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HAUNTED HISTORY | Two Sisters, Iconic Buildings Imbued with Sacred Imagery

Buffalo Rising’s Haunted History Series with Mason Winfield, offers readers a virtual mini-tour of several famous Buffalo landmarks, guided by beloved local historian, author, and paranormal scholar, Mason Winfield. The Haunted History series was created to celebrate the Halloween season in this unprecedented time. This content was made possible thanks to the generosity of our sponsor, Ellicott Hotels.


This is a tale of two iconic sister skyscrapers constructed at nearly the same time, both utilizing similar technologies and materials. Louis Sullivan’s The Guaranty/Prudential Building, built in an Art Nouveau style, was a testament to modern technology and human ingenuity. The Ellicott Square Building, located just a few blocks East, is in an Italian Renaissance style with an ornate mosaic floor and an impressive large light court. These buildings are also perfect examples of the use of powerful and sacred symbols in architecture.

Some of the most interesting ornamentation in WNY is done by James Johnson, according to Mason Winfield, noted author, historian, and founder of Haunted History Ghost Walks. Johnson was the designer on numerous local historic buildings, “The Temple of Music at the Pan-Am Exposition (incidentally, where President McKinley was shot), The Lafayette Highschool, The Niagara Hotel in Niagara Falls,  and the United Office Building in Niagara falls is a Mayan Revival Building,” now The Giacomo Hotel owned by Ellicott Hotels.

All these buildings included ancient symbols and hieroglyphics. “The full meaning of these symbols was likely not understood by Johnson,” adds Mason, “as they are arranged in patterns that look beautiful but have no relation to each other. However, for those that believe in the power of symbols, it’s no wonder that many of these buildings are said to be haunted.”

The architects and designers employed around this time are representatives of a style of architecture that we don’t see much of anymore, “Temple Architecture” as it’s sometimes referred to says Mason, “they are reproducing geometry, shapes, patterns, and symbolism that would have been common to ancient societies. That would have been representative of religion.”

Both The Guaranty and Ellicott Square buildings make use of terracotta as a building material. Italian for “baked earth,” clay is durable, versatile, and fireproof, and primarily can be formed into a variety of shapes, including very intricate designs, like the ones found on these buildings. The Guaranty Building is faced on two sides with terracotta. Whereas the Ellicott Square building uses other materials along with the terracotta. 

Terracotta gives the look and feel of stone, but is comparatively lightweight and inexpensive. A favorite material of late 19th-century architects, both for ornament and as a fire retardant. Many other notable buildings in Buffalo use terra cotta extensively, including the Niagara Mohawk, Telephone, Calumet, Sidway, and Shea’s Performing Arts Center.

THE GUARANTY BUILDING

“The Guaranty is one of my favorite Buffalo buildings,” says Mason Winfield. Construction began in 1894 and the building opened in 1896. The Guaranty building is an early skyscraper, and for a time was the world’s tallest building due to architect Louis Sullivan’s steel frame construction. 

The building has 13 stories, “a lot of people were superstitious about the number 13 and even if they had a building that had 13 stories they would creatively number their floors to avoid the auspicious number” This fear has a name, Triskaidekaphobia or fear of the number 13. 

At 152 feet, it was the tallest in the city. The structure originally had a “U” shape, with an open court to the south to provide natural light. The light court, in the center of the U, was faced in white glazed tiles to reflect as much light as possible, as there were plans to build an ornate opera house on the Pearl Street side of the building. Unfortunately, these plans fell through. 

“From the outside, it’s meant to look like Greek Columns. When you look at the Guaranty building the base was meant to be open to the general public at all times 24 hours a day, seven days a week, a true community space. The top floor, where they have the oculus windows, that’s where management worked. The middle 12 floors were for everyone else. So in summary, the general community gets the base, management gets top capitol, and as always, the workers get the shaft.” (a little architecture humor).

“The Guaranty Building makes ornament the focus through the use of terracotta tiles that cover two full exterior surfaces. The piers between the windows form strong vertical lines that draw the eye upward to the dominant cornice. Despite the technological advancements that made the skyscraper possible, including high-quality structural steel and electric elevators, Sullivan strove to connect the building with the natural world. His ornamentation for the Guaranty was inspired by flowers, seedpods, and, at the top of the building, the spreading branches of a tree.” 

“The ornamentation of the building is truly remarkable.” 

According to Mason, people have suggested that it is Celtic in reference, possibly inspired by The Book of Kells which contains the four Gospels, readings, and cannon tables. The book is ornately decorated with images of plants, animals and humans. The text is in Latin, but the images offer the reader a visual opportunity to see Jesus’ life in symbols and attributes assigned to his teachings. 

