For more than 60 years Deco was a name Buffalonians relied upon for quick inexpensive food and what they billed as “Buffalo’s best cup of coffee.”
Toward the close of World War I, Gregory Deck opened one of Buffalo’s first hot dog stands with $6.50 and an old kitchen table from his mother’s attic. By the close of World War II, there were 35 Deco Restaurants in Buffalo and the chain had become a relied-upon pit stop fueling Western New York’s “Rosie the Riveters” and other war production workers.
One early profile called Deck “the King of the hot dog fad.” When he opened that first dog parlor to help pay for college in 1918, hot dog stands were seen as a momentary trend, fueled by millions of people who—thanks to Henry Ford– now had cars for the first time and needed someplace cheap to go.
Six years into the hot dog business, Deco had seven locations around Buffalo plus a central distribution warehouse and office. A 1924 profile in the Buffalo Times captured some of the excitement the city had over Deco.
“From a little soft drink and sandwich booth established by college boys has grown one of the most popular and most extensively patronized systems of refreshment stands to be found in any city in the country. Reference, of course, is made to the ‘Deco’ stands.”
Unlike many of Deco’s competitors, which crept up alongside the road with little concern for health or sanitation, Deco’s countermen wore bright white uniforms in sanitary porcelain-walled shacks, which also featured electric lights and modern refrigeration.
One of the early selling points of the Deco hot dog was that it was never touched by human hands. Neither through the cooking process or when being handed to a customer—which was always done on a white napkin.
“White, clean, unique, these ‘Deco’ stands are located in all parts of the city,” the Times read in 1924, “and their situation is known to practically every motorist in the community. It has been well said that you can always tell a ‘Deco’ stand because it is clean and because it is busy. ‘Deco’ stands cater especially to motorists, and a group of cars from Pierces and Rolls Royces down to Fords is always found clustered about any or all of the seven stands in Buffalo.”
After spending much of the 1920s buying out competitors and building new stores, there were nearly 50 Deco locations just before The Great Depression ate away – but didn’t shatter – the business.
When the sandwich and coffee trade picked up as World War II approached, the old stands began giving way to small counter and booth service Deco restaurants. There were 37 Deco locations when the family sold the business to SportService in 1961. The last Deco Restaurant closed in 1979.
If you’re visiting the City of Tonawanda these days, taking a nice ride from, say, Gateway Harbor – the home of Canal Fest and summertime concerts – over to Old Man River for a hot dog and an ice cream, you might not realize the trip includes passage through what was once one of Western New York’s most infamous red light districts.
The area that’s now home to a Tops Market and the police station was once known as “Goose Island,” a small man-made island formed when the Erie Canal cut off a triangle of land from the rest of the city bounded on the other sides by Tonawanda Creek and the Niagara River.
It’s no surprise that Tonawanda’s expansive lumber industry eventually made use of the island, but initially it was developed with residences for more well-to-do Tonawandans.
Tonawanda Mayor Christ S. Warren was born on Goose Island in 1879, when the Tonawandas were the world’s largest freshwater lumber port. As a boy, he helped his grandfather operate a grocery store which catered to the canalers.
“Many a morning I got up at 3 o’clock to drive a team and a covered wagon to the Buffalo market for supplies,” an 81-year-old Warren remembered in a 1960 interview.
But times changed. There were several destructive fires there in the early 1890s. In 1899, speculators bought up much of Goose Island as it was named as a possible site for a series of docks for lumber and grain ships – but those docks were ultimately built on Buffalo’s Squaw Island.
Whether it was a direct result of that crazed land buying gone bust or not, over the next 20 years, Goose Island became known as a “notorious district,” made up of “disorderly houses.”
“Goose Island has had a shady reputation for years,” reported the Buffalo Times, “and had come to be well-known throughout this section of the country because of the escapades credited to many persons visiting it.”
The infamous area was commonly referenced in divorce proceedings of the time. Mrs. Lumley was granted a divorce after her husband was fingered as “one of three boon fellows” joined by “buxom women companions” at a “wild party” on Goose Island in 1925.
It was around the same time that Erie County Sheriff Frank A. Tyler called the conditions on Goose Island “downright immoral,” and threatened that if Tonawanda Police wouldn’t clean up the place, he’d send deputies to “remove this stigma from Erie County.”
