Can Wildroot be tamed?
The Wildroot complex consists of a warehouse and an office building.
Mark Paradowski grew up around the corner from the Wildroot Building on Bailey Avenue, on the east side of Buffalo. Even as a child, when his family drove by the structure, he’d often say, “Someday, I want to fix up the broken windows in that old building!” Paradowski is finally in a position to help make those early hopes a reality. The Canisius MBA graduate and analyst has begun to use his knowledge and skills to help the city’s revitalization. An associate of Buffalo’s Young Preservationists (BYP), Paradowski has participated in volunteer boardup efforts, fundraisers, attended preservation rallies, and learned from BYP’s activist members.
The Wildroot building appeared on the city of Buffalo’s demolition list in early 2012; its owner had passed away in 2011, and, there being no next of kin, the estate donated the structure to the city as a means of avoiding payment of back taxes. Wildroot was listed on the tax foreclosure auction in October 2012, but there were no bidders. Paradowski, having recently learned about the situation, decided to undertake some research and attempt to get it listed as a local and federal landmark. This would help him either buy and renovate the property himself using historic preservation tax credits, or promote the site to potential buyers and developers. What he learned about the building was that its significance was, in fact, national.
The Wildroot building, located at 1740 Bailey Avenue and adjacent to a major rail line, is a 100,000-square-foot, multi-story, early modern commercial building built in 1929. At its construction, Wildroot was the world’s largest cake kitchen. Detroit-based Grennan Bakery, one of the nation’s most successful confection companies, expanded its operations to Buffalo after its vice president, J.W. Hines, served in the National Guard at the Broadway Arsenal with Colonel Francis G. Ward. Hines considered Buffalo his adopted hometown. While Grennan’s bakery was being built in 1929 at a cost of $1 million, construction of the historic New York Central Terminal was nearing completion along the same tracks just one mile away.
The bakery’s original address was 21 Fay Street, at the corner of West Shore. Just across the street, the West Shore and New York Central tracks were joined to form a rail yard still in use today.
Around 1908, a Buffalo business—Wildroot—began in the barbershops of the historic Iroquois Hotel and rose to become one of the largest hair care product manufacturers in the world. Morrel C. Howe and Robert J. Kideney, two barbers, grew their business slowly—starting in an Allentown home—as they mixed batches of dandruff shampoo and other tonics. Businessman Harry Lehman invested in their idea in 1915, and they quickly expanded to the Caxton Building (since demolished), then the Sidway, then to various buildings on both Jefferson and Fay Streets, most still in use by other businesses today. The success of their most famous product, Cream Oil, contributed to their biggest move, the purchase and expansion of the Grennan Bakery building. It was at this point that they reached the ability to produce 200,000 bottles of hair product each day. In 1949 alone, $60,000,000 was spent worldwide by consumers on Wildroot products.
By the time Wildroot took over the former Grennan Bakery in the 1940s, the Bailey/Walden area had begun to reach its commercial and residential peak. Wildroot purchased surrounding property and connected a new three story office building to the warehouse, giving the complex a Bailey Avenue address.
Wildroot’s office building is an example of early modern architecture with some Art Moderne features, popular in the 1930s to late 1940s. A small service floor is a prominent feature of the façade and is flanked on either side by a single small abutment. This feature creates a “stepped” characteristic, popular in the Art Deco era.
Other architectural features of the Wildroot structure include a central entrance featuring black marble and paired doors set within a tall flat archway. The streamlined metal letters that once topped the entrance have been stolen, but the Wildroot name can still be seen on the south elevation. Most floors of the administration building feature a double loaded corridor with large offices on either side. Several original staircases remain intact in the building and feature gracefully curving, streamlined metal railings and terrazzo treads.
The warehouse portion of the complex—not as detailed as the administration building—is built of reinforced concrete faced with red brick, and the floor plates are largely open space punctuated only by structural columns.
Following the company’s incredible wartime growth, a decision was made to turn record profits into a national advertising campaign. The Wildroot name became famous across print, radio, and the newest media format, television. The company’s “Cream Oil Charlie” jingle, sung by Nat King Cole, was one of the first features on Buffalo’s WBEN-TV when it went live in 1948. Hall of Fame sports personalities such as NFL champion Otto Graham, World Series champion Duke Snider, and PGA Player of the Year Jack Burke Jr. did Wildroot ads during the fifties, and cartoonist Al Capp was enlisted to produce the Fearless Fosdick cartoons by Wildroot’s advertising agency, BBDO, the company that inspired the creation of current hit TV show Mad Men. The most famous representative of the brand was a young Ronald Reagan with slicked back Wildroot hair—as seen in a prominent print ad from that time.
In the 1950s a portion of the revenue generated by Wildroot was used to form the Wildroot Foundation, later renamed the Western New York Foundation. The foundation has operated for over sixty years, providing nearly eleven million dollars of support for community projects. The historic importance of the Wildroot building is undeniable, both on a local and national level. Paradowski, along with his colleagues, believes that with some shoring up and basic maintenance, the structure can thrive once again. Potential development could benefit from historic preservation tax credits from the state and federal government, totaling forty percent of the project’s cost.
“I see it as storage space first, in order to get the lights back on,” says Paradowski. “From there, it has the potential to become an indoor park for skating, paintball, lasertag, go-kart, rock climbing, mini golf, and bowling—an all-in-one entertainment center. It could also host retail and market space, a small business incubator, community space for artisans/fabricators, a meeting space, or a glass blowing facility (in the boiler room). There could even be some space for a Wildroot museum. Maybe some day it could have thirdfloor loft apartments. There could be an outdoor movie screen for summer movies in the courtyard. The building has 25,000 square foot floor plates, and has been used for both offices and manufacturing, so it could accommodate just about anything.”
Paradowski has created a Facebook page for the building (facebook.com/WildrootBuffalo), and believes that he’ll be able to get it on the National Register of Historic Places. He’s also noticed a strong interest in Wildroot memorabilia on the internet and locally, showing that there is name recognition and sentimental attachment. While the city’s real estate process can be labyrinthine, it would be well worthwhile for potential developers to acquire the Wildroot site, with its deep roots in Western New York, and make it a place of Buffalo pride once again.
Dana Saylor-Furman is an artist, preservation activist, and historian. Visit her website at oldtimeroots.com. This article includes selected research by Mark Paradowski and architectural analysis by Mike Puma of ViewsOfBuffalo.blogspot.com