BN Chronicles continues a weeklong look at Delaware Avenue:
“The skyline of Buffalo’s famous avenue is ever-changing, obliterating Buffalo landmarks, erasing fond memories, and beckoning to the onrush of new business,” wrote the great Buffalo historian Roy Nagle, expressing the prevailing attitude among many in Buffalo in the mid-1950s - especially those, like Nagle, who worked for banks - that so long as Buffalo kept bulldozing old stuff and building new stuff that “everything would be OK.”
Delaware is one of only eight streets which have had the same name since Buffalo was first laid out in 1804. (Elk, Swan, Huron, Mohawk, Chippewa, Eagle and Seneca are the others, by the way.) Joseph Ellicott also set Delaware Street apart by setting the curbs apart— a 99-foot-wide street was a novelty at the dawn of the 19th century.
In 1821, Delaware officially ran to the city’s northern boundary — Chippewa Street. When the boundaries moved out to Old Guideboard Road (now North Street) in 1827, Delaware officially grew again. Such was the piecemeal outward stretch, with stops at West Ferry, Delavan and Hertel before Delaware Street officially became Delaware Avenue in 1881.
While Delaware Avenue has been a fashionable address for Buffalonians for almost two centuries, exactly where along the most wealthy and influential lived has moved further north as time moved on.
In the 1840s and 1850s, many of Buffalo’s well-to-do built homes between Niagara Square and Chippewa. Buffalo’s first mayor, Ebenezer Johnson, lived just north of Chippewa at the corner of what is now Delaware and Johnson Park — but for decades, beyond that was still rather rural.
When Mark Twain lived at the corner of Delaware and Virginia in 1870, there was still a cemetery at the corner of Delaware and North (where Walgreens is today). Twain also would have had a view of the Cornell Lead Works out his front window. The factory, which stood about where the now-faded lion wall looms on the northeast corner of Delaware and Virginia, churned out about 10 tons of lead every day in the form of pipes, lead bars and white lead. The factory remained open until 1889.
By the time of the Pan-American Exposition in 1901, Buffalo’s gilded age was in full swing. In 1900, Buffalo had 350,000 residents and 60 of them were millionaires. That .0002 percent might not seem like much, but as the eighth-biggest city in the country, Buffalo had more millionaires per capita than any other city in the nation. Many of them were building opulent homes along Delaware Avenue — often tearing down a slightly-less opulent home from a previous generation in the process.
“The homes were large, and the domestic help was plentiful and cheap,” wrote Nagle. “Some of the largest mansions were staffed with 10 to 20 workers. Many hands were needed to keep the enormous, high-ceilinged rooms clean; to polish the great expanses of woodwork, marble and brass; to launder large baskets of clothing and linens in the days of washtubs, starch and non-electric irons; to sew and mend when even tea towels had to be cut and hemmed. An immigrant couple could be hired for $20 a month, and they had never heard of an eight-hour day.”
Heading into the Great Depression, Buffalo’s golden age had mostly come to an end. Following World War II, many of the great mansions of Delaware Avenue were falling into disrepair, and there was a general sense of relief when someone would take down a previous generation’s behemoth to put up something useful like an office or an apartment building.
The tide began to change for Delaware Avenue and the entire city when history-minded people came together to rally against the bulldozing of the Wilcox Mansion — the site of Theodore Roosevelt’s inauguration as president — to make way for a parking lot in the mid-1960s.
Now, as Buffalo turns to its past to help create a bold new future, the story of Delaware Avenue — its development, architecture, downfall and rebirth — along with the stories of the people who made it all happen — are the essence of what Buffalo is becoming.
As Nagle wrote to wrap up his mid-'50s history of Delaware Avenue:
Drawing aside the curtain of time, we see that the transition of Delaware from a broad country road to an avenue of beautiful homes and thence to a center of distinctive hotels and apartments, stately edifices, and business establishments, forms a picture of magical growth.
Story topics: torn-down tuesday