, 1961.
Buffalo Firefighter Joseph Oehler was commended for risking his life to save the congregation’s Torah scrolls, but that was about all that could be saved.
The fire that started in an area that had been under renovation burned fast and hot. Despite the work of 135 firefighters using 35 pieces of apparatus, the building’s wooden dome fell within an hour of the flames having been noticed.
The congregation’s current modern temple, north of the location of the previous temple, was completed in 1967.
There’s not much that’s recognizable from this 69-year-old view of Delaware Avenue, looking south from Hertel Avenue.
The Esso gas station and Deco restaurant have long been replaced by the buildings that are now home to KeyBank and M&T Bank. In fact, none of the commercial buildings visible remain.
The houses on the left and the train overpass off in the distance are the only landmarks which still stand.
In 1950, there were several car dealers on both sides of Delaware up to the train overpass, including Hunt for Chevrolet. The last car dealer in that stretch was Gary Pontiac, which was torn down to make way for Tim Hortons.
It’s worth adding that this photo came from the “Buffalo History” file of the dean of Buffalo radio talk show hosts, Buffalo Broadcasting Hall of Famer John Otto.
In the days before the internet, when Otto had to rely on his memory and his vast collection of files when leading his “conference call of all interested parties” overnight on WGR. Most nights, Otto would take calls from anyone willing to “pull up a piece of airtime, speaking frankly; generally, on any topic at all.”
These days, the answer to most questions are available with the proper search terms in Google. When a point of information came into contention on the Otto program, he would often turn to “your listenership” for an answer, if he didn’t have it at his fingertips.
Aside from the nightly talk show for which he’s remembered, Otto was also a television pioneer, having hosted children’s programs and serving at the Atlantic Weatherman in the early days of Channel 2.
Otto was inducted into the Buffalo Broadcasting Hall of Fame in 1998. He died in 1999.
This is the corner of Delaware and Allen as it appeared, looking north, in 1884.
It was the home of James Sawyer in 1880. He was an early businessman along the Central Wharf in Buffalo, eventually becoming a bank president and philanthropist. He worshiped at Westminster Presbyterian Church — the steeple of which is visible in the distance.
Also visible, in the foreground, are the streetcar tracks for the horse-drawn trolleys that plied Allen Street in the 1880s.
Sawyer died in 1881, and his daughter lived in the home until she sold it to a physician in 1908. The house played host to doctor’s offices, was the original home of the Mabel Danahy dress shop, and eventually became a Knights of Columbus hall.
Upstairs, a long line of artists living and worked in what was described as “one of the most cosmopolitan studio apartments in town” by the Courier-Express in 1947.
In 1962, the structure fell victim to a building boom along Delaware Avenue.
“Delaware Ave. is rapidly becoming the Park Ave. of Buffalo,” read a report in the Courier-Express.
“There is more construction now underway on the section of Delaware, between Gates Circle and downtown, than there has been at any other time in the last three decades.”
“The rapidly changing face of what is generally known as Buffalo’s most beautiful Avenue is a miracle of private redevelopment.”
The building is now home to Gurney, Becker and Bourne Realty and the McGuire Group.
Hills was still going strong in Buffalo 20 years ago. This is Hills Plaza, Delaware Avenue near Hertel Avenue in 1998.
Just the mention of the name Hills conjures up smells of popcorn and roller dogs, washed down with an Icee, of course. Through the ’80s and ’90s, this was the time of year when Hills was usually the cheapest place to buy back-to-school supplies. From generic sneakers to spiral-bound notebooks with the Hills discounted price emblazoned in the top right corner, kids like me would sometimes try to think of creative ways to obscure the fact that we hadn’t done our shopping at more fashionable retailers.
Hills was in Buffalo for about 20 years. In 1979, there were two Hills stores in Western New York. Store number 77 was in Garden Village Plaza (French and Union roads) in Cheektowaga, and store number 79 was on George Urban Boulevard (at Dick Road) in Depew (until recently, a Hobby Lobby location).
