The Buffalo Theatre District
The Theatre Historic Preservation District is an exciting and dynamic area of downtown known for its collection of theaters, retail shops and restaurants. Centered around the 600 block of Main Street, the district boasts one of the largest concentrations of theaters in all the country. The district draws Broadway shows that are in preview or on tour, bringing in thousands of viewers every year.
Since I've been using this website (and its development) as an excuse to immerse myself in the history of Buffalo, I need to talk about some of the prominent moments, buildings and people who helped shape the Theatre District to what we know and love today. Main Street began as Van Staphorst Avenue. Yes you read that correctly... The Dutch purchased much of the present day Buffalo region back in 1797 in effort to create the "Buffalo Road" trail - a link to connect the newly designed Village of New Amsterdam (Buffalo) and Batavia, home to the headquarters of Holland Land Company. The locals didn't take to all these Dutch names too well, so in 1825 New Amsterdam officially changed it's name to Buffalo, and Van Staphorst Avenue changed to Main Street. The original perimeter of the village stretched to Lake Erie on the west, the Buffalo River to the south, and officially stopped at current day Chippewa Street to the north. Technically speaking, the 600 and 700 blocks of main street were outside the village, and originally designated to farming.
With the opening of the Erie Canal in 1825, Buffalo's population skyrocketed from just over 2,000 residents to nearly 43,000 in under 25 years. As this happened, the wealthy looked to move north of the city's center to current day 600 and 700 Main Street area. Buffalo's wealthiest bankers, politicians and businessmen all lived in this area, resulting in beautiful mansions (many demolished) and the roots of many upscale entertainment businesses. The city continued to grow, eventually moving the wealthy further north; many of which residing on current day Delaware Avenue, 800 - 1200 Main Street and other surrounding areas.
Looking back, you can consider the Theatre District the original "Millionaires' Row" of Buffalo (before there was Delaware Avenue). A few of those mansions include: The Rich House, home to Andrew Rich, former president of Attica Bank. His Italianate style house sat near the corner of Main and Tupper. The Marshall House, home to attorney Orsamus Marshall and one of the original founders of the Buffalo Historical Society. His mansion resided at 700 Main Street, eventually demolished after his passing to erect the current day Byers Building. The Pratt House, home to Pascal Pratt, one of Buffalo's greatest civic and business leaders. Pratt lived at 736 Main Street, which was demolished for the current Potter Building after his passing. Pratt established the Pratt and Letchworth Company, founded Manufacturers' and Traders' Bank (M&T Bank), supported the Buffalo Female Academy (Buffalo Seminary), supported the Buffalo Fine Arts Academy (Albright-Knox Art Gallery) and was a big influencer and donator to the Frederick Law Olmstead-designed park system. Sadly, these are just a few of the many examples in which the city's history was demolished in the name of progress.
Near the turn of the century, the trek to move north for the city's wealthy was near complete and 600-700 Main Street became primarily retail-focused. Most of the mansions were already leveled by now, paving way for commercial high rises and businesses of all types. This area served as a strategic location in between the city's center, waterfront and the surrounding residencies of the wealthy up north. You could find anything in the world in this small section of Buffalo at that time - from Jewelry at the Dickinson Building (620 Main) to furniture at Laurens & Enos Co. (621-623 Main), fine musical instruments at the famous Wurlitzer Company (674-676 Main), Indian motorcycles from Neal, Clark and Neal Co. (643 Main) and even Pierce Arrow automobiles (752 Main). From 1900 - 1970, this part of downtown Buffalo was Western New York's epicenter for shopping, theatre, entertainment, and dining.
As they say, all good things come to an end. By the 1970's, downtown Buffalo began its infamous decline as retailers and residents made the great migration to the prosperous suburbs. Highways were constructed to support this demand, including the 198 and 33. Businesses that once lined Main Street moved to malls and plazas in Cheektowaga, West Seneca and beyond. Theaters began closing and buildings became leveled as the vacancies piled up. The 1980's, 1990's and 2000's were a rough stretch for the district, hitting low points in business retail, foot traffic and overall activity. The area began to see a turnaround toward 2010 with the real estate market surging and increased interest in development. After thirty years of absence, planning began to bring traffic back to 500 and 600 Main Street. Restaurants like Bijou Grille stuck it out through the hard times and have been rewarded with the district's recent pickup. New dining options like the Market Expo and Heath + Press have been a direct result of the districts comeback. The Market Arcade is back to near full capacity with boutique shops, galleries, a barber and cafes. The storefronts of many century old buildings, previously neglected for decades, are being rented by new businesses emerging in the area and I cannot wait to see what the future holds for this area.
Today, one can still enjoy some of the architecture from the district's glory days. Edward A. Kent, one of Buffalo's most prominent architects, designed the Otto Building (636 - 644 Main). The Neoclassical Market Arcade, Buffalo's original shopping mall, was designed by the firm of E.B. Green and William Wicks. The Market Arcade was constructed to connect the two busiest streets in the city at that time - Main and Washington. The district's flagship building - Shea's Performing Arts Center which first opened in 1926 - has thankfully survived over the years. A genuine thank you goes out to the "Friends of the Buffalo" and the former activists who helped save this beautiful building. I highly recommend taking a tour of the theater to hear more on the history and evolution of the building. There are tons of additional examples I can name here, my recommendation is to take some time and visit the area for yourself. Walk the streets, pay attention to the detail and enjoy the local fare for yourself. If you see a nerdy-looking guy walking around with a camera, say hi :)
Today, Buffalo's Theatre District lives up to its name. Here's a quick list of today's active theaters: Shea's Performing Arts Center, Alleyway Theatre, The Irish Classical Theatre Company, Road Less Traveled Theater, the offices of Shakespeare in the Park, 710 Main Theatre, Shea's Smith Theatre and Buffalo United Artists. There are many others outside of the district and 22 theaters in total within the Theatre Alliance of Buffalo, an organization on WNY theater companies aimed to strengthen and enhance marketing, coordination and the development of the theaters within the organization. For more information on the group, please visit The Theatre Alliance of Buffalo's website.
Below are a few of my favorite images from over the years taken in and around the Theatre District. The information in this article was summarized and paraphrased from numerous sources, including public records from the City of Buffalo, Buffalo Place, the Theatre District Association of WNY and the Theatre Alliance of Buffalo.