Other imagery on the building has been interpreted as representing some of the mystical movements of the 19th century including Theosophy. Which “refers to a nexus of teachings associated with the Supreme, the macrocosmos (the universe or Nature), and microcosmos (humanity).” That there is “a single Supreme Essence, Unknown and Unknowable” and that this is the “central idea of the Eclectic Theosophy.”  

These mystic philosophies draw inspiration from the same root source, “often called the Hermetic Qabalahist tradition, a garden of images notions, ideas that have sprouted a lot of different interpretations. For instance, the seed pods represented on the building, if you think about the central theme of most of these Western mystical movements is the idea of transcendence — of human perfection, the idea that the earth is just the beginning. That we are here to perfect ourselves, and that the spirit within us represents a much greater potential than we can represent as a body – what better way to show that than a seed pod. What a great metaphor for the human soul.”

There are a couple prominent ghosts in the Guaranty Building. I hear their zones are on the 13th Floor and the bottom, basement floor. “I’ve interviewed a number of security personnel and former workers, and at least in the early 2000s they had the legend of an old-timey looking ghost, named Orville or Oliver, a guy in a bowler hat with a moustache. There also appears to be a “woman in white” ghost, a very familiar ghostly form. 

Electrical phenomena is quite commonly associated with haunted sites. We humans are very strongly electrical – our brains and muscles have electrical connections, a lot of prominent haunted sites around the world are sites of geomagnetic anomaly. For the Guaranty Building, there are reports of flickering lights and the elevators often have a phantom passenger that stops on the 13 th Floor.”

This building has been through a number of tumultuous years, and its construction was nearly abandoned several times. 

In 1890, local oil magnate, Hascal L. Taylor, purchased the site at the corner of Pearl and Church Streets with a dream to build the “finest office building in the country.” Unfortunately, Taylor died the same month the building plans were completed. The Guaranty Construction Company of Chicago acquired the plans and built the building between February 1895 and March 1896. The Guaranty was renamed the Prudential Building in 1898 to acknowledge refinancing provided by the Prudential Insurance Company. Both names can be seen above the entrances. 

Throughout the building’s life it has been frequently threatened with demolition. Lastly, in 1998 its previous owner went into bankruptcy. An area law firm, Hodgson Russ LLP, which had been a leading force in earlier efforts to preserve the building, purchased it to use as its principal Buffalo office, thus ensuring the Guaranty Building will continue as one of America’s most important architectural landmarks. Hodgson Russ LLP recently celebrated its bi-centennial anniversary as one of the country’s oldest law firms.

Louis Sullivan

Louis Sullivan

Louis H. Sullivan is called a “father of skyscrapers” and “father of modernism.” 

Sullivan was born in Boston in 1856, “his father was an Irish Dance Instructor, so there’s a lot of Celtic tradition in Sullivan’s family. As far as I know, he was full-blood Irish.” adds Mason, “He was a very mystical guy. One of my favorite Sullivan Stories — He was designing a bank in Newark, Ohio. Every day he would walk to the Newark Mound Complex, an ancient Native American site that featured octagons, mounds, circles, and geo-forms, A remarkable complex with deep astronomical significance. Everyday after working on his bank project, Sullivan would walk three-quarters of a mile to view the monuments and walk among them. To Sullivan, these ancient constructions on the landscape reflected upwards to the sky as testaments to the gods.” 

He also studied at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris, then traveled to Italy, where he was impressed by the architecture and ornateness of the Sistine Chapel. 

When Sullivan returned to the United States he settled in Chicago, where he landed a position at Dankmar Adler’s firm as chief draftsman and designer. In 1883, they formed the firm of Adler and Sullivan. Sullivan was the primary design partner and Adler, the engineer. Adler and Sullivan’s buildings, including the Auditorium and Stock Exchange Buildings in Chicago, the Wainwright Building in St. Louis, and the Guaranty Building, were at the leading edge of American architecture and skyscraper design.

The Guaranty Building was Sullivan and Adler’s last collaboration. Adler withdrew from the firm as the building was under construction. Prevailing tastes preferred a more traditional neoclassicism over Sullivan’s innovations, and Sullivan increasingly turned his practice from skyscrapers to smaller buildings.

Also in this later phase of his career, Sullivan wrote books on what came to be called organic architecture, “Sullivan insisted that architecture had to embody the human connection with nature and to democracy, while still accepting the most modern functional needs and materials. He railed against the prevailing architectural practitioners for failing to take these principles into account. The book titles were “Kindergarten Chats” and “Autobiography of an Idea”

“He was a difficult man, uncompromising and erratic, but his brilliance is undeniable – see the passages which his pupil Wright has devoted to his Leiber Meister. Sullivan died in obscurity and poverty in a hotel room in Chicago in 1924.”

