Ten years ago, the 800 block of Main Street was a poster child for urban blight, bounded by vacant and dilapidated nineteenth-century commercial buildings and underutilized low-income housing, with one or two hardy businesses keeping up a brave front amid the decay. Much has changed since then. The handsome Graniteworks complex holds the southern end of the block; all five buildings that comprise this mixed-use development were in danger of demolition at one time or other, but fortunately the wrecking crews were staved off long enough to achieve successful reuse. Further north, other vacant properties have been repurposed into restaurants and office spaces, while Hyatt’s wonderful palace of art supplies continues to survive and thrive.
But then you reach 918–920, the former Bosche carriage repository—also known as the Summit building. This structure represents forty-eight feet of the largely intact commercial streetscape on this block, and it is very close to collapsing. Thanks, however, to new plans for the stabilization and redevelopment of this building, as well as the adjacent 916, the northern end of the 800 block will maintain its integrity, and an architecturally important piece of Buffalo’s commercial past will be saved.
Completed in 1891, the Bosche was designed by architects Cyrus K. Porter & Son in the Richardson Romanesque style. The 23,000-square-foot, four-story structure is built of brick and brown sandstone. Its typical Romanesque features include its rough stone finishes, round window arches of contrasting materials, and the short stone columns that are still visible in the altered façade. Cyrus Porter also designed Trinity Episcopal Church, the Cyclorama, the Robert Adam House at 448 Delaware, the Plymouth Methodist Church (now the Karpeles Museum), and many other significant buildings throughout Western New York. One of the most well-known and prolific architects of Buffalo’s Victorian era, he practiced here for over fifty years.
In this case, Porter’s clients were Robert and Charles Bosche, who inherited their carriage building firm from father John Bosche, who had founded it in 1837. The 918–920 Main site was needed for a showroom and offices; the carriages were built at 168–170 Ellicott Street. When, at the turn of the century, automobiles began to dominate their market, the Bosche brothers turned briefly to constructing automobile bodies for the Thomas Flyer company. Though Thomas Flyer had a brief moment of fame when its Buffalo-constructed car went around the world and won the Great Race of 1908, Thomas Flyer closed in 1912, and Bosche followed in 1914. After this, the building was occupied by a series of businesses (many auto-related), including Overland-Buffalo, Harvey Top and Body, Powsner-Collision, Ceco Awnings, and many others.
Most Allentown residents think of the Bosche as the Summit building, as that is the name currently emblazoned on its façade (which has been slightly altered since the Bosche days). Summit Distributors, one of the largest sellers of electronic equipment in the U.S., occupied 918–920 Main from at least 1958 until 1996, when the company was liquidated. The building has been empty since then, and reverted to city of Buffalo ownership when the final owner neglected to pay taxes on it. In 2004, several attempts were made to get the building demolished so that it could be used as parking space for a nearby business. During this period of vacancy, the roof deteriorated to the extent that the interior of the structure was basically open to the elements.
With its viability thus compromised, the Bosche suffered a further blow when a private developer—who purchased the building and adjacent 916 in 2004—died unexpectedly in 2006. By this time, the roof, interior floors, and interior walls had almost completely collapsed—saving the façade was and is the only option left for preservationists and developers.
For almost ten years, various city officials and neighbors have been calling for this building’s demolition. For about as long, engineers have been predicting its total collapse. But the Bosche still stands.
And finally, it looks like rescue is on the way. Thanks to funds from Restore New York, the city of Buffalo is now stabilizing the façade as much as possible so that a team led by Greenleaf & Company can develop the building. Greenleaf already owns the adjacent 916 Main, and that structure will be included in the redevelopment.
Greenleaf is working with architecture and planning firm Carmina Wood Morris; their $6.9 million project calls for commercial space on the ground floor and twenty-six market rate apartments on the upper floors. Greenleaf has already completed similar projects in older buildings throughout the city, and will be using historic tax credits to help fund the Bosche reuse.
Brendan Mehaffy, director of strategic planning for the city, seems relieved that this building is finally being addressed. "The stabilization was a very difficult project from all perspectives, e.g., funding, grant management, construction, and property transfer," he says. "We are very happy to see the stabilization work underway and believe that Greenleaf, as the designated developer, will commence construction soon after the city completes stabilization activities." Greenleaf manager James Swiezy says his company is "very excited about the project. We hope to provide market-rate apartments for Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus employees." Swiezy plans to begin construction over the next few months.
Elizabeth Licata is editor of Buffalo Spree.