At 600,000 square feet, it’s the third largest building in Buffalo, and its name is nearly synonymous with the city’s industrial glory days. Trico Plant #1 stretches for two blocks along Ellicott Street on one side and Washington on the other. This was once one of Buffalo’s manufacturing giants, but only a small section of the nearly empty complex is currently being used.
The story goes that theatrical manager John R. Oishei was driving along Delaware Avenue on a rainy night in 1916 and struck a bicyclist near the Virginia Street intersection. Although the cyclist was not injured, Oishei became obsessed with devising a better way to keep his windshield clear (he even tried cutting a hole in it). Then he discovered engineer John W. Jepson’s hand-operated squeegee wiper, and proposed to the inventor that a company be formed to market this device to a larger consumer base. Oishei founded Trico Products Corporation in 1917 and continued to make improvements on the windshield wiper, as well as developing other automotive equipment. The adoption of his wiper by Pierce-Arrow, Cadillac, Packard, and Lincoln greatly helped Oishei’s early success, as did a loan from M&T. The young company’s administrative operations were initially located in the Sidway building at Main and Goodell, with manufacturing at 2665 Main.
In 1920, operations were moved to 624 Ellicott, the former cold storage facility for the Christian Weyand Brewery, a casualty of Prohibition. Built in 1890, this structure, the oldest in the multistructure Trico complex, is known as Building 1. It was joined by Building 2 at 623–636 Ellicott in 1924, and Building 3 at 638–644 Ellicott in 1928. At different points in the complex’s construction history, floors were added to all three of these structures to bring them to six stories. Three other structures—known as Buildings 4, 5, and 6—were demolished over the course of the complex’s early evolution. Building 7 at 807–817 Washington Street was added in 1936, Building 8 at 787-805 Washington in 1937, Building 9 at 648–668 Ellicott Street in 1954 (with additions and alterations in 1957 and 1989), and Building 10 at 670–672 Ellicott Street (a preexisting 1923 structure) was purchased for company use in 1946.
Only the front facade of the Building 1 portion of the Trico is visible; this remnant of an earlier architectural era is overwhelmed by the additions, which are in the finest tradition of the early twentieth century Daylight Factory style. This style, as expressed by architects Harold E. Plumer and Paul F. Mann, is characterized by reinforced concrete piers, large gridded windows stretching between the vertical piers, and handsome red brick spandrels alternating with the windows. Plumer and Mann set the stage for subsequent additions by architects Burton and Ellicott, who followed their predecessor’s lead. At the time of their construction, the first two Trico additions, Buildings 2 and 3 (1924–28), represented "state-of-the-art industrial architecture," according to architectural historian Francis Kowsky, who submitted the complex’s successful application to the National Register of Historic Places.
Decades after the final addition to Trico Plant #1 was finished, the complex still looms over its neighbors to the immediate east and west. A faded ad for the company still remains in a bus shelter on Washington, but Trico itself has been gone since 1999, when, having already transferred much of its manufacturing to Texas and Mexico, it moved out of Plant #1.
Since then, there has been substantial interest in reusing the structure. Hopes were raised when developer Steve McGarvey, having already completed successful industrial conversions in Erie, Pennsylvania, bought the building in 1999. McGarvey’s Century Centre I project was supposed to fill the Trico with restaurants, retail, and 260 market-rate apartments. This did not happen, and neither did Century Centre II, which was to do the same for the nearby M. Wile.
cGarvey had difficulty paying taxes on the properties, although, after refinancing his other holdings, he completed renovations on M. Wile in 2002. The developer brought in Ciminelli as a partner to help salvage the Trico project, but McGarvey’s death in 2005 at the age of thirty-six effectively put an end to Century Centre. The Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus bought both the Trico and M. Wile properties at the McGarvey estate’s 2007 bankruptcy.
Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus officials have been tightlipped about plans for Trico #1. But sources within both the preservation community and the medical campus indicate that the BNMC, which has already renovated 128,000 square feet of the former Trico complex (the Innovation Center), is working with several local and state preservation groups to explore possible reuses of the remaining long-vacant portion of the facility. While talks are still underway, the initiative appears to be making progress and everyone is hopeful that a solution will be found that both enables continued growth of the medical campus and retains as much of the building as is viable.
Buffalo’s preservation community has been keeping an eye on Trico #1 for some time now; many feel that this building is one of the city’s most important reuse opportunities, and do not envision any scenario in which demolition would be warranted. "The only sensible path for the Trico plant is one that ends with an adaptive reuse," says Mike Puma, a founding member of Buffalo’s Young Preservationists, and project manager at Preservation Studios.
"The very idea of demolishing a seven-story, 500,000-plus-square-foot steel-reinforced concrete daylight factory is unrealistic, costly, and wasteful," Puma continues. "The Trico Plant is just as structurally sound as Buffalo’s great grain elevators and would cost a small fortune to tear down and an even larger one to recreate.
"This is a National Register-listed building that lends itself to many reuse possibilities. Similar buildings have recently been or currently are being converted including 701 Seneca, the Lofts at 136 and the Larkin Exchange building. We are living in a Post-National Trust Conference Buffalo, and we should continue celebrating our architectural heritage."
Elizabeth Licata is editor of Buffalo Spree. You can listen to WBFO's Eileen Buckley speak with her about Trico #1 on the Feb 27 addition of Press Pass.
This series is done in conjunction with the Facebook groups Preservation-ready Sites and Buffalo’s Young Preservationists. Research assistance is by Dana Saylor-Furman, Old Time Roots. Thanks to Frits Abell, David Steele, and Joseph Cascio. Sources include Glynn, Matt, "Trico Workers Hoped Against Hope," Buffalo News, 12/4/02; Kowsky, Frank, Application to the National Register for Historic Places; Linstedt, Sharon, "Several Area Developers May Bid for Trico Building," Buffalo News, 2/20/06; Ohler, Rick, "Phoenix Rising," Buffalo Magazine, 4-5/2000; and Rockwell, Mary Reche, John R. Oishei: Buffalo Businessman and Benefactor, John R. Oishei Foundation.