The Guaranty Building represents the height of Sullivan’s design work and marks the beginning of the uniquely American style of architecture that influenced a young architect, Frank Lloyd Wright, who worked for Adler and Sullivan from 1888 to 1893.

THE ELLICOTT SQUARE BUILDING

There are two buildings that are meccas for visiting occultists. The two that stand out are the Gold Dome on Main Street, and the Ellicott Square Building. 

In 1797, Joseph Ellicott, laid out what was then called the village of New Amsterdam, soon to be the city of Buffalo. As the future site of his residence, he reserved what was considered “the most desirable location” on the east side of Main Street, extending from Swan Street to Eagle Street. 

“The site of the future Ellicott Square building was going to be the home of Joseph Ellicott,” said Mason Winfield, “However, before he built his house the city fathers decided to flatten out Main Street. It pissed off Ellicott so much that he moved out to Batavia.” 

For nearly 100 years, his family retained title to the property between Swan Street and South Division Street, extending from Main Street to Washington Street. This area was known as “Ellicott Square.” 

In 1895, the Ellicott Company commissioned architect Daniel H. Burnham of Chicago to design what they referred to as an “office block” in downtown Buffalo. 

On May 30, 1896, the Ellicott Square Building was completed, with 10 stories, 60 offices, and 40 stores, along with an extensive central court. The building was the world’s largest office structure of its time. Construction cost 3.5 million dollars. 

The ground floor mosaic is attributed to William Winthrop Kent and James Johnson, “I’ve seen the original design and the one that was laid down is just slightly different.” There’s the idea that possible Buffalo architect EB Green may have finished the project. It is similar to the original plan. So there is a little mystery there as to why the original plans are not the same as the finished floor. 

Architect’s Drawing: Mosaic Floor, W. W. Kent / J. A. Johnson / Architects Associated | buffaloah.com

The symbol of the swastika is represented in the mosaic in the floor, this symbol existed long before the Nazis decided to assume it for themselves. “The Swastika is a generic world symbol, like eyes, pyramids, circles, roses, and crosses, it’s just a symbol used by societies around the world.” 

One of the most interesting things to see at the Ellicott Square building is the symbolic floor mosaic. A Freemason once told Winfield that he believes the floor Mosaic represents a symbolic Masonic rite. That the positions of the various stations on the floor represent the positions of people in the classic masonic lodge during an important rite. “And what effect this might have on ghost stories. All I can tell you is that any building that has any association with occultism, you will get ghost stories.”

The building has a tradition of supernatural folklore. “Some of the tenants on some of the floors believe there is creepy stuff going on- not dangerous, but shadows, sounds, and other unexplained things that the average person either doesn’t believe or tends to be spooked by.” 

There’s an interesting pattern of deaths, at least twelve documented deaths in or around the building that happen from 1895 – 1912. “Things like public safety have much improved since those early days, and any building that had elevators, had accidents.” 

“One of the guards has a dog that’s always with him. This guard’s happy and friendly dog will, every once in a while, take a look at elevator one on the Washington Street Side, then run quickly away from the area. He needs to be coaxed by his owner to return. Turns out, it’s where two men were killed by a falling metal part. It’s widely believed that dogs and cats can see spirit. My native friends have told me that all cats can see spirit. Whereas dogs most dogs need to be trained.”

Daniel Hudson Burnham

Daniel Hudson Burnham

The principle architect, Daniel Burnham is basically a “neo-spiritualist.” According to Winfield, “Burhamn believed that if he hadn’t gone into architecture he might have gone into the study of the afterlife, that he might have been able to prove the survival of the human spirit.”

Burnham was raised and educated in Chicago, and gained early architectural experience with William Le Baron Jenney — who, like Louis Sullivan, is also called “father of the skyscraper.” 

In 1873, Burnham formed a partnership with John Wellborn Root. Similar to Addler & Sullivan, another Chicago-based firm, Burnham’s talents lay in construction. Root was the designer. When Root died in 1891, Burnham selected principal architects firms that specialized in “academic eclecticism.” Part of which, was the Beaux Arts style, the academic architectural style taught at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris, also visited by Louis Sullivan, “it drew upon the principles of French neoclassicism, but also incorporated Gothic and Renaissance elements, and used modern materials, such as iron and glass.” 

Following Root’s death in 1891, the firm became known as D.H. Burnham and Co. 

