Hamlin Park Historic District
The Hamlin Park Historic District was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2013. Portions of the content of this web page were adapted from a copy of the original nomination document. [†] Adaptation copyright © 2014, The Gombach Group.
The Hamlin Park Historic District is primarily a residential neighborhood on the east side of Buffalo, New York that is roughly bounded by Main Street to the north, Humboldt Parkway to the east, East Ferry Street to the south, and Jefferson Avenue to the west. It is currently listed as a local historic district within the same boundaries. The area now known as Hamlin Park historically developed in two stages. The northern section (north of Northland Avenue and known as the Hager Division) was developed several years earlier than the southern section, which is known as the Driving Park. Each section illustrates a different residential planning philosophy, yet they are unified by similar patterns of development, as well as by physical changes that were implemented in the 1960s through federal funding.
The Hager Division was largely developed by the early 20th century, although some homes date to the late 19th century. Homes in the Driving Park section were mostly built after 1912, when the land was sold to real estate interests. The majority of Hamlin Park, including residential and commercial buildings, was fully built out by the mid-1920s. The Hager Division adhered to the picturesque Olmsted ideals as exemplified in the nearby Parkside neighborhood, while the Driving Park development, laid out immediately after building started in the Hager Division, followed 20th century themes such as rectilinear street grids and uniform lots. The western portion of the Hager Division links the two sections; it was built out later than the eastern Hager portion and shows the transition to rectilinear streets that became commonplace in the Driving Park.
Most of the buildings in both the Hager Division and the Driving Park were not individually designed, but rather modeled after homes in pattern books or styles popular at the time. Many home building companies that built in the Hager Division also constructed similar homes in the Driving Park section during or near the same period. On any given block one can find the same house repeated but differentiated from neighboring homes by details like porch pediments, types of columns, placement of dormers, and variations in materials. As a result, there are similar architectural characteristics that are carried out throughout the entire district, creating a feeling of continuity throughout the neighborhood.
The initial residents of Hamlin Park were upwardly mobile Polish, German, and Jewish families moving from the nearby neighborhoods of the Fruit Belt and Broadway Filmore, seeking to leave the crowded, mixed-use neighborhoods for the quiet and comfort afforded by an almost entirely residential development. The 1950s saw a dramatic demographic shift throughout Buffalo's East Side, and Hamlin Park was no exception. African Americans already had an established community in the Ellicott District near downtown prior to World War I, but Buffalo's prominence in manufacturing during World War II, made it an ideal destination during the Great Migration. The expansion of African American families throughout the East Side prompted the exodus of ethnic whites from those neighborhoods, and though Hamlin Park had a smoother transition than most, by the time the Kensington Expressway was finished, all of the neighborhood's white residents had left for North Buffalo or the suburbs. Hamlin Park, now largely an African American neighborhood, was targeted with the poverty-fighting Model Cities program along with several of the neighborhoods to the south, but unlike other target areas, Hamlin Park was one of the only neighborhoods where the program contributed to dramatic success at preserving its integrity.
There are two street plans in the Hamlin Park Historic District that reflect differing planning philosophies of the 19th and 20th centuries. The majority of the district is laid out in a standard rectilinear grid, but a small portion to the northeast reflects the planning philosophies of the nearby Parkside neighborhood, with gracefully curving streets and planted features. The street plan has remained largely unchanged, with the exception of several northern streets that once crossed through Humboldt Parkway but were severed from the adjacent neighborhood due to the construction of the Kensington Expressway.
Many of the lots are similar in size but vary in shape as these blocks meet the curving streets laid out by August Hager in the late 19th century. Streets within the Driving Park portion of the district (Bound by Northland, Humboldt, East Ferry, and Jefferson) represent the largest concentration of blocks designed with streetcar neighborhood uniformity and compactness in mind. This design reflects the delineation from the Picturesque ideals Hager sought to illustrate with his streets in the northern portion of the district. Most of the homes have shallow lots with small lawns in front and a planted buffer between the sidewalk and street. Open porches and/or balconies are repeated on practically every property and many homes feature a rear balcony off a second floor bedroom.
The Hamlin Park Historic District developed rather quickly, with most of homes and commercial buildings built between 1895 and the early 1920s. The buildings in the area north of Northland Avenue was well underway about fifteen years prior to the Driving Park section (south of Northland) because the land was dormant until 1912, when it was sold for residential development. As a result of this short development era, the architecture is very similar throughout Hamlin Park. The form, size, materials, fenestration, and architectural details are often repeated, but vary enough so that homes often appear as individual designs.
