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On its Way to Becoming Landmark, City Sells Wildroot Building at Auction

The Buffalo Preservation Board is reviewing a local landmark application for the Wildroot Building located at 1740 Bailey Avenue its November 16 meeting. While there has been a strong effort by the preservation community to get the building into capable hands, the City sold the property in late October at the In-Rem Auction for just $1,000.

The building has had a bumpy ride.

“The building has been bouncing between bad owners and auctions throughout the 1980s, bought by a developer for a rehab project in 1989, but by 1993 that guy seemingly gives up and sells or gave it to his friend, John Uban,” says Mark Paradowski, Buffalo Young Preservationists (BYP) member and self-described Wildroot Building historian. “Uban owned it until his death in 2011 but no one has found a next of kin or contact information for them.”

It was temporarily listed on City Hall’s list of large-scale commercial demolitions before being removed. Instead, the City performed some facade brick removal to stabilize it. BYP members have organized cleanups of the property and have been diligent in keeping the building secure.

In 2014, another demolition notice was posted on the property and the EPA came in to do some clean-up. In 2015, the building was listed as one of New York State’s Seven to Save buildings by the Preservation League of NYS. In October 2016, a $20,000 opening bid was accepted on the building at ln-Rem property auction, tying preservation efforts up for months before the purchase was abandoned prior to completion.

“This year the starting bid price was meant to be $40,000 but it comes up for $1,000 so of course someone grabbed it,” says Paradowski. “The local man wants to use a portion of the building as storage.”  (The Buffalo News identifies the new owner as Omar Sian, owner of OS Electric).

“I will be meeting with his attorney to go over options we had been developing for reuse of the property,” says Paradowski. “He can either choose to walk away, sell it, donate it, or do the project, and if he takes it on, we hope he listens to us about the historic tax credits and other grants that he can only take advantage of by doing it right.”

“Councilmember Fontana has been a huge help, but that somewhere in City Hall they had a massive miscommunication or error that left the building exposed,” adds Paradowski.

Wildroot History from the Landmark Application

Between the 1900s and 1960s, Buffalo was at its height of economic power and population growth. Factories and neighborhoods arose as Buffalo capitalized on its geographic position in the nation’s transportation network.

The Wildroot Building, located at 1740 Bailey Avenue, embodies that economic might. Adjacent to a major rail line, this 100,000 sq.ft. complex is the most prominent commercial structure in that section of the city. Grennan Bakeries, Inc, one of the nation’s largest bakeries, chose Western New York for the site of its largest manufacturing facility. The building was the largest cake kitchen in the world when completed in 1929.

The location was chosen by Grennan vice-president J.W. Hines, who knew the advantages Buffalo offered first-hand. Twenty five years earlier, Hines had served in the National Guard at the Broadway Arsenal with Colonel Francis G. Ward, and had fond memories of Buffalo as the beginning of his successful career.

Shortly after Hines began his career in Buffalo, another pair of Buffalonians were forming their own business in the barbershop of Buffalo’s most significant hotel, the Iroquois Hotel. The enterprise, started by Morrel Howe and Robert Kideney in 1911, eventually became one of the largest hair care product manufacturers in the world. The Wildroot Company began decades of growth in 1915 with investment from businessman Harry Lehman.

To accommodate the company’s explosive growth during World War II, Wildroot purchased and expanded the former Grennan location to create its own headquarters. Robert Gundlach, who would later go on to invent the Xerox photocopy process, worked in the factory mixing batches of its most famous product, Cream Oil.

Through an expansive marketing campaign, Wildroot became a household name nationwide. Nat King Cole sang its jingle on the radio, and actor Ronald Reagan modeled for its print ads. The advertising firm in charge of the massive campaign was BBDO, the inspiration for the show Mad Men.

In 1951, profits from the products manufactured at Wildroot were used to establish the Wildroot Foundation. Through astute investment by Wildroot attorney Welles V. Moot and his son, the Foundation has provided thousands of grants for projects that benefit the entire WNY non-profit community. Later renamed the Western New York Foundation, it has been in operation for over 60 years and continues to provide vital support, with grants totaling nearly $11 million.

