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Torn-Down Tuesday: Death, riches and ice cream at the corner of Delaware and North

It was a scene sure to catch anyone’s attention: a cavalcade of cadavers, coffins in tow, parading down Delaware Avenue in the dead of night.

Of course, this was a thing of imagination, but it was from the imagination of author Mark Twain. They were escaping — as one skeleton described it — their dismal resting place one or two blocks north of the author’s residence.

Based upon the skeleton’s description, it would appear that they were retreating from what was once a cemetery near the intersection of Delaware Avenue and North Street. The site is surprisingly rich in history, even if the Walgreens now standing there would seem to suggest otherwise.

The small, rural cemetery alluded to in Twain’s short story “A Curious Dream Containing a Moral” is first found in maps from the 1830s, long before Delaware Avenue was the preferred address of the city’s most prominent citizens. The cemetery's demise was articulated by the woebegone skeleton: as the city continued to grow, its boundaries encroached upon the rural cemetery, gobbling up the wooded lands around it.

“I reside in the shameful old graveyard a block or two above you here.” The skeleton in Mark Twain’s short story suggests he lived in the cemetery at the corner of Delaware Avenue and North Street. (From the book “Mark Twain’s Sketches,” published in 1872.)

The cemetery was soon the scorn of neighbors, and the bodies it held were exhumed and interred elsewhere. Twain’s short story, which first appeared in the Buffalo Express in the April 30 and May 7, 1870, editions, spurred a national movement for the preservation of cemeteries.

The cemetery grounds soon gave way to a mansion at 650 Delaware Ave. Constructed in 1894 for businessman Robert Keating Root – whose name lives on in the Root Building on Chippewa in downtown Buffalo – it was designed by the esteemed architecture firm McKim, Mead and White.

Stanford White, in particular, was instrumental in the design of the building that later served as the influence for the George Eastman House in Rochester. Whether White was cursed for building atop a cemetery — it was rumored that not all the bodies were moved to Forest Lawn — or cursed for involving himself with a married woman, he didn't come to a happy ending. White was gunned down by the husband of actress Evelyn Nesbit at a dinner party atop New York City’s Madison Square Garden in 1906.

In 1935, the Root mansion was knocked down for the construction of a Howard Johnson’s restaurant, whose iconic orange roof dominated the southwest corner of Delaware Avenue and North Street for the next 50 years.

Known for its 28 flavors of ice cream, it was the biggest restaurant chain in the country in the 1960s and 1970s, totaling over 1,000 locations. It struggled, however, to compete against the fast food chains. As the chain's numbers plummeted, the region saw its last Howard Johnson restaurant — this one — close in 1994. It was soon demolished for Walgreens.

No word on if a cavalcade of cadavers walks the pharmacy's aisles at night.

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