Setting out with walking shoes, a water bottle and some background material in hand, a stroll along historic Delaware Avenue is an ideal way to spend an autumn afternoon. It’s a journey back to Buffalo’s gilded age, when prestigious architects built spectacular homes for prominent families. Delaware Avenue, it has been said, was the place to live.
Longtime Western New Yorkers have seen the buildings countless times. But how many know the histories that the buildings house?
Some of these grand residences built in the late 1800s and early 1900s have been converted into corporate headquarters, human service agencies, schools, multiple dwellings and offices. Some existed as rooming houses or restaurants for a period of time. Others were torn down.
Rags-to-riches tales can be found along the avenue, as well as some very personal stories. The men who died while their palatial homes were still under construction. The woman who died and left behind an infant and a husband who, several years after her death, married her younger sister. The families who lived in their homes for relatively short times.
“The interesting thing about the mansions on Delaware is that they were all single-family houses but, not only that, they were often one-generation houses. Once the kids grew up, they asked, ‘Do I want to live in this mausoleum of a house? Do I want to upkeep the land? Do I want to take care of the bevy of servants?’ ” said Marla Bujnicki, vice chairwoman of the board of Preservation Buffalo Niagara and a certified master docent with the group’s ongoing education and tourism program, Buffalo Tours.
Often, the answer was no.
Family members moved instead to the luxury apartments at 800 W. Ferry and the Campanile – built in the late 1920s – or to upscale housing on streets such as Oakland Place, Nottingham Terrace, Lincoln and Chapin parkways or Bryant Street, she noted.
But, before that, they lived in places such as the ones showcased here.
According to Forbes: “The exact definition of the word ‘mansion’ varies, but in U.S. real estate terms, it’s generally defined as a single-family residence of more than 8,000 square feet. The Merriam-Webster Dictionary just calls it ‘a large and imposing residence.’ ”
Those who walk up Delaware Avenue – including along the section between North and Bryant streets known as Millionaires’ Row – feel they know a mansion when they see one.
Here are several of the mansions and stately homes located along a stretch of Delaware – from Edward Street closer to downtown north to Cleveland Avenue, a distance of less than a mile and a half. The century-old properties described here are by no means all of those on the avenue, nor is every owner or occupant listed. This is a glimpse.
Information was gathered from clippings from The Buffalo News, webmaster/architectural historian’s Chuck LaChiusa’s “Buffalo Architecture and History” (www.buffaloah.com) and two books – “Buffalo’s Delaware Avenue Mansions and Families” by the late Rev. Edward T. Dunn (Canisius College Press) and “Buffalo Architecture: A Guide” (MIT Press).
Bujnicki also offered historical information – as well as some juicy tidbits.
Then: Robert B. Adam House.
Now: TRM Architect.
Location: 448 Delaware Ave., between Edward and Virginia streets – close to the Mansion on Delaware, the AAA Four Diamond Award-winning historic boutique hotel.
Architect: Cyrus K. Porter.
Who once lived there: Robert B. Adam, who came to the United States from Scotland in the late 1850s and later moved to Buffalo, where he established what was to become the Adam, Meldrum & Anderson department store. This Second Empire-style home, built in 1876, remained a private residence until about 1920. It was then converted to the Johnson and Wilkins Funeral Home.
Did you know? Bujnicki pointed out that the design of this brick home – with its double front doors and parlor – is representative of the funereal practices in the city before funeral homes existed. People were laid out in the parlor, which eventually became what we now call the living room. The mansard roof is just one of the architectural highlights.
Then: Cornell Mansion.
Now: Law offices.
Location: 484 Delaware Ave., between Virginia and Allen streets.
Architect: Edward Austin Kent.
Who once lived there: Industrialist S. Douglas Cornell, who owned Cornell Lead Works across the street from the site. He commissioned the house with its circular porch to be built after his retirement in 1888.
“He was reported to be the best-looking gentleman in the City of Buffalo,” Bujnicki said. Women found him very, very charming, she said.
Did you know? Cornell was interested in theater and had Kent design one in the attic. He managed a group called the Buffalo Amateurs, mainly socialites. His young granddaughter used to come and watch the productions. Her name: Katharine Cornell, who became the celebrated stage actress. Attorney Thomas J. Eoannou bought the circa-1894 French Renaissance Revival property a century later. It has since been extensively restored.
One more thing: Kent, the architect, was the only City of Buffalo resident who went down with the Titanic, after helping other passengers into lifeboats.
Then: Wilcox Mansion.
Now: Theodore Roosevelt Inaugural National Historic Site.
Location: 641 Delaware Ave. It was in the library of this home where Theodore Roosevelt was inaugurated Sept. 14, 1901, after the death earlier that morning of President William McKinley, who had been shot at the Pan-American Exposition eight days earlier.
Architect: The structure that now houses the historic site was originally built circa 1840 as the officers’ headquarters for a U.S. Army installation called the Poinsett or Buffalo Barracks, according to the historic site’s website, www.trsite.org.
Who once lived there: Ansley Wilcox and his second wife, Mary Grace.
