FOLLOWING AN ANCIENT TRAIL
FROM PATH, TO ROAD, TO DESTINATION: 1790S-1900S
Imagine standing on the site of the ancient Native American trail that connected Lake Erie, our great inland sea, to the tribes that lived inland in this region of New York State. This was part of the dense North American deciduous forest offering enormous resources to early European settlers as well as backbreaking challenges to those who would clear the land for uses such as agriculture.
Following the Holland Land Company purchase of most of this region in 1797, their surveyor, Joseph Ellicott, came to the area and applied new vision to its features. He named the trail “Buffalo Road”; a link between his newly designed Village of New Amsterdam and the headquarters of the Holland Land Company 40 miles east in Batavia. In his 1804 map, Ellicott called the part of the road within the village “Van Staphorst Avenue”, but since Dutch names weren’t popular with local residents, when New Amsterdam became Buffalo in 1825, the name changed to “Main Street.”
The design of the original Village of New Amsterdam extended from Lake Erie and the Buffalo River north to Chippewa Street and for some decades the City of Buffalo burgeoned within those boundaries. During those years, what is now Buffalo’s Theatre District in the 600-700 blocks of Main Street was just beyond the town limits and devoted primarily to farming.
Through the decades, the area has transitioned from forest to farmland, from upscale neighborhood to commercial center, and featured low brow entertainment to legitimate theatre. Along the way, some notable personalities and architecture have influenced the journey’s course, and any honest tour must acknowledge treasures lost as well as those held safe.
Paper Money and Politics
The south-east corner at Main and Goodell Streets began to tell a lively story when, in the early 1800s, Jabez Goodell built the “Broadwheel Tavern.” It was replaced in the 1830s by the residence of William Hollister which was then purchased around 1851 by Elbridge Gerry Spaulding. Born in 1809 in Cayuga County, Spaulding arrived in Buffalo, at a time when the city seemed to hold limitless possibilities. He opened a legal practice, became active in the banking industry, and served as Mayor before being elected to the NY State Assembly. He then served as a US Congressman in the 1860s, where he was a major proponent of the first-ever issuance of legal tender by the U.S. Treasury. At the time, legal tender notes were nicknamed “greenbacks” due to their color, and Spaulding became known as the “Father of the Greenbacks.” Our use of paper money is thanks, in large part, to Buffalo’s-own Elbridge Gerry Spaulding.
For over 40 years, E. G. Spaulding lived at 775 Main Street. After his death in 1897, his fortune amounted to, a then staggering, $4 million. His will stipulated that his house be demolished upon his death. His daughter Charlotte Spaulding Sidway obliged, and proceeded to use her inheritance to build several buildings in Buffalo. Among them, and on the site of her father’s home, are the four-story Spaulding Building constructed in 1906, and the red brick Sidway Building built 1907-13. Recently, upper floors of the Sidway Building were converted to apartments, thereby, merging this site’s historical uses of business and residential.
Between Fire And Demolition
Though the lot at the south-west corner of Main and Edward Streets is currently empty, its history is one of the most expansive in the Theatre District.
Ebenezer Walden of Massachusetts arrived in Buffalo in 1808, became its first lawyer, and served as Mayor. He purchased land for a residence in 1810 at Main and Eagle Streets, but by 1836, like others of his social status, Walden moved north to escape the noise, dirt and pollution of downtown. His stately Greek Revival house at 766 Main Street was on a gracious, pastoral setting. Six years after Walden’s death in 1857, his property became the site of the great Saengerhalle concert hall, but it was destroyed by fire shortly after its completion. Subsequently, Buffalo Music Hall, a grand Romanesque-style replacement opened in October 1887.
Jacob F. Schoelkopf purchased the Music Hall to convert it into a playhouse, but died in September 1899 before he could see his dream fulfilled. To honor Schoelkopf, the converted theater was named Teck after his birthplace in Germany.
