The Calumet Building on Chippewa Street brings many images to the minds of local Western New York residents. What the images are depends in part on the age of the person commenting. This street has undergone many transitions since buildings multiplied there at the turn of the twentieth century. One building that has stood the test of time is the Calumet Building, 46-58 West Chippewa, at the corner of Franklin St. Explore Buffalo docent Judy Falkowski describes the building and its history.
The Calumet was designed in the Art Nouveau inspired style by James A. Johnson, of the architectural firm of Esenwein & Johnson in 1906 for Robert Keating Root. As one of the eight official architects of the Pan American Exposition, Esenwein & Johnson designed the Temple of Music, where President Mckinley was shot. The firm, one of the most prolific in Buffalo, also designed the first Statler Hotel at Main and Swan Streets (1905), General Electric Tower (1912) and Lafayette High School (1903). A number of their buildings are listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The Calumet was added to this National Register in 2010.
The Calumet is a steel frame, three story building, but it’s the facade that people take note of immediately. The burnt sienna and cream glazed terra cotta stands out on the street. Calumet is French for reed, and a closer look at the facade reveals the prominent reed design. The terra cotta vegetative ornamentation can be compared to the terra cotta design on Louis Sullivan’s famous Guaranty Building located several blocks away at Church and Pearl Streets.
The reed design is particularly noticed on the piers across the front of the building. Notice how two of the piers start above the first floor stretch to the roof line, but not to the ground. The terra cotta design continues on the bottom of these two piers. The hole is probably a drain spout.
The Spandrel detail, the space between the top of one window and the sill of the one above, is especially prominent. Cream colored terra cotta garlands and pendant flowers are also featured.
The brick facade on the Franklin Street side of the building features more terra cotta trim and a mural advertising the present day Bacchus Wine Bar Restaurant. The Calumet was originally built for Robert Keating Root, the adopted son of Robert Keating. Root, a Buffalo businessman and banker at the turn of the century, was a director of numerous banks including the Bank of Buffalo and Marine Trust. From the time it was built in 1906, the Calumet was a popular business address. The French name for the Native American ceremonial peace pipe was used as a symbol of the Calumet Club which once occupied the third floor of the building.
Prohibition brought another organization to this popular address, the Klu Klux Klan. It maintained an office here as the Kay-Bee Adsign Company beginning in 1921. Prohibition was a big issue that the KKK supported. They used the Mayoral election of Francis Xavier Schwab as their reason for being here. Schwab, a former brewery worker and owner, ran for election on the Wet Ticket. Although he had no political experience, he was elected. His brewery continued to produce legal near-beer, and allegedly illegal beer. One of his speeches was interrupted by 25 Klansmen in full regalia. While in Buffalo they held several cross burnings and grew to about 4000 members. The membership lists were stolen during a 1924 burglary and ransacking of their office in the Calumet. The lists were recovered by the police and kept as evidence. This led to the police, at Mayor Schwabʼs direction, placing the recovered membership lists on public display. Within a week more than 3000 people had viewed the list. The public information caused much disruption in the businesses of members and in the Klan’s operations. There were investigations and accusations by both the police and the Klan including a shootout where two men were killed. The office inside the Calumet closed by the end of 1925.
During the 1970s, Chippewa Street became a red light district. By 1980 the Calumet became an unoccupied building. In 1988 Mark Goldman purchased the building and started the revitalization of West Chippewa into an entertainment district. During the 1990s it became the address of several nightclubs, restaurants and entertainment spots including the Calumet Cafe. However, the upper floors remained mostly vacant during this time.
In 2010 Goldman and his partner, Arthur Ziller, sold the building to the law firm of Kenney Shelton Liptak Nowak LLP who partnered with Frank Parisi and Angelo Natale. The law firm planned to move their offices to the building after minor exterior changes, and necessary interior renovations. Carmina Wood Morris Architects were hired for this project which included an addition to the Franklin Street side with an elevator making the upper floors accessible. An urban courtyard was built in the rear of the building.
When purchased, the upper floors of the Calumet were unoccupied and unfinished. There were signs of past fires, birds were flying, while mice and rats scurried across the floors. During the restoration the original brick walls were cleaned and left intact when feasible. To preserve the historical landmark status, the original design and details were maintained whenever possible. The original hardwood floors and skylights remain. Floor joists and utilities were left exposed to give the spaces a loft like appearance.
In 2013 the owners and the architects were recognized with a Preservation Award for their work restoring and preserving this architectural gem. Today the law firm occupies the upper two floors with a main entrance on Franklin St. Restaurants and businesses continue to occupy the first floor with entrances on West Chippewa, including Bacchus Wine Bar Restaurant and a Mighty Taco.
Photo credits: Chuck LaChiusa/BuffaloAH.com
For more information on the Klu Klux Klan see Hooded Knights on the Niagara by Shawn Lav
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