Did you know? Wilcox, a lawyer, moved to Buffalo in 1876 and became a leading figure in Buffalo’s Charity Organization Society and the American Red Cross, according to www.trsite.org. He married two daughters from the same prominent Buffalo family, the Rumseys. The first, Cornelia Rumsey, died in 1880, leaving behind an infant daughter named Nina. About three years later he married Cornelia’s younger sister, Mary Grace Rumsey. This now made Mary Grace’s niece, Nina, her stepdaughter, Bujnicki pointed out. The couple’s only child, daughter Frances, was born in 1884.
Then: Williams-Butler Mansion.
Now: The University at Buffalo’s Jacobs Executive Development Center. The building also serves as corporate headquarters for Sentient Science, a software and sensor company, and is used for various university events.
Location: 672 Delaware Ave. at North Street.
Architect: Stanford White of the prestigious New York City architectural firm McKim, Mead and White.
Who once lived there: The 40-room mansion, completed in the late 1890s, was built for Buffalo banker and leather manufacturer George L. Williams. According to a 1999 article in The Buffalo News, “Williams spared no expense in building his new home, spending $171,877 on the three-story residence, making it the highest-priced home of its time in the area.”
In 1905, the house was sold to Buffalo Evening News founder Edward H. Butler, and it remained in the Butler family for decades. In 1979, it was purchased by Delaware North Cos. and a $6 million restoration project took place. Delaware North later sold the building to Varity Corp. but acquired it again in 1999 and made it available to UB, which used it as the School of Management’s Center for Entrepreneurial Leadership. That has since moved to the former M. Wile building on Goodell Street, now known as the UB Downtown Gateway Building.
Did you know? Williams, the original owner, reportedly was to host President McKinley at the mansion in 1901, but the president was shot earlier in the day while attending the Pan-American Exposition.
Then: Clement Mansion.
Now: Greater Buffalo Chapter American Red Cross.
Location: 786 Delaware Ave. at Summer Street.
Architect: E.B. Green.
Who once lived there: The house was built between 1910 and 1913 at a reported cost of $300,000 for banker Stephen Clement and his wife, Carolyn Jewett Tripp Clement, and their children. According to Carolyn Clement’s 1943 obituary in the Buffalo Evening News, her husband, Stephen, died March 26, 1913 – the day before their 29th wedding anniversary and before the residence was completed. His wife, a longtime civic leader and philanthropist, donated the stone Tudor Revival mansion to the Red Cross in 1941.
Did you know? At Christmas, Carolyn Clement chose a green Christmas tree with all-white lights. Bujnicki has heard that, in more recent times, if another style tree were put up – a tree with multicolored lights, perhaps – ornaments would drop, the tree would fall, or lights would go mysteriously askew.
Then: Knox Mansion.
Now: Computer Task Group.
Location: 800 Delaware Ave., situated on Millionaires’ Row along with other repurposed mansions, such as those occupied by the Red Cross, Child & Family Services, the International Institute and Oracle Charter School (formerly the Goodyear Mansion).
Architect: Charles Pierrepont H. Gilbert, prominent architect of homes along Fifth Avenue in New York.
Who once lived there: Grace Millard Knox, wife of the late Seymour H. Knox, and their children Seymour H. Jr., Marjorie and Dorothy. Seymour H. Knox, vice president of the Woolworth Co. and chairman of Marine Trust Co., never lived in the house.
Did you know? Before Seymour H. Knox’s death in 1915, he and his family lived at 1035 Delaware in an Italian Renaissance-style residence, now the Blessed Sacrament Church parish office and rectory. The stone mansion at 800 Delaware stayed in the family until about 1970, when it became home to the old Montefiore Club. Computer Task Group bought it as its new headquarters in 1978.
Then: Conners Mansion.
Now: Life Transitions Center, formerly Gilda’s Club Western New York.
Location: 1140 Delaware Ave., at West Ferry Street.
Who once lived there: Although the house was said to be built for Thomas C. Meadows, general manager of Buffalo Fertilizer Co., it was sold before its 1908 completion to William James (“Fingy”) Conners, a former dock laborer and saloon keeper. He was described in one News story as “a man from the Old First Ward who began his career by ferrying workmen across the Ohio Ship Canal for pennies when he left school at the age of 13.”
Did you know? Conners made his fortune in lake transportation, newspaper publication – he was chairman of the board of the late Buffalo Courier-Express at the time of his death in 1929 at age 72 – as well as in real estate. He earned his nickname, Fingy, after losing a finger in his youth. The original house featured an indoor swimming pool, game room, solarium and third-floor auditorium.
Then: Rand House.
Now: Canisius High School.
Location: 1180 Delaware Ave., between West Ferry Street and Cleveland Avenue.
Architect: Franklyn J. and William A. Kidd.
Who once lived there: The Tudor Revival home was built for banker George F. Rand, but neither he nor his wife, Vina, got the chance to live there. According to newspaper clippings, Rand was killed in an airplane accident in 1919 in England. His wife died after construction began in about 1918. Rand was chief executive and chairman of the board of the Marine Trust Co.
Did you know? Although the parents never lived there, their children – including George F. Rand Jr. – did, but only for a few years. It was sold to the Masons and then, in 1944, to Canisius High School. It’s been used as a high school ever since.