Friday, April 22, 2016

From Hats to Homes

By Matthew Shoen

Hats have been a key element of fashion for most of recorded history. A hat can be a signature statement of who you are, and what you represent. They're a space for branding or individuality. We even have hats that can hold our beer.

Historically hats have also been popular and individuals who made hats, called milliners, have been important figures in the fashion world. In the 1910s, milliners and millinery reached an apex, with hat manufacturing becoming an increasingly important seasonal trade, particularly for women and teenage girls looking for supplemental income. In Buffalo, several different milliners occupied a large chunk of downtown in the vicinity of Lafayette Square and from their buildings manufactured and sold hats throughout the city. One of these wholesale millineries was owned by the Sinclair and Rooney Company and is currently in the process of being rehabilitated into a mixed use apartment building. With that in mind, I decided to look back on the history of hat fashion to examine some of the interesting styles that dominated hats in the early twentieth century.

Before proceeding I first must acknowledge that this will be a look into the history of women's hats. Male hat fashion is relatively boring with bowler hats and other simple designs being the most prominent choices for men in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. Male hat fashion was much more restrained and resistant to seasonal fluctuations, fitting more with the male ethos of the time. The hat was a head covering not an expressive display, therefore its design was marked by simplicity bordering on austerity.

Because of the stability of hat fashion for men, the millinery industry and the milliners at Sinclair and Rooney did not make their fortune off the male hat trade. A man might only buy a few hats in his lifetime. Instead, it was with women and ladies headwear that milliners dedicated their efforts year in and year out, trying to predict the seasonal trends that would dominate the trade in a given year.

Some Ladies fashion taken from
Unlike mens hats, the hats designed for women were always in flux. Hats came and went out of style sometimes as fast as within six months. One spring the style could feature lacy veils and lots of ribbon tied up in bows around the hat's brim. Other years could offer up massive wide-brimmed hats strewn with flowers and feathers. Some hats needed pins to hold them in place and others were set off at seemingly impossible angles to give off a flirtatious look. Hat materials were also constantly changing. Felt, straw, and lace all had their years of prominence. Perhaps the most interesting phase of millinery in Buffalo and the United States came around 1910 when it became chic to decorate hats with dead birds. Stuffed owls, grouse, and songbirds were set among nests of imitation fruit and lace in bizarre but interesting designs. If the milliner didn't make use of the whole bird he or she would no doubt use the wings or feathers to give color and size to the hat they were working on. Ostrich feathers were popular for this purpose to the point that an entire ostrich feather trade cropped up and became big business around 1910.

Unlike the stable male hat industry, the market for women's hats was always in flux. High style women's fashion was mean to be expressive and flamboyant, drawing attention to the wearer in the anthesis of austere men's fashion. There was a sense of art to these hats, a beauty reflective of the sadly ornamental role women played in their world. Still, though we can lament the ethics of the 1910s, we cannot deny that those ethics helped create some fascinating and beautiful hats.

The millinery industry was always conscious of the fluctuations in ladies fashion and milliners often went out of business by misjudging a season's hot item. Putting too much money into ostrich feathers and lace when stuffed cardinals and elderberries were in season could be disastrous, and the unpredictability of ladies headwear caught up to Sinclair and Rooney in 1927 when the company went bankrupt. Still, for almost twenty years the company ran its business out of 465 Washington Street where the Sinclair Apartments are set to open sometime this spring . The millinery's handiwork can no doubt be seen in classic photos of Buffalo's past and in the basements of some of this city's older residents and reflects an interesting period of both fashion and culture in Buffalo.

Bird hat from

Monday, April 18, 2016

Michael Shea and a South Buffalo Gem

April is going to be a great month. Now that the snow has finally gone away the city is coming back to life. Events are happening everywhere and it won't be long before we are all celebrating free summer concerts at Canalside. Before that however the North Park Theatre is screening Alien and Aliens on the 26th of April. The greatest space horror movie ever is coming to Buffalo and its got me thinking about movie theatres and the history of movies in Buffalo. With that in mind I decided to share some pictures from a recent project Preservation Studios undertook in an old theatre building in South Buffalo.

