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South Buffalo Landmark Closer to National Register Status

Last week, the Governor’s office announced that Shea’s Seneca Building at 2178 Seneca Street and 20 other places across the state are being recommended to be added to the State and National Registers of Historic Places by the New York State Board for Historic Preservation. Three others in Buffalo are the Temple Beth Zion, Ziegele-Phoenix Refrigeration House on Washington Street, and The Kreiner Malt House and Grain Elevator on Elk Street.

While the 2,500 seat Shea’s Seneca theatre was demolished in 1970, the remaining 48,000 sq.ft. commercial structure contains original architectural character including its white terracotta façade, ticket vestibule, and ornate plaster castings adorning the 2 ½ – story barrel vaulted ceiling movie theater lobby.

Schneider Development is currently redeveloping the Shea’s Seneca property. The project includes 21 apartments, commercial space including a Public Espresso + Coffee café, and banquet and special events space run by William and Molly Koessler. Second Generation Theater Co. had planned to relocate to the property but has since decided against a move.

The 1929 building is a rare example of a community theater development, which features a larger commercial building anchored by a movie theater. Shea’s Seneca Building was built by Michael Shea, a local theater magnate who erected six movie palaces in Western New York in the early 20th century.

From the Registration Form prepared by Preservation Studios:

Narrative Description of Property
The Shea’s Seneca Building is located at the northeastern corner of Seneca and Cazenovia Streets. The Shea’s Seneca Building is by far the largest and grandest building in this neighborhood of South Buffalo and has long functioned as a prominent local landmark and commercial venue.

Measuring eleven bays wide by ten bays deep, Shea’s Seneca is Neoclassical Revival in style, two stories in height, and L-shaped with a brick and steel structure. The double-height theater entry sequence is located in the southernmost bay of the building while, in the ten bays to the north, storefronts occupy the ground floor and offices originally occupied the second floor. Currently, the theater entry sequence, with its profusion of plaster, gilt, and marble finishes, is almost entirely intact and has been shuttered for over three decades.

The storefront spaces have continued to be active throughout most of the building’s history and retain a number of historic finishes and details such as trimwork, display cases, and some mezzanine levels. The second floor has been used variously as offices, a bowling alley, and, most recently, a nightclub. As such, it is the most altered portion of the building, but some historic finishes and layouts remain in places. Overall the building is in good condition on the interior with its most architecturally detailed rooms fully intact and, from the exterior, it continues to play a significant role in the streetscape of the neighborhood.

Exterior
The Shea’s Seneca Building has only one prominent elevation and this is clad in a pale grey glazed terra cotta tile. The three remaining sides are each exposed red brick laid in common bond atop a twelve-inch concrete base. A low-sloped roof covers the building and is concealed behind a tall terra cotta clad parapet along the primary façade and a shorter brick parapet with a camel-back clay-tile coping on the remaining sides. On the primary façade, almost all of the existing second-floor window openings have been covered over with plywood; however, a majority of the original Chicago-style, double hung wood sash windows remain behind. On the sides and rear elevation, all of the openings have been filled in with CMU or, in some cases, smaller vinyl windows within a plywood panel.

Primary (west) Façade
The primary, west, façade can be divided into two portions: the commercial portion which extends to the north and the wide bay at the south end which contains the theater entry sequence. To the north, the commercial portion consists of ten two-story bays which feature a storefront at the first story and a large window above at the second story. The first story bays are separated from one another by simple pilasters. Running above the storefront level is a large inset panel that originally contained space for advertisements and the names of the shops below.

Currently, the bays and the inset panel are largely obscured by plywood and vinyl siding; however, several historic storefronts remain behind. Capping the first story is a molded terra cotta cornice which acts a sill course for the second floor windows. At the second floor, the window openings are separated by terra cotta pilasters. Each of the openings is currently filled in with plywood but most contain the original, wood, Chicago-style windows with a central, single-pane, center-pivot window flanked by one-over-one, double-hung windows. Capping the second story are a terra cotta architrave, frieze, and cornice, with colorful rosettes present in the frieze above each bay. A tall terra cotta parapet completes the elevation.

