Shea’s Seneca Building at 2178 Seneca Street in South Buffalo is under consideration for listing on the National Register of Historic Places. Schneider Development is currently redeveloping the property into 21 apartments plus commercial and banquet space.
It is just one of the theaters Michael Shea and Shea’s Theaters constructed in Buffalo (the company also purchased and rebranded several theaters including the Teck Theater on Main Street, the Elmwood Theater at 539 Elmwood, the Park Theater on Tonawanda Street, and the Roosevelt at 887 Broadway). Two and portions of a third that Shea constructed remain today (for a depressing look at what has been lost, visit the Cinema Treaures website).
From the Registration Form prepared by Preservation Studios:
Michael Shea and Shea’s Theaters
Michael Shea was born in Buffalo’s Old First Ward in 1859 and played an instrumental role in developing the city’s theater and entertainment scene. Between 1882 and 1934, Michael Shea was one of the leading purveyors of middle class entertainment in Buffalo and operated a number of popular vaudeville halls and later movie theaters. Shea started his career in 1882 by opening Shea’s Music Hall in downtown Buffalo. Shea modeled the vaudeville house after German beer halls and Shea’s Music Hall operated successfully for ten years until it was destroyed in a fire. Following the fire, Shea moved into ‘the Garden,’ an ice rink that he remodeled into a vaudeville house. The aisles of the redecorated ice rink were lined with potted palms, creating an exotic feeling that characterized Shea’s later movie theaters.
Shea’s early playhouses offered vaudeville and variety acts that catered to middle class audiences who yearned for live entertainment but were reticent to attend shows in less proper venues such as the saloons and backroom theaters where most vaudeville performances took place. Shea’s vaudeville halls emphasized service, comfort, and class, and Shea even banned alcohol and smoking to ensure that his venues maintained a dignity befitting middle class patrons. While vaudeville and variety acts formed the backbone of Michael Shea’s early entertainment business, frequently nickelodeons were also part of the entertainment. These simple films ran at the end of the night while guests donned their coats and prepared to leave.
In 1914, Michael Shea opened the first movie theater in downtown Buffalo, a 2,800-seat movie palace called Shea’s Hippodrome. The Hippodrome cost Shea $500,000, but it quickly proved profitable, running three shows a day and screening the latest films, primarily from Paramount Pictures. Like his vaudeville houses, Shea’s Hippodrome catered to a middle class audience with quality service and elaborate and picturesque architecture. Shea also attached a large commercial block to the Hippodrome to generate additional income. The combination of commercial storefronts anchored by a movie theater proved successful and Shea utilized this model in all of his subsequent theater developments.
The success of Shea’s Hippodrome encouraged Michael Shea to build more movie theaters in Buffalo. During the 1920s, Shea opened six theaters, which can be categorized into two distinct types, the first run theaters and the second run community theaters. Shea’s Hippodrome and Shea’s Buffalo were first run theaters and screened the latest movie releases. These theaters, located in downtown Buffalo, were the largest and most ornate theaters that Michael Shea operated.
Once a movie finished its run in Shea’s Hippodrome or Shea’s Buffalo, it screened at the second run community theaters, including Shea’s Seneca, Shea’s North Park, and Shea’s Kensington. The community theaters were smaller than the first run theaters; for instance, Shea’s Seneca seated roughly 2,500 people compared to the 4,000-person capacity of Shea’s Buffalo. Nonetheless, these smaller theaters maintained the ornate architecture and exotic feeling that characterized Shea’s larger venues, and they adjoined large commercial blocks that contributed to the local retailing scene and provided additional rental income.
