Buffalo’s Entertainment Architect – The Legacy of Michael Shea

Buffalo Architecture PhotographyMichael Shea grew up in Buffalo’s First Ward in the late 1800s. He worked as a laborer on the docks and also as an ironworker. His first business venture was a saloon, which he opened in The Ward in 1884. Shea was working man from a working family and understood the importance of distractions from the daily grind. His saloon served as a means of not only providing a distraction, but also as a way for him to begin saving for his bigger dream; providing exciting entertainment possibilities for the working people of Buffalo.

Shea borrowed ideas that were already popular in Europe, but that had little presence here in the United States. He used his savings to open Shea’s Music Hall in 1892. Entertainers from around the world worked their craft to the delight of their new Buffalo fans. His love for entertaining the common man, materialized in the opening of Shea’s Garden Theatre, Buffalo’s first vaudeville theater in 1898. This was one of the first vaudeville houses in the country and Shea was becoming known as a pioneer in the entertainment industry.

Always having a feel of the public pulse, Shea seemed to be a step ahead when the winds of change were blowing thru the industry. As vaudeville started its decline, Shea opened his Hippodrome Theatre in 1914 and began showing motion pictures. This led to opening of a group of theaters in Buffalo and Toronto. Of those theaters, the North Park and The Riviera are still operating today.

Despite his worldwide reputation as an innovator and pioneer in the entertainment industry, Shea was not satisfied. He wanted to create an everlasting monument to the industry that was his life. Hence, he solicited the help of architects George and C.W. Rapp and together, with an initial budget of $1,000,000, they embarked upon a re-creation of the baroque opera houses that were popular in Europe in the 16th and 17th centuries. No expense was spared and in 1926, The Buffalo opened on Main Street. The huge theater would hold up to 4,000 patrons. It was very successful and profitable until the Great Depression hit in 1929. Shea struggled to hold on, losing a considerable fortune in doing so.

Shea didn’t make it through the Depression, dying in 1934 at the age of 75. However, as one of the world’s greatest entertainers, who always believed things would turn around, he left his mark of an industry and a city that still stands today.

It didn’t always look that rosy for what we now know as Shea’s Buffalo, or for that matter for The Riviera or the North Park Theatre. The same working people that Shea built these fine building for, stepped in and decided that they needed to be saved. The preservation efforts, the millions of dollars raised and the same commitment to provide excellent entertainment to the people of Western New York, lives on today in those three remaining theaters.

Michael Shea’s vision is alive and well, and looks to continue to thrive for years to come.

Ellsworth Milton Statler: A visionary who started his empire in Buffalo, New York


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I fully intended to make my next entry solely about the Statler Hotel, which is currently owned and operated on Niagara Square, by Buffalo businessman, Mark Croce, under the Statler City banner, www.statlercity.com.

Upon researching the structure, I became fascinated with its founder, E.M. Statler. The man better know for his chain of hotels, was really instrumental in bringing service and comfort into the hospitality business. Let’s go back to the turn of the 19th century.

Buffalo, NY was a major city with a promising future.  Ellsworth Statler was a young man with a dream. He was born near Gettysburg, Pa. in 1863. He was one of eleven children, and grew up in poverty.  His first job came at age 9. When he was 13 he hounded the manager of the McClure House Hotel in Wheeling, WV everyday for a job. Eventually his persistence paid off and he was allowed to substitute for an absent bellboy.  By the time he was 17, he was the night manager, the bookkeeper and was leasing the billiard room at the hotel. He had devoted his efforts to excel and his customers appreciated the service he provided. His empire expanded to include a bowling alley, which housed a barbershop, a cigar shop and a small eatery.

The excellent service he provided resulted in an invitation to go fishing, in Canada, with several of his customers in 1896. The fishing trip took the travelers thru Buffalo, NY. A construction project caught Statler’s eye. In the middle of downtown Buffalo, the Ellicott Square Building was in the later stages of being completed. Learning that the basement space was un-leased, Statler pursued a lease knowing that this basement would be the foundation of his dream.