There were 11 Hills locations around Western New York in 1984, making the discount retailer just about ubiquitous — and a likely stop for most Western New York shoppers over the 20 years the company operated here.
By the time the local Hills stores were bought out by Ames in 1999, there were 10 Hills locations. With a combined 20 stores, Ames closed its local outlets in 2002.
This particular Hills location was torn down in 2007 to make way for a Kohl’s store, which was built on the Hills lot plus the lot created when the northern half of an old Tops store was also torn down. The southern half of that Tops store remains today as a Big Lots.
Before Hills and Tops, there were strawberry patches along Delaware Avenue, next to the vine-covered abandoned factory ruins the neighborhood kids called “The Hidden City.” That structure was once a part of the American Radiator Co., which was fronted on Elmwood Avenue.
American Radiator’s coal pulverizing unit was among the outbuildings put up on lands that had even earlier served as part of a New York Central railroad stop for the Pan American Exposition.
This week, we’re taking a look at Delaware Avenue.
Few spots along Delaware Avenue, or anywhere else in the city for that matter, are at the center of more interesting stories of Buffalo’s – and America’s – history than the home generally referred to as the Ansley Wilcox Mansion.
1. The house wasn’t always “on Delaware Avenue.”
In the midst of a complicated diplomatic crisis between the U.S., Britain and anti-British Canadian rebels known as the Caroline Affair, the federal government built an Army post in Buffalo in 1837 to help protect the border. The Buffalo Barracks were built on what was then Buffalo’s northern outskirts, between North and Allen streets to the north and south and Main and Delaware to the east and west.
Only four years later, construction began on the more strategically located Fort Porter, which stood where the Buffalo side of the Peace Bridge now stands. The Buffalo Barracks were dismantled, except for one building – the home of the commanding officer and post surgeon. Part of the row of housing for officers, the house “faced” the parade ground – and therefore Main Street – even though it was much closer to Delaware.
The house was remodeled and expanded by architect Thomas Tilden in 1848, when the home was occupied by Judge Joseph G. Masten (of Masten Avenue, Masten High School and Masten District fame).
Masten called the place “Chestnut Lawn.” An 1852 visitor described it as “a beautiful residence in the upper part of the city toward Niagara,” where “the sounds of dropping chestnuts could almost be heard” as one “drove into the grounds that front the pleasant mansion.”
As Delaware Street became Delaware Avenue, and the address carried with it an increasing social status, a porch and front entrance were built on the Delaware Avenue side of the building, sometime before it was given to Ansley Wilcox as a wedding present in 1883.
Under the direction of Wilcox, architect George Cary – who also designed the Buffalo History Museum – redesigned the two parlors of the original barracks residence into the library where Theodore Roosevelt would be sworn in as president.
The Wilcox House in 1901.
2. The Buffalo connection to the naming of the poinsettia.
The Buffalo Barracks were formally known as the Poinsett Barracks for Joel Robert Poinsett, who was a visitor to Buffalo during the time of uncertainty with Britain and Canada as President Martin Van Buren’s secretary of war.
His previous diplomatic posts included a stint as the ambassador to Mexico, where the envoy’s interest in botany led him to send clippings of a wild-growing red plant back to his stateside greenhouse. Poinsett introduced the species to Americans, and lives on in Christmas celebrations with the poinsettia – which is a good thing because the base named in his honor didn’t last even a decade.
3. Theodore Roosevelt wasn’t the home’s only presidential visitor.
The Poinsett Barracks and final remaining vestige, the Wilcox Mansion, have quite the presidential pedigree.
President William Howard Taft, front, stands on the steps of the Ansley Wilcox House. Wilcox is over Taft’s left shoulder, with a white mustache.
The first presidential visitor – President Van Buren – was there to dedicate the barracks on May 6, 1839.
Future President Zachary Taylor visited the Buffalo Barracks in 1840 – his daughter was the wife of the post surgeon. They lived in the house that became the Wilcox Mansion.