It’s next incarnation came in 1900 when it was completely remodeled into Shea’s Teck Theater with a seating capacity of over 3 thousand. The Shubert organization took over in 1908 and continued to run it as a live theatre showcasing the top theatrical talent of the day until the stresses of the Great Depression forced its closing in 1933.
The Teck Theater’s final act began in the 1940s when it was operated as a movie house by the Shea Theaters chain, but after a long, slow decline the auditorium was demolished in the early 1980s to allow for the extension of Pearl Street. The remainder of the building had little useful purpose and was eventually demolished leaving only a vacant lot and scrapbook of memories.
HOME TO THE UPPER CRUST
RESIDENTIAL MAIN STREET: 1850S–1900
With the successful opening of the Erie Canal in 1825, Buffalo grew from a population of 2,000 in 1820, to over 42,000 by 1850. The city became a dense cluster of houses mixed with industry and commerce, suffering ever increasing pollution, dirt, noise and crowding. The wealthiest residents looked to the green pastures of the farm land situated in the area of today’s 500, 600 and 700 blocks of Main Street. Prominent 19th century citizens including mayors, politicians, and business tycoons built houses ranging from modest brick and wood frame buildings to large marble-clad mansions. By the 1850s and ‘60s, the elegant homes they built had transformed these acres into the most fashionable neighborhood of an increasingly cosmopolitan city.
However, by the late 1800s, commercial activity dominating the southern end of Main Street crept northward. When the city expanded its borders in 1854 to encompass more than 42 square miles, new areas farther north emerged as more fashionable residential districts, and the flight of residents away from the crowded central city was further encouraged by the expansion of streetcar service.
As wealthy residents moved on, some Main Street mansions were temporarily converted into upscale boarding houses, but by the early 1900s all these grand homes had been demolished in favor of commercial structures, leaving an architectural legacy that lives only in photographs.
The Rich House
Andrew Jackson Rich arrived in Buffalo in 1841 and began as a humble dry goods clerk. However, his father, who owned the Bank of Attica, re-established in Buffalo in 1842 and took a liking to young Andrew who rose quickly in the banking business. By 1850, Andrew Rich began building a massive, lushly landscaped, Italianate style house on the east side of Main Street just north of Tupper. Rich served as president of Attica Bank until his death in 1870. After the passing of his widow, the home at 727 Main Street was razed in 1900 to make way for the two-story commercial block that stands today.
The Marshall House
As a child, Attorney Orsamus Holmes Marshall had relocated to Buffalo from Connecticut with his family. He is remembered as one of the 1862 founders of the Buffalo Historical Society and a prolific author who documented early Western New York and Native American history. After retiring in 1867, Marshall purchased the home at 700 Main Street originally constructed in 1841 by Hon. Seth Sill. Marshall’s son Charles inherited the property and resided there until it was demolished in 1910 to make way for the current EMI (Byers) Building.
The Dold Residence
Jacob C. Dold, Sr. came to Buffalo as a young boy from Württemberg, Germany. He founded a small butcher shop in South Buffalo in 1860 and, two years later, opened a meat packing plant at the Elk Street Market. The home at 645 Main Street was his residence from around 1888 until 1891. Later, he leased the property, nicknamed “The White House”, to the Buffalo Republican League. It was eventually demolished and is presently the site of the two-story commercial Dold Building constructed in 1900. Eventually, the Jacob Dold Packing Company expanded to include plants in Boston, New York, Providence and Liverpool, England among more than 30 branches.
The Pratt House
Born in Buffalo in 1819, Pascal Paoli Pratt was a prominent 19th century civic and business leaders who founded the Pratt & Co. hardware business and, in 1848, established the Pratt & Letchworth Company which manufactured saddle and carriage hardware. Pratt also founded the Manufacturers’ and Traders’ Bank (now M&T Bank), supported the Buffalo Female Academy (now Buffalo Seminary), the Buffalo Fine Arts Academy (now the Albright-Knox Art Gallery), and was a driving force behind the Frederick Law Olmsted-designed Buffalo park system. Pratt built the substantial house at 736 Main Street in 1854. Shortly after his death in 1905, the house was demolished, giving way to the Potter Building.
