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Buffalo’s Newest Urban Legend?

The assertion first came to my attention a few months ago in the comment section at a popular Buffalo website. Then some folks expressed it to me in person. We may be witnessing the birth of a brand new urban legend in Buffalo, specifically:

“City Hall had a fire and all of the records were destroyed.”

We were talking about doing Buffalo house research when this claim was conveyed to me. My informants couldn’t say, or were reluctant to say, who told them this.

Let’s start at the beginning. For over a decade now, the City of Buffalo has made available online a free searchable property database, which they call the Online Assessment Roll System (OARS).

If you spend much time poking around in OARS, you notice a curious pattern: the majority of houses apparently went up in 1900! Statistically speaking, this just isn’t possible. Buffalo wasn’t built in a year. What’s up with that frequently inaccurate 1900 build date?

Enter the Fire Theory. Perhaps it goes something like this: If that 1900 build date is the wrong information, it must be because City Hall doesn’t have the right information. If City Hall doesn’t have the right information, it must be because records were lost or destroyed. If the records were destroyed, there must have been a fire.

This is a plausible hypothesis. Lots of courthouses and government buildings have suffered catastrophic fires, resulting in losses of all kinds of records. One of the most famous was the 1921 fire in the Commerce Building in Washington, DC, that destroyed the 1890 census. It occurred before the invention of inexpensive reproduction technologies such as microfilm and copy machines, so there were no copies housed (or, as we would say today, backed up) elsewhere. Another was the 1911 State Capitol fire in Albany which destroyed most of the New York State Library collection.

The good news for researchers is that there are two flaws with the Fire Theory.

The good news for researchers is that there are two flaws with the Fire Theory. First: Most of us know that the little village of Buffalo was burned by the British in the War of 1812. After that conflagration, I have not been able to find any mention of Buffalo government buildings suffering any fires. If you have a subscription, you can now search the full text of Buffalo newspapers from 1811-1923. You will find articles about city hall & courthouse fires in other cities and states, which suggests that when something like this does happen, it makes national news.

Had a City Hall fire happened here, it would have had front page, above-the-fold headlines. It would have been reported in newspapers in other cities. It would have been an ongoing story as investigators reported their findings, the scope of damage was assessed, salvage and clean-up began, repair and rebuilding plans were approved, and so on. Now that we have some digitized newspapers, this kind of claim is more easily proved or disproved.

Second: A quick perusal of the records housed in the City of Buffalo Inactive Records Center (this link doesn’t list all of them, just the most popular) shows a rich collection of 19th and 20th century records, including tax records dating back to 1814! We have an extensive collection of uninterrupted and intact government records. No losses or chronological gaps.

Let’s go back to the mystery of the chronic 1900 build date. At the risk of launching a new and only slightly improved urban legend, here is a hypothesis of my own.

Remember the name of the property database? Online Assessment Roll System. Its purpose is to ensure that the City is taxing property owners legally, correctly, and transparently. The fact that history buffs know about it and use it is great, but it was not designed with our needs in mind.

Right here is where I am going to go out on my own theoretical limb because I have never worked in a tax assessors’ office or in City Hall. For the purposes of tax collection, I imagine that there are certain things that they absolutely must get right: for example, the dimensions of the parcel, the location of the parcel, the correct name and address of the owner, the current assessment. Changing a build date in this database is like changing your house paint color: it will not alter your assessment.

My guess is that 1900 was chosen as a default date by the database designers because it was close enough for taxation purposes. A lot of stuff got built in Buffalo between 1894 and 1915. Until there was a need to update it in a particular property record, 1900 would suffice.

If there was no fire that destroyed these records, then why didn’t they just skip the misleading 1900 default date and plug in the right dates instead? Here is where I venture even further out on my theoretical limb. My guess is because building records aren’t in the Assessor’s office. They’re in the Permits & Inspections Department. In hard copy, they may not be all that portable or easily used for the purpose of data entry. Perhaps the budget funded only enough labor to input the most critical information.

Since OARS is not reliable when it comes to build dates, then how do you determine when your house was built? Leaving the realm of hypothesis, let’s return to the factual world.

The best and often only source is Buffalo Common Council Proceedings, a few volumes of which are online. Council Proceedings date back to 1832, when Buffalo was incorporated as a city. Every week, when Council convened to deliberate on the public’s business, they also officially approved the building permits applied for that week.

The permits were then listed and published in the Proceedings, one honkin’ big volume for each year. The volumes that are not digitized can be found in hard copy in various libraries. The oldest editions are available only on microfilm. There are idiosyncrasies as to how building permits were listed in Council Proceedings, but that is another topic for another time. I’ll close with a sample permit (Buffalo Common Council Proceedings, Minutes No. 13, March 31, 1879, p. 273).

Since this essay relies heavily on guesswork, I welcome comments and corrections from anyone with first-hand experience working on OARS. Please leave your feedback below.

This article was submitted by Cynthia Van Ness, from her personal LinkedIn page, and was submitted from her personal email account on her lunch hour.

Lead image: Panorama of Buffalo from Lake Erie, 1911, by W.H. Brandel, courtesy of the Library of Congress

Written by Cynthia Van Ness

Cynthia Van Ness

Cynthia has an Master of Library Science (MLS) degree from the University at Buffalo and a BA in art history from SUNY/Empire State College. After library school, she worked at the Buffalo & Erie County Public Library for 13 years, half of were in the Grosvenor Room, the local history & genealogy collection, where she developed research and reference expertise in the people, places, things, and events Buffalo history. She was appointed Director of Library & Archives at The Buffalo History Museum in 2007. On her own time, she is the author of Victorian Buffalo (1999), Quotable Buffalo (2011), and the creator of, a guide to researching ancestors, buildings, and companies in Buffalo.

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