The early history of Buffalonians at the movie theatre was dominated by one figure, Michael Shea, a South Buffalo businessman and entertainer who was responsible for building many of the city’s grandest theatres, including gems like the North Park Theatre and Shea’s Buffalo on Main Street. 
Michael Shea
These two buildings demonstrate the pageantry and the beauty of 1920s theatre design with their gorgeous lobbies, hand painted murals, and intricate plastered ceilings that give both spaces a surreal dreamlike glow which patrons have been enjoying for almost a century. Prior to the 1970s, these were only two of the many theatres Michael Shea had built. Between 1920 and 1930 Michael Shea opened and operated Shea’s Roosevelt, Bailey, Buffalo, Hippodrome, Kensington, and Shea’s Seneca. Sadly these buildings have been largely destroyed leaving the North Park and Shea’s Buffalo as both beautiful reminders of what once was, and haunting reflections of what we’ve lost. However for one of these theatres a scrap of its beauty remains intact. Shea’s Seneca in South Buffalo lost its auditorium in 1970 but the rest of the building, including a massive commercial block and the theatre’s lobby are still intact. Though time has done its damage to Shea’s Seneca the community theatre’s lobby still bears the impressive hallmarks of Michael Shea’s other theatres and the magical atmosphere his patrons experienced each time they came to the cinema.

The current owner of the lobby uses it as storage space and piles of boxes mask the floor space and walls. Despite this, gorgeous details are still visible such as the massive barrel vaulted ceiling. This ceiling is covered in flowing lines and lionesses sitting at the ready, while the back wall, leading onto the street, is guarded by a pair of griffons. The walls still have fabric and intact leaded glass windows though the fabric has faded. 
The ceiling

Window and Wall View 
As you can see the details around these windows are phenomenal, highlighting how ornate theatres had become by 1930 when Shea’s Seneca was completed. Details like this aren't even visible in the North Park, built in 1920, ten years prior to Shea's Seneca. The Seneca was one of the last theatre projects Michael Shea completed before his death in 1934 and as such it synthesizes much of what he'd learned in over two decades of theatre building. 

The building features a large commercial block attached to the theatre space which was a common feature during the time. Commercial space was rented as businessmen and community members saw theatres as major local anchors that were guaranteed to attract a steady stream of consumers. In fact, Shea's theatres were considered major community boons and a sign that neighborhoods were on the rise. The community theatres were utilized as second run site following the first run theatres on Main Street and seated over 2,500 on average. Any businessman working in proximity to one of Shea's massive cinema's was guaranteed to see their business expand as people came and went to see nickel and dime pictures.

As a commercial rehab project the Seneca has massive potential and hopes are that its potential will be realized in a few years, bringing this commercial block and theatre lobby back to Buffalo, allowing us to make use of the last remaining piece of Michael Shea's entertainment empire, an empire that ruled the Buffalo cinema  scene and provided the city with some of its most beautiful and artistic buildings. Until that day comes, enjoy the restoration work that brought the North Park back to use, or catch a play at Shea's Buffalo, savoring the day when we can drive down Seneca Street and see the restoration of Michael Shea's beautiful community theatre.
Photo from the Seneca's Opening Day

Thursday, April 14, 2016

Dear Buffalo Common Council: Preserve our past, invest in our Future

Dear Buffalo Common Council,

As a concerned citizen in your district (I live at 179 Florida Street), I wanted to reach out to implore you to vote for protections for three historic Buffalo buildings. Though all are different, each tells a story about our city and the eras and areas they were constructed in. All three were built by important architects, all with unique styles, and all have much more potential than their current or proposed uses. Most importantly, they underline an important part of Buffalo's future. 

In the 21st Century, unique cities are the ones that thrive. Is it any wonder that the biggest blunders in Buffalo's history (creation of neighborhood-killing highways and destruction of our original downtown street grid to name a few) were attempts to make us more like other cities? As more and more people flock to unique places, we need to acknowledge that Buffalo doesn't have the mountainous backdrop that Denver has, or the mighty Mississippi roaring through downtown like Minneapolis and New Orleans, and our modest bay will never match Boston, Seattle, or San Francisco. 

Sketch of the Bachelor Apartments,
Photo courtesy of
What are our strengths then? We have a wonderful waterfront, yet access is limited mostly to people with cars. We have a great park system, though we've damaged it with a thousand cuts, and one huge gash along one of the greatest parkways in America. Even though most people know us for wings, we also have great winter sports and a thriving arts scene. 

Yet, though we'll ramble off all of those things, we forget that one of our biggest assets is having one of the oldest building stocks in the country. No one goes to Boston and says, "I love this 1960s office building!" They're charmed by Back Bay and they bounce from shop to shop in the North End. New York City might be home to some of the tallest skyscrapers in the world, but more people are enamored with Brooklyn Brownstoness and Upper West Side apartments. 

