Music Halls History - NE Elmwood Avenue at Virginia Street
Allentown Then and Now
By Jonathan L. White for the Allentown Association newsletter
Buffalo Rising, March 21, 2021
The landmark Kleinhans Music Hall, located on Symphony Circle in Allentown has been home to the Buffalo Philharmonic and literally thousands of concerts in all musical genres for 80 years. But Allentown has been home to the City of Buffalo’s primary music venues for over 120 years.
Not long after the Civil War, the east side of Elmwood Avenue (then called Fremont Street) north of Virginia Street served as military grounds with a drill shed.
In 1882 the Buffalo architect Milton Beebe designed a new armory for the 74th New York National Guard Regiment at the north side of the drill shed, leaving the land at the corner of Elmwood and Virginia as an open parade ground.
In 1885 the state retained Louise Blanchard Bethune (America’s first female architect) to design a larger armory administration building over the parade grounds at the south end of the drill shed and fronting on to Virginia Street.
The following year, after a fire destroyed Beebe’s armory building and the old drill shed, Bethune designed a new drill shed that, along with her armory building would see several uses over the next 52 years.
In addition to regimental military drills, the drill shed served as a hall for large events and gatherings. Therefore, when the 74th Regiment moved to the monumental Connecticut Street Armory in 1899, it was natural that the City of Buffalo should negotiate with the state for ownership of the Elmwood armory for use as a convention hall. The City took possession in 1900 and the facility quickly saw use for trade fairs, conventions, grand charity balls and graduation ceremonies for Central High School (now Hutch Tech). It also hosted sporting events including wrestling matches and basketball games.
In 1900, the Buffalo Convention Hall also took on the role of the City’s primary concert hall when the Music Hall on Main Street fell on financial hard times. Although the acoustics were far from perfect, they were well received by singers and many well-known musicians, orchestras and singers performed in the hall. Over the years, the stage of the hall was graced by John Philip Sousa’s band, Gustave Mahler conducting the New York Philharmonic, Leopold Stakowski conducting the Philadelphia Symphony, the Boston Symphony, the Pittsburgh Symphony with the soprano Dame Nellie Melba and other orchestras.
In 1904 the composer Victor Herbert (Babes in Toyland) conducted summer concerts. Mayor J. N. Adam donated the famous organ that had been installed at the Temple of Music at the Pan American Exposition and free organ concerts were given every other Sunday.
In 1907, the 65th New York National Guard Regiment moved into the new Masten Avenue Armory and the Masten drill hall began to serve as the city’s new convention hall (a function it served until the downtown convention center opened in 1978). This led to renaming the old 74th Regimental Armory as the Elmwood Music Hall.
Other performers included the cellist Pablo Casals, the pianist Sergey Prokofiev, the French composer and conductor Camille Saint-Saens, the violinist Yehudi Menuhin and, in 1908, the great Enrico Caruso sang at the hall.
Local musical groups and orchestras also performed in the Music Hall, including the Buffalo Symphony Orchestra in the 1920’s and Buffalo Philharmonic from its founding in 1935 until the Elmwood Music Hall closed in 1938. Concerts moved to the former Masonic Consistory on Delaware at West Ferry (now Canisius High School) until Kleinhans Music Hall opened in October of 1940.