After a late night visit to the district Tyler told the Buffalo Courier, “I have positive evidence that women are soliciting openly in the streets.” He went on to quote letters from parents who said their sons and daughters were “ruined” by visits to the district.
Despite “more than 20 houses of ill-repute operating with two to four women attached to each house,” Goose Island hotel owner Philip Perew said he’d been living on the island for years and saw no problems with conditions there.
“Everybody knows what Goose Island is for,” said Perew, who lived on Sweeney Street.
“A survey of Goose Island yesterday by a reporter revealed there are two streets in which nearly every house contains two or three women wearing gaudy dresses and having highly painted faces,” reported the Buffalo Courier. “The women make no secret of their business and laugh at reports of the impending cleanup.”
Aside from the vice, “the free flow of intoxicating liquor” was also a problem there during the height of Prohibition. In some quarters, Goose Island was known as “the wettest spot in New York State.” A Buffalo man was arrested in 1925 driving a truck with 30 barrels of beer on River Road. Often that beer didn’t make it too far– plant operators on “the island” had a difficult time keeping employees sober. As many as 500 people a night were visiting the Goose Island “resorts.”
The drinking and prostitution both were open secrets. That lead to the 1936 arrest and trial of a sheriff’s deputy accused of trying to extort money from Perew and other “Goose Island resort operators.”
Tighter policing through the 1930s saw the decline of the area as a prostitution center, as arrest rosters showed people with nicknames like “Tiger Lilly” and “Tony the Wop.” The filling in of the canal along Niagara Street during that decade also reconnected the island to the rest of the city.
Urban renewal efforts of the 1960s further wiped any remnants of Goose Island off the map. Planners bragged efforts in a 45-acre parcel downtown, where all the wooden frame buildings – many dating back to the 1860s – were to be replaced with modern brick and concrete structures.
“When the project is completed in January 1968,” predicted Urban Renewal Perry A. Wilson, “Tonawanda will be one of the most modern and beautiful cities in Western New York.”
With that work, the old Goose Island – and years of illicit history in the City of Tonawanda – was plowed under.
Though the following was written during one of the earlier crackdowns that didn’t quite last, this 1918 reflection in the Buffalo Times sums up the end of Goose Island well.
“The passing of the island as a ‘red light district’ with painted women thus marks the elimination of a spot that for a long time has been a thorn in the side of respectable residents of Tonawanda.”
There was a time when just about every one of Buffalo’s 462 election districts had its own voting booth.
In the weeks leading up to any election, city trucks would start hauling the green sheds around the city and dropping them off at the hundreds of predetermined intersections, often on the street, and causing a traffic hazard.
The green painted wooden booths were adorned with an American flag and a tin chimney for the cast-iron stove inside. They were already decades-old when a teamster was paid $10 a day, driving two horses, to set out the booths throughout city neighborhoods in 1928.
Although there were still Buffalonians voting in the tiny shacks as late as 1970, Board of Elections officials had been looking for alternatives 40 years earlier.
“We would like to replace them with fire houses, police stations, branch libraries and other public buildings as voting places, to get away from cluttering up neighborhoods with the unsightly booths and to obviate the possibility of traffic accidents, by not having to place the heavy booths on street corners where there is danger of automobiles, in traffic congestions, colliding with them,” said one Election Board member in 1928, who also said similar proposals had been given the cold shoulder in the past.
By the late 1950s, there were regular traffic accidents with the often poorly placed booths, which had also worn down over 30 years of moving back and forth. There was another groundswell of enthusiasm for a different, more modern way to operate the city’s polling places, but the driving force behind keeping the old green sheds around was cost.
In 1958, more than 300 voting sheds were still set out each Election Day. City officials estimated the cost of hauling and maintaining the booths at about $20 for each polling place, but a study showed that number was closer to $50 per booth.
That $50 was still cheaper, though, than the average $250 to $350 it was estimated it would cost to keep other municipal buildings such as police stations and fire houses open for voters.
With the fate of the old portable booths momentarily secured, County Supervisor Gus Franczyk sponsored a resolution investigating the heating of the booths. Old-fashioned pot-bellied coal stoves were the only source of heat on cold November Tuesdays.
Once again, the upgrade of the heating of the booths was abandoned over price concerns. The average cost to keep voters warm with the coal stoves was $5.41 per year, as opposed to $440 for new electric heaters.
