DOWNTOWN HISTORY

Click here​ to open the sign posted on the SE corner of Main and Mohawk Streets.

Surviving Crisis Part I: The Burning of Buffalo

Click to enlarge. Home (right) and tavern (middle) constructed by Gamliel and Margaret St. John, as drawn by their son, LeGrand St. John, from his childhood memories after the burning of Buffalo.
Click to enlarge. Seth Grosvenor and Cornel Cyrenius Chapin at Main and Niagara Streets attempting to stop the British assault with an old cannon. Painting by Raymond Massy, courtesy of the Buffalo History Museum
Click to enlarge. Margaret St. John
Click to enlarge. LeGrand St. John illustrated his Uncle Asaph Bemis’s wild ride out of Buffalo.
Click to enlarge. LeGrand St. John’s memory of fleeing villagers at the Lake Erie shore, south of Buffalo, with piles of baggage left behind as they lightened their loads to cross over the lake ice.
Click to enlarge. All that remained of the other homes and buildings were chimneys reaching out of stone basements.

Early settlers Gamaliel and Margaret St. John moved to a farm near the Mill Creek spring in Williamsville in 1807. They purchased Lot 53 in the village of Buffalo, now 460-470 Main Street between Court and Mohawk Streets. The St. Johns wanted to open their own tavern and build a new family home for their eleven children. They built a wood frame home in 1810 from wood harvested at their Williamsville farm. In 1812, the youngest son, Cyrus St. John, died of dysentery. Gamaliel and son Elijah were active in the War of 1812 Buffalo militia, as were many village residents. They drowned June 6, 1813, attempting to resupply American troops stationed across the Niagara River, leaving Margaret to raise the surviving children alone.

As the War of 1812 continued into the winter of 1813, New York Militia Brigadier General George McClure had not endeared himself to the villagers in Buffalo. There was no lodging available for soldiers, so they were billeted in almost every home in the village. General McClure failed to control looting in the village by his troops and made needless enemies from draconian management of the American controlled Niagara area of Canada. Far worse, he tempted British retaliation by burning without warning the defenseless Village of Newark (now Niagara-on-the-Lake) on December 10, 1813. After retreating to Buffalo, McClure’s situation became untenable. Without respect and support from the volunteer militia or the inhabitants, he was replaced by Major General Amos Hall on December 26. General McClure took the remaining ammunition and regular troops, leaving Buffalo almost defenseless.

General Amos Hall had to make do with the 2,000 raw militia troops left in Buffalo. On December 29, 1813, a battle erupted in Black Rock between the British and Hall’s militia. The Buffalo militia saw little hope in their advance and began to flee to warn their families. In the early morning on December 30, after hearing fighting throughout the night, people began gathering their possessions and ran for their lives. While British soldiers made their way toward Buffalo down Niagara Street, their Native American allies crossed through the forest and entered the village from the north near Tupper Street. Villagers heading northward were cut off and had to turn around. In a short time, many of the homes were empty except for two on Main Street, the homes of Sarah Lovejoy and of Margaret St. John. These two women lived across from one another on Main Street and both remained when Buffalo was attacked.

As the villagers fled, Margaret’s son-in-law, Asaph Bemis, came to help. Bemis and his wife Aurelia, Margaret’s daughter, filled the wagon with six of the younger St. John children but couldn’t fit the rest. This left Margaret and two daughters behind. Bemis planned to return to bring them to safety. He headed north on Main toward Williamsville but saw the British Native allies, who had crossed through the woods to Main Street, emerge at Tupper. Bemis turned the wagon, heading south past the St. John house once again. He shouted to the frightened women that he would be back soon for the remaining family members. Bemis was unable to make the second trip to rescue Margaret and her daughters. The three women were left in their home fearing for their lives.

Margaret and her two daughters tried to lay low, hoping to be left alone. By this point, much of Buffalo and Black Rock was in ashes and Native Americans allied with the British were plundering the remaining homes. Margaret was peering out the window to see if there was any sign of Asaph Bemis. She caught sight of Sarah Lovejoy across the street, defending her belongings. Mrs. Lovejoy refused to give up, protecting her home with a knife. Margaret watched Sarah Lovejoy’s fight end quickly with a tomahawk to her head. The Native American warrior then set the house on fire. Sarah Lovejoy’s son, Henry, was safe. Sarah told him to run before the invasion, but thought that as a woman not involved with the militia, she would be safe to stay in her home.

Margaret St. John wanted to save Sarah Lovejoy’s body. When the roads were clear, the three St. John women moved her to the street and put out the fire before it grew too big. Margaret and her daughters placed the body back in the house with the hope that there would be a proper burial when the family returned. This did not happen; the next day the house was burned.