The Glenny Residence
Irish born William H. Glenny lived an immigrant “rags-to-riches” story. Arriving in Buffalo in 1836, he worked as a clerk until opening a small crockery store in 1840. The William H. Glenny Company became a prominent importer of fine china, glass and other merchandise. In 1877, Glenny hired renown architect Richard A. Waite to design a new store at 249-253 Main Street. Now known as the Dennis Building, it is Buffalo’s only remaining full cast-iron façade structure. Glenny took up residence at 692 Main Street in 1863. After his death, his widow continued to reside there until 1895 when, like other historic homes in this area, it was replaced by a commercial building.
The Kip House
Henry Kip worked for the American Express Company, founded in Buffalo as an express mail service by Henry Wells, William G. Fargo, and John Warren Butterfield in 1850. When the United States Express Company was created in 1854, Kip was hired as General Superintendent. He moved his family into a new home at 640 Main Street in 1865. After his death in 1883, the house continued as a family residence, but later became “The Holland”, an upscale boarding house most notably home to Marian de Forest; theater critic, playwright and founder of the Zonta Club. The building was supplanted by the five-story Otto Building in 1896.
The Sherwood House
The area’s grandest dwelling was built at 652 Main Street by businessman Merrill Bennett Sherwood. By 1836, he established a brokerage firm and became involved with Benjamin Rathbun, the most prolific and notorious builder of the 1830s. When the Rathbun bubble burst in 1836, default on massive debts helped spur the financial panic of 1837 that rocked the nation. As Rathbun’s agent, Sherwood had sought to pass Rathbun’s forged notes to struggling banks throughout the US and Canada. Originally, Sherwood lived on Main north of Chippewa in a humble cottage, but in 1854 he replaced it with a three-story ltalianate house regarded as the city’s most lavish. Facing financial decline, he sold the property in 1870 and it became “The Sherwood”, an upscale boarding house, until its demolition in 1902. Today, a portion of Shea’s Buffalo Theater stands on the land it once occupied.
WHEN BUSINESS WAS BOOMING
COMMERCIAL MAIN STREET: 1900S–1970S
In the late 1800s, powerful commercial activity that dominated Main Street to the south reached into the fashionable residential area of the 600 and 700 blocks. The generation of early residents who built the great homes passed away and their descendants chose to reside elsewhere in the city. For a time, some of the mansions became upscale boarding houses, but around 1900 this portion of Main Street would be reinvented as a retail, dining and entertainment center; the character it has retained for over a century.
Multi-story commercial buildings replaced mansions and manicured lawns, and shops offered everything from daily necessities to high-end luxury goods. Customers purchased jewelry at the Dickinson Building (620 Main) and furniture at the Laurens & Enos Co. (621-623 Main) and Select Furniture at the corner of Main and Chippewa Streets. The internationally-famous Wurlitzer Company (674-676 Main) sold fine musical instruments including pianos, organs and jukeboxes.
Throughout much of the 20th century, the area thrived as a bustling center for shopping and entertainment. However, by the 1970s, the golden era of downtown retailing and commerce had largely faded. By then, many retailers had been forced to close their doors or relocate to the prosperous suburbs. Most of the theaters which had generated so much vitality also took final bows.
However, this area would rise again, inspired, in large measure, by the community effort to save Shea’s Buffalo Theater, the City sponsored Entertainment District plan of 1978 and the establishment of the Theatre Historic Preservation District in the early 1980s.
On The Move
The District responded to evolving transportation modes from pedestrians and carriages in the 1800s, to bicycles and streetcars around the turn of the century, to automobiles and busses in the 20th century.
Customers could buy bicycles from George Poppenberg in the Otto Building (636-644 Main) or an Indian motorcycle from Neal, Clark & Neal Co. (643-645 Main.)
The latest model automobiles were on display at Roe Automobile Company (634 Main), John A. Carmer Company (602 Main), William P. Eigner Company (649 Main), and the Ripper Motor Carriage Company (616 Main.)
