Following the Ancient Trail

Following the Ancient Trail

Historical research prepared by Clinton Brown Company Architecture, pc

Main Street has a long multi-faceted history as an early trading route, a sophisticated residential quarter, and as a lively commercial and entertainment strip, all reflecting the city’s successes and struggles over more than 200 years.


Main Street’s story begins as a trail used by the Native Americans. When Joseph Ellicott came to Western New York in the late 1790s to survey the land purchased by the Holland Land Company, he incorporated this early trail into his street design for the Village of New Amsterdam as the “Buffalo road,” an important link between his new village and the Holland Land Company’s headquarters in Batavia. In the early 1800s, the Buffalo road served as one of the primary routes from eastern New York, bringing trade and settlers. Ellicott originally called the street “Willink Avenue” and “VanStaphorst Avenue,” but these Dutch-origin names were never popular with local residents. When New Amsterdam became Buffalo in 1825, the street became Main Street.


The southern terminus of Main Street at the Buffalo River became in the 19th century one of Buffalo’s earliest commercial and transportation hubs because all forms of transportation combined here. The Erie Canal opened in 1825, providing an easy and inexpensive route between Buffalo and Albany for bringing goods and people to meet up with lake freighters at the foot of Main Street. Railroads and streetcars also later converged here, making Main Street flourish as a bustling center for trade, commerce and business.


North of this crossroads, Main Street developed into the centerpiece of the growing city of Buffalo, a hub for government, banking, business, religious and even fine residential quarters. Lafayette Square became an early governmental center with the Old City Court House built in 1816. In the 1830s, pioneering builder and financier Benjamin Rathbun erected many of the city’s earliest business buildings along Main Street, including the Eagle Tavern. Shelton Square became home to several of Buffalo’s earliest churches, including “Old First” Presbyterian Church (1823) and St. Paul’s Episcopal Cathedral (1850). Main Street also became the center for business and banking in Buffalo during the mid-1800s when some of the area’s leading financial institutions started here, including the Marine Trust Company (now HSBC Bank). The Buffalo Savings Bank had an elegant Beaux Arts building constructed in 1901, now a showpiece branch of M&T Bank. In 1890-1893, a Romanesque style building was constructed for the Erie County Savings Bank designed by George B. Post. Minoru Yamasaki would add his white marble skyscraper of One M&T Plaza in 1966, continuing the tradition of banking on Main Street.


Main Street was also a           primary retail and commercial destination during the mid-1800s, when customers shopped at many fine department stores including the Adam, Meldrum and Anderson store (later AM&As), Flint and Kent, the William Hengerer Co., Hens and Kelly, L.L. Berger, and the J.N. Adam and Co. store, just to name a few. Seymour H. Knox and his cousin F.W. Woolworth founded the S.H. Knox store at 409 Main Street in 1888; the foundation of the massive Woolworth empire. Designed by Green and Wicks in 1892, the Market Arcade was Buffalo’s first indoor shopping mall, offering shops and office spaces linking Main Street and the Washington Market. Main Street was the place for many fine office buildings, including Daniel Burnham’s Ellicott Square Building, the largest commercial office building in the world when it opened in 1896. Nearby is Adler and Sullivan’s masterpiece, the Guaranty Building, just off Main Street at Church Street (1894-95).


Main Street also had a residential element, serving as a fashionable address for many prominent 19th century citizens including mayors, politicians, and business tycoons, who lived in houses ranging from modest brick and wood frame buildings to large marble-clad mansions. One of the earliest mansions here was Joseph Ellicott’s residence at Main and High Streets, begun in 1826. By the mid-1800s, the 500, 600 and 700 blocks of Main Street became home to some of Buffalo’s social elite, among them manufacturer and civic leader Pascal Paoli Pratt, former Buffalo mayor Ebenezer Walden, Congressman Elbridge Gerry Spaulding, business leaders William H. Glenny and Jacob C. Dold, among others.