He, despite being from out of town, was able to forge several relationships and obtain adequate financing to start his venture, Statler’s Restaurant in Ellicott Square. Let’s just say, it didn’t go over very well. Several months into his new venture, he was facing the threat of a looming bankruptcy. Statler convinced his backers to give him some more time to right the ship.  His layout and service innovations provided some efficiency’s.  He examined every facet of his operation, cut costs were he could and changed his menu.  All said and done, he still didn’t have enough customers. Most Buffalo businessmen went home for lunch; he needed to figure out a way to entice them to stay downtown.

Statler knew that an upcoming Veteran encampment was an opportunity he needed to capitalize on.  He hired boys to hand out flyers at all the train terminals; he planned on filling his 500-seat restaurant.  Statler made several thousand dollars on that three-day event and learned the power of advertising.  He soon used his promotional prowess towards the Buffalo community and was able to convince them to patronize the restaurant more frequently.  His efforts allowed him to build a nest egg of over $60,000 in capital by 1901.  He learned thru experience, he tinkered, he worked long hours and he never veered from his principal of giving his customers service and value.

In 1901, Buffalo hosted the Pan-American Exposition.  Statler built a 2000+ room, temporary hotel on the exposition grounds. It was the largest hotel in Buffalo and Statler heavily advertised it outside of Buffalo, it was called Statler’s Hotel!  He put up his life savings and borrowed heavily to complete the project, a hotel with a nine-month life span! The weather was bad, the attendance was poor but Statler turned a small profit.

The enhancements he made to his operation, impressed his customers and the business community alike. The lessons he had learned were beginning to pay off. In 1904, St. Louis hosted the Louisiana Purchase Exposition. Statler built another temporary hotel, called the Inside Inn, this time with almost 2300 rooms.  This venture was a huge success and his profits financed his first permanent hotel, the 300-room Statler Hotel in Buffalo, NY.  Built between 1905-08, by the architecture firm of Esenwein and Johnson, the hotel was located at the corner of Swan and Washington. Amenities included a private bathroom complete with hot and cold water.  All rooms had wall light switches, closet lights, electric lamps and a radio; all firsts in the hotel industry.

This Hotel was renamed the Hotel Buffalo once the Statler Hotel was completed in it’s present location on Niagara Square in 1923. Statler opened hotels in Cleveland, Detroit, St. Louis, New York, Buffalo and Boston before his death in 1928.  His family continued to operate the Statler empire, opening six additional Statlers in cities across America, and did so until it’s sale to Conrad Hilton (Hilton Hotels) in 1954 for what was at the time, the largest real estate transaction ever… $111,000,000.00.  Not bad for a poor kid from Pennsylvania.

So you see, the story behind the Statler, which we feature in our Buffalo gallery, really is a story about how hard work and the belief in one’s dream, turned into an American success story.  The Statler is in good hands.  Much like Ellsworth Statler, Mark Croce is working on his dream of a fully renovated and revitalized Statler City complex.  He is systematically restoring sections of the hotel with a goal of it becoming fully functional in the near future.

We feature several photos of the Statler, including one that was taken prior to the new court house being constructed across the street from the Statler.  Enjoy and feel free to pass along Ellsworth’s inspiring story.

Buffalo Savings Bank Still Gaining Interest


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Amidst the cranes and hope for a new Buffalo, sits wonders created in the past that still shine today. The Buffalo Savings Bank is one of them. This building was completed in 1901 under the guidance of the Green & Wicks architectural firm, centrally located in downtown Buffalo, NY at the intersections of Main, Huron and Genesee Streets. This golden domed building became the center of this area’s banking industry.

Millard Fillmore was among the founding trustees for the bank. Green & Wicks modeled the structure in the classical revival style incorporating the dome, among many other distinct features. Because of the unusual lot size, the building was constructed on three street fronts. The arches and columns, along with it’s significant clock in a carved stone frame, are often over shadowed by the gold leaf exterior dome.

Currently the home of M&T Bank, Buffalo Savings Bank (which eventually became Gold Dome Bank), went insolvent in 1991. In those days if you didn’t run your business properly, you went out of business, no bail outs for them!

There are so many details to this structure, you owe yourself the pleasure of stopping in for a look around! We feature our take on the building in our Buffalo NY gallery, Page 3 and page 5.  You can access High Peaks here: www.highpeaksphotography.com. Enjoy!