Buffalo’s most prominent automobile dealer was the Pierce Arrow Motor Car Company with its showroom at 752-756 Main Street. The tie to transportation was further tightened in 1941 when the W. S. Arrasmith designed, Art Modérn style Greyhound Bus Depot was completed at 672 Main Street.
Dining With The Swells
This area boasted several popular restaurants during the 20th century including The Como Restaurant (675 Main), Mac-Doel’s Restaurant (600 Main), The Rotisserie Restaurant (635 Main) and Laube’s Old Spain (660 Main) which attracted such celebrities as Bob Hope, the Marx Brothers, Milton Berle and Mary Pickford. None of those longstanding restaurants have survived, but they have been replaced by a number of fine modern eateries.
Light The Lights!
In addition to shopping and dining on Main Street, the 600 and 700 blocks emerged as an entertainment center. This area featured the impressive Buffalo Music Hall at Main and Edward Streets which later became the Teck Theater. Built as a “cathedral” of entertainment by theater mogul Michael Shea, Shea’s Buffalo Theater (now Shea’s Performing Arts Center) is Buffalo’s grand surviving theater.
The 600 block was also home to the Cinema Theater movie house at 645 Main Street, and the 3,000 seat Great Lakes Theater (renamed Paramount Theater) built by William Fox at 612 Main Street in 1927.
Get Your Pills, Tonics, And Elixirs!
The intrepid Dr. Ray Vaughan Pierce established a medical office and medicine manufacturing company in 1867 to make “Doctor Pierce’s Favorite Prescription” out of a building dubbed the World’s Dispensary at 664 Washington Street. After his Pierce’s Palace Hotel And Hospital burned in 1881, he built the Invalids’ Hotel And Surgical Institute at 663 Main Street.
Billed as “the largest, most complete establishment of its kind…,” patients flocked to the hospital from all over North America. Rumor has it that even the outlaw Sundance Kid was treated there. His two sons continued the business after Pierce’s death in 1914 and in 1921, their Pierce Realty Company constructed the Pierce Building on the site of the former family home at 653 Main Street. The company closed in the 1930s and the 2-story commercial building is the only lasting legacy of the once world-famous medical empire.
Edward A. Kent, born in 1854, was one of Buffalo’s most prominent architects and some of his best work still stands in the Theatre District. After earning degrees from Yale and the L’Ecole des Beaux Arts in Paris, he returned home and established an office in 1884. He designed houses for prominent members of the community, including the Cornell House at 484 Delaware Avenue where a young Katharine Cornell first experienced family plays performed in its attic theater. Kent’s designs include the Unitarian Universalist Church on Elmwood Avenue, the Chemical #5 Firehouse at 166 Cleveland Avenue and the original Temple Beth Zion on Delaware Avenue. His mark on Main Street was made in 1895 with the A. E. Perron Company building at 674 Main, designed for the manufacture and sale of carriages, sleighs and harnesses which later served the Poppenberg Company, retailing pianos, bicycles, carriages and automobiles.
In 1896, Kent designed the Otto Building (636-644 Main) which housed Rung Brothers furniture and, later, the H. C. Martin bicycle shop. Making a final lasting impression, Edward A. Kent was the only Buffalonian to die aboard the Titanic.
Making Business Connections
Designed by the prominent local architectural firm of E. B. Green and William Wicks, the Market Arcade is Buffalo’s original 1892 shopping mall. Originally known as the Palace Arcade, the elegant Neoclassical building was designed to house numerous small shops and offices.
Its dual facades on Main and Washington Streets, with large arches and terra cotta buffalo head, were designed to connect two of the city’s busiest shopping areas; Main Street and the nearby Washington Market. When the Washington Market closed in the 1960s and pedestrian traffic declined on Main Street, the Arcade steadily lost tenants and closed in the 1970s. Then, in 1979 the City of Buffalo stepped in to purchase and rehabilitate the structure, which re-opened in 1995. Today, The Market Arcade houses a mix of shops, office, cultural and business tenants, much as it did in the late 1800s.
