DOWNTOWN HISTORY

Creation of a New Downtown Neighborhood: Fountain Plaza

Pioneer Beginnings

The west side of Main between Huron and Chippewa Streets was settled in the first decade after Joseph Ellicott’s 1804 survey. Elias Ransom, following his brother Asa (later of Clarence) to Buffalo before 1800, bought lots at the corner of Huron Street in 1811, where he later kept a tavern. St Paul’s Church was organized in that tavern in February of 1817. 

Dr. Ebenezer Johnson arrived in Buffalo in 1810 at the age of 23. He competed with Buffalo’s first physician, Dr. Cyrenious Chapin, reducing the cost of medical care in the young village of Buffalo. Johnson purchased inner lot 63 in 1814, just south of Chippewa Street, and built a white wooden home with a well-regarded garden. He later became a successful merchant, was instrumental in dredging Buffalo’s harbor, and in 1832, served as the first mayor of the City of Buffalo.

Reuben Heacock came to Buffalo in 1811 and was a business partner with store keeper Abel Grosvenor. He purchased inner lot 62 in 1813 and is credited with expanding the canal system from the Erie Canal to the Hydraulics neighborhood in 1827.

Asa Fox was a silversmith, watch maker and jeweler. Arriving in 1810, he purchased inner lot 61 just in time to see his home burned by the British with the village of Buffalo in 1813.

Click here for a video on the Holland Land Company’s ventures in Buffalo.

Map of the village of Buffalo, before the 1813 fire. It was copied by Charles North from an 1813 sketch by merchant Juba Storrs. For more information from Buffalo & Erie County Library on the conservation of the map, please click here.
Map of Buffalo Village Inner lots as surveyed by Joseph Ellicott. From the History of Buffalo and Erie County Vol. 2, page 31, H. Perry Smith. Click here to view full image.

By the 1830s, William Crawford ran a store at the corner of Chippewa and Main. David M. Day, publisher of Buffalo’s second newspaper and a printer, lived next door. Dr. Ebenezer Johnson had moved to Delaware Avenue where he created Johnson Park. His Main Street lot became home to North Presbyterian Church in 1847. Part of Elias Ransom’s lot became the Universalist Church of the Messiah in 1866. By 1872, the five original lots laid out by Joseph Ellicott were broken into over 25 parcels, with commercial uses beginning to remake this residential neighborhood of two to four story brick buildings.

The Universalist Church of the Messiah at 554 Main had a short, interesting life. After four years of operation it burned and was rebuilt. Twenty years later, the congregation relocated and leased the church building to the F. C. Martin & Company. It was used for bicycle manufacturing and sales.

Click to enlarge. The Universalist Church of the Messiah at 554 Main; F. C. Martin Bicycle Manufacturing Co., courtesy of the Buffalo History Museum.
Click to enlarge. 554 Main; Interior. F. C. Martin Bicycle Manufacturing Co, courtesy of the Buffalo History Museum.

Flint & Kent

The Flint & Kent store began when Benjamin Fitch opened a dry goods store in 1832. This small business was located at 288 Main Street. As time went on, Fitch decided it was time to let the business grow. He wanted to invite partners to join the company. In 1836, the store was called Fitch, Marvin and Company. In 1856 William B. Flint joined the company. Then in 1865, Henry M. Kent joined the ever-growing company. By the time Kent joined the business, Benjamin Fitch had retired. This meant the store was now called Flint, Kent, & Stone. Stone would later sell to Howard. This last partner did not last long due to illness and he sold his shares to the remaining owners, Flint and Kent. The company became known as Flint & Kent and was located at 261 Main Street.

Flint and Kent began to grow rapidly. They outgrew their headquarters at 261 Main Street and began planning to build a bigger store at 554 Main St in 1897. This was the location of the old Universalist Church for the Messiah which was built in 1866, caught fire in 1870 and was rebuilt, and the congregation relocated to a new church building in 1892. The Universalist Church leased the structure to the bike company H.C. Martin & Co in 1894. Flint and Kent decided the location of the church would make the perfect spot for the new headquarters. They tore down the church and enlisted one of Buffalo’s top architects to design the new store.

Click to enlarge. Flint and Kent, Courtesy of the Buffalo History Museum

The accomplished architect was Kent’s own son, Edward Kent. He designed many prominent buildings in Buffalo. Some of his works include the Otto Store, which became the Theatre Place Building; the original Temple Beth Zion, Unitarian Universalist Church and many residences throughout the city. Edward Kent was also known for forming the Buffalo Society of Architects. This was the first of its kind in the city. Sadly, Edward Kent met his demise after a two-month holiday abroad. Edward Kent was making his way home on the Titanic and he was not one of the lucky ones to survive the sinking.