Buffalo has some of the oldest housing stock in the country, right behind Boston, and actually ahead of New York. With over 30% of our houses built before 1940, we have something that Phoenix, Tampa, San Jose, and San Diego could never have. These three buildings are part of that character, that elegance, that comes with an older city, that people use to describe Boston and New York, but would never use to describe Dallas. 

Don't let that character slip away, especially not for plans that fail to push Buffalo in a direction that accentuates the unique features that could attract people to our city. 

The Pratt Street Industrial Area
Photo courtesy of
The North Park Library is the only corner at that intersection with character, featuring a gorgeous landscaped lawn and a well-designed building in a sea of parking and dryvit siding. The architect, Howard Beck, designed civic buildings all over Buffalo, many of which have been demolished out of shortsightedness. Demolishing the North Park Library will continue that trend, trading a historic library for a bland building that won't help that corner, and will likely only make it an even worse gateway to one of our thriving commercial districts. 

The Bachelor Apartments were designed by one of our city's most renowned architecture firms, Green & Wicks, and the potential for it can be seen immediately across the street, where Buffalo Proper has revitalized a historic building to new glory. Demolishing it for a parking ramp is a disservice to our city and a waste of potential, especially since there are many undeveloped parking lots around this site, and several other viable sites owned by this very developer. 

North Park Library, Photo courtesy of
The Pratt Street Industrial Heritage Area contains buildings designed by Lansing & Beierl and R.J. Reidpath, two prolific architecture firms that designed hundreds of buildings in the Buffalo area. The buildings include examples tied to our brewing and metallurgic past, as well as document the growth of one of the largest companies still in the city. Landmarking these buildings will protect that past, but could also help achieve a future for them similar to the innumerable other examples of rehabbed industrial buildings, such as 500 Seneca, the Larkin Exchange building, and many others, all of which have combined innovation with our city's manufacturing past.

All of these buildings would be eligible for historic tax credits, making it easier to transform them, and indeed, bring more investment to the area. Unlike new construction, over 60% of the cost of historic rehabilitation is related to labor, meaning more money stays in the community where new construction would spend more buying materials that can be shipped from anywhere in the country. Plus, the plans to demolish two of these buildings just adds more refuse to landfills that are already filling at an alarming cost, making this a wasteful act when they could be easily reused and that space in the landfill (and the rising cost associated with trucking and storing waste) for things that cannot be repurposed or rehabilitated. 

In all, these landmark applications allow you to make a statement, not just about wastefulness, taste, or even the individual histories of these buildings, but about one of the most unique things about Buffalo's landscape. Our historic buildings are not just about our past, but about our future, as they are one of the only things Buffalo can truly differentiate itself from other parts of the country in this increasingly competitive climate for cities in the twenty-first century.

Again, please approve these landmarks, not just for our past, but for our future,
Derek King
Architectural Historian at Preservation Studios

Friday, April 8, 2016

Architect Spotlight: Ernest Crimi

By Matthew Shoen

Our first Architect Spotlight featured Samuel D. P. Williams of the firm Williams and Johnson in Ogdensburg, New York.  This week I wanted to come back to Buffalo and chronicle an unknown builder of the city’s public education system. That builder is Ernest Crimi who, in the 1920s, was responsible for building at least sixteen public elementary schools in Buffalo, as well as a few high schools.[1] Crimi’s labors reflect an interesting story of school construction in Buffalo, additionally his appointment in 1924 as the head architect of the Buffalo School District's architecture division is more broadly interesting for its intersection with the Associated Buffalo Architects a group of some of Buffalo’s most famous architects.

The 1910s and 1920s were a period of intense growth for Buffalo and the city found itself struggling to cope with the needs of so many new students. Buffalo's education infrastructure needed to rapidly expand. Between 1921 and 1930 the city commissioned twenty-four new school buildings and twenty-six additions to existing school structures.[2] In 1925 alone, twelve schools were in the process of being built with four more in the planning process.  Over $8,607,000 in work was scheduled for the years 1928 and 1929.[3] Many of the designs were completed by Ernest Crimi whose work truly exemplifies the tenants of standardized school design.

Prior to the 20s school design was treated like the design of a major civic building. Architects worked to craft suitably monumental structures to impress the value of education on students and parents, many of whom had never been exposed to normalized schooling in their home countries. The school was supposed to be a house of learning and impress the importance of education on students in the same way that the monumental architecture of a church impressed the power and spirit of God on parishioners. This mindset lasted for about a decade. By 1924 when Crimi started working for the Buffalo School District, design standards had been completely formalized and much of the monumental architecture and individualized energy formerly dedicated to school design was gone, replaced by a more formulaic approach adopted to maximize efficiency in school construction.