The Joint Was Jumpin’
Main Street wasn’t all business. Opened in December 1945 by Harry Altman and Harry Wallens, the Town Casino at 681 Main Street instantly became one of the nation’s leading nightclubs. Heralding itself as “the largest nightclub between Chicago and New York City,”
Town Casino offered floor shows with emcees, dinner, dancing and big-name entertainers such as Sammy Davis, Jr., Milton Berle, Dorothy Dandridge, Perry Como and Frank Sinatra. The club attracted notable jazz musicians and its mythology even contends that Al Capone once owned a piece of the action. The Town Casino continued as a premier hot spot until the early 1960s when it finally closed its doors. From 1964 to 1978, the converted building was home to Buffalo’s regional professional theatre company: Studio Arena Theatre. It then served a number of years as an artistic outlet for the UB Department of Theatre And Dance until, in 2005, it reclaimed some of its original style by opening as a nightspot named the Town Ballroom.
THE SHOW GOES ON
THE GOLDEN ERA OF BUFFALO THEATRE: 1880S-1960S
As 19th century commerce flourished and local citizens found increased disposable income, it was natural that live entertainment should blossom. However, the breadth and scope of theatre in Buffalo was truly remarkable.
In 1821-22, the first building designed to house live performances, known simply as “The Theater,” was constructed at Main and Court Streets, across from the Eagle Tavern. During the following century and a half, it’s name would be joined by many others including Saengerhalle, Teck, Star, Majestic, Erhlanger, Lafayette, Century, Great Lakes, Cinema, Center, North Park, Allendale, Tivoli, Garden, Court Street, Buffalo, Paramount, Palace and Studio Arena.
Concerts, theatre, vaudeville and other live performance thrived as numerous theaters sprang up. Michael Shea built a theatre empire and his flagship, Shea’s Buffalo, appeared on Main Street in the 1920s. Even the street itself offered entertainment, hosting parades of marching veterans, fire and police officers, and decorative floats on wagons as the vitality of the entertainment industry fed back to promote retailers and restaurateurs.
Today, Shea’s Buffalo (now Shea’s Performing Arts Center) has been saved, restored, and is a thriving presenter of Broadway touring shows, but most of the other theaters and movie houses have faded into mere memories of a golden era. However, they have been replaced by a new theatre movement that began in the mid to late 1970s. Since then, the general affordability of Buffalo and the size and quality of a remarkable pool of local theatre talent has encouraged theatre entrepreneurs, producers and directors to found more than twenty small, prospering legitimate theatres in the Buffalo region. This new movement has its heart, and many of its companies, here in the Historic Theatre District. Its most exciting expression comes each September with “Curtain Up!,” the celebration of the Theatre District and the opening of Buffalo’s professional theatre season.
The Dean Of American Showmen
In an era when Buffalo was dominated by intrepid, self-made men rising from rags to riches, Michael Shea stands out as the nationally prominent impresario whose name was synonymous with theater and entertainment.
Shortly after he was born on April Fools Day, 1859 in St. Catharine’s, Ontario his family moved to Buffalo’s working-class Old First Ward. While working on a freighter in 1882 he became inspired to enter the entertainment business, to provide relaxation and escape to tired workers and businessmen.
Shea’s first venture, the Shea’s Music Hall, located in the old Arcade Building at Lafayette Square, was modeled after German beer halls. However, just as it was gaining attention, it was destroyed by fire in 1893. Undeterred, he soon opened the Shea’s Tivoli Theater where some of the era’s most popular singers, actors, acrobats, jugglers, magicians, trained animals, and novelty acts appeared in what was clearly anticipating vaudeville. In 1898 Shea committed fully to vaudeville with the opening of Shea’s Garden Theater on Pearl Street in a former roller rink. He helped form one of the nation’s first vaudeville circuits and expanded his vaudeville empire with the purchase of the Park Theater (renamed Shea’s Court Street) in 1905 which featured the top vaudeville acts including George M. Cohen, Douglas Fairbanks, W. C. Fields, Buster Keaton and others.
