DOWNTOWN HISTORY

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

The Place to Shop

Beginnings

Lot 56, now site of the Belesario, and Ricotta & Visco Law Firm, was divided into five parcels by the Holland Land Company and sold between 1816 and 1818. One lot was purchased by Gilman Folsom, the first butcher in Buffalo and owner of five other village lots purchased between 1808 and 1830. Seth Grosvenor, a merchant who was active in defending Buffalo in the War of 1812 and in rebuilding after the fire, invested in another parcel in 1818. Although he moved to New York City in 1815, Grosvenor remembered Buffalo and bequeathed funds to build and endow a public library. The Seth Grosvenor Book and Material Endowment Fund still assists the Buffalo and Erie County Public Library with their purchases of books and materials.

Lot 22, at the southwest corner of Mohawk, was developed by James Miller, a grocer who built the Miller Block building in 1822 and purchased the lot from the Holland Land Company in 1824.

Main Street Is the Marketplace

From the 1830s, these blocks of Main Street were bustling with commercial and retail activity. Starting with small dry-goods stores sharing storefront space, the blocks became home to Buffalo’s department stores, chain stores, and specialty shops, filling the sidewalks with crowds from Buffalo and the region. This continued into the 1970s, when suburban growth and national retail trends made it harder for Buffalo’s hometown retailers to remain relevant. This difficult period coincided with Metro Rail construction and closing Main Street to automobile traffic, resulting in many vacant buildings. Vacant retail stores began to find new life as commercial office space and then became the start of a new residential neighborhood.

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.

Changing View of Main and Mohawk Street Marketplace

Click to enlarge. 1822, at the southwest corner of Main and Mohawk, a home built by James “Quaker” Miller. Sale of the lot was registered with the Holland Land Company in 1824. Image courtesy of the Buffalo History Museum.
Click to enlarge. In 1865, the old Miller home became part of the Miller Block building. From The Picture Book of Earlier Buffalo, Frank H. Severance, digitized by Google from Cornell University Library
Click to enlarge. A northward-looking view of Main Street from Mohawk sometime between 1881 and 1893 from Buffalo Illustrated. Reproduction by permission of the Buffalo and Erie County Public Library. The Genesee Hotel at the end of the block was built by 1881. 496-8 Main, on the left side, shows a retail storefront.
Click to enlarge. The 1893 Buffalo City Directory showed that William J. Nairn moved to 625 Main Street and that Union Bank was now located at 496-8 Main.
Click to enlarge. A 1893 view of Main Street north from Mohawk, courtesy of the Buffalo History Museum. The Genesee Hotel in the back, right side, was built in 1881. Union Bank, in the storefront of 596-8 Main Street, was incorporated in May 1881 but not listed in the Buffalo City Directory until 1893. It was visible in photos of the 1901 Labor Day parade
Click to enlarge. 1901 Labor Day Parade, by Detroit Publishing Company from the Library of Congress
Click to enlarge. Inset from 1901 Labor Day Parade above, showing the block from Mohawk to Genesee Street. Union Bank is the first floor tenant at 496-8 Main Street. Upper floor residential space is being converted to commercial with Berst Hats on the third floor.
Click to enlarge. Note how the front of 496-8 Main Street has new, commercial-storefront style windows. L.L. Berger’s, which opened in 1905 at 500 Main, second building to the right of Mohawk Street, is in the photo, with a projecting sign. Hens & Kelly, on the right side of Mohawk Street, expanded its store to include the whole Miller Block building at Main and Mohawk Streets, the Mohawk Block buildings on Mohawk Street and the Morgan and Snow properties on Mohawk and Pearl Streets. Reconstruction into one store was started in 1905, while the store remained in operation, and was completed by 1910. A similar view of the Hens & Kelly building and sign, below, was dated 1914 in Palmers Views of Buffalo. Hens and Kelly rebuilt a six-story building with a steel frame structure between 1922 and 1927.
Click to enlarge. A 1914 view of Hens & Kelly expansion of 1910 from Palmer’s Views of Buffalo, 1914, posted at the Library of Congress
Click to enlarge. The Genesee Building, on the right, was completed in 1923. The Victor Furniture Store started building a new building on Genesee Street between Pearl and the Genesee Building in 1927, which would have been visible from this view, dating this photo to between 1923 and 1927. They moved into the new building in 1929. Photo courtesy of the Buffalo History Museum.
Click to enlarge. Dated by construction of the Genesee Building in 1923 and absence of the adjacent Victor building, which would have been visible in 1927. Photo courtesy of the Buffalo History Museum.
Click to enlarge. A 1923- 1929 view of Main Street looking north from near Mohawk Street, courtesy of the Buffalo & Erie County Public Library. The Century Theatre was still a Lowes theater, and the Genesee Building was built in 1923.
Click to enlarge. Main Street looking north from near Mohawk Street on November, 25, 1967, the first day of the holiday shopping season. By Ed Zagorski, from the SUNY Buffalo State Archives and Special Collections, Courier Express Collection.
Click to enlarge. Main Street looking west, on November 24, 1973, the first day of the holiday shopping season. Photo by Cliff Preisigke, from the SUNY Buffalo State Archives and Special Collections, Courier Express Collection
Click to enlarge. Wall-to-curb shoppers at Court Street looking north, on November, 30, 1974, at the start of the holiday shopping season. From the SUNY Buffalo State Archives and Special Collections, Courier Express Collection
Click to enlarge. Washington’s Birthday shopping on Main Street, February, 17, 1974. Photo by Bob Bukaty, from the SUNY Buffalo State Archives and Special Collections, Courier Express Collection
Click to enlarge. At the northwest corner of Main and Mohaw on February, 17, 1974. From the City of Buffalo Office of Strategic Planning.
Click to enlarge. 1980s 500 block holiday shopping from Buffalo Place’s photo file.
Click here for a video "Things That Aren't There Anymore" on Downtown retail.
Click to enlarge. Hens & Kelly, 1901, inset, Detroit Publishing Company, Library of Congress
Click to enlarge. October 15, 1965. Photo by Frank Schifferle, from the SUNY Buffalo State Archives and Special Collections, Courier Express Collection