History on the Buffalo History Museum


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In 1901, the national historic landmark that is known today as the Buffalo History Museum (formally know as the Buffalo and Erie County Historical Society Museum) was constructed—the only permanent building of the Pan-American Exposition.

Its architect George Cary incorporated the neoclassical revival style seen throughout the structure. The south portico, or covered porch supported by columns, is a ¾ scale version of the Parthenon in Athens, Greece.

After the exposition ended, the Buffalo Historical Society, originally formed in 1862 by President Millard Fillmore and some friends, took over the site.

Today, the museum serves as our keepers of WNY historical artifacts, photographs and books. You can visit them online at www.bechs.org. Self guided and docent-led tour info is available, along with a host of activities taking place at the site in the upcoming months.

H.H. Richardson Olmstead Complex being brought back to life in Buffalo


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In late January of this year, another in a series of reuse campaigns was announced in Buffalo, NY. In a joint effort, utilizing state support and private investment, about one third of the massive 480,000 square foot H.H. Richardson complex will be recreated as a boutique hotel, event and conference space and the Buffalo Architecture Center.

The $56.4 million dollar renovation represents yet another re-birth for a great architectural gem from our past. For years this complex has sat empty, many fearing the wrecking ball was the only thing in it’s future. We are now anticipating a three-year project that will bring this campus back to life!

Revitalizing this gem will add another feather in a hat full of distinctive buildings. The addition of the Buffalo Architecture Center, will highlight the ability to bring this 19th century masterpiece, currently a National Historic Landmark, into 21st century relevance.

Here’s hoping this will add additional oomph to our tourism efforts to promote our architecture.  Click Here to get an overview of this great project. Of course, we’d encourage you to visit High Peaks Photography for pictures of this and other Buffalo gems.

The Electric Tower lights the way for the Pan-Am Exposition in Buffalo


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Electric Tower Buffalo, NYThe Great Pan-American Exposition was held in Buffalo in 1901. The most prominent building in the exposition was the Electric Tower.  It rose 391 feet above the fairgrounds and was equipped with 44,000 eight watt light bulbs. As the expo was a celebration of electricity, the power harnessed from nearby Niagara Falls was used to light up the 240,000 bulbs throughout the exposition grounds. A powerful searchlight was mounted at the top of the Electric Tower, which allowed it to be seen from Niagara Falls and Canada.  The grounds, which were a 30 minute trip from downtown Buffalo, were thought to be a long trip, and perhaps, too far for many locals to visit, however the distance did not prove to be a deterrent, and thousands visited.

So what happened to the Electric Tower and why is there a different tower standing in downtown Buffalo today? The majority of the buildings constructed for the exposition were not intended to be permanent. Most were wooden framed, covered with chicken wire and plaster.  The NYS Building was the only permanent structure in the Pan-American Exposition and is now home to the Buffalo and Erie County Historical Society on Nottingham Terrace near Delaware Park.

The General Electric Tower – a prominent feature in the Buffalo skyline today – was designed by James A. Johnson and built in 1912. It was inspired by the electric tower at the Pan-American Exposition.  Iskalo Development purchased the building in 2004 and have since restored it into Class A business space. Every year on 12/31 at midnight, the Electric Tower is host to the 2nd largest New Year’s Eve Ball Drop (only to Times Square in NYC), in the country. The ball drop, complete with a fireworks extravaganza, is always an amazing finale to another year in WNY.  It brings hope of good things to come for all in the New Year!

Buffalo City Hall – The Gateway to Buffalo’s Past, Present and Future


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ImageConstructed between September of 1929 and November of 1931, this impressive 32 story building was built in Niagara Square to be the new “city center”.

Its design was intended to reflect and be a reminder of Buffalo’s past, it’s present and it’s future.  At a cost of nearly $7,000,000,000, this was, at the time, the most costly city center in the country.

The art deco design by Dietel & Wade presents a balanced appeal, allowing for a modern look that blends nicely with the other classical architecture of its neighbors. The John W. Cowper Co. built City Hall. Its interior and exterior reflect the importance of our rich Native American heritage, our position as a gateway to Canada and the Great Lakes and our industrial and agricultural importance at that time.