Throughout the early 1900s, Michael Shea’s collection of theaters continued to grow. He opened the Majestic Theater at Pearl and Genesee Streets, and the city’s first major movie theater, the Shea’s Hippodrome on Main Street south of Chippewa. In 1920, Shea purchased his first community theater, the North Park on Hertel Avenue, and would eventually go on to purchase other community theaters including the Kensington, Bailey, Seneca and Elmwood. During this era, the national trend of building large, plush motion picture palaces was taking root, and Shea envisioned his own grand movie theater; a showplace such as Buffalo had never seen. Ground was broken in 1925 and one year and $2 million later, Shea’s Buffalo Theater opened to great fanfare.
With his crown jewel in place, Shea proceeded to accumulate additional theaters including the former Loew’s State Theater, (renamed Century Theater), the Fox Great Lakes Theater, and the Riviera Theater in North Tonawanda. However, with the crash of October 1929, Shea faced serious financial reverses. The strain of economic depression and the decline of his entertainment empire, proved too much for the aging impresario and he passed away in 1934 at the age of seventy-five.
For a time, the Shea’s theater chain stayed afloat but the theaters were subsequently sold off to other operators or shut down and demolished. Though many are merely faded memories of Buffalo’s golden era of downtown entertainment, the North Park Theater on Hertel Avenue continues to show movies, and the refurbished and restored Shea’s Buffalo Theater (now Shea’s Performing Arts Center) is a proud reminder of Michael Shea’s once great entertainment empire.
Studio Arena Theatre
Studio Arena Theatre evolved from the Buffalo Players, a community theater founded in 1920 during the Little Theater Movement, to become one of the country’s premier regional theaters. In 1927, the group became Studio Theatre School where young hopefuls like Amanda Blake, Nancy Marchand, and Michael Bennett began brilliant careers. Under Neil Du Brock’s leadership in 1965, Studio Theatre became a fully professional company and as Studio Arena Theatre moved into the former Town Casino at 681 Main. The debut performance was Jose Quintero’s production of Eugene O’Neill’s A Moon for the Misbegotten starring Colleen Dewhurst and James Daly. Audiences enjoyed Bonnie Franklin in Roberta and Peter Pan, Kim Hunter as Elizabeth I, and Jon Voight in A Streetcar Named Desire. In 1978, Studio Arena moved into the 600 seat former Palace Burlesque at 710 Main. The next thirty years saw premieres of plays by Edward Albee, A. R. Gurney and Lanford Wilson; performers such as Christopher Walken, Kelsey Grammar, Paxton Whitehead, Glenn Close and Julianne Moore who made her professional acting debut in The Dresser. However, bankruptcy closed the company in 2008.
The building re-opened for the 2012-13 season under the management of Shea’s Performing Arts Center as 710 Main Theater.
The Paramount Theater
During the heyday of downtown movie palaces, the big Hollywood studios invested in theater construction in major markets throughout the nation. Fox and Loews ran the 3,300 seat movie palace at 612 Main which opened in 1927. It operated first as Fox’s Theatre and then as Fox’s Great Lakes, but in 1931 Michael Shea, with Paramount as his partner, acquired the property giving Shea an interest in every major downtown theater except The Lafayette. The theater became The Paramount in 1949 and Edward Miller its manager from 1951 to 1965. The era of the automobile and the rise of the suburbs was in full swing and downtown had ceased to be a destination for movie-goers. The cavernous Paramount screened its final film for about 50 people. The interior was demolished for a retail furniture business and warehouse before the building was converted into the City Centre condominium complex.
The Palace Burlesque
The Palace Burlesque, last operating at 710 Main Street, was owned by Dewey Michaels (1898-1977) from the late 1920s until it closed September 29, 1977. Like Michael Shea, Michaels was able to make his mark in show business from modest beginnings. Dewey’s father ran movie theaters where young Dewey would then get employed. Eventually, Michaels would run his own burlesque theater and concessions operation with profits from his various business dealings providing a handsome living. He drove a chartreuse Cadillac, promoted prize fights, auditioned strippers personally, and sent his children to Harvard, Wellesley, and the University of Pennsylvania.
