The former Houk Manufacturing Co. facility at 316 Grote Street was added to the National Register of Historic Places. Rocco Termini has converted the 28,160 sq.ft. building into commercial and residential space with help from historic preservation tax credits.
The $6.72 million Houk Lofts project contains 22 one and two-bedroom apartments and commercial space leased to INK Inc., a tattoo studio, and Salon in the City, a hair salon. BMS Design Studio and L2K Design prepared plans for the project. It is the first of three developments Termini is undertaking in the Elmwood Avenue corridor north of Buffalo State College.
From the National Register Registration Form prepared by Martin Wachadlo and Francis R. Kowsky:
Buildings of the Houk Manufacturing Company are eligible for the National Register under criterion A because they were the first site in America for the large scale production of wire wheels for automobiles. The buildings are also eligible under criterion C because they are well preserved examples of the shed type of brick-pier construction that was common for factory buildings in the United States in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, before the adoption of reinforced concrete for such buildings and the popularity of the so-called daylight factory. One of the buildings was erected by R. J. Reidpath, a Buffalo engineer who, for other clients, notably the Larkin Company (1907) in Buffalo and the Alling and Cory Warehouse (1911; NR listed 2010) would be an important builder of reinforced concrete factory buildings.
The former Houk Manufacturing Company / Wire Wheel Corporation of America factory, is a large industrial facility built in the early twentieth century that is mostly intact today. Constructed in stages between 1910 and 1930, the complex retains a significant amount of its as-built appearance, consisting of rectangular and acute angled one-and-two-story brick factory buildings on a roughly L-shaped plan. The principal elevations are east, facing Elmwood Avenue, south, facing Grote Street, and west, which is angled to reflect the curving right of way of a spur of the former New York Central Belt Line that runs along this boundary.
Architectural embellishment is limited to an Ionic portico entrance in the center of the facade of the office building that faces Elmwood Avenue, a principal public thoroughfare that passes the complex. The factory complex is built of brick pier construction, with load-bearing brick piers around the exterior. The space between the piers was originally filled with metal windows, many of which were been replaced with concrete block. The interiors of the factory complex and the office areas are largely intact, retaining the original open floor plan and other features such as stairways, elevators, fire doors and flooring. In some areas of the interior, steel posts and beams support reinforced concrete floors and ceilings; in others, wood posts and beams support wood floors and ceilings. Comparison with original blueprints and Sanborn maps indicates that the present day complex largely retains the appearance of a manufacturing facility of wire automobile wheels that operated here between 1913 and 1930.
The Development of the Factory Complex
This large manufacturing facility developed over a twenty-year period. The original portion was constructed in 1910 for the Superior Motor Vehicle Company as an L-shaped factory of four distinct sections. The original factory complex of 1910 consists of a two-story office building fronting on Elmwood Avenue with a one-story machine shop directly behind it (extending westward to the former New York Central Railroad spur), a one-story warehouse, and a two-story forge shop that is located at the south end of the warehouse and fronting on Grote Street.
By early 1911 the firm had become the Superior Axle & Forge Company and by the following summer, the business had became the McCue Company. Both firms specialized in making automotive axles. McCue soon expanded the complex, building a detached brick garage to the south of the office block in 1911. In 1913 McCue added a second story to the machine shop and the testing room. A second story was also added to the warehouse c. 1915. This last addition may have been added by McCue, or by the Houk Manufacturing Company, which purchased the complex in the fall of 1915.
By 1916, an addition connected the power house to the machine shop. A two-story section was added in 1916 to the west side of the forge shop. A second addition in 1917, also two stories, extended the complex westward to the railroad spur.
By early 1917 the Houk Manufacturing Company was merged into the Wire Wheel Corporation of America. In 1919 the firm built a freestanding, two-story building with one-story wings to the east of the forge shop.
Also in 1919, it constructed another addition to the north of the recently erected western sections. The westernmost additions created an irregular northwest façade of the complex; this elevation was regularized in 1922 with a small addition built out to the railroad spur. Portions of the section immediately to the east of the power house may pre-date the end of wire wheel production at this facility, c. 1930.