Margaret’s worry for her daughters grew after the incident with Sarah Lovejoy. She saw a British officer on the street, who asked why they stayed. Margaret explained they had no choice but to stay in their home or die out in the cold. She begged the officer to prevent danger to her or her family. She pleaded that as a widow with many children to look after, she needed her home to care for her family. The British officer was not sure he could make such a promise. He left telling Margaret he would ask headquarters about her request. On her return, Margaret saw she may have been too late. There were Native American women in her home, searching the trunks packed for their escape. A visitor came to the door, a translator from British headquarters, to tell the Native American women to leave the house alone and to return the St. John possessions.

A few days after the second round of fires, an elderly man rushed into the St. John home while they were preparing breakfast. He came to warn the family that the British and ally warriors were coming back to Buffalo to pillage the rest of the homes and burn them down. One of the daughters and the old man ran toward Mohawk Street in hopes they would survive. Margaret St. John and her other daughter decided to stay behind in house. She ran to her window with a white table cloth, which she began to wave out the window as a sign of surrender. The daughter on the run was caught by a Native American, who painted the girl’s face and then rode away. The daughter returned home to her mother, laughing at her frightening encounter but feeling terrible she left her family behind. She was afraid to take off the face paint in case other warriors came by. She hoped they would see the face paint and leave the family alone. Sometime later, a British officer came by, reassured the family of their safety, and instructed the daughter to wash off the paint because it was not needed.

After New Year’s Day, the villagers began to return. They were met with the view of a destroyed village, with only the St. John home, the stone jail, a barn frame, and Rees Blacksmith Shop still standing. All that remained of the other homes and buildings were chimneys reaching out of stone basements. ​ Having no other option, many spent the rest of the cold winter living in their basements, with only temporary roofs to keep out the weather. The remaining members of the St. John family made their way home, and the family was reunited. The St. John family offered food and clothes to other refugees. Margaret St. John lost the tavern—her family’s livelihood—but still had her home.

Works Cited:

  • Fosdick, M. C. (1925). When Buffalo was Young: Some Incidents of Local History Retold for Young People, Buffalo. 
  • Society, B. H. (1906). Papers relating to the burning of Buffalo, and to the Niagara frontier prior to and during the war of 1812. Ithaca: Cornell University Press. http://ebooks.library.cornell.edu.gate.lib.buffalo.edu/cgi/t/text/text-idx?c=nys;cc=nys;view=toc;subview=short;idno=nys273
  • Smith, H. P. (Henry Perry) (1884). History of the City of Buffalo and Erie County, Vol. 2. Niagara University Library. http://cdm16694.contentdm.oclc.org/cdm/ref/collection/VVN001/id/134
  • Recollections of the "Burning of Buffalo and Events in the History of the Family of Gamaliel and Margaret St. John",By their daughter, Mrs. Jonathan Sidway.  Published in the Buffalo Historical Society Publications, Vol. 16
  • WNY Heritage Presents the War of 1812 Volume 2 – 1813: The Border in flames; Reaping the Whirlwind: Fire and Sword on the Niagara, 1813 by Donald E. Graves
  • Memorial testimony from Inhabitants residing in the Niagara Frontier to the Senate and House of Representatives, 1817, Library of Congress.

Surviving Crisis Part II: ​ Threat of Suburban Development

Click here​ for a PDF with the information below and additional graphics. ​


Buffalo was booming in the post war period. The population hit the half million mark in 1930 and continued to increase up to 1950 when Buffalo’s population peaked at 580,132. WWII veterans returned home to start careers and families. Federal programs devised to revive the depressed housing industry and to support veterans with low cost GI mortgages made it cheaper to own a home than to rent, and these programs gave preference to single-family detached homes in residential subdivisions. Buffalo’s population boom began to wane and suburban development took off. Downtown leaders noticed the downturn and called for action to save the Downtown core.

In 1958, the Greater Buffalo Business Core Sub-Committee of the Buffalo City Planning Commission released a report documenting “several well known facts” including:

  • “The trend…toward the suburbs is draining the life blood of the city…”
  • “The suburbs with its shopping plazas are creating a dire threat to the highest real estate values within the city, namely the Downtown business and shopping area”.

The City and the business community, represented by the Greater Buffalo Development Foundation, launched several planning efforts over the next decade to evaluate the Downtown business climate and recommend solutions that they thought would improve shopping and office opportunities, and retain Downtown’s share in the regional market.

Click to enlarge. 1958.

1958-61: Remake Downtown in the style of a shopping plaza

Starting with recognition of Downtown’s strengths, such as transportation access, the presence of employees, and the breadth of goods available for sale, recommendations were made to remake Downtown in the new style preferred by suburban residents. The general theme was to rebuild downtown to closer resemble a suburban shopping plaza.

1958 - Greater Downtown Business Core by Buffalo City Planning Commission. “A preliminary study to evaluate the future possibilities of the Downtown Business Core.”

