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Architectural Mystery in Rochester May Have a Buffalo Connection

My friend over at Rochester Subway, Mike Governale has appealed to the good folks of Rochester in an effort to discover an architectural mystery. Now he’s asking Buffalonians if they know the origins of these carved lion head pieces, which may have come from Buffalo. The wrecking company that dropped these pieces off in the woods long ago operated in both cities during the urban renewals and these could be from our city. Check out Mike’s story below and let us know if you have any local leads!

Last summer Rochester developer and restauranteur, John Tachin called up RocSubway with a history mystery for us to solve. After four months of digging, we came up empty. But here’s hoping maybe YOU can help us solve the case of the stone lions.

Cue the Pink Panther Theme Song , this one’s a doozy…

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Tachin owns a bit of property on Lake Ave (crammed between Charlotte Appliance, School 42, and the Charlotte branch of the NYCRR tracks) which was previously owned by Benvenuto Wrecking Company.

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In November of 2002, while digging the foundation for a new warehouse he was building on the property, Tachin stumbled upon buried treasure.

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Hiding in an open pit beneath slabs of concrete were two huge stone corbels , each carved with a lion head atop a decorative scroll.

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In addition to the lion heads were four stone lintels – like something you might see over the doorway of a big old building, or monument. All six pieces had to be lifted out with a crane, and Tachin estimates they weigh between 7,000 and 9,000lbs. A truly massive find.

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Tachin led me up to the site where I snapped these photos and took some measurements. Each of the two lion corbels is 2 feet wide, 7.5 feet tall, and extend outward 4 feet at the top. Near the bottom of the scroll they taper down to nothing.

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The four lintels (or cornice ) each have simple styling on the front face. Each of these are 5.5 feet deep and 20″ high. Two of them are 80″ long, and two are 100″ long. When lined up end to end these four pieces span 30 feet. Interestingly this width would be a fairly typical city lot – particularly in some of the oldest sections of downtown, near the river.

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Any number of configurations could be made with the 6 pieces…benvenuto-stone-lions-rochester-ny-13

However, because of their extreme depth and mass, I’d guess the stones were not positioned at the very top of a building, but rather somewhere sandwiched between the ground floor and upper floors of a 3-story or taller building. Possibly like this…

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For over a decade Tachin searched to find someone who might know where the stones came from. But the search would not be easy. Benvenuto Wrecking Co. demolished houses and buildings all across western New York, from Buffalo to Syracuse and north to Watertown, from the 1940s all the way through this country’s disastrous “urban renewal” period of the 1960s and 70s.

Under a typical demo contract the wrecking company agreed to remove all remnants of a building. But often they would the right of salvage – meaning they could do what they wanted with the salvaged material.

According to old newspaper stories, the Benvenuto’s often exercised this “right”. In fact, James and Nick Benvenuto owned a small restaurant and motel in Cape Vincent called Sleep Hollow which they practically built and furnished entirely with salvaged material.

So at least we know this was fairly common for these guys to save oddities like our stone lions.

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“There’s a story here,” Tachin told a D&C reporter. “Unfortunately, the lions can’t talk so we have to try to find it out.”

At least three different stories ran in the local paper following his discovery. “They even printed my phone number,” Tachin recalls, somewhat regretfully 11 years later. “I got sooo many calls. A lot of nice old ladies telling me stories about a lot of different things… but no ideas about where these guys came from.” He laughs to himself as he runs his hand across the top of one of the lions.

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Then he tells me about “THE CURSE” – as told in this D&C story from September 2003…

Sinister overtones to snarling stones

John Tachin has heard some interesting hunches about the origin of two giant stone corbels he unearthed last year in Charlotte. Now, he can add a theory about why they were buried in the first place – they’re cursed.

It’s an opinion that Tachin and others don’t put much stock in.

The corbels were found hidden underneath giant concrete slabs on property formerly owned by the Benvenuto Bros. wrecking company off Lake Avenue. The faces of lions are carved on the corbels, which are stone brackets that protrude from a building wall to support a cornice or arch.

Tracking down their origin is difficult because the now-defunct Benvenuto company demolished buildings throughout western New York. Tachin’s story was featured in the Democrat and Chronicle last month.

Since then, he has received more than 150 phone calls offering tips.

One of the callers – a member of the Benvenuto family who declined to talk publicly about the matter – claimed the corbels are cursed and were buried intentionally. The caller advised Tachin to rebury them because workers who came in contact with them seemed to get hurt.