Though Crimi built over a dozen schools in Buffalo it’s reasonable to say that he really only built a few individual buildings. The majority of Crimi’s buildings are identical to each other both inside and out. In fact PS 77, 78, and 79 are copies of PS 76 on Elmwood and Tracy.  Crimi designed his schools to be easily replicated and quickly built. Many of his buildings follow an H pattern with a hollow interior courtyard, popular in the 20s and 30s. Classrooms were organized along the outside of the building to provide maximum light for the students and the schools featured gymnasium and auditorium spaces. Some of these features, namely the gym and auditorium, were mandated by state law, while the classroom layouts were done according to scientific precepts which saw natural light as critical to the protection of a child’s eyesight.

Though his architecture lacked in terms of innovation and beauty, the story of how Ernest Crimi became Buffalo’s most prolific school builder is excellent. In 1919, at the start of Buffalo’s school building campaign, a group of Buffalo architects formed the Associated Buffalo Architects. This was the Justice League of Buffalo architects  and counted many of the city’s heavy hitters on its roster.  E.B. Green, Duane Lyman, and Max Beirel all were members, and together they parsed out contracts from the Buffalo School District to build schools. The relationship was a steady and successful one until 1924 when an inspector discovered the concrete of PS 68’s foundation was severely compromised. The school, not yet finished, was immediately demolished and the school district cancelled its contracts with the Associated Buffalo Architects. Within two months they had created their own architecture bureau and appointed Ernest Crimi as its head.

The falling out between Buffalo and the ABA highlights the changing role of architects in school design and construction. Prior to the 20s the prospect of having so many noteworthy architects working on school buildings would have been a major boon to the district. However, by the time the ABA had its contract cancelled, school construction was no longer an art. Instead it was a repetitious task that required little effort as evidenced by Crimi’s ability to stamp down sixteen elementary schools in six years all across the city. As an architect Crimi had limited creative input, he became more akin to a manager and foreman, making sure the needs of the district were met and that the concrete wasn’t shoddy. Despite this his work is still some of the most important in Buffalo. Though he didn't design grand monumental schools, Crimi created the spaces thousands of Buffalo children would be educated within. Chances are if you went to school in Buffalo you spent at least some time in one of his buildings. Looking through the list in the footnotes just below. Is the school you attended a Crimi school?

School 77, Image Taken from

[1] Crimi’s work includes PS’s 6, 17, 28, 39, 53, 67, 71, 72, 74, 75, 76, 77, 78, 80, 81, Burgard Vocational High School and Emerson Vocational High School.
[2] Younkin and Rex, NRHP Public School #60, 13-14; Paul McDonnell,School Reconstruction – Buffalo’s Largest Historic Preservation Project. Ever." Buffalo Rising, June 27, 2012.
[3] “$8,607,000 School Work Scheduled,” The Buffalo Evening News, January 6, 1928,

Friday, April 1, 2016

A Sip of Death

By Matthew Shoen

When I was in elementary school the administrators took the soda machine by the cafeteria and replaced it with a milk machine. Back home milk was big and the milk machine was supposed to encouraging us to drink healthier (It failed, everyone drank the chocolate and strawberry milk). Yet more than encourage us to get our daily calcium, the milk machine was a reminder of our community’s bonded ties to the dairy industry. In the 1880s St. Lawrence County led the state in milk production with almost nine million gallons a year. Lisbon had more cows than people, by a significant margin. As a kid, my father milked five hundred head for a neighbor, by the time my brother started milking that same neighbors farm was three thousand head and struggling to survive due to how badly milk prices have bottomed out in the last few decades. 

When I moved to Buffalo to start working with Preservation Studios I had milk on the brain. My brother had only just quit milking because his employer had him working eleven-hour shifts without a lunch break. I hadn’t expected to learn about milk in Buffalo. Frankly, after my brother’s issues I was done with the stuff. Yet when we started working on the milk depot of Queen City Dairy at 885 Niagara Street I found the building’s story and by extension the story of milk in the early twentieth century fascinating. That story, and how it intersects with science and social history is worth digging into. 

The milk depot as a building type really only occurred in America between 1880 and 1930. This critical fifty-year span featured a massive transformation in both city life, and technology that majorly impacted the way milk was consumed. Prior to 1880 there were very few metropolises in America and many people living on the edge of large cities had barns and livestock from which they drew milk for sale to people living in the city center. The time between utter and human lips was minimal and this rendered milk generally safe (minus the very real potential of bovine tuberculosis). The great waves of migration that characterized the 1880s and beyond changed the urban environment however. Suddenly it was illegal to have livestock inside city limits and milk production became a completely rural affair after these ordinances were passed. A new building type became necessary, a place where milk could be accumulated and then distributed to neighborhoods as dawn broke.  The milk depot was created to fill this roll.