Hens & Kelly

Hens & Kelly began as a dry goods store at 485 Main St in 1879. The original owner was Jeremiah F. Sheehan. In 1882, Sheehan partnered with John J. Klaus. They opened their new store together, Klaus & Sheehan, at 446 Main Street. Mathias J. Hens was hired as a bookkeeper for Klaus & Sheehan.

Hens came to Buffalo from Germany in 1871 and began to work at Klaus & Sheehan after graduating from Canisius College. He met Patrick J. Kelly, who just arrived to the country, while on a buying trip in New York City. Kelly was employed at Simpson & Crawford.

Jeremiah Sheehan decided to leave Klaus & Sheehan and create his own company, J.F Sheehan & Company in 1887. Mathias Hens bought Sheehan’s share in J. F. Sheehan & Company shortly before the company dissolved, in 1892. Hens invited Patrick Kelly to join, and they created their store together, Hens & Kelly. The first store opened on May 1, 1892, at 488 Main Street, photo above as part of the Miller Block. They stocked “ladies and gents furnishings.”

Hens & Kelly survived the Panic of 1893; they in fact prospered during this time. They took over the neighboring Benson Art Shop and made it their millinery department. The store’s founders made “Good merchandise at the lowest prices,” the store policy. Hens & Kelly was one of the first stores to adopt S&H Green Stamps. This was a rewards program that provided stamps with each purchase. These stamps could be used to buy products from a catalogue at a later date.

The department store was able to survive another depression in 1907 and continued to grow. The store kept expanding to meet demand, eventually consisting of six little stores, nearby, on Main Street. In 1922, Hens & Kelly began the biggest expansion of their downtown store, compressing all the stores into one department store. This renovation cost one million dollars, which would be $13 million today. They also added a six-story addition.

Hens & Kelly added a special feature for men shoppers. The owners realized that most men do not enjoy shopping and wanted to make the shopping experience easier for them. The department store created a special entrance for men, leading right into the Men’s Department.

The two Hens & Kelly partners were unusual in business because they never retired. Kelly was quoted saying “I would rather wear out than rust.” Kelly died in 1927 doing what he loved. The following year the department store had a notable robbery. Thieves broke in around 7:00 am, tied up two watchmen, and blew open the safe door using nitroglycerin. The thieves were able to escape with $20,000, which would be $250,000 today. In 1935, the remaining original owner, Mathias Hens, died. Arthur P. Wesp became the new president for the department store.

The 1950s brought expansion outside of downtown. Hens & Kelly opened a store in South Buffalo at 2262 Seneca Street in December 1950. The location did poorly and closed in 1959. Despite this start, new stores opened in Lackawanna and Clarence. In 1960, Hens & Kelly opened their largest suburban department store in Hamburg. The store cost $4 million and was the largest S&H Green Stamp redemption center in Western New York. Hens & Kelly placed a time capsule in the brick wall with signatures and messages from the Hens & Kelly board of directors. Another store opened in Amherst in 1961.