The second portion of the primary façade, the wide southernmost bay, corresponds to the theater lobby entry and rises like a tower anchoring the southern end of the building. This end of the building is two-and-a-half stories in height with entry doors at the first story and tall, grand, arched windows in the second story. At the first story, the entry doors are set into a recessed porch framed by simple piers at either end. Currently, the original entry doors are hidden behind modern siding materials. Just above these, the theatre’s original marquee has been removed and its location has been filled in with stucco matching the color of the terra cotta. In the second story, the three, tall, arched windows are centered over the entry doors. Each is set into a deep, canted reveal featuring decorative terra cotta panels and reliefs with a twisted rope trim. To either side of the windows, the sill course, pilaster, and entablature elements of the northern portion of the building carry through, creating paired pilasters which flank the windows. A cornice and a molded terra cotta relief containing swags, urns, and medallions is present above and crowning the elevation is a stepped parapet featuring additional molded terra cotta swags and a central medallion.

Interior
The interior, like the exterior of the building, is divided into two portions. The northern commercial portion is a large and open space at the first floor punctuated by regularly spaced columns and divided by walls to create long, narrow retail spaces oriented east-west. Originally, the plan contained six adjacent retail spaces in a range of sizes; however, over time, some of the partition walls were removed to create larger floor areas. Currently, there are four retail spaces – a large shop space is present at both the north and south ends with two much narrower shop spaces at the center.

Each of the four retail spaces has a main front entry at the west end, a rear exit, bathrooms, and a staircase to the basement located at the eastern end. Apart from a doorway connecting the two southernmost shops, the spaces are each independent from one another. Throughout, the retail spaces have mostly gypsum walls, acoustic ceilings, and modern flooring but with historic finishes still present beneath. The second floor is largely composed of an open floor area with some offices along the western wall and bathrooms in the northwest and southeast corners. The finishes are primarily modern at this floor and consist of gypsum walls, a mix of carpet and hardwood flooring, and dropped acoustic tile ceilings. Three staircases access the second floor and are located at the northeast, northwest, and southeast corners of the building.

The southern portion of the building contains an enfilade sequence of three rooms arranged on an east west-axis. At the east end, the entry doors on the primary façade open into the entry vestibule which leads into the grand, spacious, double-height lobby and gathering hall at the center. Beyond the hall at the west end is the auditorium lobby. Each of these spaces is highly intact with terrazzo flooring, detailed plaster walls and ceilings, scagliola, decorative plasterwork, and gilding. Less detailed and with mid-century plumbing updates, the Ladies’ restrooms and waiting room are adjacent to the auditorium lobby to the north with the Men’s restrooms beneath them at the basement level.

At the northeast corner of the auditorium lobby, a discrete stair is present accessing both the basement and the second floor. Owing to the height of the main lobby, there is little second floor present in this portion of the building, but some office space may once have been located above the bathrooms and auditorium lobby.

Commercial Portion
In the commercial portion of the building, the retail spaces were historically of differing size and style, as evidenced by the original plans that showing six individual shops. The partitions that divided the retail spaces remain in part, but some of the spaces have been expanded into the adjacent shop by removing the partition walls, resulting in the current configuration of two large two-bay retail spaces that bookend two single-bay spaces at the center.

The second floor of the commercial portion is almost entirely an open floor plate, a configuration that dates back to its original use as a bowling alley with office space on the northern and western perimeters. Some offices dating to the mid to late twentieth century are present along the western wall; all have gypsum walls with carpet at the floors and a dropped acoustic tile ceiling. The open space at the center of the second floor was most recently a bar and night-club and has hardwood floors, dropped acoustic tile ceilings, and a combination of gypsum and modern paneling at the walls. Three bowling lanes are also present at the center of the space, harkening back to its original use; however, they date to the mid twentieth century.

Theater Portion
Typical of large theater design from this period, the double-height auditorium block of the building was originally oriented north-south and located behind the street-facing commercial functions. Unfortunately, the theater wing was demolished in 1970.

In the theater portion of the building, the original entry sequence is composed of three adjoining rooms elaborately decorated in an Adamesque style and each is remarkably intact and in good repair. The first room in the sequence is the entry vestibule. It is roughly twenty feet in length with an eighteen-foot high ceiling. Each of the walls is covered in a black veined scagliola with black scagliola pilasters capped by golden Tower of the Winds capitals. The pilasters visually support a deep plaster frieze with a swag-and-anthemion motif and a plaster cornice with tongue-and-dart and reed-and-ribbon moldings, all bearing the original gold paint. The tray ceiling is also gold and features a delicate plaster Adamesque design incorporating foliate scrolls, urns, swags, and a large, oval, plaster medallion at the center.

