The former General Railway Signal Co. complex at 1738 Elmwood Avenue was added to the National Register of Historic Places on May 26. Last occupied by FWS Furniture Company, Rocco Termini’s Signature Development is wrapping up a conversion to hotel, residential and commercial space. The first of 36 residential units welcomed tenants earlier this month.
Foundry Lofts’ commercial space is occupied by Buffalo Spree, East Meets West Yoga, and Utilant LLC, a software company. Also planned are 21 guest rooms, The Foundry Suites, and a 9,000 sq.ft. banquet facility run by AcQua. A central interior courtyard is a key feature of the $18 million complex. BMS Design is project architect and L2K Design handled the interior design work.
From the National Register of Historic Places Registration Form prepared by Martin Wachadlo and Francis R. Kowsky:
The former Taylor Signal Company/General Railway Signal Company building is a well preserved example of early twentieth-century factory architecture eligible for the National Register under criterion C in the area of architecture as a largely intact example of an early twentieth-century industrial building.
The Taylor Signal Company/General Railway Signal Company building was built on the brick-pier system of factory construction and represents a transitional phase in American factory architecture between the older multi-storied brick mill tradition established in the 1820s and the concrete-framed daylight factory type that was developed between 1902 and 1906. Additionally, the building has special significance from having been designed by the locally well-known architectural firm of Esenwein & Johnson.
The building is additionally eligible under criterion A in the area of industry and transportation for its association with the Taylor Signal and General Railway Signal Companies, who garnered success in the early mass production of electric railway signals.
Constructed between 1902 and 1906, the complex largely retains its as-built appearance, consisting of a rectangular two and three-story brick factory building with a central light court and wings that project east and west from the southern side, and a three-story brick office building at the northeast corner connected to the factory by a hyphen. The factory complex is built of brick pier construction, with load-bearing brick piers around the exterior and an interior structure of steel posts and beams supporting reinforced concrete floors ceilings.
The principal façade is east, facing Elmwood Avenue, while the south façade faces the former New York Central Belt Line. Architectural embellishment is minimal, limited to crenelated parapets and small rosettes in the window lintels on the factory, in addition to brick drip moldings and a metal entrance canopy on the office building.
The nominated property is a large contiguous building composed of two principal sections: a three-story former office building (1905-1906) that fronts on Elmwood Avenue in front of a two and three-story factory building with an interior light court (built in stages between 1902 and 1906). A three-story hyphen connects the former office building to the manufacturing complex. All buildings are of standard size red brick construction on a random local limestone foundation, with flat roofs and crenelated parapets.
The fact that the Taylor Signal Company/General Railway Signal Company building rose only two or three floors was a common to the interior layout of many brick pier factories. (Older textile mills were often taller.) Latter day manufacturers favored spreading operations out whenever possible because they found that moving materials and equipment internally horizontally was more efficient than moving them vertically. Inside, all floors of the factory complex consisted of open work space. This “universal” space, which early modern architects such as Walter Gropius and Mies van der Rohe, came to admire in industrial buildings, is supported on slender steel posts and beams. The floors of this semi- fireproof building are of concrete.
Although steel was used to reinforce the brick piers, heavy timbers framing were still employed for interior columns, beams and secondary joists that supported the floors, ceilings and the flat roof. (The latter made possible by new materials and methods.) Heavy timbers, observed Banham [Reyner Banham, the pioneering historian of Buffalo’s industrial architecture] “charred or burned slowly and often retained their structural strength long enough for the building to be emptied of goods and workers, naked steel construction would begin to twist, distort and pull the building to pieces even before it melted.”
The location of the factory near railroads also played a role in the plant’s operation. The Belt Line Railroad, a creation of the New York Central Railroad, opened in 1883, forming a fifteen-mile rail beltway around Buffalo. (The line is presently part of CSX.) The line provided a ring road around the northern suburbs of Buffalo for passenger and freight trains.
The Belt Line Railroad attracted industries to new inland sites in the suburbs. Before this time, most manufacturing in Buffalo was located near the Lake Erie waterfront. The Erie Railroad also had constructed a line around North Buffalo. In the area just west of the Taylor Signal Company/General Railway Company site it paralleled the Belt Line Railroad before veering northward.
The Taylor Signal Company/General Railway Signal Company
“The purpose for which the company is formed is the manufacture of an electric interlocking device which is designed to do away with the danger of collision where two railroad tracks cross at grade,” stated a newspaper account of the formation of the Taylor Signal Company in Buffalo in 1900. At the time, passenger trains were required to come to a complete stop when reaching an at grade crossing unequipped with a safety device. As a result of this inconvenience, trains were often delayed in meeting their schedules.
The device which the new company would manufacture alleviated this problem in the following way:
When a train is approaching on the main track of a railroad, an operator at the crossing or intersection of the tracks throws a lever connected with the interlocking system. That lever starts an electric motor which sets a signal on the main track giving the engineer the right of way. It also acts as a danger signal on the cross track and throws out a derailing switch. Should the engineer on the cross track disregard the danger signal and go ahead his train would be brought to a standstill by the derailing switch.
The integration of an electric motor to control the signal, rather than a mechanical or pneumatic device (which other safety signals employed) was unique to the Taylor system. The electric signal was the invention of John D. Taylor (1861-1913), a telegraph operator and self-educated man, in Chillicothe, Ohio.
