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Certification Proposed for Larkin Historic District

It is a bit surprising that the Larkin District is not a national historic district, however, the Preservation Board will be reviewing a proposal to have the National Park Service certify the local preservation district that covers six industrial and commercial buildings spread across four blocks between Hamburg and Hydraulic Streets.  The certification would make the historic tax credit program available to qualifying projects within the district.

Barbara A. Campagna worked with James Finelli at the NYS Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation (SHPO) to develop the Certification Report and boundaries. As suggested by SHPO, the district does not include the parking lot which was formerly occupied by the Larkin Administration Building.  The six buildings are:

  1. 635 Seneca Street, Building “I,” the Larkin Powerhouse (1902-1905)
  2. 696 Seneca Street, Larkin Men’s Club (1890, former Sacred Heart rectory; adapted for Larkin Company use in 1915)
  3. 701 Seneca Street, Larkin buildings B, C, D, Dx, E, F, G, H, J, K, N, 0 (1898-1913)
  4. 290 Larkin Street, L&M Building (1908)
  5. 726 Exchange Street, Larkin R/S/T Building (1912)
  6. 239 Van Rensselaer Street, Building “U” (1893; adapted for Larkin Company use in 1911)

From Campagna’s Certification Report:

Description of Physical and Historical Qualities

The historic district is a significant example of a turn-of-the-century American factory and warehouse complex spanning the transition from traditional brick-pier construction to the reinforced concrete framing of the daylight factory, which allowed for improved fireproofing, abundant access to natural light in the interior and fast and efficient construction. The District was named after the Larkin Company, one of the most successful and progressive companies in Buffalo and in the country in the late nineteenth/early twentieth-centuries.

The Hydraulics neighborhood was Buffalo’s first manufacturing district and a nationally important industrial heritage site documented in The Hydraulics/Larkin Neighborhood Multiple Property Documentation Form (2009). The neighborhood was established one mile east of downtown Buffalo and is bounded by Spring Street, Fillmore Avenue/Smith Street, Eagle Street and the Niagara Section of the New York State Thruway, while the Larkin Historic District encompasses only Larkin factory buildings and sites within the larger Hydraulics Neighborhood.

The Hydraulics were established in 1827 by Reuben Bostwick Heacock, considered to be one of the founding fathers of Buffalo, who completed the Hydraulic Canal in 1828, providing waterpower to a half dozen small industrial enterprises by 1832, when the city was incorporated. The Attica & Buffalo Rail Road, the last link in a chain of seven railroads that connected Buffalo to Albany, was opened in 1843, and was absorbed into the New York Central Railroad in 1853. This rail link, combined with rail connections to the coalfields of western Pennsylvania and the vast hinterland of Chicago, set the stage for large-scale industrial development in Buffalo and The Hydraulics.

The geography of the neighborhood at this crossroads allowed for the location and expansion of several major industrial enterprises, including by 1905, the Larkin Company and American Radiator. The Hydraulics gained a reputation as a hotbed for progressive business practices and a site for some of the latest ideas in architecture and engineering. The Larkin Company was one of the first and largest mail order firms in the country and demonstrated the evolution of the American factory design from the brick-and-steel mill design to the reinforced concrete daylight factory design.

The Larkin complex is a good example of a twentieth-century factory, which used a utilitarian industrial design as the architectural aesthetic to define the buildings’ functions and encapsulated the three major technical features that revolutionized manufacturing and industrial design for the twentieth century – electricity, the powered crane and the steel frame. The interrelationship between the factory and the powering of its machinery led to a streamlined functional or utilitarian design. The early Larkin buildings use individual punched window openings while the later buildings used streamlined daylight factory window walls. The interiors of all the spaces, however, used the utilitarian industrial approach. The office buildings were often the only buildings with any type of ornament or decoration, as could be seen in Frank Lloyd Wright’s Administration Building (demolished 1950) and the U Building at 239 Van Rensselaer Building.

Definition of Contributing Building Types

The six buildings in the district fall under two categories: Industrial Architecture or Religious Architecture.

Industrial Architecture: The factory buildings in the Larkin Complex were built over a short period that saw the transition from brick pier construction to reinforced concrete; traditional mill construction to reinforced concrete daylight factories. The detailing of the stone foundations, brick piers and walls, and exposed reinforced concrete framing is exceptional. The industrial buildings include: 635 Seneca Street, 701 Seneca Street, 290 Larkin Street, 726 Exchange Street and 239 Van Rensselaer Street.