The building, by all standards and considerations of the time was right sized.  It was capable of housing all of the departments needed to address the needs of a growing metropolis. Today, this same building, still dedicated to providing services to its citizens, is the largest by any city in our country.

You haven’t lived unless you taken a trip to the Observation Deck, some 360 feet above street level.  From this vantage point one can take in the entire city and much of Southern Ontario.

Weekday tours are free and are conducted between noon and 1 p.m.

Check out www.preservationbuffalloniagara.org for more Buffalo Tour info.

Buffalo Central Terminal: Preserving its past is ever present


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Buffalo Central Terminal was a great example of art deco architecture when it was completed in 1929. The main concourse is 225 feet long, 66 feet wide and 58.5 feet tall. The attached office tower is 15 stories in height or 271 feet.  It’s history includes many scene’s of the separation and re-uniting of WNY families and their loved ones.

Many were off to war an on their way to NYC and beyond. Between 1941 and 1944 railroads carried 98% of all military personnel. Between 1040 and 1945, revenue for passenger miles increased from 23 billion miles to 95 billion! Unfortunately, the reason for their success would also contribute to their downfall. The rationing which occurred on all fronts, gas, machinery, etc.; led to an overwhelming demand for rail services.

The railroads could not  accommodate the demand, their equipment could not withstand the heavy usage and their inability to replace equipment because of the war effort, led to many unhappy customers. Once the war ended and people had their cars back, passenger rail service began it’s quick and a unavoidable decent.

NY Central Railroad was the original owner of the terminal.  Penn Central Railroad took over in 1968 to be followed by Amtrak in 1971. The terminal ceased operations in 1979. In 1997 the Central Terminal Restoration Corp. took possession and began addressing many years of neglect and disrepair.

In 2009 a master plan emerged. The effort to preserve and enhance the physical plant is in place. Over 20 fundraising activities are hosted each year. Dyngus Day and Oktoberfest among the most popular. Plans allow for events, even weddings. There are thoughts of a future rail museum, commerce and light rail/high speed rail expansion in the future. 

Upcoming October events include Halloween Ghost Hunts and Candlelight tours.

Visit www.buffalocentralterminal.org for more event info.  Oh yeah, and buy the damn picture! (you can get it and other Buffalo, NY architecture prints at HighPeaksPhotography.com)

St. Gerard’s Roman Catholic Church


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Located on E. Delavan Avenue on Buffalo’s urban east side, this magnificent Renaissance Revival style church was completed in 1911. The architects were Schmill and Gould. Constructed of Indiana limestone, the church held it’s final mass on January 1, 2008.

We’ve touched on re-use in recent blogs, this one takes the cake! Mary Our Queen parish in Norcross, Georgia; (outside Atlanta) is currently raising money, estimated at $16 million dollars, to completely deconstruct the church, ship it to Georgia and reassemble it there. The parish intends on using this for their church of the future. Efforts have been underway for the past four years to make this happen.

You can find out more about this unique re-use project by visiting the following links:


The Dulski Federal Building/Avant Building – A giant recycling project!

ImageConstructed in 1971, the Thaddeus J. Dulski Building was the home to over 50 Federal Government agencies in Buffalo, NY. It was officially decommissioned in 2006. A major pipe bursting led to asbestos and mold contamination. Like many older buildings, rehabilitation would require asbestos abatement.

The Federal government decided that the building wasn’t worth the cost of this remedy. A joint venture was formed between Uniland Development and Acquest Development. They purchased the building in 2007 for $6.1 million. They intended to convert this building, located at the corner of Delaware Ave. and Huron St., into a mix of office, hotel and residential space. Rehab involved the total gutting of this building down to the steel beams and concrete floors. The project was completed in 2009 and is recognized as the largest recycling project in WNY. It’s $83 million price tag will be partially offset by the sale of the most expensive group of condominiums in Buffalo.

A recent sale of $1.6 million was recorded in March. See the before, during and after photos by using these links:

Before: http://archives.buffalorising.com/upload/2007/10/dulski11.JPG
During: http://www.flickr.com/photos/22380768@N07/2628061434/
After: http://www.highpeaksphotography.com/gallery/buffalo_gallery/images/100_7452_ex.jpg