Construction/Design

The Wildroot Building at 1740 Bailey Avenue was built in two distinct phases. The three-story 81,384 square-foot warehouse, built in 1929, is an example of reinforced concrete construction. The three story, 17,655 square-foot administration building was constructed in 1946 with steel post and beam construction.

Wildroot’s administration building is an example of early modern architecture, employing bands of horizontal windows, which were popular in 1930s and 1940s. It is faced in red brick laid in English bond. Windows have cast stone sills. The Bailey Avenue facade is well balanced and virtually symmetrical. A small service floor on the roof, flanked on either side by a small abutment, creates a “stepped” profile made popular in the Art Deco style.

The Bailey Avenue entrance has paired doors set within a tall surround of black marble. The same marble continues to the interior entrance hall located behind the paired doors. Streamlined, metal letters once topped the entrance with the company name, but some have been stolen. However, the Wildroot name can still be seen in full from the south elevation, as its iconic WILDROOT lettering is visible from both West Shore and Bailey.

A long, horizontal band of metal windows is located above the entrance and shorter, horizontal bands flank it on either side. The remainder of this facade is not visible due to the Bailey Avenue bridge.

The south and north elevations are almost identical and defined by a horizontal band of metal windows at each floor. These horizontal bands stretch almost the full length of each elevation, each separated only by a section of black marble. The band terminates just before the building meets the warehouse section (to the west). The only difference is on the north elevation where window fenestration changes to a vertical band of windows due to the location of the stairwell. All windows on the administration building have a separate band of transoms above, separated by three courses of brick. The transoms are composed of glass block, an often-used building material at the time for this style. Most floors of the administration building feature a double loaded corridor with large office rooms on either side. Several original staircases remain intact in the building and feature gracefully curving, streamlined metal railings and terrazzo treads.

The warehouse portion of the complex is built of reinforced concrete and floor plates are largely open space punctuated only by the structural columns. It is faced in red brick with five courses of stretchers for every one course of Flemish bond. The concrete structure of the building is expressed on the less visible north and south elevations.

Although it is not as detailed as the administration building there are some subtle architectural flourishes. Along the Fay Street elevation (west), several rows of simulated paneling were created by turning the brick ninety degrees and raising it slightly from the plane of the elevation. White, square stones define the corners of the panels, which visually separate the floors of the building.

The warehouse also has a prominent rooftop billboard structure visible from Bailey Avenue (right). It was installed by Claude-Neone Display and has remained in place for 83 years.

Occupants

Grennan Bakeries, Inc. was reported to be the largest exclusive cake manufacturer in the world. It began in Detroit before consolidating with bakeries in Chicago and Minneapolis. In the mid 1920’s, they provided baked goods to almost 500 cities and towns. In 1929, Grennan built their newest, and largest, bakery on the East Side.

J.W. Hines, vice-president of Grennan, knew Buffalo well from his time serving in Company K of “Buffalo’s own” 202nd National Guard regiment during the Spanish American War. That regiment was headquartered in the historic 651h Arsenal, later known as the Broadway Auditorium and today, the Public Works Garage. Officers that served J.W. Hines’ regiment included J. Hamilton Ward, a future attorney-general of New York State, and Col. Francis G. Ward, the future Commissioner of Public Works in Buffalo and namesake of its still-operational water pumping station. Completion of the world’s largest and most modern cake kitchen cost more than $1 million in 1929, just prior to the stock market crash.

Wildroot began in 1911 with the concoction of two barbers, Morrel Howe and Robert Kideny, operating out of the Iroquois Hotel in downtown Buffalo. Their business grew slowly as they mixed batches of dandruff shampoo from a College Street home until businessman Harry Lehman invested in the enterprise in 1915. Wildroot quickly expanded to the Caxton Building (formerly 158 Ellicott Street), followed by the Sidway Building. Wildroot then migrated to warehouses on Jefferson and Fay Streets (both are in use today by other businesses). A Canadian subsidiary in Ft. Erie was also operating by 1927.

