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History of the Genesee Block: The Werner Building

The Werner Photography Building at 101-103 Genesee Street is a significant architectural work by one of Buffalo’s most recognized architects.  It has become a symbol of the Genesee Gateway buildings, and even when vacant, was an elegant reminder of the  Genesee neighborhood’s once thriving past. 

Perhaps this spirit is best captured by artist Charles Burchfield whose “Street Scene” painting of 1940-1947 recorded a rather dreary, overcast day along this stretch of Genesee Street (see image at bottom).  At the center of the work rises the stately Werner Photography Building, whose elegant architecture and unique forms belie the somber color palate and impressionistic technique.  Clearly the Werner Photography Building, a work of architectural art, attracted not only photographic artists, but artists who worked in many media and who appreciated the unique beauty of the brick and glass structure.

Jennifer Walkowski, an Architectural Historian with Clinton Brown Company Architecture, prepared the application necessary for the designation of the Genesee Gateway Historic District.   Below is an excerpt from her findings on the Werner Building.

DSC_0214g.JPGConstructed in 1895, the Werner Photography Building was designed by the internationally prominent Buffalo architect, Richard A. Waite for Mrs. Frederike Giesser and built for a cost of $10,000.  Local craftsman Nicholas Kenyss was noted as the builder for the project.  Constructed during the heyday of the Genesee-Ellicott-Oak neighborhood as a center for trade, commerce and industry in Buffalo, the Werner Photography Building replaced earlier buildings on the site at 101-103 Genesee Street.

Like many of the Genesee Gateway buildings, the site was previously occupied by a small, two-story wood frame ca. 1850s building which had a small service building towards the rear of the property.  The earliest known tenant of this small-scale building was August Adler, who was noted in 1861 as having both a residence and butcher shop at the present 103 Genesee Street address (then numbered as 63).

In 1866 the parcel was divided between two owners, A. Meyer, whose property included the small building, and Frank Pfennig, a cigar maker, who owned a large parcel of vacant property.  By 1870, Gabriel Giesser was owner of the small structure at 101-103 Genesee Street, locating his family and his cutlery business in the building.

Born about 1825 in Württemberg, Germany, Gabriel Giesser and his family would be long-term residents and business owners in this portion of Genesee Street.  Relatively little information is available about the family, but the Giesser family would reside and own property in the Genesee Gateway block between the 1870s and the 1930s and were likely prominent and well-known citizens in the local German and increasingly German-American community. Trained in the repair and maintenance of knives and cutlery, Giesser’s sons Frederick and Charles also trained in the business.  Business must have been successful for Gabriel Giesser, who appears to have eventually purchased the adjacent property owned by Frank Pfennig by about 1880.

Gabriel Giesser would expand his business which was located at 99 Genesee Street, noted as making and repairing cutlery, barber and butcher supplies by the as manager for the business.  Following the construction of the Werner Building 1895 it appears that the family resided in the new building at 101-103 Genesee Street while the business operated from 99 Genesee Street next door.  While Gabriel Giesser appears to have been owner of the 99, 101-103 parcels, Frederike’s name appears on the building permits and as owner; the reason behind her ownership, and not her husband’s, is unknown.  After Gabriel’s death around 1900, his widow Frederike inherited the Genesee Street property which appears to have included 99, 101 and 103 Genesee Street.

Perhaps as a response to the growing development along Genesee Street in the late 1900s and the increasing property values in the neighborhood, Frederike Giesser hired prominent local architect Richard A. Waite to design a mixed use commercial and residential building on the 101-103 property.  The family had a personal connection to Richard A. Waite; son Edward was employed as a draftsman in the Waite office from around 1890- 1898. Edward Giesser may potentially have served as designer for the new Werner Photography Building, but since Waite was well known to take a strong personal interest in all his buildings, it is very likely that Waite had the ultimate say in the building’s design and construction.  Plans were filed on April 10th, 1895 and according to the April 27th, 1895 issue of the journal Engineering Record, the building was described as a “four-story brick business block, cost $10,000.”

The elegant new building served as the home of the Giesser family until at least the early 1900s and originally featured two commercial spaces on the ground floor (these appear to have been combined into one space by 1925).  In addition to its residential use, the location of the building, oriented facing north, created the opportunity for the building to be used for a very specific purpose.

The Werner Photography Building was specially designed to accommodate the thriving photographic industry as a daylight studio; since the primary façade of the building faced due north providing the clear, even lighting desired by studio photographers to this day, the building was designed featuring a large glass skylight as a primary architectural feature on the primary façade.  In the hands of a skilled architect such as Waite, the large copper ornamented skylight became an elegant and signature feature for the Werner Photography Building, a light, airy element which contrasted with the otherwise simple solidity of the masonry building.

DSC_0328g.JPGThe depth and modeling of the north façade of the Werner Building are also striking.  The overall depth of the front façade of the building is several feet thick, giving the elevation a sculptural quality lacking in the more utilitarian, builder-constructed buildings of an earlier era, such as the H. Seeberg Building at 113-125 Genesee Street, which features a more traditional wall thickness.  At the time of its construction, the Werner Building was one among several specially designed buildings which accommodated the photography industry, including the neighboring Caulkins Building (1886) located at the corner of Genesee and Ellicott Streets at 85-87-89 Genesee Street. Designed by prominent Buffalo architect, F.W. Caulkins, the centrally located “waterfall” skylight of the Caulkins Building likely influenced the design of the larger and more dramatic window of the Werner Photography Building.