Although Michael Shea’s community theater development model proved to be a highly profitable business scheme, his entertainment empire began to crumble in the 1930s, as Buffalonians’ expendable income was reduced significantly during the Great Depression. This challenge to entertainment industries generally was compounded by Shea’s refusal to lay off employees. Soon after his death in 1934, Shea’s wife and daughters sold off their shares in his entertainment empire. Though Shea’s Entertainment Company purchased many struggling rival theaters during the 1930s and opened Shea’s Niagara along Niagara Street in 1940, the company struggled without the guidance of Michael Shea and eventually closed. In subsequent decades, many of Shea’s movie theaters and adjacent commercial buildings were demolished with the exception of Shea’s North Park and Shea’s Buffalo. The theater auditorium at Shea’s Seneca was demolished in 1970, but the Shea’s Seneca Building remains a good representation of the community theater typology in South Buffalo.
The Community Theater and Commercial Block Typology
In contrast to the downtown location of the larger first run theaters, Shea located his community theaters on commercial streets in growing neighborhoods around the city. Shea’s Seneca Building and theater on Seneca Street, Shea’s North Park on Hertel Avenue, and Shea’s Kensington and Bailey on Bailey Avenue were all sited on vibrant local commercial streets surrounded by a growing middle class population. The practice mirrored national trends: the movie palaces of the late 1910s and the 1920s were built on the shopping streets of middleclass neighborhoods, with services and décor suited to this class… [unlike nickelodeons] They instead offered the consumption of luxury, much as the late-nineteenth-century theaters had promoted fashion.
Also in line with broader trends across the county, Shea combined movie and retail venues, erecting separately designed commercial blocks adjacent to the theater auditoriums. The pairing provided additional income for Shea’s business and echoed the cultural pattern of making the shopping experience an entertaining venture in its own right. Speaking to the importance of local entertainment, Michael Shea’s associate Vincent McFaul declared, “A properly conducted theater is of the same importance to a community as a school or church. Such a theater contributes to the general welfare of the community, because wholesome recreation is essential to its well being.”
When Michael Shea announced plans to build Shea’s Kensington, the complex’s commercial component was advertised alongside the theater itself. Speaking to the Buffalo Courier about the project in 1925, Shea commented, “The plans submitted by the Bickford Realty Co…promise the last word in theater construction, and stores and an office building is part of the plan.” When the building opened in 1926, the news report emphasized the theater as an asset to “one of the fastest growing and most progressive business and residential sections of the city.”
Advertisements and reports highlighted the commercial components of Shea’s other developments as well. When Shea’s Bailey opened in 1928, a newspaper report credited Henry L. Spann as the architect for the “Shea’s Bailey Theatre and Store Building,” which housed the Bailey Chocolate Shop and the Otto H. Burke Corporation’s auto showroom. Shea’s Hippodrome Building along Main Street housed a variety of tenants, including the Buffalo Optical Company, the Wippert & Son Hat Store, and Henrich’s Sons Co. furniture company. Three months before its completion, Shea’s North Park put an advertisement in the Buffalo Courier:
FOR RENT- Store and North Park Theatre building on Hertel Avenue between North Park and Norwalk Avenue; ideal location for confectionery, shoe store, 5 and 10 cent store, etc.: also large office, second floor; ideal for chiroprac-etc.
Image from Hello Hertel
All of Shea’s theaters built in the 1920s demonstrated the combined theater-commercial building typology. Beyond a strictly economic endeavor, the design of the building expressed the complementary functions. Another advantage of the long commercial block was its opportunity to support a large sign.
Many of Shea’s theaters had their auditoriums set back from the street, maximizing retail space. The movie theater anchors rose at least a story higher than the commercial blocks and displayed a large billboard or projecting sign.
The Relationship between Theater and Commercial Functions in Michael Shea’s Theaters
Shea’s theater and commercial developments shared several common features. The theater entrance portion of each building was always the most prominent feature of the block; it was taller and more ornate, setting the theater apart from the adjoining commercial experience. The Neoclassical style was common to his developments, with some forays into Art Deco or Spanish Revival styles, likely because each of these was lively enough to reflect the glamour of the theater and simple enough to execute inexpensively.