Scholars have listed President John Tyler as one of the presidential visitors to the home; he may have done so on a visit to Niagara Falls in 1841.
Former President John Quincy Adams visited Buffalo and the barracks in the summer of 1843 where “he was received with every possible demonstration of respect.”
Millard Fillmore was known to have visited many times in the days before he was president when the place was still the Buffalo Barracks, all the way through several owners of the property up until his death in 1876. One of Grover Cleveland’s law partners owned the home and the future president was a guest there as well.
Presidents Abraham Lincoln, Ulysses Grant, William McKinley, William Howard Taft, Woodrow Wilson, and Franklin Roosevelt were all visitors to the barracks and/or the Wilcox House.
If 13 U.S. presidents aren’t enough, you can also add a Confederate president. Jefferson Davis was stationed at the Buffalo Barracks during his time serving in the Union Army.
4. Roosevelt had previously spent time in Buffalo
Theodore Roosevelt, with a Buffalo Police officer and others, around 1900.
Both before and after his swearing in as president at the Wilcox Mansion, Theodore Roosevelt made no fewer than two dozen trips to Buffalo and Western New York.
Theodore Roosevelt speaks at Buffalo’s Music Hall, Main and Edward streets, 1898.
5. From the 1930s to the 1950s, the Wilcox Mansion was more a home of light refreshments than a historic site.
In September 1935, the original furnishings of the Wilcox Mansion were sold at auction – and soon after the Lawrence family bought the place to serve as a home to its restaurant.
Eventually the Kathryn Lawrence Tea Room became the Kathryn Lawrence Dining Room when the Senate Bar was added, but from 1939 to 1959, Buffalonians were eating and drinking in the Ansley Wilcox and White Rooms, which were decorated to remind patrons of the history that had happened there.
6. One of Buffalo’s most revered historical sites nearly became a parking lot.
After the restaurant closed, Benderson Development bought the property and announced that a wrecking firm had been contracted to clear the property to make way for a parking lot.
Congressman Thaddeus Dulski worked to find money in Washington to save the building, but a unanimous vote of the house was needed – there were three no votes. Dulski’s efforts were bolstered by Buffalo native Leo O’Brien, a congressman from Albany.
“One of the things that bother me is that we don’t recognize history soon enough,” O’Brien told reporters as the efforts to save the Wilcox Mansion faltered. “About 50 years from now, a great many people are to cuss us as they realize that the Wilcox House is under a parking lot or hot dog stand.”
Luckily, it never came to cussing.
Liberty Bank eventually bought the building, and worked to raise money in the community until it made sense for the National Parks System to take over the building as a national historic space.
Victor Hugo’s was a mainstay restaurant at Delaware Avenue and Edward Street for a generation, from 1945 to 1977.
The family of owner Hugo DiGiulio was involved the management of many of Buffalo’s night spots and hotels, including the attached Victor Hugo Hotel, DiGiulio’s Club 31 on Johnson Park and the Hotel Buffalo – which stood at the corner of Washington and Swan streets, now filled by Coca-Cola Field.
In addition to a restaurant and hotel, the property was also home to a furrier in 1942.
When the home was built for grain elevator owner Charles Sternberg in 1869, the Second Empire style with mansard roof lines and tall bay windows was popular in Buffalo and around the country.
The Trubee family bought the property in the 1880s, building an annex in what is now the Buffalo Club’s parking lot. It was a mixed-use space with offices, apartments and hotel rooms. The hotel service was widely advertised during the Pan-American Exposition in 1901, which was a quick streetcar ride up Delaware Avenue away.
When Victor Hugo’s closed and the building became vacant after more than a century in the service of the Trubee and DiGiulio families, the building spent the late ’70s, ’80s and ’90s either up for sale or in the midst of lengthy renovation projects.
In 2001, after $2.7 million in further renovations, The Mansion on Delaware Avenue opened in the space. Known for its butler service and Land Rover transportation, the consistently nationally rated hotel’s website says “The Mansion on Delaware Avenue is a AAA Four Diamond Award-winning historic boutique luxury hotel that combines Second Empire architecture with modern elegance and comforts.”