Adjacent to the east is the double-height grand lobby and gathering hall where tickets were sold and customers waited and socialized before attending a picture. The grand lobby is approximately twenty feet wide by ninety feet long and thirty feet tall. The long room is divided into three bays, each with a groin vault at the center. In between each of the bays is a pair of cream-colored marble scagliola columns visually supporting a painted plaster barrel vault in between each of the groin vaults. The lower portion of the walls is clad in a cream-colored marble scagliola while the upper portions feature the original plaster walls. The end walls are painted green and contain an elaborate Adamesque plaster wall relief incorporating sphinxes, caryatids, urns, swags and foliate scrolls.

The upper portion of the side walls is covered in the original gold and crimson damask fabric. In each of the bays is a monumental mirror with a gilded surround, flanked by half-engaged columns, and crowned with a broken and scrolled Baroque pediment. The mirrors also incorporate plaster swags, urns, and abundant gilding. Both the barrel and the groin vaults feature elegant plaster decoration throughout, both painted and gilded. On the floor is the original diamond-patterned terrazzo tile.

The easternmost room in the sequence is a second smaller lobby that once led directly into the auditorium space. It is similar in size to the front entry vestibule and also has an eighteen-foot ceiling. This room has smooth plaster walls with deep, original millwork surrounding the doorways. An architrave and cornice with dentils and an anthemion motif wrap the room. Above is a tray ceiling with elegant plaster panels of arabesque detailing. The original Men’s and Ladies’ Rooms are accessed off of this lobby and each has tiled finishes and fixtures dating to the mid-twentieth century. In the Ladies’ Room, an adjoining sitting room contains an intact Adamesque fireplace and wood mantel.

Statement of Significance
The Shea’s Seneca Building is a locally significant example of a community theater development, a building type that featured a larger commercial building anchored by a movie theater. Shea’s Seneca Building was built by Michael Shea, a local theater magnate who erected six movie palaces in Western New York in the early twentieth century. Shea’s theaters accommodated between 1,500 and 4,000 people and screened movies up to three times a day. The combination of commerce and entertainment made each of Shea’s buildings a major neighborhood anchor. The building embodies common features found in nearly all of Michael Shea’s theater developments. They include a long façade of storefronts, repeated fenestration, and picturesque architecture in the theater lobby. Designed by William and Henry Spann in 1929, the building quickly became a neighborhood destination, housing many important social clubs, businesses, and community services in addition to the theater itself. Shea’s Seneca Building is one of only three remaining examples of Michael Shea’s developments in Buffalo, alongside Shea’s North Park (1920) and Shea’s Buffalo (1926 NR 1975).

Shea’s Seneca Building is locally significant under Criterion C in the area of Architecture, as a significant example of Michael Shea’s community theater development model. Shea’s model involved building a long commercial building anchored by a theater in growing middle class neighborhoods in Buffalo. Middle class residents were drawn to the community theater to see movies and took advantage of the shopping opportunities located in the commercial building, creating an active, vibrant community hub. The building typology used in Shea’s Seneca Building can be seen in Shea’s North Park (1920), Shea’s Bailey and Shea’s Roosevelt Theaters (not extant), as well as in the Genesee Theater and the Strand Theater, two now demolished theaters also designed by the Spann Brothers. The theater and commercial block portions of Michael Shea’s theaters were designed separately and Shea’s Seneca Building is no exception; however, unlike Shea’s other theaters, the Seneca Building’s façade is unified behind a common façade with no material or architectural distinction between the commercial and theater spaces. Though the theater auditorium was demolished in 1970, the extant commercial spaces and the lobby of the theater in the Shea’s Seneca Building communicate the original configuration of the building and the typology of Michael Shea’s community theater developments.

Shea’s Seneca Building is also locally significant under Criterion A in the areas of Commerce and Social History for its role as a hub for community services and social groups from the 1930s through 1965. The long, uniform façade of the building on one of the main commercial thoroughfares in South Buffalo, and its location near Cazenovia Park, made Shea’s Seneca attractive to medical professionals and social clubs as well as eager movie-goers. From its construction in 1929 to the present, Shea’s Seneca has been a vital anchor in the community of South Buffalo. Doctors, dentists, and fraternities operated from offices inside the commercial block and retailers occupied the storefronts.

The period of significance for Shea’s Seneca Building begins with the building’s construction in 1929 and ends in 1965, when the Seneca Business Association purchased the building. This era correlates to the time during which the building was at its most prominent in the local community, serving as an important commercial center in South Buffalo. It also encompasses the initial construction and mid-century renovations that occurred during this time.

Get Connected: Schneider Development, 716.923.7000

Swiatek Studios to the rescue.

Written by Buffalo Rising

Buffalo Rising

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