The nominated buildings are intimately associated with the American entrepreneur George W. Houk, whose career, stated one obituary, “was filled with action and the romance and endeavor.”
Born in Wellsboro, Pennsylvania, in 1865, Houk began his adult life in Elmira, New York, as a salesman of the Eclipse racing bicycle made famous by the English cyclist John Thompson Keen.
In 1892, Houk, who was a persuasive salesman, moved to London. There over a period of twelve years he became wealthy selling this speedy early racing bicycle to many British customers. During this period, he also became interested in the new automobile, and when he returned to America in 1909, having lost his fortune, he first became associated with the Oldsmobile car. In 1913, while living in Philadelphia, he introduced the British Rudge-Whitworth detachable wire wheel to the nascent American auto industry. Earlier in England, the shrewd businessman had secured rights to market and manufacture this novel wheel design in the United States.
Heretofore the wooden wheel had been standard equipment on automobiles, as it had been on horse-drawn carriages for ages prior. Meeting with success and seeing a golden opportunity, the always impulsive Houk left Philadelphia and, with the help of willing investors, established his own business making wire wheels in Buffalo.
Purchasing the factory at 1700 Elmwood Avenue that had been the local home of the defunct McCue automobile company of Hartford, Connecticut, Houk became the first person in America to manufacture wire wheels. The L-shaped building, which had brick walls with an inside exposed steel frame as well as wooden post-and-beam floor and roof supports and which extended south to Grote Street, had originally been erected in 1910 by R. J. Reidpath for the Superior Motor Vehicle Company.
Houk’s business prospered as automobile producers soon recognized the advantages of metal and wire wheels over older wooden spokes and rims. The Houk Manufacturing Company soon was selling its product as an accessory to many car companies in Buffalo and elsewhere. In 1916, a company advertisement in a New York City newspaper declared that “Houck Quick Change Wire Wheels are now standard equipment on the oldest, best equipped, and most influential of the Great American Automobile Manufacturers.”
Wire wheels possessed many advantages over old fashioned wooden wheels. “Statistics prove that use of these wheels effects a savings of at least 15 percent in tire expense and as this then is the most important in automobile up keep the economic value of the wire wheel is self evident,” stated the Buffalo Express in a long article on the subject. The wire wheel was light weight, and thus increased gas mileage while at the same time it dispensed with “sledge hammer” jolts crested when wooden wheels encountered a bump. Wire wheels also kept tires much cooler than wooden wheels because the metal rims and spokes transferred heat away from the rubber tires as they turned.
“The difference in temperature is important,” pointed out the Express, “as heat destroys the durability of the tire.”3 Moreover, wire wheels were much stronger than wooden rims. “The spokes are so arranged,” explained the Express, “that the wheel will not only support the weight of the car, but will likewise withstand the severest side strains resulting from the side sway or skidding of the automobile.” Houk wheels, asserted the Express, were “practically unbreakable.”
When George Houk purchased the former McCue factory complex that bore the address 1700 Elmwood Avenue in 1913 he quickly transformed the structures that had originally been built to make automobile axles into the world’s largest manufactory of wire wheels. A description of the operation published the following year stated that it covered 90,000 square feet of space and employed 500 workmen who turned out 5000 wire wheels daily.
The Great Depression proved to be the swan song of the great wire wheel enterprise. National economic conditions and changing tastes and standards in automobile design conspired to relegate the wire wheel business to the sidelines of the American automobile industry. By 1931, the Wire Wheel Corporation was no longer in business and the Elmwood Avenue-Grote Street buildings were listed as vacant on City records.
By 1935 some of the space was being occupied by a variety of businesses, including Sherman-Williams Paint Company, Visco Meter Company, and a general contractor. Fortunately, all later occupants of the structures did little internally to change them.
Get Connected: Houk Lofts: 716.842.1938