Religious Architecture: The Convent and Rectory of the former Church of the Sacred Heart of Jesus were adapted into the Larkin Men’s Club. As two, Late Victorian Italianate two-story red brick buildings which were combined into one building, 696 Seneca Street is significant for its architectural merit as one of the remaining religious structures in the district and as representative of the transformation in the neighborhood caused by the growth of the Larkin Company.

635 Seneca Street, Building “I,” the Larkin Powerhouse (1902-1905)

Larkin Power House/Building I
Designer: R.J. Reidpath & Son
Built: 1902-1904

The Larkin Power House, designed by R.J. Reidpath & Son, was originally two stories, built in 1902, with an expansion to four stories in 1904. The structure is an archetype of the early 20th century powerhouse with fireproof construction, expansive windows with operable sash, and a monitor roof over a mezzanine-encircled interior volume of impressive dimensions. The 4-story brick industrial building is notable for its features that include large window openings divided by brick pilasters with a simple brick cornice above. Reinforced concrete was used for the basement floor and foundations while brick was used above. The signature feature of the building is its tall brick chimney.

Like other powerhouses, it is a two-part facility with separate rooms for boilers and engines, the division of space keeping coal dust away from the machinery and gauges in the engine room. A third area, for coal storage, was located at the rear of the powerhouse, adjacent to the tracks of the New York Central railroad, popularly called the Belt Line. The 275’ tall smokestack of the Power House punctuates the building and the entire Larkin works. The Larkin Company boasted in 1903 that the “red-brick chimney will be in plain view of every passenger train entering the city.” Tourists dubbed it the “Washington Monument,” a reference to the Larkin Company’s role in soapmaking. With 50,000 tourists visiting the plant every year, the Power House was a highlight of the Larkin tour schedule.

Even after the introduction of alternating current electricity after 1896, it was common for industrial facilities to furnish their own steam-generated electric power, in Buffalo and elsewhere. Works’ powerhouses produced half the country’s electricity prior to World War I. Today, the Power House is home to a natural gas boiler which supplies heat to the adjoining 701 Seneca Street, via tunnels beneath Larkin Street.

696 Seneca Street, Larkin Men’s Club (1889, former Sacred Heart rectory)

Larkin Men’s Club, Sacred Heart Church Rectory
Architect: Unknown
Date: Circa 1889 and 1904

Built as a church rectory and convent, 696 Seneca Street is the only remaining building from the original campus of the Church of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, a German-language Catholic parish established in 1875. The Larkin’s Men’s Club property consists of two, Late Victorian Italianate two-story red brick buildings on the eastern end of the former church property. The church complex included the church (1876; demolished in 1936), the parochial school (c. 1878, demolished before 1931), the rectory (1889), and the convent (1904). The Larkin Company purchased the entire church campus in 1912 and three years later, the company joined the convent building and rectory with a two-story hyphen structure. For the next 25 years, the Company used the united building for the Larkin’s Men’s Club, a social and physical fitness facility for male employees of the Larkin Soap Company.

Larkin relinquished control of the building in 1940 at which point it became a tavern, with large glass storefronts installed along the Seneca Street facade, which were removed at a later unknown date. The building served variously as a tavern and/or rooming house and appears to have been underutilized for several decades during the mid-20th century. Finally, in 1999, the building underwent alterations to become a rooming house, which it remained until 2011 when the building was purchased by the Larkin Development Group. The building has been vacant since then, anticipating reuse for housing and first floor commercial.

701 Seneca Street

Larkin Factory, Larkin B/C/D/Dx/E/F/G/H/J/K/N/O Buildings
Designer: R.J. Reidpath (except for Building C, designed in-house by the Larkin Company)
Built 1898-1913

The most massive of the buildings associated with the Larkin Company in the complex, this large factory building is actually a combination of 12 smaller building components which were constructed sequentially at various stages between 1898 and 1913. This main factory building of the Larkin Company, is where the hundreds of Larkin products, soap, perfumes, coffee, chocolate, pasta, etc., were manufactured. The buildings range from six to eight stories and occupy in total about 1.2 million square feet of floor area. It features numerous aligned and regularly spaced window openings, loading docks and shipping bays on the ground floor and a corbelled cornice along some portions of the roofline.

Aside from the 1913 construction of Building C, the structures’ facades are designed in the regular Reidpath idiom of brick-and-steel mill construction, the brick now hidden under the concrete stucco of a 1962 modernization and elastomeric coating of a 2012 modernization. Most of the windows were also replaced beginning in 2012 although portions of the original brick construction and segmental arches, and paired 12/12 wood framed sash windows are visible. Despite these alterations, the mass and industrial use of the complex are evident and significant as a feature, tying all of the buildings and site together.

