Developing: Lockport leverages assets
The Harrison Place atrium, which was originally used for a overhead crane.
While the Erie Canal Locks that gave the city its name have traditionally been Lockport’s main tourist attraction, visitors to this Niagara County locale are finding more value there than ever. Many historic buildings that survived urban renewal are seeing new life as the city steps up its tourism efforts and draws new businesses to places like the former Harrison Radiator complex.
The Harrison Radiator Plant was mostly built in three periods between 1917 and 1930, and occupies most of Walnut Street between Washburn and Locust Streets. In keeping with factory complex design of the era, Herbert C. Harrison opted to use reinforced concrete, which enabled large floor plates for a number of different production processes. The company was an early producer of automobile radiators and, in 1918, was purchased by General Motors.
Later, when a newer plant was built, much of the old plant was vacated, although some manufacturing continued. Eventually the Walnut Street plant shut down and changed hands several times until the city sold it at a tax foreclosure sale a few years ago. The complex now provides low-cost space to small and start-up businesses.
One of the largest tenants in the building, Trek Inc., recently relocated from Medina, lured by the 460,000-square-foot complex, which offers ample space for expansion. Trek produces high-voltage power amplification and electrostatic measurement equipment and employs eighty people at its new location. Additionally, Trek has research and development groups located on Canal Street, ironically in the same building where Harrison originally produced Harrison Hexagon honeycomb radiators.
The most impressive space in the complex is the three-story atrium, which spans the entire length of the building and was once used for operating an overheard crane. Currently used for storage, the atrium has potential to be a signature draw as the building’s revitalization efforts continue. The atrium’s design is almost akin to an industrial version of Buffalo’s Market Arcade building, and, although there are currently not apartments in the complex, that could change if demand warrants it.
Just a block away from Harrison Place is the cultural center of Lockport, the historic Palace Theatre on East Avenue. Built in 1925 by A.E. Lee and Charles A. Dickenson, the Palace still commands awe with its original murals, beautiful proscenium arch around the stage, and intricate grillwork that hides the pipes of the Wurlitzer organ. Typical of movie theaters at this time, the building’s primary façade incorporates storefront space, which was used to generate additional income.
When the Palace was sold in 1973, several restorations were completed before it was reopened to the public. The current nonprofit organization, Historic Palace Inc., has made great strides to maintain and update the theater over the past decade, all while respecting the historic character of the movie house. Much of the work is completed with dedicated volunteers, grants, and donations. The marquee was restored last year, all the masonry has been repaired, and new windows were installed throughout the building. The Palace has six live theater performances per season, as well as a mix of new and classic movies that play both digitally and on film.
Deeper downtown, Old City Hall stands prominently above the Erie Canal and consistently draws visitors. Built in 1864 by Dwight Keep, it was at first used as a mill for the Benjamin C. Moore Company and, later, in 1884, as a water pumping station. The building became Lockport City Hall in 1893 and had the rear courtroom addition added that same year. In 1973, the building was listed on the National Register of Historic Places, just before Lockport built its new City Hall in 1974.
The former courtroom portion of Old City Hall is home to the Flight of Five Winery, which moved in at the beginning of this year. Inspired by urban wineries on the west coast, owners Jackie and Mike Connelly’s business features period appropriate colors, the original tin ceiling, and an impressive bar created with hand-hewn timbers. The timbers likely predate the canal and were taken from a dismantled barn in Clarence that itself was built of reclaimed timbers used by a railroad car builder.
Since its grand opening in September, Flight of Five has been added to the Niagara Wine Trail, which has drawn wine amateurs and connoisseurs alike. The winery’s signature offering is a flight of its first five wines—which run from dry to sweet—named Lock 67 through Lock 71, for the Canal’s original Flight of Five locks.
In its time, the canal’s Flight of Five was one of the most impressive feats of man over nature. The construction of the canal and the locks were the start of the development of Lockport, which was previously thick wilderness. With the canal established, settlers and canal workers grew the city, which later became a center of business as industry developed around the canal.
Built between 1823 and 1825, the locks featured more than a sixty-foot change in elevation that proved to be one of the more difficult tasks of building “Clinton’s Ditch.” Although it took between two hours to half a day to get through the Flight, that was faster than any alternate route that would have circumvented Lockport. The Flight of Five was expanded in 1842 and ultimately superseded by two larger, modern locks.
Efforts are currently underway to restore the Flight of Five, with Locks 69 and 70 the first slated for rehab. When completed, at an estimated cost of ten million dollars, visitors will be able to traverse the locks for the first time in decades. An operating Flight of Five is expected to increase annual tourists from 80,000 to 150,000 to 230,000.
Parallel to the locks on Canal Street, several buildings are attracting attention from both visitors and residents. A vacant storefront in an 1850s Italianate commercial building has been transformed into a bike rental shop. A few doors down, Lake Effect Ice Cream—formerly of Lock Street—served more than 46,000 customers last year alone.
While many historic buildings are being revived, some have potential that is yet to be recognized. A prime example is the former Farmers and Mechanics Savings Bank on the corner of Main and Locust Streets. Built in 1905, the neoclassical building dominates the corner and features an impressive cornice topping the composition. The majority of the building is empty, but the banking hall and wood office partitions from the 1930s remain intact, awaiting a new tenant.
Lockport is filled with impressive homes, from craftsman bungalows of the 1920s to Italianate mansions of the mid-nineteenth century to an array of Queen Anne. This wealth of attractive residential architecture combined with new downtown developments set the stage for Lockport to reclaim its title as the jewel of the Erie Canal.
Mike Puma is a project manager for Preservation Studios.