Joseph Ellicott

Joseph Ellicott was born in Pennsylvania in 1760. The son of Quaker miller. In 1790, his brother Andrew Ellicott was hired by the federal government to survey the new federal district, where the new capital city of Washington was to be built. Joseph was Andrew’s chief assistant during the latter part of the survey. Joseph Ellicott was subsequently sent to Georgia to survey the boundary line, established by treaty with the Creek tribe.

Afterward, he was engaged to survey property in Pennsylvania, recently purchased by a group of Dutch investors who formed the Holland Land Company. 

Ellicott helped extend the New York / Pennsylvania border westward. When the company purchased a large tract of land in the new western area of  New York, it became known as The Holland Purchase. He was hired again to survey the newly acquired land. Ellicott spent two years living outdoors laying out townships. 

In 1800, the principal agent assigned him a new position as their agent in Batavia, New York. For the next 21 years, he personally supervised much of the sale of the land. He was also an observer for the investors at the Big Tree Treaty when the Seneca’s “sold” their rights to the land in Western New York. In 1804, he laid out the village of Buffalo.

Given the original land that sits under Ellicott Square, as at the edge of an ancient Native American trail. Some say he was cursed. Ellicott never married. He began to suffer serious mental problems and his family had him admitted to an asylum in New York City, where he died in 1826 by hanging himself. Originally buried downstate, he was exhumed and re-turned to rest at the Batavia Cemetery. Which makes the powerful and ancient symbols of protection in the Ellicott Square Building, take on new and important meaning. 

Haunted History Tours | The Original Western New York Ghost Walk Since 1996

As long as people have talked together, there have been wonder-tales, including stories of ghosts. For fifteen years the ghost walks of Mason Winfield (author of nine books) have set the standard in upstate New York. Incorporated since 2004 as Haunted History Ghost Walks, these walking tours of haunted village sites are historic, informative, engaging, and even spellbinding. Mixed with the observations of local history and ghost stories are many eyewitness encounters. Marked by their eclectic blend of good scholarship, Native American tradition, an original paranormal philosophy, and superb storytelling. Book a tour here.


About Mason Winfield

Mason is a historian and folklorist, fascinated by the academic study of subjects like parapsychology, occult conspiracy, ancient mysteries, geomancy, and First Nations/indigenous tradition. He is always looking for connections, “as an author, researcher, scholar, and storyteller. Mason Winfield is a paranormal profiler who tries to make sense out of the big picture. Raised in the suburbs near Buffalo, NY, he was the only child of a middle-class family. An active, energetic kid with a deep inquisitive streak, an early predilection for reading and drawing. He has lectured all over New York State about ghostly and folkloric tradition. Mason is the world authority on the mystical, occult, and supernatural connections of East Aurora’s Arts & Crafts Movement community Roycroft. He has appeared as a guest expert on numerous TV, radio, and internet programs. He designed and hosted The Phantom Tour (2003), a two-hour TV program/DVD on haunted history in upstate New York. He has appeared on NBC’s Today Show and stars in a 2006 episode of the Travel Channel program Legend Hunters and has addressed the “ancient mysteries” conference of the New England Antiquities Research Association.

Mason has spoken about Native American legends and tradition on all three upstate New York Seneca reservations, as well as led workshops at the Spiritualist community Lily Dale concerning aspects of parapsychology and world tradition. In 1996, Mason founded Haunted History Ghost Walks, Inc., an upstate New York “supernatural tourism” company that leads walking and vehicle tours, conferences, pub crawls and performances.

As an historian and author, Mason has written or edited twelve books, including Shadows of the Western Door (1997) was a Jim Brandon/Weird America-style paranormal survey of Western New York. Ghosts of 1812, a study of the Niagara war and its folklore (Western New York Wares, 2009), and (with Michael Bastine) Iroquois Supernatural, a study of the traditions of the Six Longhouse Nations (Inner Traditions International/Bear & Company, 2011).

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// Read more from Mason on Buffalorising.com

Written by Daniel Lendzian

Daniel Lendzian

Dan is a working artist and author trained in classical and contemporary theatre techniques. An adaptive and empathetic educator, Dan helps people discover their own unique voice. Having mentored more than 1,200+ students across the U.S. and in Florence, Italy, as well as performed in hundreds of individual shows on international, national, and regional stages. Currently, Dan is a lecturer at SUNY Fredonia, and now a storyteller + host for Buffalo Rising's (soon to launch) #stilltalking series podcast.

As an author, Dan writes micro-fiction and has devised dozens of original works of theatre. He is currently working on a collaborative interview project. Dan is a certified Pilates Instructor and completed his Masters of Fine Arts at The University of Texas at Austin.

View All Articles by Daniel Lendzian
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