Sperry & Hutchinson, the parent company of S&H Green Stamps, bought Hens & Kelly, deciding it would be more profitable to purchase the department store chain then to work through them. Sperry & Hutchinson added two branches to the chain. 1970s sales were not performing. Hens & Kelly was sold to Twin Fair Inc., a Western New York discount chain, in 1978. Twin Fair hoped to bring back the glory days of Hens & Kelly, but sales continued to decline. The first store of the chain closed in 1981, followed soon by four more, launching a domino effect for the rest of the stores. By 1982, the final Hens & Kelly store closed, a victim of the depressed economy in Western New York and changing trends in national retailing.

Twenty-five years later, in 2007, there was talk of demolition of the South Shore Hens & Kelly store for construction of a new Walmart. There were protests urging retrieval of the 1960 time capsule, but they were not headed. The store was demolished, but 54 small scrolls containing the history of the Hens & Kelly stores were found in the rumble and saved.

S. H. Knox 5 & 10 Cent Store

Seymour Horace Knox’s interest in retail began when he became a sales clerk at age 17 in Michigan. He moved to Pennsylvania to go into business running a 5&10 cent store with cousin Frank Woolworth. The store was a success and was followed by others in New Jersey and Erie, PA. The cousins expanded to Buffalo in 1888 but parted ways two years later when Knox bought out Woolworth and launched S.H. Knox 5&10 Cent Store, headquartered in Buffalo. Following a fire, Knox built a new headquarters at 519 Main Street, this time with fire-proof flooring. Branches were added in Detroit, Toledo, Lowell, and a first Canadian location, Toronto. By 1912, Knox had 112 stores and a reputation for fast customer service.

Knox developed interests in other businesses including being a director of Clawson & Wilson Company, a dry-goods wholesaler that invested in the Hens & Kelly Store across from his store headquarters. Knox helped Hens & Kelly increase profitability by dropping lower performing departments like grocery and by focusing on mid-market rather than lower-end customers. By 1922, Clawson & Wilson’s John L. Clawson, a director of the Marine Trust Company of Buffalo, helped to secure financing for the complete renovation of the Hens & Kelly Store, resulting in a modern six-story fireproof structure.

Click to enlarge. Courtesy of the Buffalo History Museum
Click to enlarge. F. W. Woolworth Company when located in the Hippodrome Theatre Building in the 600 block.

In 1912, Knox, cousin Woolworth, and four other owners decided to merge so they could gain a 5&10 monopoly. The name for the new chain was settled by coin toss. Knox lost, and F.W. Woolworth 5&10 Cent Store became a common name in 800 US cities and 50 in the UK. In the 1990s Kinney Shoes and Foot Locker were added to the retail family. They remain, but F.W. Woolworth closed down in 1997.

L. L. Berger Inc.

The department store L.L. Berger, founded by its namesake Louis L. Berger, opened its doors in downtown Buffalo on May 10, 1905, with the mission of devotion “to wearing apparel of the finer type.” Berger arrived that year having previously owned a women’s clothing store in Toledo, Ohio, with his brother-in-law Isaac S. Given. Originally, Berger and Given came to Buffalo to open a store together, but with differing objectives, they decided to open separate stores, Given at 452 Main and Berger at 500 Main. Berger’s primary aim was to “create ready-to-wear clothing for less than custom made.”

Berger’s ran into space problems early on and by 1917, just 12 years after their opening, the store fully occupied all five floors in their building. Berger signed a 99-year lease on 514-518 Main Street from the Stewart Estate in 1928. That building had been previously occupied by the A. Victor & Company furniture store that moved into its own building on Genesee and Pearl, next to the Genesee Building.

Main and Mohawk, inset showing Berger’s at 500 Main, around 1915. Courtesy Buffalo History Museum.
Main and Mohawk, Berger’s Inset, 1915–1927. Courtesy Buffalo History Museum.
L.L. Berger store at 514 - 518 Main Street, 1929. Courtesy Buffalo History Museum.

Berger’s renovated the building and on February 4, 1929, the new store opened to great fanfare. The Courier-Express called it “a new temple of fashion.” With this new setup, L.L. Berger became many stores within a store, with new product lines growing to include everything from juniors’ wear to millinery.

Major changes began to take place with Berger’s in the 1950s. The first suburban L.L. Berger location opened in 1953 at the Thruway Plaza. Seeing the beginnings of a regional population shift, Louis L. Berger found that opening stores outside the city limits would create convenience for women in the suburbs while still offering high quality products. The next year, Louis’s son Maxon took the helm as the company’s president. Under Maxon, the unification of Berger’s Main Street buildings took major steps forward at a cost of $750,000 (nearly $6.2 million in 2015 dollars), thus completing a process that began in the 1940s with the YWCA Building at 19 West Mohawk and 512 Main. By the end of the decade, Berger’s was preparing to open its second suburban location, this time in the Northtowns in the Sheridan Plaza.