In 1889, seeing the potential of his invention to greatly improve rail travel, his friends and neighbors helped him establish a small business in his carpenter shop in Chillecothe to make his device. The venture limped along for a few years until Alvah W. Hall, maker of another signal device, bought out Taylor with the view to greatly expanding operations at a new site in Chicago. A chance meeting with George D. Morgan, president of a real estate and venture capital business in Buffalo, caused Hall to change his plans. When Morgan told him that he could readily assemble a group of investors in Buffalo to support his scheme, Hall agreed to his proposal.
On May 1, 1900, the new company was formed with its first factory and headquarters at Carroll and Wells Street in Buffalo. (A branch office was opened in Chicago’s nationally famous Monadnock Building.) Initially, the Buffalo factory employed about 150 workers and staff. The company installed its first signal in 1901 at Eau Claire, Wisconsin. The sole all-electric signaling system in existence at the time, the Taylor signal quickly proved itself to be extremely safe and efficient. Orders soon came in from around the country as well as from abroad. Taylor was to be remembered by the railroad industry as “the man whose monument is the electric interlocking system.”
Under the able direction of its chief executive officer, Wilmer W. Salmon, who had come from Chicago to guide the corporation, the Taylor Signal Company soon became a national supplier of railway signal equipment. In the fall of 1901, when the company had been in business for less than eighteen months, a local newspaper announced that it had “decided to double its capacity and build a new plant in this city.”
The site chosen was on Elmwood Avenue adjacent to the Belt Line Railroad. Plans by Esenwein & Johnson had already been prepared when the notice appeared in the press. The new facility would be two stories high and 250 feet long. A 50-by-70-foot administration building was also contemplated fronting on Elmwood Avenue. Moreover, banking on continued success, the company was prepared to double its factory capacity within a year. This it did. “Among the big manufactories recently completed in Buffalo is the Taylor SIgnal Company building at Elmwood Avenue and the Belt Line. More than 250 men are employed,” reads a caption to a photograph of the plant published by the Courier on August 25, 1903.
In 1904, W. W. Salmon negotiated an agreement whereby the Taylor Signal Company of Buffalo and the Pneumatic Signal Company of Rochester, New York, were merged to form the General Railway Signal Company. The Pneumatic Signal Company, which was one of Rochester’s largest industries, was the leading manufacturer of non-electrified railway signals. “Its products,” touted the Buffalo Courier, “which were known for reliability and neatness are unsurpassed, have been adopted by many of the leading railroads of the country.”
The new firm, known henceforth as the General Railway Signal Company would now incorporate electrical components to its signals.
The new General Railway Signal Company soon proceeded to greatly enlarge its Buffalo facility. This work was also entrusted to Esenwein & Johnson. In 1905 Esenwein & Johnson designed a three-story addition on the west side of the facility that created an enclosed light court in the center of the complex; they also designed the company office building facing Elmwood Avenue (above). These additions were completed by mid-1906.
The merger that had taken place in June 1904 had been intended to consolidate operations at the expanded Buffalo plant. However, just months after the new additions were completed in 1906 the General Railway Signal Company decided to close its Buffalo factory and move all operations to Rochester where the city had given land and raised money for a new factory on West Ave. (The company, presently known as Alstom Signaling Incorporated, continues to make railway safety equipment in Rochester.)
The move was completed in 1907. Thus, the period of significance for the property being nominated is 1901-1907. “It was a body blow to Buffalo to lose a manufacturing plant like that the General Railway Signal Company, employing in Buffalo nearly 800 men,” lamented the Buffalo Express. The action surrounding the move “should be an interesting object lesson to our city,” admonished Samuel Clemens’s old paper.
In the age before publically financed industrial development agencies, Rochester, “with its well-known public enterprise,” noted the Express, “was not slow in taking advantage of the opportunity offered, for within 24 hours of presentation the businessmen of that city, without distinction to business interests, raised $250,000 for bonds and gave the five acres of land to bring the industry to Rochester.” The response had been universal, observed the Express, for “without distinction, department stores, grocers, bankers, wholesale and retail interests subscribed liberally to the securities, for by so doing they were helping their own town to secure a new plant.” Tipping its hat to the Buffalo’s Upstate rival, the Express acknowledged “that’s the Rochester way of doing things and the wisdom of it is shown in its remarkable growth and the prosperity of its local interests.”
Starting in 1907 and continuing for several decades, the former General Railway Signal Company plant served several industrial concerns simultaneously. The Century Telephone Construction Company, which had recently suffered the loss to fire of its factory elsewhere in Buffalo, purchased the former Taylor Signal Company/General Railway Signal Company property and used it to make telephone switchboards and related equipment. This firm was soon joined by the General Drop Forge Company, which moved into the forge shop, a freestanding brick building at the rear of the complex (no longer extant).
In 1914, the Lippard-Stewart Motor Car Company occupied part of the plant. An excellent view of the plant published in that year is labeled to appear that the entire plant is part of the auto company. The following year, the Curtiss Aereoplane Company made aircraft engines in a part of the plant.
Beginning in 1920 and extending into the 1950s, the General Drop Forge Company began to make significant additions to their plant at the rear of the property, nearly all built in metal. These buildings, now on separate parcels of property, fall outside the period of significance.
Eventually, by the mid twentieth century most of the historic structure was converted to storage facilities, and, in most recent years, was home to a large furniture store. The plant remained, however, remarkably unchanged through subsequent periods of ownership (the only major alteration being the blocking up of the windows), thus presenting a rare surviving example of an early twentieth-century industrial complex.