The majority of the buildings were constructed by local builders who utilized existing plans or pattern books for the homes, which reflect popular architectural styles of the time. Homes are typically sited on lots approximately 30x100 feet and often rectangular in plan. Common features that repeat on homes throughout the district include bay windows, large open porches, dormers, wood porch columns, and leaded glass windows. Most of the homes are two and a half stories with gable or hip roofs, but smaller Bungalow style homes with low-slung side gabled roofs are present throughout.
On primary thoroughfares like Northland and East Delavan Avenues, there are small-scale commercial buildings present. These typical corner store buildings of the early 20th century feature storefronts on the first floor and flats on the second floor. A small grouping of homes even received one-story storefront additions that often served as barbershops or bakeries, while maintaining the original home behind. Several larger commercial buildings are scattered throughout Hamlin Park, such as the three-story masonry commercial/residential building on Oakgrove and Hughes Avenues, which seems to tower over the two-story homes surrounding it.
Churches that fit well within the scale of the residential blocks are also scattered throughout the neighborhood, with the much larger ones located prominently on Humboldt Parkway. These churches are constructed of brick and/or stone and represent typical designs of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The smaller churches are typically Gothic Revival, while the larger churches take cues from Neo-Classicism and Renaissance styles.
Hamlin Park is an illustration of several important aspects of nineteenth and twentieth century subdivision planning in Buffalo. The residential development in the northern section, called the Hager Division, began in the late nineteenth century and contains Olmsted-inspired street layouts and feeling. The southern section initially contained the large Driving Park, but began to develop in 1912 similar to other streetcar neighborhoods in the city after the land was sold in 1912. [See: Streetcar Suburbs, 1888 to 1928] The district encompasses two neighborhoods that are united by their architectural styles, development patterns, and homebuilders.
The district is also a successful example of the Model Cities program's utilization of Baltimore Plan-inspired rehabilitation loan programs in Buffalo. Hamlin Park was heavily influenced by post-World War II demographic shifts in the city, particularly as German, Polish, and Jewish residents migrated to the suburbs, prompting the movement of middle-class African Americans into formerly all-white neighborhoods. Homes in Hamlin Park began to transform according to postwar aesthetics, utilizing wartime savings and disposable income, though many residents also benefitted from funding through the federal Model Cities program in the late 1960s. Developed partly in response to the failure of many urban renewal programs to deliver the kind of city-revitalization envisioned after World War II, Model Cities grants funded both physical projects, such as home improvement and code enforcement, and social ones, such as education and job opportunities, seeking the active involvement of residents in neighborhood improvement. In Hamlin Park, the Model Cities program was crucial in maintaining the housing stock through grants and low interest loans to homeowners who required assistance to make their residences code compliant. Many residents took advantage of the program to replace deteriorated roofs, gutters, porch columns, and windows. As a result of the rehabilitation loans, as well as the community organizations that were encouraged by the Federal program, the housing stock in Hamlin Park has remained largely intact and in good condition, particularly in comparison to adjacent neighborhoods.
The Hager Division is named for August C. Hager, a German born resident of Buffalo who had a prominent role in developing this area of the city at the turn of the 20th century. Hager served as park commissioner in Buffalo from 1887 until his death in 1901 and supported the Progressive Era goal of bettering urban life by incorporating nature into urban design. August Hager was born in Bliescastle, Bavaria in 1830. He was educated in France and immigrated to Buffalo in 1849, where he worked in his brother-in-law's hotel briefly before buying a lamp fuel company. He also started a small grocery store and went into wholesale liquor and wholesale tobacco trades. He married Mary Backe, of Buffalo, in 1852 and the couple had eight surviving children. In 1874, Hager purchased a farm on the outskirts of the city, now within the Hamlin Park neighborhood, and he parsed out the land to his children as they came of age and married. He recognized the imminent transition of this area from agrarian to residential and established a land company to sell off large portions of his farm for new streets. He created many streets, including Viola Park, Daisy Place, and Pansy Place, named after some of his favorite flowers. Hager Street was named in August's honor and runs roughly through what was center of his property.