Click to enlarge. Louis L. Berger Sr. at his desk, image courtesy of Marcy and Marvin Frankel.
Click to enlarge. SUNY Buffalo State Archives and Special Collections, Courier Express Collection

Berger’s continued expansion into the suburbs with stores opening in the Seneca Mall and Northtown Plaza in 1969 and 1970, respectively. New stores also opened in the Lockport Mall, Transitown Plaza, Elmwood Village, McKinley Mall, and Walden Galleria between 1975 and 1989.

Louis L. Berger passed away June 25, 1967. Following his death, internal changes would take place within the company. The next year, two of the Berger families, led by Louis Berger Jr. (now company president) and Gordon Rashman Sr., Berger Jr.’s brother-in-law, bought out the other three families for control of the store. Berger Jr. would later reflect that this move was a turning point for Berger’s decline.

Click to enlarge. 1980-1982
Click to enlarge. City of Buffalo Office of Strategic Planning
Click to enlarge. 1980-1982. City of Buffalo Office of Strategic Planning

During the 1980s, many within the company pushed Louis Berger Jr. to move the company’s flagship and headquarters to the Northtown Plaza location, the company’s most successful suburban store. However, Berger was devoted to Downtown and the city.

A combination of factors led to the demise of L.L. Berger and local retail as a whole. First, the market had shifted to benefit national buying groups and large chains. While the store was a member of the Specialty Stores Association, this was not enough to keep up (in the end, all SSA member stores would fold). Local retail was also suffering under the economic downturn that hurt the region throughout the 1970s and 1980s as the manufacturing base shrank and the city’s population declined sharply.

The size of the flagship store, once a source of pride for the company, had now become a great burden on the bottom line. The size and energy costs for the Main Street store were a large part of the annual deficit at the time of its closing. Berger’s put the store on the market in an attempt to find a buyer who would lease a portion of the building, but no one came forward.

Additionally, the construction of the Main Street light rail and other urban renewal projects failed to help the store’s prospects. Metro Rail construction closed Main Street for car traffic and with the Hyatt Hotel project closing Genesee Street, the flagship store was cut off from two of its main arterials.

Click to enlarge. During Meto Rail construction, 1982- 1983. City of Buffalo Office of Strategic Planning.

In 1991, L.L. Berger succumbed to these pressures and declared Chapter 11 bankruptcy with the Main Street store closing on Mother’s Day of that year. A victim of the changing market, Berger’s was one of the last major department stores left on Main at the time of its closing. Having been in the red for the last six years of its existence, Berger’s did not have enough capital to compete during those tough years.

L. L. Berger’s text sources:

Click to enlarge. 2004, Belesario Apartment. Courtesy, Ellicott Development.

The Belesario

After sitting vacant through most of the 1990s, the city, which had foreclosed on the property, named Ellicott Development the preferred developer of the site in 1999. After five years and $6 million in renovations, the Belesario opened to its first tenants in April 2004, sporting 30 luxury apartments and first and second floor office space. More than 10 years on, the former Berger’s store stands as a key piece on Main Street’s resurgent 500 block.

W.T. Grant Company

1906—Thirty-year-old William Thomas (W. T.) Grant opened his first variety store in Lynn, Massachusetts, with savings from his job as a sales clerk. He called it a 25-cent store, specializing in household goods.

1922—W.T. Grant opens the first Grants in Buffalo at 546-552 Main Street.

1928—Grants buys the adjourning property to accommodate their growing business. The Depression delays the start of construction.

1939—New Grants store opens at Main and Huron, designed by Alfred S. Alschuler and Raymond Loewy in the Art Moderne style. It was one of the largest of the Grants chain, and remarkable for its unusual design. Grants is the third-largest retail chain in the county after F. W. Woolworth and S. S. Kresge.

1965—The first floor of the former Flint & Kent building was leased to Grants to further expand their store.

1975—The 1,100-store Grants empire declared bankruptcy.

1976—Grants closes on Valentine’s Day

Click to enlarge. Courtesy of the Buffalo History Museum
Click to enlarge. Postcard image
Click to enlarge. Main and Huron Streets at night with Grants Department Store, courtesy of Buffalo History Museum.
Click here for a portion of 1950s clip, "Things That Aren’t There Anymore," produced by Francis Lucca, WNED TV.

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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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