History of Downtown Buffalo, NY
Centers on Main Street from Goodell Street to the Buffalo River. Within this two mile area are three separate centers: the Theater District in the north, the civic and commercial center around Niagara and Lafayette Squares, and the Waterfront area at the south end.
By James Napora
The text below is reprinted with permission: "Houses of Worship: A Guide to the Religious Architecture of Buffalo, New York," by James Napora. Pp. 27-29. Master of Architecture Thesis. Found at Buffalo Central Library NA5235 B8 N37 1995
Located north of the original commercial center of the city, the downtown core as we today know resulted from the expansion of commercial activity into what was once a residential district.
The first whites, the French: Historically, water attracted the first explorers to what became known as Western New York and the city of Buffalo. The French, in 1678, were the first to arrive. Under the direction of LaSalle, they sailed up the lower Niagara River and, portaging supplies around the falls, established the village of LaSalle on Cayuga Island. At this village, they built a ship, the Griffon, and the following year set sail up the river. Landing in what later became the Village of Black Rock, they prepared the ship for its trip through the Great Lakes.
The first white settler to arrive here, Chabert Joncaire, built a house and barn along the banks of Buffalo Creek in 1758. Working to avert the hostility of the Iroquois population towards him, he established a lucrative business trading amongst them.
The successors, the British: With the defeat of the French at Fort Niagara by Sir William Johnson in 1759, the Niagara Frontier fell under rule of the British. It remained so until the Revolutionary War forced them [the English] from the area.
As allies of the British, the Indian population of the Iroquois Nation suffered harshly at the hands of General Sullivan's armies. Under the direction of George Washington, Sullivan used a scorched Earth tactic which successfully prompted the Iroquois [specifically, the Senecas] to flee their ancestral homelands in the Genesee Valley. Traveling westward, they sought safety amongst the British forts on the Niagara River, eventually settling along the banks of Buffalo Creek.
Holland Land Company: In 1791, Robert Morris purchased the land of Western New York from the State of Massachusetts. Without delay he founded the Holland Land Company, a group of six Dutch investors. With extensive Indian claims upon the land, the legality of the acquisition remained uncertain until 1797. At that time, Thomas Morris, representing his father, convened a council along the banks of the Genesee River intending to persuade the Indians to sell their lands and relinquish all claims to it. With the withdrawal from the proceedings of the great sachem Red Jacket, the primary opponent to the transfer of the land, the Iroquois left with.$10.000 cash and three reservations on the Niagara Frontier. Thus, the way was cleared for the eventual settlement of the City of Buffalo.
Upon its inception, the Village of New Amsterdam was nothing more than an outpost along the lake at the mouth of the Buffalo River. Its early settlers marginally existed by trading goods with the Indians, from whom they remained on guard against the constant threat of hostility. Virtually isolated from the rest of United States, they established the first vestiges of what would become the City of Buffalo.
Joseph Ellicott's plan: It was here in this outpost, that Joseph Ellicott laid out the plan for the city in 1804. Based on the Baroque system of city planning, the plan for the city is most closely related to that prepared by the French architect Pierre L'Enfant for the city of Washington, D.C. Centered on a series of public squares, the main streets, each once named after a director of the Holland Land Company, stretched out as a series of broad boulevards from the present day Niagara Square.
As originally planned, Ellicott's ideas recognized the potential for growth in the area. Reliant upon the water as its primary means of transportation, the early city grew located adjacent to it.
Exchange Street functioned as one of the main commercial streets and the area north of the once fashionable residential district on Swan and Seneca Street was forested lands. Clinging to the water as its source of life, the future of this tiny frontier town changed drastically with the arrival of the Erie Canal.
Erie Canal: Begun in 1817, within three years the canal pushed into Western New York. Uncertain as to its terminus, a bitter rivalry resulted between Buffalo and the Village of Black Rock.
Without a navigable harbor, the chance of Buffalo being selected by Governor DeWitt Clinton appeared to be slim. The lake front was exposed to the forces of nature and a sandbar blocked the entrance to the river, the only protected site along the shore. Certain of the superiority of Buffalo as the location for the terminus, a group of local dock merchants quickly organized. Lead by Samuel Wilkeson, Charles Townsend and Oliver Forward, they aggressively acted,to assure the selection of Buffalo. They removed the sandbar at the confluence of the creek and erected a breakwall to protect the harbor.
In 1823 the decision was made to locate the terminus of the canal to the west of Main Street in Buffalo and on 26 October, 1825 the canal was officially dedicated.
Instantly, Buffalo became the gateway to the West. With immigrants passing through by the thousands, the city prospered. From a pre-canal population of 2.500, within five years it had increased to over 8.600, a figure which would double every ten years for the following four decades.
Grain elevators: If the canal functioned as the primary reason for the growth of the city, the invention of the grain elevator would be second to it. Invented by Joseph Dart in 1842, the grain elevator facilitated the rapid transfer of grain from lake vessels to canal barges and later to railroads. Within ten years of its implementation here, Buffalo became the world's largest grain port.
Immigrants: But the rapid growth of the city is more than its relation to the lake and to grain, it is also related to the arrival of immigrants, many of whom decided to stay here and seek their fortunes.
The 1860s saw the population of the city further increase from over 81,000 in 1860 to over 94.000 five years later. Coupled with the further diversification of the area's economy, the city's future success appeared assured. During this period the nature of the city changed most drastically. With the population experiencing such a rapid level of increase, it continued to spread further and further from the original commercial center. Along Washington and Main Streets and to the west and east, the population sprawled. As a result, the city that Joseph Ellicott laid out in 1804 began to develop a primarily residential character.
Downtown becomes commercial: The very nature of the current downtown core began to change in the closing decades of the nineteenth century resulting in the further decentralization of the city's population.
The development of structural steel served as the primary force in this change, prior to which the height of buildings was severely limited. Thus, the economic power of the city began to concentrate itself in an area where it was possible to serve a large number of people efficiently. Buildings such as the Guarantee, a prototype for the skyscraper and the Ellicott Square, at one time the world's largest office building, did as much to reinforce the centralization of the economy as they did to alter the once residential character of the downtown core.
But it was the development of a transportation network that did the most to solidify the role of downtown as the commercial center. By the turn of the century, the downtown area was serviced by twenty-five streetcars operating along almost ninety miles of track. Laid out in such a manner, they connected the distinct neighborhoods which made up the city to the core. As a result, the population further decentralized while the commercial activity clustered into what was once a residential area,changing the character of the city forever.