“Building C stands out “against the grain of all the previous brick-pier construction by the Reidpaths on the 701 Seneca site” according to Banham. “The openings to the outside were glazed clear across from column to column and from the underside of the floor slab above down to a sill that topped a low brick spandrel wall just high enough to carry a hot water radiator. The environmental transformation wrought by this innovation could be seen at 701 Seneca as nowhere else in the world, because the fully glazed concrete insert of Building C was entirely surrounded by works in the former tradition, with windows tunneled through a massive brick wall, and one could walk through directly from the old into the new or vice versa.”

Building C’s three bays of reinforced concrete, designed in-house by Larkin Company engineers and contractors, give a “vivid demonstration of the gain in window area derived from the switch to framed construction” according to Banham.” However secure the former tradition, with its habits of adaptive pragmatism and its inherited vocabulary of architectural forms, may have appeared at the very beginning of the present century, it was to be overthrown by a genuine revolution in material and concepts between 1902 and 1906. The nature of that revolution and the profundity of its consequences are epitomized within the vast bulk of 701 Seneca.”

290 Larkin Street, L&M Building (1904)

L/M Building
Designer: R.J. Reidpath & Son
Built: 1904

The L/M Building was built in 1904 as the Larkin Company’s raw materials warehouse, a seven-story structure of carefully-detailed, brick-arched construction, with a cut stone foundation, ground floor shipping and loading bays. It features Reidpath’s brick-and-steel pier mill construction. These structures were 140′ by 200′ in area and seven stories in height.

The building contained the fat and oil refineries in which raw materials were stored and prepared, to be later converted into soap. Much of the material arrived in tank cars and was pumped by compressed air into suitable containers. Materials were transferred via tunnels beneath Larkin Street to the main factory at 701 Seneca Street.

The L/M Building, wrote Banham, “exhibits still the Reidpaths’ strong, simple, and craftsman-detailed brickwork at its best, a brickwork of almost Roman gravity and unaffected muscularity with soldier-arches spanning between pilasters over the windows.” Several bays appear to have featured larger door openings for hauling goods into the building through the use of large roof-mounted hoists, which are partially extant.

After the sale of the property during the Larkin Company’s liquidation, it was operated as the Wilson Warehouse, connected to the tracks of the New York Central. In 2001, it became the home of Uncle Sam’s Army Navy Outfitters, reputedly the largest such store in North America.


726 Exchange Street, Larkin R/S/T Building (1912)

Larkin Terminal Warehouse
R/S/T/Building
Architect: Lockwood, Greene, & Co.
Built: 1911-1912

The Larkin Terminal Warehouse, at 10 stories and more than 600,000 square feet in floor area, was built in under one year, by the Boston team of Lockwood, Greene, & Co. Engineers and Aberthaw Construction Company. It is one of the country’s most impressive early examples of reinforced concrete construction. Banham called this building the “best building designed by Lockwood, Greene & Co.”5 The building is characterized by stacked stories, supported by exposed concrete columns. Large rectangles of glazing (originally steel sash, since replaced) filled the resulting grid. Precast concrete panels, located at each upper corner of the north and south facades, are emblazoned with the Larkin Company logo.

The post-and-beam interior frame is also evident on the exterior, which is a grid of concrete uprights and horizontals at regular intervals, interrupted only by the narrower and differently fenestrated bays that correspond to the elevator stacks. In the conventional uses of the term, there is no “detailing” whatsoever at R/S/T, but everywhere one looks there is evidence of great care and ingenious thought in detailing with edges and corners, junctions and relationships of materials, and the proportioning of the whole.

The building employed a unique form of concrete reinforcement, with pre-assembled steel lattices erected in two-story lifts to serve both as temporary scaffolding and reinforcement, when the concrete had been poured around it. The sand-and-stone gravel used in the reinforcing concrete was dredged from the Niagara River’s Strawberry Island, one reason that Strawberry Island is no longer shaped like a strawberry.

The warehouse was used primarily for storage of Larkin premiums; the ground floor devoted entirely to shipping and receiving platforms, with enough interior trackage for as many as 70 rail cars linked directly to the railroad tracks. In 1936, the radio tower, itself a landmark, visible miles away, from the plant, was erected by WBEN on the Larkin Terminal Warehouse roof. In 1967, longtime tenant Graphic Controls Inc., purchased the building from Larkin Warehouse Inc. Thirty years later, Graphic Controls moved to a purpose-built structure nearby, emptying the Larkin Terminal Warehouse. The Larkin Development Company purchased the emptied colossus for $1 million in 2002, announcing ambitious plans to convert the structure to modern office space, a project completed to much acclaim and full tenancy. The windows were replaced at this time. The building, however, retains its mass and volume, and the rhythm and pattern of all the openings. Many of the interior mushroom columns remain visible.

