West Village Historic District
The West Village Historic District was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1986. Portions of the content on this web page were adapted from a copy of the original nomination document.  Adaptation copyright © 2008, The Gombach Group.
The West Village Historic District in the city of Buffalo is a nineteenth-century residential area located on the city's lower west side and within walking distance of the central business district and the Lake Erie waterfront. The street plan of the district is formed by two distinct early nineteenth-century grid patterns. Two east-west streets turn at a forty-five degree angle and continue in a northwest direction. The reason for this unique street arrangement is caused by the original plat of the village of Black Rock meeting the original plat of the village of New Amsterdam (original name of Buffalo) at the New York State Reservation line. The twenty-two acre district is generally bounded on the east by South Elmwood; on the north by Tracy Street; on the northwest by Carolina Street and on the southwest by Whitney Place and Chippewa Street.
The West Village is one of Buffalo's oldest and most intact residential areas. Its tree-lined streets, slate sidewalks and stone carriage steps help create a distinct flavor for this section of the city. In marked contrast, the east side of South Elmwood Avenue is dominated by large, commercial/retail structures, which give a different ambience. The north side of Tracy Street has newer buildings of different scale. The northwest side of Carolina Street as well as Niagara Street to the southwest have severely altered structures which have been converted to commercial use. The southern boundary line along Georgia Street and Chippewa Street was determined by intrusions, parking area and severely altered structures.
The district contains one hundred two buildings, most of which are detached single-family dwellings, with about a dozen apartment buildings. The area has been densely developed over a fifty-year period starting in the latter half of the nineteenth century. The only planned parkland in the district is Johnson Park at South Elmwood Avenue and Johnson Park.
The buildings in the district were built between 1854 and 1914. The majority of the structures are constructed of brick and include all the major architectural styles that were prevalent during the last half of the nineteenth century. The scale ranges from one-and-a-half to five stories, with the larger structures being apartments.
In addition to the large number of residential buildings, the district contains a Jacobethan Revival school and a Romanesque style church. Many houses in the district are now boarding houses, although in recent years a number of the old dwellings have been restored to their original function as single-family homes.
The West Village Historic District is one of the oldest and most venerable residential neighborhoods in the city of Buffalo. Its street patterns and street names reflect the 1804 city plan of Joseph Ellicott as well as the angled thoroughfares that once belonged to the village of South Black Rock, an early settlement formed from the New York State Reservation that bordered the Niagara River. In the area, a remarkable number of both modest and substantial domestic and commercial structures built between 1850 and 1900 survive. These buildings provide important local examples of the major stylistic developments in American architecture in the latter half of the nineteenth century. As a modern residential neighborhood, the West Village, which saw its period of greatest development in the decades after the Civil War, retains a significant portion of its original character. Traces of even earlier history also remain, most notably at Johnson Park, the site of the home of Ebenezer Johnson, the city's first mayor.
The Treaty of Paris of 1783, which ended the Revolutionary War, established the Niagara River as the boundary between the new United States of America and the British territory in Canada. In 1793, the Holland Land Company purchased for development one-and-a-half million acres of land in western New York, including the area of the West Village and Buffalo. Four years later, the company obtained property rights from the Indians, with the exception of several reservations, one of which was a strip of land one mile wide along the eastern shore of the Niagara River. The company's proposed village at the mouth of the Buffalo River, New Amsterdam (later Buffalo), had no harbor, for the Mile Strip prevented access to the Niagara River and Lake Erie and a sand bar off the mouth of the Buffalo River prevented the construction of a proper port there.
At the beginning of the nineteenth century, the eastern shore of the Niagara River was still densely wooded. In the area of the present city of Buffalo, a road led north to Black Rock Ferry, which had a natural harbor on the Niagara River within the reservation. This ferry reportedly existed during the Revolutionary War and provided British loyalists safe passage to Canada on the opposite side of the river. Indeed, by 1800 the Canadian side of the Niagara showed much greater evidence of civilization than did the American side.
In 1802, the New York State legislature began proceedings to extinguish the Indian title within the Mile Strip. Following the successful prosecution of this action, the state established local streets and began to sell lots. Joseph Ellicott was the field agent in charge of this operation. A village sprang up at Black Rock by 1805 and soon came into competition with New Amsterdam (1804) to become the western terminus of the Erie Canal.