The original success of Flint & Kent was in the dry goods business, but this changed as the company grew in recognition. The store became known for “ready-to-wear clothing for all occasions.” The year 1932 proved to be a big year for Flint & Kent. Their headquarters had four floors of merchandise. They also had over 46 branch department stores, all larger than the original store. The year 1932 was also the 100th anniversary since the company began. Lastly, 1932 was the year Flint and Kent sold the business to Charles Jack Hann, whose father owned Sattler’s. Winthrop Kent remained as the store manager after the purchase. No major changes were made to company operations. The store appearance was updated to appear more modern.

Hann sold the store in 1956 to the upscale clothing store, Sample Inc., but they occupied the store only until 1959. Sample Inc. sold to Huron Stores Inc. which went bankrupt after a short time. The Downtown store was closed and sold in 1964. In 1965 the first floor was leased out to William T. Grant so his store could expand their downtown location. The building which housed Flint & Kent was knocked down to create Fountain Plaza.

Click to enlarge. William Henry White, founder of Buffalo Optical Company

Buffalo Optical Company

Buffalo Optical Company opened in 1893. Its founder, William Henry White, was the first major league baseball player to wear glasses. During his 10-year pitching career, Will White won 229 games and lost 166 with a batting average of .580. No one has broken his record of starting and finishing 75 games in 1879. After retiring due to arm trouble, White studied optics in Corning, NY, and opened Buffalo Optical on Chippewa Street. By 1895, Buffalo Optical was on Main Street. As one of Buffalo’s longest-lived companies, it became a tenant in the Hippodrome Building, was relocated during Buffalo Savings Bank’s 1984 expansion, and is now located on Delaware Avenue.

The Hippodrome

The Hippodrome Theater was the first movie house in the city of Buffalo, part of the theater chain owned by Michael Shea. The Hippodrome was designed by Leon H. Lempert Jr., opening in 1914. The Hippodrome, named for the ancient Greek stadiums used for horse and chariot races, entertained the people of Buffalo just as its namesake entertained the ancient Greeks. It had a 2,800-seat capacity with one movie screen.

In 1951, the Hippodrome was renamed Center Theatre and was renovated by new owner Michael J. DeAngelis. Suburban theaters were becoming more competitive and DeAngelis wanted the Hippodrome to have a modern look. The original marquee was taken down and replaced. The foyer was also updated.

In the 1960s, Center Theatre had rights to almost all Warner Brothers/Seven Arts/Hammer Films movies. Regardless, Center Theatre closed down in 1962. The building itself was demolished in 1983 for construction of Fountain Plaza.

Thank you to the Buffalo History Museum for making photo images available for use on this project:

Click to enlarge. Hippodrome construction
Click to enlarge. Night View, 1917
Click to enlarge. Hippodrome exterior
Click to enlarge. F. H. Woolworth Co. as storefront tenant
Click to enlarge. Hippodrome Building prior to Fountain Plaza construction, approximately 1980.
Click to enlarge. From left to right, Gutmann’s, Center Theatre

Fountain Plaza – Buffalo’s Rockefeller Center

Buffalo in the 1970s was reeling from losses of jobs, population and businesses. Northern Downtown grew shabby as tenants relocated and key properties fell into city hands due to tax foreclosure. The city struggled to devise a new identity; plans came together later in the decade. The long pursuit of rapid transit was finally answered with the Urban Mass Transportation Administration’s commitment to fund a demonstration project for light rail rapid transit on Main Street in 1976, and a funding agreement in 1978. A blueprint to create a sustainable Theatre District was published in 1978. Downtown retail between Court and Genesee Streets remained a community asset, but the Genesee to Chippewa blocks of Main were an issue—stores were going dark, and new tenants wouldn’t commit to the declining neighborhood. A tipping point was reached when Buffalo Savings Bank considered building new office space out of Downtown.

With the help of federal tools to assist depressed cities, Buffalo developed a plan for a new Main Genesee neighborhood. With congressional assistance, they secured a commitment from Hyatt Corporation to build a new Hyatt Hotel at Genesee Street. Buffalo Savings Bank announced plans for a new headquarters building adjacent to their original gold domed building in 1979. Liberty Bank announced in 1980 their willingness to build a new building in the Main Genesee neighborhood, if the city could agree to rebuild the blocks between Genesee and Chippewa.

The city reached out to the community for guidance in development of four new buildings, a large urban plaza and a new parking ramp. Mayor James Griffin invited Graphic Controls CEO William M. E. Clarkson to chair a Main-Genesee Task Group (MGTG) to represent the City, to work with the five architects and their clients, and to recommend building site plans and designs that would make the most of this rare opportunity to create a new Downtown neighborhood. Clarkson agreed and brought on contractor Henry Balling, Downtown leader and attorney Robert D. Fernbach, Acting Dean of the UB School of Architecture Alfred Price, artist Virginia Tillou, and NFTA chairman Allen Dekdebrun to serve as task group members. Staffed by successive Community Development Commissioners Larry Quinn, Jim Militello, Fred Fadel and Larry Rubin, from 1980 to 1991, the MGTG influenced the architects and clients to build projects not just for their own use, but to function as a unit, and to be a new place for downtown activity that would make the community proud.