The number of portable booths was down to 278 by 1967 when the Catholic Diocese of Buffalo offered space in its 68 parochial schools for voting. The Courier-Express heartily endorsed a plan set forth by then-Councilman Gus Franczyk to take the church up on the offer.
“Mainly it seems in order to rid the city of the obnoxious, obsolete booths by phasing them out as fast as possible. They have become costly obstacles to civic progress,” read the editorial page of the Courier.
In May 1969, the city began selling off the “antique voting booths,” stipulating that they should be given free to nonprofit organizations willing to move them. Among the early takers were a boys’ club and a Little League for equipment storage.
The election booth sheds were stored on city-owned lots all over the city, but a large number of them were kept on Appenheimer Avenue. The Dr. Lydia T. Wright School was eventually built on the spot that, for decades, was the home of voting booths for the 363 days a year when there wasn’t any voting going on.
Last week’s Torn-Down Tuesday looked at SUNY Buffalo State art professor D.K. Winebrenner’s uppity takedown of fast food architecture.
This week, we look back at the time Winebrenner — who was also the Courier-Express art critic — talked about “visual pollution” hurting Buffalo’s image and postulated that the city’s too many billboards and signs were creating psychological illness in people.
“While no practical inquest can establish the causes for a diseased spirit with the same objectivity as physicians can pinpoint the reasons for a damaged lung (or a dead fish), what happens to us aesthetically can neutralize or even destroy our visual sensitivities,” wrote Winebrenner.
The story was accompanied by the two photos on this page, both showing signs and buildings that gave way for the Main Place Mall and tower.
“Any given sign may be harmless in itself, and may even be well designed, but the clutter and confusion of crowded, screaming advertisements, each seeking to be heard above all others — results in no one being heard effectively,” wrote Winebrenner, who was excited for future development without signs.
“As we greet the dawn of a new day in downtown Buffalo, let us take one last, quick look at the overhead jungle as it appeared in August 1964, being replaced by the new buildings in Main Place. May this long be remembered as the spot where a greater, more beautiful Buffalo was born.”
Winebrenner couldn’t have known that the new development was ushering in an era spanning several generations where 150 years of life and vitality were stripped from Main Street, signs and all.
Courier-Express art critic and SUNY Buffalo State art professor D.K. Winebrenner had a weekly column in the Sunday paper where he opined not just on art, but on the state of aesthetic in Buffalo.
In a December 1967 piece, Winebrenner railed against the “commercial invasion” of Allentown.
“The Chairman of artistic rehabilitation in the area, artist Virginia Tillou, has expressed alarm that stands, restaurants and taverns along this dignified thoroughfare may result in a ‘honky-tonk’ appearance and destroy the efforts of the Allentown Association to upgrade the surrounding area,” wrote Winebrenner.
Red flags went up when Burger Chef opened in the spot now occupied by Tim Hortons on Delaware Avenue near Allen Street. The fear was that Allentown would begin to fill with “garish establishments” like those found in suburbia – especially around Sheridan Drive and Niagara Falls Boulevard.
Winebrenner wrote a scathing commentary on what is now, 50 years later, ubiquitous fast-food architecture.
“There is a new kind of pop architecture that is as audacious (and as annoying) as pop art. It is characterized by a general indifference toward standards and tastes of the past, borrows from dada and art nouveau (past and present), and flaunts architectural precepts (past and present) without batting an eye.
“Referred to casually as ‘hot dog stands,’ these culinary emporiums often specialize in less prosaic edibles such as hamburgers and other sandwiches, doughnuts and coffee, or the gastronomical delight of fried chicken. Some of these pop stands even sell pop.
“They come in many sizes, all small; and in many shapes, all boxes; but with imaginative appendages that conceal their humble concrete block structures, such as sweeping gable roofs that meet the ground, or more sophisticated modified mansards that mask nonexistent garrets. Often they are crowned with exotic spires and cupolas.
“Gone are the simple structures of local entrepreneurs, (albeit covered with a motley assortment of signs provided by distributors of ginger ale and cola) and in their place are standardized replicas of uniform designs which extol corporate images of national chains from coast to coast.
“Fortified with the advice of exterior decorators, the universally uniform trade marts come in bright colors and patterns that stand out against the Cape Cod homes in the suburbs and the pathetic patina of old city buildings, giving an aura of great importance to small structures surrounded by ‘black on black’ mats of black top. The effect is heightened when lighted colors, spotlights and neon tubes contrast with enveloping night.”
