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Explore Buffalo: Old County Hall

September 15, 2020 marked the 119th anniversary of President William McKinley’s funeral in Buffalo.  Last week, Explore Buffalo included Old County Hall as one of the highlights of its Presidents in Buffalo Tour.  This week, Explore Buffalo staff member and docent, Suzanne Ernst, takes a closer look at the site of where McKinley lay in state after his assassination along with the building’s connection to other moments in national history.

Old County Hall, originally known as City and County Hall and located at 92 Franklin Street, was built between 1871 and 1876.  The architect, Andrew Jackson Warner, was a Rochester, N.Y. native, and worked under famed architect H.H. Richardson.  Warner was the supervising architect on Richardson’s Buffalo State Hospital, known today as the Richardson Olmsted Complex, the site of Hotel Henry.  

In 1870, Buffalo’s City Council resolved that both City and County functions should be consolidated under one building.  City and County Hall opened in March 1876.  It was designed as Victorian Romanesque, a style known for large arched windows, tall central towers and grand masonry.

The massively scaled walls are made of granite from Maine. The central tower which contains four clocks rises to 209 feet.  The clocks each measure at nine feet in diameter.  The tower is flanked by four statues by sculptor Giovanni Sala. Legend has it that the faces of the statues were based on Sala’s wife’s face.  The statues are each 16 feet high and were cut from a 30-ton granite block.  They represent Justice, Agriculture, Mechanical Arts and Commerce.  Fourteen corner turrets standing at 20 feet high flank the perimeter of the building. 

There is much in the way of national history connected to this building.  During the War of 1812, an armed conflict between the United States and Great Britain, American Colonel Cyrenius Chapin surrendered the then-village of Buffalo to the invading British forces.  The British proceeded to burn down the village.  This was not a random torching, but a retaliation for the Americans burning down what is now Niagara-on-the-Lake in British-governed Ontario, Canada.  Subsequently, this plot of land was designated as Franklyn Square Cemetery, a burial ground for soldiers who perished during the war.  When construction began on City and County Hall in 1871, the bodies were exhumed and reburied at Forest Lawn Cemetery, or the families of dead had the remains reburied as they saw fit.

As mentioned in last week’s article highlighting the Presidents in Buffalo tour, Grover Cleveland was the Mayor of Buffalo before he rose to the office of the Presidency.  Cleveland was elected mayor in 1882 and you can still view the location of his office from Franklin street. It was on the second floor just to the left of the clock tower.  Cleveland is the only U.S. President who served two non-consecutive terms.  He was both the 22nd and the 24th President of the United States. His wife, Frances, a Buffalo native, was born not far from Old County Hall at 168 Edward Street.

On September 15, 1901, President McKinley lay in state in the lobby of City and County Hall.  He had died the day before from infection from the bullet wounds he received when shot by Leon Csogosz at the Pan-American Exposition. 

McKinley’s funeral was documented on film by none other than Thomas Edison.  The film shows the arrival of the President’s casket to City and County Hall followed by the long line of citizens arriving to pay their final respects.  The film is viewable on the Library of Congress’s website beginning at the 6:50 mark.  Many photos of the funeral from different sources including details of that day can be found at WNY Heritage’s website.  To this day, the spot where McKinley lay in state in the lobby is protected by a velvet roped and marked with a plaque and an American Flag.

In a courtroom just upstairs from where McKinley had lain in state, Czolgosz was tried for the President’s murder.  A local legend is that the iron gate at the entrance of this courtroom was placed there during the trial – not to protect the public from Czolgosz or to prevent him from escaping, but to protect Czolgosz from citizens who were infuriated at what he had done. The jury found him guilty of murder after only a three day trial, and he was sentenced to death by electric chair (invented by a Buffalo dentist).  A popular local story is that the underground tunnel that connects Old County Hall to the jail was especially built to transfer Czolgosz to his trial.  However, it would be a truly extraordinary feat of construction to build an underground tunnel under Delaware Avenue in the time from when Czolgosz was arrested on September 6 to the start of his trial on September 23. The tunnel connecting the two buildings was built 10 years prior to Czolgosz’s trial in 1891, and is still in use today.

By 1932, the art-deco masterpiece by Dietel & Wade, today’s Buffalo City Hall, opened and city operations moved out of Old County Hall.  In 1965, the Rath Building was opened across Franklin Street. Today, Old County Hall is still used for county operations as well as New York State judiciary purposes.  Old County Hall is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.


Photo Credits:
Chuck LaChiusa/BuffaloAH.com
Explore Buffalo


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Written by Explore Buffalo

Explore Buffalo

Explore Buffalo is a nonprofit organization with a mission of promoting Buffalo and Western New York history, architecture, and neighborhoods through quality education to learners of all ages. Explore Buffalo's volunteer docents lead a wide range of guided tours by foot, bike, bus, kayak, and boat to explore our city's history and architecture; in 2019, more than 25,000 people participated in an Explore Buffalo tour or program. Learn more at explorebuffalo.org

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