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Lost Genesee Block: The Caulkins Building

The removal of the remnants of the Caulkins Building at 85-89 Genesee Street last year serves as a potent reminder of the fragility of the historic buildings throughout the Genesee-Ellicott-Oak neighborhood, and how a few previous well-intentioned yet misguided steps can create significant challenges for the preservation and reuse of buildings throughout the area.  Throughout its more than 100 year history, spanning four generations, the Caulkins Building represented a unique example of commercial architecture designed specifically for the photography industry.

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 now-demolished Caulkins Building.

Designed in 1886 by prominent Buffalo architect, Franklin Wellington (F.W.) Caulkins, the Caulkins Building was constructed at a time of enormous success, prosperity and commercial growth in the Genesee-Ellicott-Oak neighborhood.  The stately building was constructed as a mixed-use commercial and residential building for Louis Bergtold for a cost of $5,000.  Bergtold, who ran a successful cigar shop at 297 Main Street, was also known to dabble in real estate development, and was likely attracted to the growing commercial potential of the thriving neighborhood around the Washington Market (founded in 1851).

Caulkins10.pngLike many of the other buildings in the Genesee Gateway group, the Caulkins Building replaced two earlier ca. 1850s miniscule brick buildings.  In the 1860s and 1870s, a building located at 85-87 Genesee Street was owned by Ferdinand Rehr, while the adjacent building at 89 Genesee Street was owned by an A. Bissan.  In 1861 the buildings housed Charles Reinhard’s clothing shop, Frederick Vanderlin’s, tailor business and Charles Worst’s jewelry store, with several residential tenants occupying the upper floors.

In 1884, prior to the construction of the Caulkins Building, William Denzinger was noted as occupying 87 Genesee Street in addition to 91 Genesee Street for his furniture and cabinetry business.  By the 1880s, Louis Bergtold purchased the property at 85-87-89 Genesee Street and had the elegant Caulkins Building constructed.

The earliest known tenants of the building were the Queen City Hat Manufacturing Company and Frederick Joseph Dorn’s jewelry shop.  Fred Dorn, as he was known, would become the longest occupying tenant of the Caulkins Building.  Born February 24, 1856 to Philip and Mary Dorn who were originally from Hessen-Darmstadt, Germany, Fred Dorn was a prominent member of Buffalo’s German/German-American community during the late nineteenth and early twentieth-centuries.  Dorn was well
educated, having attended the local St. Michael’s School, City School 14, and St. Joseph’s College.  He studied watchmaking and repair, working for prominent local firms such as King & Eisele and Hiram Hotchkiss in Buffalo, before spending time in New York City at age 18 studying his craft.  He also worked for six years in Philadelphia in the watch and jewelry business, and spent a year in Cincinnati before returning to Buffalo.

In 1886, at the age of 25, Dorn established his own jewelry and watchmaking business in the newly constructed Caulkins Building at 87 Genesee Street in the central and largest commercial space of the building.  Following the establishment of his own company Dorn continued to pursue his education in his career, visiting the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition held in Chicago in order to view the mechanical displays.  Dorn was well respected, and by many accounts was an honest and fair man with a pleasant demeanor and many friends throughout the city.  He was a member of several organizations including the Order of Elks, the Eagles, the Moose Lodge, the Amicus Club, and other associations. Dorn was also active in the German community as a long time member of the Orpheus, the Sängerbund, the Teutonia Liederkranz, and the Buffalo Gymnastics Club.

It was also noted that Dorn took great pride in actively promoting the betterment of the German community.  He ran his jewelry shop at 87 Genesee Street until his death on January 3, 1930, and the Fred J. Dorn jewelry shop continued on under his name in the same location until the 1950s.  Dorn was such a beloved and significant figure in Buffalo at the time of his death that the honorary pall bearers at his funeral included the mayor of Buffalo at the time, Mayor Charles E. Roesch, former mayor Frank X. Schwab, Surrogate Judge Louis B. Hart, and Judge Louis Braunlein among other prominent men. 

The Caulkins Building also served as a well-known photography building in the late nineteenth century and early twentieth-century.  Since it was ideally suited for the needs of photographers at the turn-of-the-century, the Caulkins Building had an almost continual occupancy by one or more photographers.  Well-designed photography studios were a rare commodity at the time, since photography was still so dependant on open space and natural lighting, and it was not uncommon for photographers to share occupancy of the studio space.

The first known photographer to occupy the building at the 85 Genesee address (which appears to have been assigned to the third and fourth floor studio) was Adolph Hillman between 1891 and 1893, who also ran a studio from 539 Main Street since 1869.  It may have been Hillman’s tenancy in the building which prompted building owner Louis Bergtold to modify the well-suited Caulkins Building to feature a large “photo light” skylight, although it is equally possible that the building was originally constructed with this skylight since no building permit or documentation exists.

Caulkins11.pngLike the fanciful Werner Photography Building at 101-103 Genesee Street, the Caulkins Building was well suited to the photography trade since it faced north allowing for ample northern light.  The Caulkins Building was used as the primary studio of photographer Joseph Altenberg between 1894 and 1932.