The milkman coming with his cart and bottles of fresh creamy milk is an iconic image of the era, a symbol of simpler times and quaint Americanism. Unfortunately this imagery is a whitewash of the truth. Though milk from Queen City Dairy came to the doorsteps of many houses in Buffalo it did not come as the rich healthy substance we know today.

As I said, the era of the milk depot was an era of massive change. Unfortunately, effective refrigeration was not one of those changes. In Buffalo, the milk gathered in the bulk tanks of Queen City Dairy came from as far away as Elma and Mt. Morris. This milk sat in twenty gallon metal jugs, waiting for a train to pick it up and bring it into the city. As you can guess this did nothing for the favor of Buffalo’s milk. Even ignoring the dangerous bacteria cultures, milk of this era “contained clods of dirt and had a barny flavor…Some bacteria gave milk a slimy consistency, increasing its viscosity so dramatically that it could be pulled into strings. Other bacteria colored it blue, green, or red.”[1] Perhaps bacteria are an explanation for the blue milk in Star Wars and why Luke was so eager to get off Tatooine.

Because of the  ordinances that outlawed keeping dairy cows within city limits the time milk spent traveling from the farm to consumer was dramatically increased, something that the creation of milk depots reflects. The milk depot as a space was necessary to concentrate milk for distribution, something a single farmer out in Elma could not do profitably. As the nineteenth century ended, the milk depot also became responsible for a new important function, purifying milk for consumption.

Because milk took so long to reach consumers people died by the millions from drinking it. With its mix of sugars and fats milk can grow a terrifying variety of bacterial cultures. Now compound that with 20th century ideas about the superiority of cows milk to human milk. During the decades when milk was easily one of the most dangerous substances in the world, people believed that breastfeeding was savage and too taxing for the modern woman's nerves. The industrialized world overwhelmed the female constitution in such a way that breastfeeding would be too much exertion for a new mother. While we can laugh at how nonsensical this idea was we cannot laugh at its effect. Infant mortality rates during this time ran between 15% and 25%. Babies were fed liquid diphtheria and typhoid to keep them from the over-stressed breasts of their mothers. Deaths were especially common during the summer months when milk sat in rail yards in sweltering heat, breeding bacteria.

Pasteurization began to alter this fatal relationship, and Queen City Dairy was one of the first pasteurizing milk depots in Buffalo.  Pasteurization was first promoted in wine as a way to prevent the wine rack from becoming a vinegar rack. A German agricultural chemist named Franz von Soxhlet first proposed pasteurizing milk as a method to reduce infant mortality rates, a proposal which was viciously contested. Many depots lacked the cash to upgrade their facilities to pasteurize and some scientists believed that pasteurizing milk destroyed its nutritional value, an argument you can still see being made to this day by a small vocal minority (milk libertarians?). Still milk interests, such as Queen City Dairy, who could afford to pasteurize began to promote their facilities as purveyors of clean wholesome milk. Pasteurization became a marketing strategy for Queen City Dairy and depots like it, and as a byproduct, the mortality rate of America’s babies began to fall.
A bit creepy, but nonetheless effective for its day.
Milk was finally made safe after the 1930s when refrigerated trucks and a more even application of pasteurization helped eradicate much of the disease milk historically contained. By then Queen City Dairy had gone out of business and soon after the entire milk depot industry went under as the supermarket began to displace milk deliveries as the medium through which people got their daily calcium.

For a brief fifty years the history of milk intertwined in terrifying ways with the society and technology. Milk was the deadliest substance in America and every doctor prescribed it for newborns. Taken from dirty tubercular udders and placed on rail spurs for hours on end in the hot sun, milk little resembled the substance we drink today. People drank milk and died unaware that they’d taken a sip of death with their evening meal.  The milkman making his rounds each dawn carried a cartful of disease and it was not until pasteurization and later on refrigeration that the danger of milk passed and people could enjoy milk without the fear of feeding tubercular death to their children. So, if you drive by the old milk depot at 885 Niagara Street slow down and take a moment to think about what happened within its walls. This building, like most of Buffalo's buildings, tells a fascinating story, a sad story no doubt, but a story of our ancestors and how they lived and died, drinking milk.

The Queen City Milk Depot

[1] Kendra Smith-Howard, Pure and Modern Milk: An Environmental History Since 1900 (New York: Oxford University Press, 2014), 12.