The earliest tenant of the new building appears to have been photographer Albert L. Werner.  A popular photographer of German decent, Werner’s photography business began at 289 Genesee Street east of the Genesee Gateway buildings in 1890.  Werner appears to have relocated his business to the Werner Photography Building in 1896, shortly after its construction, and Frederike Giesser possibly had the building designed specifically for him. 

DSC_0195b.JPGDespite this grand new studio building, Werner’s photographic business appears to have left 101-103 Genesee Street in 1899.  However short-lived Werner’s studio was, he left a permanent mark on the building he occupied; his painted signage on the western façade of the building, which was still visible from the 1890s and more recently repainted, has given the building its name.

Because the building was designed specifically for the photography industry, and was likely one of the most architecturally elegant as well as technically superior studio buildings in Buffalo at the time, the Werner Photography Building accommodated many photographers and artists following Albert Werner.  Many of Buffalo’s artists and photographers worked in the studio space of the building at 101-103 Genesee Street, and the building was likely well-known among the photographic community.  The building was so popular that often photographers appear to have shared the studio space, indicating how well the building suited their artistic needs.

Photographer Hanson D. Tufford worked from the building between 1900 and 1906.  In business since 1884 at 329 Main Street, prominent local photographer Jacob J. Ginther ran a second studio location in the Werner Building from 1901 until 1906.  In 1908, Dora Barnhard used the photographic studio at the Werner Building for her work.  In 1913 both Chauncey W. Rykert and Hernando O. Sickler operated their photography businesses from the Werner Building. Sicker relocated his operations to the building after working on Seneca Street since 1879. 

For ten years between 1915 and 1925 photographer John Garner operated from 101-103 Genesee Street, and his business appears to have continued as the Garner Studio until 1933.  Between 1926 and 1938 Clarence S. Williams worked as a photographer as the Williams Studio.  In 1940, the studio of the Werner Photography Building housed the Foto-Art Studio. Foto-Art Studio may have been the last photographer to use the building as a studio, as the building appears to have been accommodating more of a commercial tenancy throughout the early twentieth-century.

DSC_0144b.JPGIn 1929 Lazarus Rosenfield operated a retail shoe store from the building, and Angus Bigelow used the building as a dentist office. In 1937 the City Mattress Company (apparently unrelated to the current City Mattress Company) operated a retail store from the 101 Genesee storefront. 

By the 1940s the men’s clothing store, Charlie Baker Clothier opened in the Werner Photography Building. Operated by the H. Seeberg Company which occupied the eastern end of the Genesee Gateway, the Charlie Baker company was located in the building from the 1940s until the 1980s. In 1945 the Charlie Baker company reconnecting two buildings which were historically connected to the Giesser family but later separated), and altered and modernized the storefronts.  Together, the H. Seeberg Company and Charlie Baker stores gave this stretch of Genesee Street the informal nickname of the “Garment District,” although the proximity of photography studios at the Werner Building and in the Caulkins Building also suggests that “Photography District” may have also been an apt nickname for this neighborhood.

Like its neighbors, the Werner Photography Building suffered from the general neglect and decay which was rampant in the neighborhood in the 1970s and 80s, following the opening of the Kensington Expressway which effectively funneled residents and businesses from the Genesee neighborhood into the suburbs.

werner1980.pngThe once-stunning copper “waterfall” skylight was painted over and boarded up, a symbol of the downturn in the neighborhood. The Werner Building was vacant in 1980 (image right) before it was purchased by Willard A. Genrich and Platinumdome, Inc.  Genrich, who owned many of the neighboring Genesee Gateway buildings, had high hopes for the rehabilitation of such a prominent row of rare commercial buildings. 

In 1986 Genrich started a rehabilitation project which removed the interiors of all the buildings down to the studs and brick.  Genrich’s attempts were unfortunately misguided, but fortunately much of the original interior structure remains intact at the Werner Building.  Genrich also restored the dazzling copper skylight, bringing back some glimmer of the building’s once beautiful appearance. 

After several years of legal issues between Genrich and the City of Buffalo, who took Genrich to housing court seeking a demolition of the buildings, the future of the Werner Photography Building appeared bleak.  In 2007 the building was purchased by Genesee Gateway LLC from J. Roger Trettel (who had purchased the building from Genrich in the attempt to save it), with support from the Margaret L. Wendt Foundation to create the Genesee Gateway offering a mix of retail and office space.

Source: Local Historic District Application, May 17, 2010.  Clinton Brown Company Architecture.


See Also:

Part One- Genesee Gateway Historic District

Part Two-  The H. Seeberg Building

Part Three- The Baldwin Building

Part Four- The Giesser Building

Part Five- The Schwinn-Mandel Building

 streetscene.pngThe Genesee Gateway Historic District is among the most recognizable commercial streetscapes in all of Buffalo. Captured by noted artist Charles Burchfield in his “Street Scene” (1940-1947), this unique contiguous row of commercial buildings has long been an iconic and identifiable location in the city. 

Written by WCPerspective


Buffalo and development junkie currently exiled in California.

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