His son Jim would become the longtime editor of Forbes magazine; while his other son, Albert, would join the faculties of the University of Buffalo and Buffalo State College.
The Teck Theatre
The Teck Theatre started booking road shows of legitimate theatre in 1908. As an unnamed writer for the Courier-Express said in 1939: “If the Teck has ghosts, no other theater in the country could have more glamorous ones. The greatest names in the English and American theater appeared on its billboards and no history of the American musical comedy could be written without mementoes of the Teck.”
A LONG AND WINDING ROAD
REBIRTH OF THE THEATRE DISTRICT: 1970S-PRESENT
Main Street was Buffalo’s primary commercial corridor throughout its history, however by the 1970s new economic pressures and cultural changes had a significant effect on the street. The 1970s financial crisis coupled with the collapse of the industrial economy that had been the City’s lifeblood since the early 19th century spelled disaster for Buffalo’s traditional downtown commercial business.
Buffalo also faced significant population loss as the highway system of the 1950s and ‘60s encouraged residents to move to the growing suburbs. Losses of capital, business and population effectively brought commerce on Main Street to a halt, and, while the southern end of Main Street fared better thanks to government and banking offices and projects like the Main Place Mall (opened 1968) and a new bus terminal, the northern end of Main Street struggled. This resulted in numerous vacant properties, as many of the City’s shops, restaurants, clubs and theatres closed and boarded up rendering the 600 and 700 blocks one of the most depressed, least desirable areas in the entire city.
The sometimes frustrating and ever challenging road to recovery began in the late 1970s. Government and business leaders, developers, community members and theatre professionals worked together to put available resources to best uses. Today, Buffalo’s Theatre District is a place to live, work, play, worship, shop, dine and more. New apartment and condominium developments reuse historic buildings, attracting new residents. Though large 19th century retailers are gone, a growing collection of small, owner-operated stores, boutiques and shops recalls its 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 continues to be popular for a wide assortment of professional, governmental, architectural and other services. The Theatre District boasts an array of independent live theatres that offer a wide range of theatre styles; from touring Broadway productions to new plays, classic dramas to modern comedies and musicals.
Every Journey Begins With A Single Step
James D. Griffin was sworn in as Mayor of Buffalo on January 1, 1978. One of his first acts as Mayor was to fund a survey known as the “Entertainment District Project.” Published in July 1978 by the University at Buffalo’s School of Architecture and Environmental Design and spearheaded by Dean Harold L. Cohen, the report created a plan for the 600 and 700 blocks to restore shopping, dining and entertainment. integral to the report was a recommendation that a “semi-autonomous, non-profit corporation free of political ties” be established to encourage investment of all kinds. Thus, the Theatre District Development Corporation was formed March 1, 1979.
Under Griffin’s leadership, extending into the 1980s, the City purchased or took over many of the vacant Theatre District properties for the purpose of stabilization. The City had already acquired Shea’s Buffalo Theater for back taxes in 1974, purchased the former Greyhound Bus Depot and took ownership of the Market Arcade Building, the former Laube’s Old Spain Restaurant, and the Otto Building, among others. Vacant storefronts were boarded up with colorful murals while plans for their reuse were developed.
The City brought in developers and architects to restore and revitalize many of the properties. In 1981, the City-owned Otto Building and the adjacent 2-story building were designed as the “Theater Place” office and commercial complex by Hamilton Houston Lownie Architects.
In 1983, the “Theater Historic Preservation District” was officially created by the City of Buffalo, recognizing the 600 and 700 blocks of Main Street as a distinct local historic district, which led to access to federal historic preservation tax credits, and additional incentives for redevelopment.
To Traffic Or Not To Traffic?