Winebrenner, who was one of the founders of the Charles Burchfield Center at SUNY Buffalo State, died in 1975 at the age of 66. While he might have been pleased that his dissertation on garbage fast-food architecture was found and shared 52 years after it was first written, he probably wouldn’t have been pleased that the driving reason behind sharing the story was to share the wonderful photos of late ’60s eateries that accompanied the original piece.
A 46-year era came to an end in 1968 as Laube’s Cafeteria – first opened in 1922 – closed as business nearly ground to a halt with the building of the Main Place Mall across the street and demolition started for the Rath Building just to the south.
Charles Laube started the restaurant empire, which briefly spread to Rochester, in 1907 after moving to Buffalo from Germany. His first place was called “My Lunch,” a 32-seat diner at 33 Niagara St. When the larger building opened up around the corner at Pearl and West Eagle, Laube hopped at the chance and created one of Buffalo’s most beloved dining spots through the 1930s and 1940s.
The Family Court Building now stands where generations of Buffalonians ate affordable meals at Laube’s Cafeteria. (Buffalo News archives)
Diners catching one last meal before the neon and grills went cold remembered how novel the idea of balcony seating was when the place first opened.
Laube Cafeterias. (Buffalo Stories archives)
“Being taken to Laube’s for lunch before a matinee at the Buffalo Theater was a treat – maybe the best part about coming downtown,” remembered one Buffalonian.
At its peak, 2,000 people a day ate at Laube’s Cafeteria, where the well-known slogan was “famous for food.” Laube’s was also famous for quality and high standards, only giving into the overwhelming savings of paper napkins over cloth napkins within the last few years of operation.
The fate of the Laube’s building was sealed within months of the restaurant’s closure. The City of Buffalo bought the property, and leveled it with hopes of a companion development to Main Place Mall.
The Laube family still operated a cafeteria inside the YMCA as well as a full-service restaurant inside the Lord Amherst Hotel at Main and Kensington in Snyder.
By then, the family’s best remembered restaurant, Laube’s Old Spain, located next door to Shea’s Buffalo Theatre in downtown Buffalo, had already been closed. The City of Buffalo assumed ownership of the Shea’s Buffalo and Laube’s Old Spain building for back taxes at the same auction in 1975.
Laube’s Old Spain, was located on Main Street next to Shea’s Buffalo. Later the home of Swiss Chalet, it is now the Shea’s Smith Theatre. (Buffalo Stories archives)
“One gateway to Riverside” was the title of this photo when it was published in The News in 1971.
Buffalo News archives
“The photo (is) in the immediate vicinity of Amherst and Niagara Sts., where traffic from the Niagara section of the Thruway makes one of its exits into the Riverside-Black Rock area.
“It IS an old area. Some of its settlers were there before the turn of the century. They were property proud. But the community’s pride has suffered in recent years. Blight has made incursions there too.”
This old tavern was built as a “store block and row of flats” by Frederick Lenz in 1909. A tavern since at least 1919, it was known through the years as Charles Haas’ saloon, Bob & Ginger’s Saloon, the River-Rock Grill, and Millitello’s, among other names.
The building’s location — only yards from the watery international border — made it a hot spot during Prohibition years. In 1929, Augusta Lindforth was arrested behind the bar while tending four half-barrels of beer.
The spot where this building stood — southwest corner of Niagara and Amherst — has been a parking lot for decades now.
The subject of the photo is clearly the women marching in a World War II era Memorial Day parade, but happily captured along with the ladies paying homage to our nation’s war dead is Buffalo’s original Howard Johnson’s Restaurant.
With wartime sugar rationing in effect, it was written, “At Howard Johnson’s the waitress will bring one lump; two if you insist, and carefully oversees dishing out the bulk sugar for iced tea or coffee.” (Buffalo News archives)
Generations of Americans remember the homestyle dinners and 28-flavor ice cream selection at the more than 1,000 Howard Johnson’s orange-roofed locations around the country.
Buffalo’s most popular HoJo’s was this one at Delaware and North starting around 1941. The restaurant was a part of the sometimes-strange development of Delaware Avenue. Working class families piled out of wood-paneled, American-made station wagons right across the street from the home of News Publisher and Buffalo aristocrat Edward Butler.