Hager's interest in city affairs led him to serve as 12th Ward Alderman (1866-1867) and parks commissioner from 1887 until his death in 1901. Hager's passion for nature is evidenced by the greenhouse he kept on his farm, which is rumored to be where Frederick Law Olmsted visited during his time working in Buffalo. Hager was also credited with improving the park system and creating Humboldt and Delaware Parks, suggesting that he had a prolonged relationship with Olmsted, who, with his landscape architecture firm, designed the Buffalo Park and Parkway System.
His development of the Hager section exemplifies on a smaller scale some of the same principles evident in the Olmsted Park and Parkway System (NR listed 5/26/1982), showing that the philosophy pervaded beyond high style and large-scale designs. Viewed in relation to the Parkside neighborhood (Parkside East NR listed 10/17/1986, Parkside West listed 12/10/1986), an Olmsted designed area located kitty-corner across Main Street from Hamlin Park, the Hager Division contributes to a fuller understanding of city neighborhood development by illustrating the way that builders and developers played off of the Olmsted design to create a middle-class residential development in the image and shadow of the upper-class neighborhood.
By 1893, the unique area south of Delavan Avenue began to take shape, as Hager, Pansy, Daisy and Queens (now Regina) Streets emerged. Viola Park, between Pansy and Daisy Streets, is the most obvious attempt to bring picturesque aesthetics into this newly developing area of the city. Glendale Avenue, the northernmost street in this area, also emerged, avoiding the harshness of a straight line by curving northward at each end as it approaches Main Street and Humboldt Parkway. The street names changed the following year, in 1894. The street patterns in this section of the Hager Division are very similar to Olmsted's street patterns in Parkside, with curvilinear forms and extensive landscaping, as exemplified on Oakgrove Avenue and Viola Park. While the street patterns and lot lines were clearly established by this time, the area remained relatively open, with a few identifiable clusters of buildings; there were seven southeast of the intersection of Hager and Delavan, five near Delavan and Humboldt (with another few across the parkway), and about ten built lots between Loring Avenue and Eastwood Place. There were also several buildings on Main Street.
The other component of the Hamlin Park district was originally home of Cicero J. Hamlin's Buffalo Driving Park.. Cicero J. Hamlin was born on November 1819 on a mountain farm in Columbia County, NY and was the youngest of ten children. His family was born in New England and his father was a Methodist preacher. Hamlin moved to the Western New York region in 1836 and settled in East Aurora, a village to the southeast of Buffalo. By 1839 he had established a general store in the village that was relatively successful. Hamlin moved to Buffalo in 1846 and established a dry-goods business under the name of Wattles & Hamlin, which was located at 252 Main Street. The partnership was dissolved the following year and Hamlin carried on alone until 1852. He established himself as a key employee in the carpet and home furnishings company of Mendsen and Co. in 1860. This proved to be another successful venture for Hamlin, who enlarged the business and reorganized it under the name of Hamlin & Mendsen during the same year. He retired from the dry-goods business in 1871, but he continued to lease the Main Street building. Hamlin built a new building at 256-268 Main in 1888 that was designed by noted architect Cyrus K. Porter. At the time it was built, it was "the largest store in the city and one of Buffalo's most noteworthy buildings." The building was dubbed, "The Hamlin Block" and was built for Barnes, Hengerer, & Co. Although it has been altered over the years, the building is still extant. Hamlin built many other buildings in the area between 1848 and 1888, including a house for his family at 432 Franklin Street, which remains intact as an example of Italianate residential architecture. Hamlin's East Aurora farm was used to breed over 500 cattle per year and was quite the attraction. The building is currently used as a restaurant and banquet facilities called the Hamlin House.