239 Van Rensselaer Street, Building “U” (1893)

D. Ullman Sons, Larkin U Building, Duk-It Building
Architect: Unknown
Built: Circa 1893, adapted for Larkin use in 1911

The Larkin U Building, built in 1893, has been a recycling facility, a factory building for the Larkin Company, the home of Duk-It stationery manufacturer and beanbag ashtray inventor McDonald Products, and a factory for automotive parts manufacturer Par Foam Products. It is a classic brick loft structure constructed in the Romanesque Revival style. At three stories, the structure is a combination of brick masonry, cast iron columns, and wood plank floors.

It was originally constructed for D. Ullman Sons, an industrial salvage and recycling firm, owned and operated by one of Buffalo’s prominent Jewish families. The firm relocated to the Van Rensselaer Street structure from its original location at the northwest corner of Oak and Broadway. Around 1911, the Larkin Company purchased the building, rechristening it the Larkin U. The mail order company utilized the structure for various industrial purposes, including, for a time, its metal packaging operations, and built a bowling alley in its basement, connected by underground tunnel to the factory at 701 Seneca Street.

McDonald Products, Inc. occupied the structure in 1946, and in 1981 it was taken over by Par Foam Products, maker of engineered foam products. In 2011, the Larkin Development Group renovated the structure for offices for First Niagara Bank. During the renovation, in which red paint was stripped from the brick facade, ghost signs were revealed on the building’s south facade: one for D. Ullman Sons, and another for McDonald Products, with its signature “duck” logo. The windows were replaced at this time. The building, however, retains its mass and volume, and the rhythm and pattern of all the openings.

Application of National Register Criteria for Evaluation of Significance
The Larkin Historic District is significant under the National Register criteria A and C. The buildings and sites are identified with national and local figures such as Larkin Company executives John Larkin, Elbert Hubbard, and Darwin Martin and structural engineer Robert J. Reidpath. The L&M Building, the Powerhouse, and 701 Seneca Street constitute the largest collection of work by master engineer Robert J. Reidpath. The district meets the registration requirements laid out in The Hydraulics/Larkin Neighborhood MPDF completed in 2009. All buildings in the district, except for 726 Exchange Street, have been identified as meeting the registration requirements for individual listing established in the MPDF. The Terminal Warehouse, 726 Exchange Street, was not referenced at that time, but does appear to meet the registration requirements that the architecture retains significant historical associations and/or architectural distinction and which retains integrity of architecture, construction, form, materials and detailing and is directly associated with one of the two historic contexts discussed in the MPDF (The Hydraulics Neighborhood or the Larkin Company).

The district is significant under Criterion A for its contributions to the evolution of the American mail order retail business. The Larkin Company was one of the great industrial concerns of the United States. At the company’s peak around 1919, its factory complex occupied 65 acres of floor area and employed about 2,000 people in the manufacture of hundreds of household products, sold by mail order to customers across North America.

Under Criterion C, the complex embodies distinguishing characteristics of state-of-the-art industrial buildings at the time of their construction ranging from brick-pier to post and beam and reinforced concrete construction in industrial applications. The buildings also contain large amounts of locally quarried stone and elements produced in the Buffalo area.

Period of Significance
1898-1940 – the time in which all extant Larkin factory buildings were constructed or adapted for their use, in which the company’s biggest building boom took place and its most significant business success occurred. The company discontinued its mail order business in 1940 and began the liquidation of the company’s assets.

Boundary Justification and Description
The proposed boundary for this certified historic district is the same boundary as the local historic district excluding the Seneca Street parking lot which is the location of the former Frank Lloyd Wright-designed Larkin Administration Building, which was demolished in 1950. The local historic district encompasses the original Larkin Factory buildings as seen during its period of significance. Most of the buildings were built specifically for the factory except for 696 Seneca Street (the Larkin Men’s Club), which was adapted from the Sacred Heart Church rectory and the “U” Building at 239 Van Rensselaer Street which was originally built as the offices for the D. Ullman Sons, an industrial salvage and recycling firm, in 1893.

The Preservation Board meets on Thursday.

Written by Buffalo Rising

Buffalo Rising

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