Clarkson and the City team wanted a space that would be an outdoor home for Downtown with a year-round identity. Goals were established for a public ice rink, community Christmas tree, major fountain/artwork element, and a public plaza all connected by second floor pedestrian bridges. Design work had progressed on the four private buildings, but the Task Group convinced the owners to submit their designs to wind tunnel testing to be sure they would lessen the most difficult weather condition in downtown—wind rushing off Lake Erie. Design adjustments were made to assure the building entries, public plazas, and ice rink would be visitor-friendly, even in January.

The city held a competition to name the $100 million Main-Genesee development; Fountain Plaza was the winning entry. The Task Group proceeded to design a public plaza and outlined a site plan for an additional building to complete the Chippewa side of the block, but a developer did not immediately come forward. The city cleared the site in 1983, planting grass for a temporary lawn until the climate was right for additional development. In 1987, Key Bank announced plans to develop Key Center. They searched for an experienced developer and selected CitiCom of Toronto. Although Key Bank secured sufficient tenant interest for one tower, the city was able to support construction of the shell for a second planned tower, allowing design and construction of the public plaza and ice rink to proceed at the same time.

Clarkson and the task group worked with the city to design the plaza, rink and fountain, raising public and private funds for their construction. The fountain was constructed with limited funds and sweat-equity with the director of the Buffalo Arts Commission David More, Stuart Dawson of Sasaki Associates, designers of the Fountain Plaza public space, and Clarkson personally selecting individual granite blocks from remnants at the quarry in Minnesota and arranging for them to be shipped to Buffalo by rail. The skating rink is named Rotary Rink, in honor of the Rotary Club of Buffalo, who helped make the project a reality with their contribution. Fountain Plaza, Rotary Rink, and Key Center opened to the public in 1991. The second tower at Key Center was built out in 2000, fully completing the Fountain Plaza project.

Thank you to William M. E. Clarkson, Fred Fadel, Jim Militello, Peter Zaleski and Larry Rubin for their assistance collecting this information about the creation of Fountain Plaza. Thank you to the City of Buffalo Office of Strategic Planning for making these images available for this project.

Views Before Fountain Plaza Development

Click to enlarge. Southwest corner of Chippewa and Main Streets
Click to enlarge. West side of Main Street, mid-block
Click to enlarge. Northwest corner of Huron and Main Streets

Project Organization

Click any photo to enlarge.

Early Urban Design Sketches

Early designs assumed demolition of the Genesee Building as part of Hyatt Hotel development, and possible demolition of the 500 Block of Main Street.

The city worked to include a public ice rink and 2nd floor walkway system into Fountain Plaza. The public spaces were designed to work with adjacent public spaces.

Click to enlarge.
Click to enlarge.

Construction

Click to enlarge. Main Street Metro Rail and Main-Genesee construction 1982.
Click to enlarge. Norstar Building (now Bank of America) is open, 1983.
Click to enlarge. The “Northblock” is cleared for future development by the City, as a commitment to complete the project.
Click to enlarge. Main Street Metro Rail and Main-Genesee construction 1982.
Click to enlarge. The “Northblock” is planted for park space, awaiting future development. First home of the Thursday at the Square concert series, 1985.

Announcement of Key Center Development by Key Bank, 1987

Brian Brisbin of Brisbin, Brook, Beynon Architects on the top, and Peter Zaleski of Key Bank on the bottom. Images provided by Peter Zaleski.

Click to enlarge. Peter Zaleski of Key Bank. Image provided by Peter Zaleski.
Click to enlarge. Construction of the fountain and reflecting pool/ ice rink, 1991. Courtesy City of Buffalo Office of Strategic Planning.
Click to enlarge. Key Bank model
Click to enlarge. Brian Brisbin of Brisbin, Brook, Beynon Architects. Image provided by Peter Zaleski.

Contact Us

We appreciate your questions and comments about Buffalo Place and Downtown Buffalo. If we can be of any assistance, please send us a message.

Buffalo Place 671 Main Street, Buffalo, NY 14203 (716) 856-3150

Photography by Mike Shriver at Buffalo Photo Blog.

Follow Us

Email Newsletter

Send Buffalo Place a Message

Contact Us

We appreciate your questions and comments about Buffalo Place and Downtown Buffalo. If we can be of any assistance, please send us a message.

Buffalo Place 671 Main Street, Buffalo, NY 14203 (716) 856-3150

Photography by Mike Shriver at Buffalo Photo Blog.

Follow Us

Email Newsletter

Send Buffalo Place a Message