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.