One of Hamlin's crowning achievements was establishing the Driving Park on Buffalo's east side. Hamlin purchased the land in 1868 and built the Driving Park as a harness racing track and polo grounds in the same year. He was not alone in this venture, which became, "world famous in the annals of the race-course." The Driving Park was a popular attraction and at its height was able to draw over 40,000 people in a single weekend, earning it the nickname, "The Kentucky Derby of the North." It was so important that Olmsted incorporated it into his design for Humboldt Parkway, which defined its eastern boundary. Patrons of the driving park would often spend the day enjoying the races, then walk en masse south on Humboldt Parkway until reaching The Parade (Humboldt/Martin Luther King Jr. Park). They would then enjoy inexpensive beers at the parade house designed by Calvert Vaux. After its popularity waned at the end of the nineteenth century, the driving park was abandoned. In 1888, the driving park was sold for development as an International Industrial and Agricultural Exposition. In 1896 the buildings were destroyed by fire and, although it was reported that Hamlin might rebuild the driving park, the venture was ultimately abandoned. In 1912 the driving park tract was sold to Toronto developer John C. Cook. This marked the beginning of the transformation to a residential section. Although Cook intended to rename it 'Melrose Lawn,' the name 'Hamlin Park' stuck. Cook's plan rejected nineteenth-century picturesque ideas and looked to progressive twentieth-century urban concepts. Lots were broad and uniform in design, with aligned setbacks and could not be subdivided. The driving park was a rectangular area bounded by Northland Avenue at the north, East Ferry Street at the south, Lonsdale Road to the west and Humboldt Parkway to the east.
Unlike some of the wealthier areas of Buffalo during this time period, the homes in Hamlin Park often showed little variety in their styles and were designed and built primarily by contractors. Some of the homes were also variations on styles that were offered in mail order catalogs made popular by companies like Sears & Roebuck during this period. Almost half of all the buildings in Hamlin Park have been documented as being constructed by one of several building companies. The most prominent builder in Hamlin Park was the Volgamore-Cook Company, which built over fifty-eight houses in the district. The majority of the homes built by the Volgamore-Cook Company were located on Beverly Road, which was one of the last streets to be developed in the area. There were approximately six different styles of houses on the street, and some repeated exactly, while others had slight changes in details or fenestration. The Volgamore-Cook Company constructed the houses on Beverly between 1915 and 1920 as consumer demand fueled construction. After the partnership with Cook dissolved, Volgamore went on to build at least twenty-three more homes by himself. Other prominent builders include the International Home Building Company, Robert E. Burger, Niederpreum & Co., F.T. Jenzen Builders, and George Steinmiller.
Many of the prominent builders published advertisements filled with enticing descriptions between 1913 and the mid-1920s. Shortly after the driving park section started to develop, there was a large push to extend streets and build more homes. The International Home Building Company added another quarter section just one year after acquiring the property. An article in the Buffalo Express from that year explained, "The International Home Building Company is putting on another quarter section and extending Goulding Avenue west, as well as Wohlers Avenue through Northland. The opening up of these thoroughfares will facilitate traffic in this vicinity and will gradually improve the property." An advertisement from 1913 really captured what the development in Hamlin Park meant: "The value of the land as a place to live will never be impaired by unsightly structures nor unpleasant surroundings." Even after a century, this statement still holds true.
In the course of 153 years, the area known as Hamlin Park has been influenced by a variety of individuals, ideas, and movements, and the effects of those influences can be seen in the physical features of the district itself. The earliest stage of its history is traced in the curving streets of the northeast corner. Designed by August Hager, but inspired by Frederick Law Olmsted, it captured the dilemma of the nineteenth-century urbanite attempting to create the flowing, open spaces of the rural environment within the bustling crowded cities they occupied. The second period of development, at the turn of the twentieth century, epitomized much of Buffalo's streetcar neighborhoods: small, narrow lots with rows of identical houses, offering thousands of families the ability to relocate "home" to quiet, secluded neighborhoods only a transfer or two from their workplaces in the industrial and manufacturing parts of the city. Finally, the neighborhood epitomizes Buffalo's, and the nation's, attempt to combat the poverty and blight creeping into areas that seemed so idyllic only a generation before.
Hamlin Park emerged from the 1970s as one of the city's only Urban Renewal success stories and, coupled with Allentown-Lakeview, could be used as an example for future revitalization programs. When Buffalo applied for Model Cities funding in the 1960s and began outlining its plan for Hamlin Park, it saw that neighborhood as a vanguard against the poverty spreading through its East Side neighborhoods. Though the concentrated code enforcement program, and the Community and Taxpayer's Association that emerged because of it, were successful at mitigating the effects of poverty in Hamlin Park, the remainder of Buffalo's Urban Renewal programs were largely failures. Today, Hamlin Park is one of Buffalo's last intact historic East Side neighborhoods.
† Michael Puma, Derek King and Caitlin Boyle, Preservation Studios, with Daniel MecEneny, NY State Historic Preservation Office, Hamlin Park Historic District, Erie County, Buffalo, NY, nomination document, 2013, National Park Service, National Register of Historic Places, Washington, D.C.