Following the urban trends of the 1960s, Main Street planners envisioned a pedestrian mall free of vehicular traffic. In an era of auto-centric shopping, the thought was to create a safe, quiet walking zone harkening back to traditional pedestrian-oriented commerce and served by a light rail transportation system. The Metro Rail project was envisioned during the 1970s as a way to increase inexpensive public transportation into downtown Buffalo, following Main Street between the University at Buffalo’s South Campus and the Buffalo River. Agreement about removing traffic from Main Street was not universal. There were those who felt that the very loss of congestion would deprive the Theatre District of excitement. However, construction began in May of 1979 and was completed by 1986, and while much of the line was subterranean, it came above ground just south of West Tupper Street in the 600 block where it entered the “Buffalo Place” pedestrian mall.
Taking action was key. The 1980s began to see an upswing on Main Street that continues to this day. While the lack of vehicular traffic on the pedestrian mall continued to be a source of controversy, considered by some to be an impediment to commercial growth and audience development, numerous private and public projects continued to grow to completion.
Saving The Crown Jewel
The restoration of Shea’s Buffalo Theater boosted the re-emerging Theatre District. The theater faced an uncertain future in the 1970s until a group of citizens led by Curt Mangel, Ben Hiltz, Steve LaManna, Dan Harter and others, formed the non-profit Friends Of The Buffalo Theater, Inc. which played a critical, early role in protecting Shea’s Buffalo from demolition.
Throughout the 1980s and ‘90s, the theater began to reclaim its past glory with increased programming, and the expansion of the stage and backstage areas to accommodate larger-scale Broadway shows. The Main Street façade was restored to its former glory with the installation of a new vertical sign replicating the original, and the restoration of the building’s original decorative cornice which had been missing since the 1930s. Efforts continue on the preservation and restoration of the building’s opulent interior.
Theatres Make The District
Most of the live theatre presented in Buffalo today is produced locally by area theatre professionals. The many small companies each serve a distinctive role in the greater cast of Buffalo theatres.
Within the Theatre District… Alleyway Theatre, founded in 1980 and focused primarily on producing new plays and musicals, has transformed the former Greyhound Bus Depot into a two-theatre facility including its Main Street Cabaret.
Irish Classical Theatre Company relocated to the Andrews Theatre at 625 Main Street in 1999 and offers seasons of traditional and contemporary Irish, American and International plays. Road Less Traveled Theater opened in the Market Arcade Film and Arts Centre in 2006 where it spent a number of years presenting plays that are new to Buffalo audiences. Shakespeare In Delaware Park, which offers free outdoor summer performances, maintains year round offices in the Theatre District.
In addition to the enormously successful revitalization of Shea’s Buffalo Theatre, that organization operates 710 Main Theatre as a presenting house for small touring productions and for use by local producing companies. Shea’s also operates the Smith Theatre, an informal cabaret theatre, in the former Laube’s Old Spain building at 660 Main Street.
Through recent years, a number of local producing theatre companies developed, lost, and sometimes redeveloped spaces within the District. Even those which no longer exist or moved out of the District made valuable contributions along the way. They include The Cabaret, The Playhouse, Buffalo Entertainment Theatre, UB’s Pfeiffer Theatre, Franklin Street Theatre, Buffalo City Lights, Buffalo United Artists and, most prominently, Studio Arena Theatre.
Traffic Isn’t The Only Thing That’s Back
After thirty years absence, the project to return vehicular traffic to Main Street beginning in 2011 has been widely hailed as the best way forward. But the Theatre District hasn’t been idling, waiting for cars on Main to move into its driving lane.
Businesses and professional offices have returned to these blocks of Main Street and new restaurants are flourishing. The Market Arcade Film & Arts Centre opened in the late 1980s and presents a wide range of first run, art, and classic films. Live music is featured at the Town Ballroom and the Tralf.
Year-round festivals held in downtown continue to bring attention to all of Main Street, and the Theatre District’s popular “Curtain Up!” celebration, marking the annual start of the professional theater season in Buffalo, has been held every year since 1981 and is the only event of its kind… anywhere!