Howard J. Vigras shared the studio space with Altenberg in 1914, and following what appears to have been Altenberg’s death or retirement, his successor studio, Allite Studio, occupied the building until 1937.  Allite Studio is the last known photography studio to occupy the building, and the upper floors may have been converted to additional residential space in the late 1930s.

Besides the jewelry shop of Fred J. Dorn and the photography studios which occupied the Caulkins Building, the stately Romanesque building played host to many other industries and commercial tenants throughout its history.  In 1929, the Caulkins Building housed Edward Haller’s cigars & tobacco shop, Joseph Heim’s dental laboratory and Louis Newman, optometrist at 85 Genesee Street, and Marie Fronheider’s gloves and hosiery shop at 89 Genesee Street.

In 1937 the building was home to Haller’s tobacco shop at 85 Genesee, and at 89 Genesee were located Marie Matthies, women’s furnishings and Louis Ulrich’s hemstitching business.  Newman and George Schueckuer were noted as residential tenants, likely on the second floor.  Walter Kirkpatrick opened his barber shop at 89 Genesee Street in 1940, and in 1946 Christine Fuller ran a cigar shop at 85 Genesee Street; perhaps the only woman-run tobacco shop in Buffalo.

Like many of the Genesee Gateway buildings, and those throughout the Genesee-Ellicott-Oak neighborhood, the Caulkins Building was a center for many aspects of daily life including shopping, dwelling, and personal health.

The Caulkins Building remained largely architecturally intact throughout its history.  While the photo light skylight may have potentially been an alteration done ca. 1890 to the building, the most significant alteration occurred in 1914.  Jennie Bergtold, widow of Louis Bergtold and who maintained ownership of the building at the time, hired prominent local firm Colson-Hudson to modify the storefront of the building.  This alteration may have been done in response to the low lighting levels available due to the small, triangular “land-locked” position of the building.  What may have been considered sufficient in 1886 was likely by 1914 standards considered unsuitable, even given the popularity of electricity in Buffalo by this time.

genesee_tear_down_1_sm.jpgSince the building did not have any windows on the eastern or southern facades, the Caulkins Building relied solely on the northern façade for most of its interior illumination.  A majority of the alterations done to the building by Colson-Hudson appear to be light-oriented.  While it appears that the original cast iron pilasters and street level structural system was retained, new copper clad storefronts were inserted into the three bays. Wide expanses of plate glass were used as display windows and for the doors.  Luxfer prism transoms were added to the storefront; a product typically used to direct light from the windows to the rear of the building.

Colson-Hudson also altered the basement in a unique way.  The firm, known for their engineering capabilities, removed the extant northern foundation wall and relocated a new concrete wall several feet north beneath the sidewalk.  The new bulkheads inserted into the building were hollow and featured glass windows on their north side.  Coupled with the new glass vault lights installed into the new concrete sidewalk, lighting was brought down into the basement level of the building.  The purpose of bringing light into the basement is unknown as no specific use or occupant can be attributed to this space, and it appears the rather extensive alteration may have been done to illuminate a dark basement storage space.

Like its neighbors, the Caulkins 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. The once-stunning building appears dirty and shabby in photographs, with a hodge-podge of signs pasted across the front of the building (still visible ca. 1986 is Fred J. Dorn’s sign above 87 Genesee).

The Caulkins Building suffered from years of general neglect and decay in the 1970s and 80s, and was largely poorly maintained and repaired.  The Caulkins Building, along with its neighbor the Denzinger-Sigwald building at 91-95 Genesee Street, were largely vacant for nearly three decades in the 1970s-90s.

Because of its abandonment and neglect, in 2000 the roof and flooring system of the Caulkins Building collapsed in on itself, creating essentially a hollow masonry shell with little interior support.  Due to this fragile condition, the building was twice slated for demolition by the City, including a narrow escape in 2001.

In early 2002, local planner Jessie Schnell Fisher formed Triangle Development in order to purchase the Caulkins and Denzinger-Sigwald Buildings, hoping to use $50,000 in funds earmarked for their demolition to restore and rehabilitate the buildings.  Triangle Development purchased the buildings in October 2002 and began a misguided attempt at rehabilitating the building which included removing remaining historic fabric in order to brace the interior walls, similar to the work Willard A. Genrich had completed in the 1980s at the eastern end of the Genesee Gateway block.

DSC_0345gb.JPGOnly a month later in November 2002, a strong wind storm caused the collapse of significant portions of the Caulkins Building, taking portions of the adjacent Denzinger-Sigwald Building with it.  After removing the debris from the site of the former Caulkins Building, the site was largely ignored for several years.

In 2007 the building was purchased by Genesee Gateway LLC, with support from the Margaret L. Wendt Foundation.  Spearheaded by CityView Construction Management, the Genesee Gateway project rehabilitated the vacant buildings on the eastern end of the block, creating a series of commercial and office spaces.  The development group had planned reuse of the Caulkins and Denzinger-Sigwalt Building as a Phase II of Genesee Gateway.  The buildings shells became unstable as efforts were made to shore up the properties last summer and were demolished.  Now used for parking, the developer has not ruled out future development at this end of the block.

steelcaulkins2.jpgSource: Local Historic District Application, May 17, 2010.  Clinton Brown Company Architecture.

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