While the theater entrance remained distinct in its massing, the differentiation between the theater and commercial functions through façade materials diminished over time. The following discussion of four of Shea’s buildings illuminates the progression of the Spann brothers’ designs from Shea’s North Park, in which the commercial block stands apart from the theater, to Shea’s Seneca, which incorporates them behind a unified terra cotta façade.
The elevation of Shea’s North Park is composed of a two-and-a-half story, three-bay theater façade located at the center of the block with a shorter, two-story, nine-bay commercial façade extending to the side. The theater is stone, and Neoclassical in style with crisp, geometric detailing and framing pilasters at the ends. There is a large, tripartite, rectangular window in the second story and two pairs of double entry doors on the ground floor. The commercial façade adjacent, though part of the same building, is quite different. It is built of simple brown brick with stone accents in the American Commercial style. There are regular storefronts on the ground floor and rectangular windows on the second story with a bracketed cornice and decorative tile roof above.
Shea’s Buffalo Theater also features the main theater façade at the center of the block with a commercial façade extending to the side. In this case, the four-story theater façade is composed of a single wide bay with two pairs of double-leaf entry doors at the ground floor and a single, multi-paned, two-story window above. Shea’s Buffalo is one of the most ornate of the Shea’s Theaters and its Beaux Arts elevation is clad in richly sculpted terra cotta. The six-bay commercial façade which extends to the side is only two-stories in height and executed in an American Commercial style. It has regular storefronts at the ground floor and large rectangular windows above. The elevation is clad in a plain terra cotta tile with pilasters in between the bays, banding around the widows, and two Dutch gables at the top.
Shea’s Bailey Theatre was a much larger development and encompassed almost the entire frontage of a block. The theater façade remained at the center and commercial facades extended on both sides. Both facades were built of stone in an Art Deco style, though the two-and-a-half story theater portion was both taller and much more ornate than the commercial wings. Unlike previous Shea’s projects, the commercial facades here had storefronts at the ground floor with large, segmentally-arched, voussoired openings. In the second story, pilasters that framed the bays were capped with stylized Art Deco capitals and there were sculpted finials in each bay of the parapet.
With the Bailey, for the first time, the theater facade and commercial facade were becoming more integrated and began to appear to be one single building and enterprise. While this had always been the case with the Shea’s theaters from a practical standpoint, the differentiation between the theater and commercial façades up to this point had aesthetically separated the two portions of the building. Given its size, unified design, and level of ornament, the Bailey no longer looked like a small theater with adjoining retail space; instead, it looked like a major commercial establishment. Shea’s Bailey closed in 1977 and was demolished in 1986 following a fire.
Shea’s Seneca Building took the concept of the unified theater and commercial elevations a step further. As described above, Shea’s Bailey Theater had a unified elevation, but it was very clear from the transition of detail and framing elements where the theater elevation began and ended. At Shea’s Seneca Building, the Neoclassical elevation is a seamless asymmetrical composition. At the center of the city block is the two-and-a-half story theater portion with the ten-bay commercial portion extending to the north. While the commercial building was designed separately from the theater portion, the entire facade is clad in a pale grey terra cotta tile and there are no framing pilasters or vertical transitions that separate a “theater façade” from a “commercial façade.” The theater portion is in fact taller and the window and door openings required for its function necessarily set it apart from the commercial portion of the building; however, the treatment of the exterior materials and details blend both portions of the building into a single seamless composition.
The commercial portion has rectangular storefronts at the ground floor and rectangular windows above with framing pilasters in between. A small cornice caps the ground floor and the second floor pilasters support a frieze with rosettes in each bay and cornice. Both cornices and the frieze carry across the theater, too. The theater portion has paired double leaf entry doors at the ground floor and three tall arched windows in the second floor, which interrupt the frieze and cornice. Above, the attic story features a third cornice and parapet with a wealth of swag and cartouche reliefs. Although the building houses separate functions and the various openings reflect this, at the same time it is very clear that the elevation is meant to reflect a single, unified building.