Wildroot’s most famous product, Cream Oil, formulated by chemist Emanuel Gundlach in 1932, contained lanolin instead of alcohol. When alcohol was rationed during WWII, this gave Wildroot a great competitive advantage. Gundlach’s son, Robert Gundlach, also worked at the Wildroot factory, mixing batches of his father’s creation. Robert went on to greater renown as the inventor of the modern photocopy process for a small Rochester company now known as Xerox, and he was inducted to the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 2005.

The success of Cream Oil led to the purchase and expansion of the Grennan Bakery warehouse. This expansion allowed Wildroot to produce 200,000 bottles of hair product each day. By 1959, $60 million was being spent by consumers on Wildroot products each year (the same buying power as $479 million in 2013). (Courtesy Buffalo Evening News Feb 23, 1959)

The company’s rapid war-time growth also necessitated the addition of a new corporate headquarters. From these offices, the decision was made to turn record profits into a national advertising campaign. By 1946, Wildroot had a $2 million yearly advertising budget ($23.8 million in 2013 dollars) (Courtesy Roy Rutherford article, Life magazine).

The Wildroot name became famous across print, radio, and the newest media format, television. The company enlisted Nat King Cole to sing the popular Wildroot radio jingle. “Cream Oil Charlie” became one of the first features on Buffalo’s own WBEN-TV when it went live in 1948. The company sponsored national television programs such as the Robin Hood TV show and Major League Baseball on CBS. Hall of Fame sports personalities such as 7-time NFL champion Otto Graham, two-time World Series champ Duke Snider, and PGA Player of the Year Jack Burke Jr. did Wildroot ads in 1956. Wildroot even commissioned a re-occurring cartoon series relationship with famous cartoonist Al Capp. Capp was enlisted to produce the Fearless Fosdick cartoons by Wildroot’s advertising agency, BBDO.

The most famous representative of the Wildroot brand was Ronald Reagan, an actor from 1937 to 1965. A young Reagan with slicked back Wildroot hair can be seen in a prominent print ad from that time (right). He still wore a similar hair style when elected President in 1980.

Harry Lehman, president of Wildroot since 1915, died in 1959. Just prior to his death, he had begun the process of selling Wildroot to the much larger Colgate Palmolive company. The understanding was that Wildroot would continue its operation in Buffalo, but following Lehman’s death, Colgate closed the Buffalo plant within two years. The Wildroot brand, later sold by Colgate in 1996, is now produced by a company out of Florida. The Wildroot Building passed through several owners after Wildroot left. But thanks to its generous Wildroot ownership, the impact of Wildroot carries on in Buffalo more than 60 years after its corporate departure.

The Wildroot Company provided 50 years of wealth and opportunity to the people of Buffalo as a manufacturer, yet its greatest contribution is an ongoing endeavor. In 1951, Hoyt Sheehan, a part owner of Wildroot, had Welles V. Moot, Sr. set up the Wildroot Foundation with $200,000 of his Wildroot Company stock.

Sound investment, combined with the value of the shares when the company was sold in 1959, raised the assets of the Wildroot Foundation to over $2.2 million in less than a decade. Now a half century later, the renamed WNY Foundation still provides support for the entire WNY non-profit community. The locally controlled foundation has made thousands of grants totaling $11 million and counting. The work started at 1740 Bailey Avenue has spawned both a historic legacy, and a continuing contribution to our region

Landmarking Criteria

Wildroot’s administration building displays many popular features of early modern architecture. Bands of windows and its steel beam framing allowed for air and light to easily cross its open floor plates. The warehouse portion of the Wildroot complex benefited from advances in reinforced concrete construction. This provided an industrial use that was durable, strong, fire resistant, and. better able to withstand the ravages of time and the weather, all while requiring minimal maintenance.

Wildroot is located prominently along an active rail hub, and its iconic signage is highly recognizable along one of Buffalo’s primary north/south corridors. It is also one of the largest industrial complexes in that portion of the city, and clearly the defining structure of its neighborhood.

All photos and images provided by Mark Paradowski

Written by Buffalo Rising

Buffalo Rising

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