The rise and fall of the Vernor Building
By Philip Nyhuis

Photo by Jim Bush.

Early twentieth century Buffalo played an important role in the development of the automobile industry through the production of celebrated cars and the creation of remarkable factories and showrooms. Although long gone from the highways, the Thomas Flyer and the Pierce-Arrow marques were—like the Packards in Detroit—built in fireproof, reinforced concrete factories, the development of which marked a milestone in industrial architecture. S. H. Woodruff is credited with designing both the Thomas factory and the original Pierce-Arrow showroom at 752–58 Main Street, a classic revival building that was billed as “the largest automobile salesroom in the world” when it opened in 1907.

Period photographs of 752–58 Main depict an elegant three-story terra cotta building with a light-flooded showroom and graceful supporting columns on the ground floor. It was part of a terra cotta block that also included the Ansonia and E. B. Green’s Schmidt Building with its distinctive porte cochere. After Pierce-Arrow moved to its second showroom—the Art Deco masterpiece at Main and Jewett Parkway—the company sold its downtown building to the James Vernor Company, which converted it to a bottling plant and retail store for Vernor’s Ginger Ale.

In 1951, Vernor sold its namesake building to Louis Rosokoff, a Lincoln Parkway resident, who began renting space in the building to a succession of tenants including Parke-Davis pharmaceutical company, clothing manufacturers and retailers, insurance and real estate agents, a shoe repair store, a stamp company, the Ancient Accepted Scottish Rite, the Buffalo Consistory, and, in a case of history coming full circle, a Fiat-Lancia automobile dealer in the late 1970s. In the mid-80s, two furniture stores were among the last tenants in the building.

Both the Vernor and the Schmidt, locally designated landmarks in the Theater Historic District, were considered for senior housing in the ’90s, but continued to deteriorate when City Hall failed to get behind the effort. A few years later, Pierce-Arrow Museum owner Joseph Sandoro suggested renovating the buildings to house the new B District Police Station. City Hall pretended to get excited about it because the asking price of the site under consideration—the eventual location at Main and Tupper—was considered too high. But lacking the commitment to restore and preserve the buildings, the forces of demolition (including the Vernor’s last owner, David Shifrin of Cleveland) began tossing around words like eyesore, deplorable condition, and death trap.

In 1998, the city was about to demolish the Vernor by skirting around a preservation ordinance. When word leaked out in the newspaper, the city held out an olive branch, and offered to preserve the façades. That wasn’t enough for preservationist Scot Fisher, who began lobbying the Preservation Board to save the Vernor and the Schmidt intact. Both the Masiello and Brown administrations, however, lacked the vision and the will to preserve the buildings and, in May 2007, the Vernor Building—with its remaining glass and terra cotta—was knocked down with a backhoe, 100 years after it opened. As for S. W. Woodruff, his legacy lives on elsewhere. After his Buffalo success, he decamped for California where he rebuilt parts of San Francisco destroyed by the 1906 earthquake, then became a real estate developer and part of a group that in 1923 put up five-foot tall letters in the Hollywood Hills, letters that spelled the name of an exclusive new subdivision.

The Vernor Remembered
During the mid-twentieth century, the Vernor Building was home to several clothing businesses: Bond Clothes, based in Rochester, had a sleeve factory on the second floor until the early seventies; Royal Slacks made pants on the third floor; and Meyer Meyers Clothing made men’s suits and sold them in a retail shop on the first floor. This is how Sam Granelli remembers it. With his father, he led their company, John Granelli & Son, in the manufacture of men’s custom trousers on the second floor.

“The Vernor Building was tremendous when we first moved there in 1972,” Granelli says. “The second and third floor were 10,000 square feet of open space. The entranceway and all aspects of the building were just beautiful. Fifteen-foot ceilings. It could have been one of the premier buildings that they put condos and lofts in. There was plenty of room on each floor and a garage in back that would have been perfect for parking.”

Like many other clothing manufacturers, the Granelli company made specific garments or parts of apparel that were later assembled by custom tailors throughout the country. The business was founded by Sam Granelli’s grandfather; it closed only recently in Kenmore after leaving the Vernor in 1982. According to Granelli, the building began rapidly deteriorating under the ownership of Jack Shifrin, Cleveland businessman and father of David Shifrin, the last owner. Prior to that, the building had been owned by both Meyer Meyers and Parke-Davis.

“Shifrin milked the building,” says Granelli. “He just did what he had to do to keep tenants in there. We got into heat issues where we were having trouble with the oil-fired boiler that heated the building. Because the landlord was so bad about taking care of the building, the sprinkler system froze during the Blizzard of ‘77. We had to generate our own heat from the steam boiler we used to manufacture men’s trousers. All he did was drive in to collect the rents. As an absentee landlord, he destroyed the Vernor Building.”

Another factor in the demise of the formerly vibrant business neighborhood was the construction of the Pearl Street Connector, a high-volume traffic shortcut that connected Pearl with Main Street. The entire Main Street block between Tupper and Goodell was filled with businesses on both sides of the street in the mid-seventies. But the connector took out the northwest corner of the block—including the Teck Theater, Poor Richard’s restaurant, and a corner pharmacy, among other businesses. John Granelli & Son were among the last tenants—operating with no central heating—in the Vernor Building. With them was the Empire State Ballet on the third floor, moving quickly to keep warm.

“We had a committee to save the buildings and save the businesses, but they did what they wanted to do and that was it,” says Mr. Granelli. “The Vernor Building had great bones and the front of the building really didn’t change at all over all those years. But I don’t think the landlord was willing to allow anybody to buy it unless they gave him a tremendous amount of money, far more than it was worth after he had destroyed it. It was a shame to see it go.”
—Philip Nyhuis


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