Huyler Building - Table of Contents
Commercial Development of Delaware Avenue in Buffalo, NY
By Jennifer Walkowski
An excerpt from the Huyler Building Nomination for Listing on the State & National Registers of Historic Places.
Prepared by Clinton Brown Company Architecture/Rebuild
The Huyler Building is a good example of the transformation that was occurring on Buffalo’s Delaware Avenue in the early decades of the twentieth century. Beginning at the Terrace and radiating northward from Niagara Square (Buffalo’s earliest town square sited at the heart of the developing community), Delaware Avenue had been a primary artery since Buffalo was first laid out in 1804 by surveyor Joseph Ellicott. Initially the street was designated as Delaware Street, named in honor of a Native American group, and in 1879 it was renamed Delaware Avenue to reflect its growing prominence and status.24
Through much of the nineteenth century, Delaware Avenue was one of Buffalo’s most fashionable residential streets, especially in the area nearest to Niagara Square. Delaware Avenue north of Niagara Square initially was opened for traffic in 1826, leading to the construction of one of the street’s most significant early houses, the large stone house of Dr. Ebenezer Johnson, Buffalo’s first mayor, was constructed in 1833 on Delaware Avenue between what is now Chippewa and Tupper Streets.
Bolstered by the economic growth and prosperity in Buffalo in the decades following the opening of the Erie Canal in 1825, Delaware Avenue saw much of its residential growth in the 1850s and 1860s. Houses of this era included the Richard Upjohn-designed Gothic Revival house (ca. 1853) at Delaware and Utica [the Webster House] , the Walter Cary house (1852) at 184 Delaware Avenue, and the elegant Italianate-style Rufus L. Howard house at 251 Delaware Avenue (ca. 1858). One notable house was the fanciful Gothic Revival house for John Hollister (1852) at 107 Delaware Avenue, which later became the home of former President Millard Fillmore when he returned to Buffalo in 1858.
By mid-century, the Gothic Revival and Italianate styles had given way to the French-inspired Second Empire style, characterized by a mansard roof and towers. Extant examples of the style include the William Dorsheimer House (1868, NR 1980) designed by H.H. Richardson, the Stephen Van Rensselaer Watson House at 388 Delaware Avenue, now the Buffalo Club, (1870), and the Charles F. Sternberg House at 414 Delaware Avenue (now the Mansion on Delaware Avenue hotel) built in 1869-70.25 Records indicate that a similar brick Second Empire-style house occupied the parcel at 374 Delaware Avenue later occupied by the Huyler Building, possibly constructed ca. 1875 for Thomas A. Jebb, Canadian-born capitalist and treasurer of the Akron Cement Works.26
Around the turn of the twentieth century, Delaware Avenue’s residential character began to be eroded by the growing commercial and business development of downtown Buffalo. While residential development continued, primarily north of North Street, Delaware Avenue began a transition to commercial architecture, beginning at Niagara Square and moving northward. Already, Delaware Avenue south of Niagara Square had lost much of its residential character by the second half of the 1800s.
The 1910s and 20s saw a rapid transformation of not only the use but the architectural scale of the area around Niagara Square with the arrival of the Spencer Kellogg Company, which transformed the former Henry H. Sizer House (1836) at 98 Delaware Avenue into offices for its linseed oil company in 1910. This era also saw the construction of the new Statler Hotel (1923, NRE), which replaced the former Hollister-Fillmore House (which itself had become the Hotel Fillmore in 1881) and the Buffalo Athletic Club (1924, NRE), which replaced the former Stephen G. Austin House (1836).
This commercial transformation spread northward on Delaware Avenue especially in the decades after World War I, as cultural, societal and economic climates changed. In 1888 the first commercial enterprise, Margaret Armstrong’s millinery store, opened on Delaware Avenue at Mohawk Street, marking the first of the many stores and shops to come along this stretch of Delaware Avenue.