The restaurant was remodeled in 1960, and remained a familiar landmark for the next three decades.
Buffalo Stories archives
Walgreens purchased what was Buffalo’s last Howard Johnson’s location and built a drug store at the site on Delaware and North in 1994.
When Matt Horey died in 1926, he was remembered in The News as “well-known in Williamsville and surrounding areas, having had a place of business at the corner of Main and Cayuga Streets.” The business, depending on which description you believe, was either a hall, a hotel, a saloon or a tavern.
This photo appeared in The News in 1949, courtesy of the Horey family.
Aside from a tavern, Horey’s was also a regular polling place around the turn of the 20th century.
The building was torn down in 1923 to make way for a bank building, which was a Liberty Bank branch for many years.
Until the lifeless and drab Main Place Mall and Tower replaced its character-filled old buildings, billboards and neon signs, Shelton Square was more or less Buffalo’s version of Times Square.
Buffalo News archives
It was the city’s crossroads; it was bright and vibrant. It was the place where people transferred streetcars and buses — just about every line in the city came through. Standing in Shelton Square, you were a few blocks from the Crystal Beach Boat in one direction, a few blocks from the Town Casino the other way. It was the middle of the action that was Buffalo.
If you remember it, it was a special place.
It was filled with character and characters. There was Domenic Battaglia, who ran the newsstand shown at Niagara and Main starting in 1929 “with his oversized cap, news apron and halfchewed cigar.” His News obituary called him “a goodnatured curmudgeon who was out daily in all kinds of weather to sell newspapers and magazines. He never wore gloves even on the coldest days and often heckled his customers who did.”
Battaglia’s newsstand is in front of the Harvey & Carey Drug store at Main and Niagara.
He moved to Main and Church when the entire Niagara Street was eliminated from the map, now underneath the Main Place Tower.
In the very foreground of the photo is the top of the Palace Burlesk sign. George Kunz, whose beautifully crafted memories of days gone by used to appear in The News, wrote “the Palace exuded life. Pedestrians passing during showtime heard raucous, robust sounds of extravagant fun. The orchestra blared, drums rumbled and laughter, a rollicking outrageous laughter, tumbled out the doors onto Main Street.”
“Such was the theater’s fame that for years the Palace was used as a focus for any downtown geographical instructions,” wrote Kunz in 1993. “’You know where the Palace is . . . well, you turn right there.’ Everybody remembered the lively marquee with the dancing girl figures kicking endlessly to the rhythm of blinking lights.”
Right next door to the Palace, disc jockey Tom Clay — known as “Guy King” on WWOL Radio – ushered in the rock ‘n’ roll era in Buffalo on July 3, 1955, when he climbed out of the station’s window and onto the giant WWOL billboard.
There, he urged the teens in his audience to drive to Shelton Square and honk their horns if they wanted to hear Bill Haley and The Comets’ “Rock Around the Clock.” They did in huge numbers, and he kept playing “Rock Around the Clock” until the fire department showed up with a ladder truck to help police get him off the billboard. After climbing back in the station window, he was arrested and charged with disorderly conduct for the stunt.
On the pages of The News, Janice Okun wrote about Hughes Restaurant, “the dingy old coffee shop on Shelton Square where you sat on high stools at even higher marble tables and injected fat into yourself in the form of Snappy Cheese Sandwiches, while drinking coffee from a clunky mug carefully. Because if you dropped the mug, it would break a toe.”
Minnie Feiner’s had high tables, too. And there was Minnie Messina’s cafeteria through the ’50s and ’60s.
In 1965, most of the buildings in this photo started to come down. In December, it was announced the new $20 million complex being built in its place was given a name “big enough for such a big project — Main Place.”
This block of Niagara Street, between Main and Pearl, is now covered by the Main Place Tower. City Hall (upper left) and the McKinley Monument were visible from Main Street at Shelton Square until 1968.
At the time, editorial page writers panned the name, saying it wasn’t distinctive and was “anything but appealing.”
One writer said, “It’s a terrible name. It grates on one’s ears. … It certainly wasn’t given too much thought.”
In hindsight, though, it’s probably better that the name many wanted to keep — Shelton Square — was retired. It makes it easier to give a name to the memories.
A 1980s view of Main Street, with the Main Place Mall and Tower on the right and Woolworth’s and AM&A’s on the left.