Such talk is just phooey, said Josephine Benvenuto, who worked at the company as a secretary and was the sister of the late Nicholas Sr. and James Benvenuto, who controlled the business from 1958 until it closed in 1986.

“He’s pulling both your legs,” she said. “At least, I never heard of it.” She thinks her brothers were preserving the corbels by burying them. “I think they all forgot about them.”

Jack Benvenuto, a son of James Benvenuto, said he also never heard of such a curse. “I don’t know anything about them,” he said. “It’d be interesting, though: The curse of the lion heads.”

Tachin admitted he was a little spooked when the family member called him and mentioned the curse. But, he added that since he uncovered the corbels, he hasn’t been injured.

“I’m not a superstitious person,” he said. “They’ve been good to me so far. They haven’t bit me.”

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Cursed or not, Tachin is not about to put these babies back in the ground. He really wants to find out where they came from. Were they from a building in the Rochester area? And why did the Benvenuto brothers go to such lengths to haul them here, and hide them?

The number of possible buildings easily number in the thousands. Unfortunately the Benvenuto brothers have past on, and as far as I can find, no record exists of the properties they dismantled.

In 2003 the D&C interviewed local historian Donovan Shilling and architectural historians Cynthia Howk and Jean France of the Landmark Society of Western New York. All three were unsure of the stones’ origins.

Shilling said the Benvenuto brothers did most of their wrecking during the renewal period here in town. And so he was fairly certain the stones were from Rochester – perhaps a private home or a building in the Corn Hill neighborhood or downtown.

Howk offered that the corbels were likely built between the 1890s and 1930s and these types of architectural details were common during this period.

When I interviewed Howk and France again this fall, I was hoping maybe they’d come across some new information during the last ten years. But they were still stumped. However, Jean France did tell me she felt they were late 19th century rather than later.

I was left with one option; flip through old newspaper articles to try and track down as many Benvenuto jobs as I could possibly find. Then search photos of those buildings to try and find our lions.

So far I have a list of suspect buildings that can be ruled out, and some that I haven’t found pictures of yet…

Ruled Out

  • Security Trust Co.
  • Union Trust
  • Lincoln First Bank
  • RKO Movie Palace, Rochester – Clinton and Mortimer
  • archway to the beach at Lake Ontario
  • American Brewing Co.
  • Rochester Savings Bank, Main and Fitzhugh
  • Rochester School 28, 458 Humboldt St, Daily Record, 9/26/1968
  • Numerous wood-framed homes/residences and warehouses
  • Watertown National Bank building (Washington & Stone Streets. a.k.a. National Bank of Northern New York or Jefferson County National Bank)
  • Watertown City Hall
  • Old Stone Vault, (“used for many years by local undertakers for body storage in winter months” Watertown Daily Times, 10/22/1966)
  • Home of Music building (Watertown, directly behind National Bank of Northern New York)

Suspects (need photos)

  • Central Trust Co., demolition, cement błock gas station at 1822 East Ave (1969)
  • Warsaw School Buildings, Wyoming County Times, 9/23/1954
  • Rochester School 31, Daily Record, 5/15/1941
  • Centennial Building (“one of Rochester’s oldest downtown structures… to be razed for parking station… First Federal Savings & Loan Associates purchased it for $375,000… a portion of lot may be used for drive-in teller booths.” Daily Record, 4/9/1964)
  • Odd Fellows Temple, 114 Stone St (“purchased by the Marine Midland Trust Company of Northern New York. The bank plans to use that area for parking facilities. Watertown Daily Times, 10/2/1969)
  • Armstrong Shoe Factory,15-157 Exchange Street
  • Watertown, 29 structures on 18 parcels on Court, Jackman and Jackson streets. Including old City Hal (ruled out). Watertown Daily Times, August 2, 1966.

Tachin isn’t sure what he’ll do with the stones. He says he’s turned down an offer of $6,000 for them but he’s not interested in selling them. He’d rather learn about their past. So would we.

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And this is where you come in. If you have any ideas or clues that might be checked into further, drop a comment below or contact info@rochestersubway.com. I’m also hoping we can pull our friends from Syracuse and Buffalo into this search as well.

To be continued…

Written by Mike Puma

Mike Puma

Writing for Buffalo Rising since 2009 covering development news, historic preservation, and Buffalo history. Works professionally in historic preservation.

View All Articles by Mike Puma
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