Where business flourishes, entertainment often follows, and Main Street offered a variety of leisure options. This trend began in 1821-22 with the construction of the city’s first building designed to house theatrical performances, known simply as “The Theater,” located on Main and Court Streets, across from the Eagle Tavern. For decades, vaudeville and live performance thrived on Main Street, and numerous theaters sprang up along the street. Michael Shea built his movie palace, Shea’s Buffalo theater, on Main Street in the 1920s. Even the street itself offered entertainment, hosting parades of marching veterans, fire and police officers, decorative floats, wagons and other vehicles.


Today, Buffalo’s Main Street is all of these things -- a place to live, work, play, worship, shop, dine and more. New apartment and condominium developments reuse historic buildings, bringing residents back to Main Street. Though the large 19th century retailers are gone, a growing collection of small, owner-operated stores, boutiques and shops recalls Main Street’s origins. Cafes, coffee shops and fine dining establishments cater to the local lunch crowd as well as to out-of- towners looking for a special experience. Office space on Main Street continues to be popular for a wide assortment of professional, governmental, architectural and other services. Main Street remains the regional center of entertainment as well, with the city’s Theatre District offering all types of performances. Main Street has served as a vital corridor for business, shopping, dining, living, working and playing for over two centuries.


Paper Money and Politics

The story of Main Street’s south-east corner at Goodell Street began in the early 1800s when Jabez Goodell built the “Broadwheel Tavern,” replaced in the 1830s by William Hollister’s residence. Around 1851, the house was purchased by Elbridge Gerry Spaulding. Born in 1809 in Cayuga County, E.G. Spaulding arrived in Buffalo, at the time a city of limitless possibilities. Spaulding opened a legal practice, and became active in Buffalo’s banking industry. In March 1847, Spaulding was elected as Mayor before his election to the NY State Assembly. He served as a US Congressman in the 1860s, acting as a major proponent of the issuance of legal tender issued by the U.S. Treasury. These legal tender notes were nicknamed “greenbacks” due to their color, and Spaulding became known as the “Father of the Greenbacks.” Today we owe our use of paper money to Buffalo’s-own Elbridge Gerry Spaulding.


For over 40 years E.G. Spaulding lived at 775 Main Street. After Spaulding’s death in 1897, his fortune amounted to a staggering $4 million dollars. His daughter Charlotte Spaulding Sidway used her inheritance to build several buildings in Buffalo. E.G. Spaulding’s will stipulated that his house was to be demolished upon his death. Charlotte obliged, commissioning in its place the four-story Spaulding Building in 1906, and the red brick Sidway Building in 1907- 1913. In 2004, upper floors of the Sidway Building were converted to apartments, merging business and residential uses found on this site throughout its history.


Historical research prepared by Clinton Brown Company Architecture, pc


 Ebenezer Walden & the Teck Theater      

The lot at the corner of Main and Edward Streets encapsulates the rich story of Main Street’s development, from gracious residential plot to commercial property, specifically the performing arts history that is celebrated in the 600 and 700 blocks of Main Street.


The story begins with Ebenezer Walden. Born in Massachusetts in 1777, Walden arrived in Buffalo in 1808 to become the first lawyer. Walden served as Mayor of Buffalo in 1838. He invested in real estate in the burgeoning city, buying land at Main and Eagle Streets for his first residence in 1810. By 1836, like others of his social and financial status, Walden moved northward on Main Street, escaping the noise, dirt and pollution of downtown. His stately Greek Revival house at the south-west corner of Main and Edward Street was set on gracious, seemingly rural grounds.


Following Walden’s death in 1857, his property became the site of the first Buffalo Music Hall. Opened in July 1883, a fire destroyed this initial building. It was quickly replaced by a large Romanesque-style second Buffalo Music Hall in 1887. Purchased by Jacob F. Schoelkopf in 1899 and converted into a playhouse, Schoelkopf died in September 1899 before his theater came to life. It was named after his German homeland, Teck, in his honor. After the Teck Theater closed in 1933, the building was transformed to create the Teck movie theater owned by the Shea Theaters chain in the 1940s. The Teck slowly declined as auto traffic transformed Main Street’s walkable character, and after the auditorium was demolished for the extension of Pearl Street, the building had little useful purpose. Eventually the Teck was demolished, and today a vacant lot is all that remains of Buffalo’s once glorious music hall and theater building.

Historical research prepared by Clinton Brown Company Architecture, pc