Providing very discreet lodging, The Mansion has become the Buffalo address for movie stars and billionaires visiting Buffalo.
It’s almost difficult to imagine Western New York and especially a Western New York snowfall without the phrase that Jimmy Griffin joked would wind up on his tombstone. But while Buffalonians have likely been drinking their way through snowstorms for as long as there have been people here, we’ve only been “staying inside and grabbing a six-pack” for the 32 years since a blizzard descended on Buffalo in January 1985.
It had been only been eight years since the Blizzard of ’77 and Western New Yorkers were still a little jumpy with memories of being stranded, 12-foot drifts, and people freezing to death in their cars.
Heading into a late January weekend in 1985, forecasters were calling for as much snow as the city had seen since ’77. Ultimately, three feet of snow fell in three days, but the weekend timing was actually perfect. One of the lessons learned in ’77 was to keep people off the roads so you could keep the roads cleared.
One would expect the mayor to be out front with snow emergency communications, but during the Blizzard of ’85, Mayor James D. Griffin was Buffalo’s acting Streets Commissioner, coordinating snow removal efforts from City Hall and the heavy equipment depot at Broadway Barns.
Why? The Common Council had repeatedly rejected the mayor’s nomination of Joseph Scinta as Streets Commissioner. After the fifth rejection, in November 1984, Griffin told Buffalonians to “blame their councilmen when the snow was piling up” on city streets.
When the blizzard hit two months later, Griffin was determined to show Buffalonians what he was doing personally to get the streets cleared. He even rode a few shifts on the plows. The mayor issued a driving ban and ordered the police to enforce it. But he also encouraged people to stay home and watch the 49ers and Dolphins in the Super Bowl that weekend, maybe with beverage in hand.
Police enforce a driving ban during the Blizzard of ’85. Buffalo News archives
“Stay inside, grab a six-pack, and watch a good football game,” Mayor Griffin was caught saying on a Channel 7 camera. “Have a six-pack handy so you can enjoy yourself. Don’t take this too seriously.”
The consensus was that most Buffalonians liked seeing Don Shula, Dan Marino and the Dolphins beat up in the Super Bowl, and most liked the job Griffin did in beating back the Blizzard of ’85. The News later gave Griffin high marks for his handling of the blizzard and its aftermath, saying he did “a good job” acting as his own commissioner.
1985 was a mayoral election year, and the Blizzard of ’85 was a central campaign issue. Common Council President and primary opponent George Arthur questioned the city’s preparedness and overall plan for snow fighting.
“When you get 45 inches of snow, I challenge anyone to come up with a plan that works,” said Griffin.
Others attacked the six-pack advice as “unbecoming a mayor.” Griffin would have none of it.
As quoted by Brian Meyer and David Breslawski in their 1985 book “The World According to Griffin,” the mayor hammered back with, “I’m proud of the statement. You get a blizzard here in Buffalo, you have to get off the street. I’ll probably use it again. I don’t see anything wrong with it. It was a humorous statement.”
Griffin was elected to a third term in 1985 and a fourth in 1989.
Did we grab six packs?
But did people heed Mayor Griffin’s advice, that first time it was suggested Western New York grab some beers and relax?
Delaware Avenue, The Blizzard of 1985. Buffalo News archives
In the days following the Blizzard of 1985, The News checked in with a handful of stores to see how they fared.
The Tops Market at 2226 Delaware Ave. – today the spot is Big Lots— and the 7-Eleven on Sheridan Drive—now Romeo & Juliet’s Bakery & Café—reported big runs on junk food and beer as Western New Yorkers apparently dutifully followed the mayor’s advice.
A decade after leaving the White House, Harry S. Truman spent 38 hours in Buffalo during the spring of 1962.
The highlight of the trip was an honorary doctorate from Canisius College. During an address at the Jesuit college, Truman spoke for 30 minutes, mostly about the Cold War.