Delaware Avenue’s transformation was ushered in by improvements in transportation, including the advent of public transportation such as buses, which allowed this north-south artery to be used by a growing number of people. This phenomenon was further enhanced as the automobile allowed even greater access to the street. The growing number of people utilizing Delaware Avenue encouraged businesses to locate along this artery. Further compounding this transformation was the fact that as fortunes and domestic customs changed in the twentieth century, many of the older mansions became too costly for a single family to maintain and were subsequently divided into boarding houses or had additions added for use as offices and shops.
Despite the shift from residential to commercial artery, Delaware Avenue retained a degree of exclusivity and status amongst other commercial strips such as Main Street. The Delaware Avenue Associates (formed in 1923) was a group of merchants who were concerned with managing the quality of life on the street through the transition. As a result, Delaware Avenue adopted rules and regulations which governed the transformation of the street and sought to “make its business portion as attractive a commercial thoroughfare as it formerly was a residence street.”27
The group successfully had the street widened from Niagara Square nearly to North Street in 1924. This allowed for better modern amenities such as new sewer lines, traffic signals and light fixtures. While this project modernized the street and made it an attractive and desirable commercial location, it did have the negative impact of decimating the treescape of primarily elm trees, which had given Delaware Avenue a shaded, arboreal appearance throughout its history.28
It was in this environment of the 1920s that the Huyler Building was constructed on Delaware Avenue. Like many other commercial projects, the older residential building (which at the time was serving as Jennie Canfield’s rooming house) was demolished in 1925 to make way for a new, modern commercial building, built flush to the newly widened street line. The elegant Classical Revival façade of Huyler Building may indicate the design tastes and preferences of the Delaware Avenue Association, and is an indication of the group’s desire to create a sophisticated design befitting the earlier associations with Delaware Avenue. As a company with a national reputation of the highest rank, the Huyler company apparently sought to build its flagship store in Buffalo on the city’s most fashionable commercial corridor. Similarly it was probably no coincidence that the Pitt Petri import shop, with its selection of elegant, tasteful and high-end goods, also elected to make its home on fashionable Delaware Avenue.
By the late twentieth century, however, Delaware Avenue began to see its status as a fashionable retailing corridor erode. The improved automobile transportation network in the region, initially promoted by groups such as the Delaware Avenue Association, had the opposite consequence. The improved highway system constructed in Buffalo and in Erie County in the 1950s and 60s made it easier and more attractive for residents to locate in the booming suburban areas surrounding the city. Occurring simultaneously was the development of new retailing methods such as auto-centric shopping plazas which combined multiple retailers in one location, conveniently accessed by car from the highway. With the loss of city residents and the rise of new “one stop shopping” centers, the more pedestrian-oriented retailing spread out along Delaware Avenue and Main Street in Buffalo suffered.
The Pitt Petri importing company’s survival into the twenty-first century was a rare success amongst the many locally or family owned businesses which closed their doors in Buffalo during the last half of the twentieth century. It was the last store of an era of elegant retailing here. Today, while some retailing has returned to downtown Buffalo, mainly in the form of unique specialty stores and boutiques for the many, elegant retailing for the carriage trade has still not returned to its pre-World War II era level, as shopping malls and big-box retailing continue to dominate.
The Huyler Building, both through its appearance and its occupants, is an excellent reminder of Delaware Avenue’s once-thriving upscale commercial character. The building’s elegant classical façade is also a reminder of the elegance, sophistication and refinement associated with retailing on Delaware Avenue in the early 1900s, when Buffalo ranked amongst America’s pre-eminent cities.-----
24 Francis R. Kowsky, "Delaware Avenue, Buffalo, New York," The Grand American Avenue 1850 -1920 (San Francisco: Pomegranate Art, 1994) 36.
25 Kowsky 35-45.
26 Edward T. Dunn, Buffalo's Delaware Avenue: Mansions and Families (Buffalo, NY: Canisius College, 2003) 183. Also information drawn from the 1874 and 1875 Buffalo City directories and the 1889 Sanborn Fire Insurance map.
27 Quoted in Kowsky 59.
28 Kowsky 56-61.