Recommendations:

  1. Build a perimeter expressway looping around Downtown. The Skyway and I 190 were already under construction. An Elm-Oak diffuser, West-side expressway and Virginia-Carolina Thruway interchange were recommended.
  2. Separate and consolidate Downtown land uses so that retail uses can be closer together and more attractive to shoppers. Serve uses with adequate parking
  3. Large, multi-block parcels must be made available for development through public and private cooperation

1960 – Buffalo Downtown Study, a Report to The City of Buffalo and the Greater Buffalo Development Foundation by Arthur D. Little, Inc.

Recommendations:

  1. Build the Court Franklin Parking Ramp
  2. Change the Downtown’s physical appearance to improve its image with new building facades and development.
  3. Private redevelopment on the West side of Main between the Liberty Bank Building and Shelton Square
    a. Close Eagle between Main and Pearl
    b. Create an in-town shopping plaza on Main Street
    c. Create a public plaza on Pearl

1961 - Proposed Renewal Plan for the Downtown Core, by Frank A Sedita, Mayor

Recommendations:

  1. Widen peripheral streets to increase capacity around Downtown
  2. Convert Genesee, Court, Niagara and portions of North and South Division, Broadway and William into pedestrian only plazas
  3. Divert Pearl between Genesee and Niagara to the west to increase the size of the development parcels fronting on Main Street. ​ ​
Click to enlarge. 1960.

1960-71 - New Neighborhood – Good bye to Shelton Square

Following the call to action of the previous year, the City, County, State, Greater Buffalo Development Foundation, and private businesses cooperated to acquire properties, and adjust the historic Ellicott Street plan to create large multi-block development parcels, remaking the Shelton Square to Court Street section of Downtown. Projects that were built included:

  1. 1964 - Construction of the Pearl Franklin Parking Ramp
  2. 1966 - Construction of M&T Plaza 3.
  3. 1969- 70 - Main Place Mall and Tower were completed
  4. 1969 - North and South Division were reconfigured to create the Church Street Arterial
  5. 1971 – The County built the Erie County Rath Building
Click to enlarge. 1966.

1966 - Downtown North Plan

Once plans were well underway to remake the Shelton Square area, priorities turned to the shabbiness and vacancy of the northern part of Downtown. Continuing the theme of redesigning Downtown to better resemble a suburban shopping area, an ambitious plan was developed to build an enclosed office, hotel and shopping mall between Delaware and Main Streets between Huron and Johnson Park and St. Michaels Street. This plan convinced a local developer to take a chance on purchasing the bankrupt Genesee Building from out of town interests.

A new east-west parkway would link Johnson Park to St. Michael’s Street. Chippewa Street and the buildings fronting on either side would be demolished for new connected buildings offering the large floor plates, ample parking and the weather protection available in the suburbs. The W.T. Grant Store at Huron and the domed Buffalo Savings Bank Building would be linked in to the new structure but their Main Street frontage would serve as the entry plaza to the new mall. It was suggested that although not necessary, converting Main Street from Church to Huron into a pedestrian plaza would be “the logical and attractive way to extend the amenity of the Downtown North project and Main Place to the existing stores on Main Street.” Pearl and Franklin Streets would remain open but would tunnel under the development. ​

Click to enlarge. 1971.

1971 Regional Center Plan​ – A Comprehensive Plan for Downtown Buffalo, New York, by Wallace, McHarg, Roberts & Todd​ ​ ​

The Plan projected increased regional population growth with Downtown securing a third of the office and retail expansion if three conditions were met:

  1. Secure a Buffalo/Amherst high speed transit line
  2. Construct an all-weather Mall on Main Street between Genesee and Church Streets
  3. Increase the parking supply by 1000 new spaces per year for twenty years

After several years of investigation the enclosed Mall on Main Street project was canceled due to the high cost of operating the facility, and the difficulty of fighting any fires in Main Street buildings. ​

Click to enlarge. 1990.

1990-2015

The Metro Rail system opened in 1985 and the Buffalo Place pedestrian-transit mall was completed in 1986. While the years of construction contributed to many small businesses leaving Main Street, pedestrian activity and optimism surged when Main Street was completed. By the late 1990s, the Downtown community noticed changing trends.

Growth of national big-box stores and retail buying groups made local store prospects difficult. One by one our local retail chains went out of business or were acquired by out of town owners less committed to Main Street. By 1999, the Downtown community was aware that loss of automobile traffic on Main Street was related to storefronts remaining vacant. The City of Buffalo, NFTA and Buffalo Place started working on a design solution and environmental approval for returning automobile traffic to Main Street.

A design concept for automobiles sharing the trackbed with Metro Rail was completed in 2002. Federal environmental compliance was achieved in 2008. Construction in the Theatre District began in late 2012. The Theatre District was opened to automobile traffic in December 2014. Fountain Plaza and 500 Block construction started in late 2013 and opened to traffic in December of 2015.

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

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

Photography by Mike Shriver
at
Buffalo Photo Blog.

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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.

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Send Buffalo Place a Message