“You can make agreements with them but the record shows it won’t do any good. I wouldn’t trust them across the street even if I could see them,” said Truman. He also said that Josef Stalin, who died in 1953, and the Soviets lied to him personally at least 32 times.
He also touched on “the race for space” and continued nuclear development and testing, saying all were vital, likening the work being done to that of Thomas Edison.
“If he had stopped then, we’d be sitting around here in candlelight,” Truman told about 300 students in attendance.
Truman told reporters that he’d never had so many intelligent questions asked of him as he did by the students of Canisius. “And I have been to Yale, Harvard, Columbia and my own University of Missouri,” he said as he smiled.
Among the tough questions was one about the famous letter “threatening the manhood” of a Washington Post music critic who had panned his daughter’s singing. It was written on White House stationery.
“Both my wife and daughter wept after that. They’d said that I ruined them. But in the 1948 election there wasn’t a man with a daughter who didn’t vote for me. It isn’t what I did it for, but that’s the way it worked out.”
That was near the end of the student questions. “I stood there an hour answering their questions and when they got too tough, I quit,” said Truman.
Mark Twain came to Buffalo as a swashbuckling, young writer in 1869. He bought a piece of the Buffalo Express newspaper, hoping to have a home base from which he could travel to speaking engagements and write a book about his adventures out West.
As a single man, he lived in boarding house in a space now swallowed up by Coca-Cola Field. Shortly into his 20-month stay in Buffalo, he married Olivia Langdon, the daughter of a wealthy Elmira coal magnate.
While it was Twain’s intention to continue to live the boarding-house life he had come to enjoy, it wasn’t to be. It wasn’t high society of the New England or New York City variety, but there were wealth and good people among what we’d today call Buffalo’s upper-middle class — plenty of those just like one of Buffalo’s other prominent citizens, Grover Cleveland.
Twain called what happened next “a first-class swindle.”
After marrying in Elmira, instead of returning to an action-filled neighborhood close to the canal and all that was happening in Buffalo, Twain and his bride were introduced to their new home on Buffalo’s most stylish and posh address — Delaware.
The resplendent mansion was fully furnished with the finest things and a staff of servants. One newsboy remembers the sign tacked to the front door of 472 Delaware — “Mark Twain lives here, his father-in-law pays the rent.”
Though the home was far more elegant that what he was used to, Twain might have become more comfortable in the accoutrements of Buffalo’s (and one of the country’s) finest avenues had tragedy not struck at least three times.
His wife Olivia was heartbroken when her father — and Twain’s financial backer — died after a long illness. One of Olivia’s close friends became ill while visiting her in Buffalo and died in the house. Then after the premature birth and death of their first child, the couple moved to Elmira, then to the family’s longtime home in Hartford, Conn.
The home remained a residence until it became the office of Dr. Alfred Bayliss in 1905. In 1956, after the brick had been painted white and the building was chopped up into apartments and offices, owners submitted a plan to take down the house and replace it with a $150,000 office building.
Roland Benzow, an attorney who had also served on Buffalo’s Common Council, proposed an effort to buy the building and turn it into a Twain manuscript museum.
The Buffalo Mark Twain Society, headed by Benzow, had several ideas and offers over the next handful of years trying to save the landmark — but flames of a never-determined origin sealed the structure’s fate.
When a three-alarm blaze broke out in the house on Feb. 7, 1963, newspaper headlines blared that the Mark Twain House was “saved from flames” in a “close call,” but after seven years of effort to raise money to save the house, Buffalo’s Twain mansion was torn down. The site became a parking lot for the Cloister restaurant, which opened in the home’s still-intact carriage house and a small structure built after the fire where the carriage house once connected to the main house. After the Cloister closed, the building was home to Buffalo Business First in 1989.
Buffalo Business First moved downtown, the 1960s building was taken down in 2012, and a new $4.5 million mixed-use building named “Twain Tower” was built on the site. The home’s original carriage house still stands.