Ellicott's original plat of Black Rock indicated fourteen streets with state names running easterly from the Niagara River to the Reservation line. Numbered streets ran southeasterly from Hampshire Street and were labeled First to Ninth (present Porter Avenue). (Tenth to Twentieth Streets were added to fill out the grid pattern within the entire Mile Strip.) While all of these streets were surveyed, not all were actually laid out. In fact, the South Village area of Black Rock (the section nearest to New Amsterdam), grew very little, while the village of New Amsterdam flourished.
From 1804, the year in which Joseph Ellicott mapped out the public squares and radial streets of New Amsterdam, the future of the village which was eventually to evolve into the city of Buffalo, was assured. In 1832 Buffalo incorporated as a city and extended its borders. With this expansion, the southern portion of the previously mapped out South Village of Black Rock was annexed. The collision of these two distinct street schemes is evident in the West Village Historic District. The north-south streets of South Black Rock (Georgia and Carolina Streets) clash with the east-west streets plotted by Ellicott for New Amsterdam (Tupper, Tracy, Chippewa, Cary, and Huron). The oblique intersections at Georgia Street and Chippewa and at Carolina and Tupper are the result of the meshing of these two grids.
According to Martha Poole's account Social Life in Early Buffalo, everyday life in the West Village during the 1830's and 1840's was simple. Water was obtained from public pumps, wood used for fuel stood in piles near each house, gas was unavailable for lighting, and kitchens were generally located in the basements of dwellings. Yet even at that early date, several elegant houses already existed. The most important was called "The Cottage" and belonged to Ebenezer Johnson, the city's first mayor.
Between 1850 and 1900 the most significant development of the West Village took place. Many large parcels of land were divided up into smaller house lots and transit facilities on Huron and Caroline Streets linked the area to other parts of the growing city.
Population growth and industrial expansion were major influences in residential development at this time in Buffalo. Factories tended to be built closer to the old village near the mouth of the Buffalo River, while prosperous families looked north to the area between Delaware Street and Niagara Street for suitable home sites away from the dirt and noise of encroaching industrialization. Under these circumstances, the West Village became a desirable neighborhood for middle and upper-middle class families.
After the death of Ebenezer Johnson his estate was subdivided. From the early 1850's, homes were built about the mall of Johnson Park, which was created in 1851. Frederick Law Olmsted's 1876 map of his plan for parkland in the city of Buffalo indicates that he redesigned Johnson Park, which he incorporated into his overall plan.
The Kennedy Insurance Map of 1854 shows a number of structures on both sides of Johnson Park. Numbers 69 and 73 belonged to Christopher Chamot, a custom bootmaker specializing in "fancy and opera boots." The cottage at #73, erected in 1866, is in the English inspired Gothic style which was identified with the writings of Andrew Jackson Downing. Chamot's second building, erected in 1871, is in the Second Empire style and reflects the growing influence that French ideas exerted on American architectural taste after the Civil War.
Johnson Park was one of Buffalo's earliest suburban neighborhoods. Along the park lived politicians, professional men, merchants, and tradesmen.
Most of the houses built here were by now anonymous builders — as were most of the buildings in the West Village.
From 1860 to the end of the century development west of the old Reservation line steadily occurred, although due to a tendency on the part of the trustees of Stephen Whitney, a large landowner in the area, to hold on to their property, development proceeded somewhat more slowly than in other parts of the city. Johnson Park was bisected by the extension of South Elmwood Avenue in 1912.
An early businessman, Miles Jones, built his home during the 1860's on the site where the LaSalle apartments were erected in 1898. It was about this time that numerous apartments were built in the West Village. Most of these buildings still survive, as do most of the Victorian homes.
George Johnson for example, built his house at 106 Prospect Avenue in 1869, only two years after the old part of the Prospect Avenue Baptist Church was erected. Johnson was listed in directories as a foreman and decorator. His home is an excellent example of a "foreman's cottage" or "workingman's cottage," characteristic of Victorian Buffalo. The building is of brick and contains ornate window details. In Johnson's time, Prospect Avenue retained its old South Black Rock designation and was known as Ninth Street. The new name, which probably commemorates the elevation near the present Peace Bridge called Prospect Hill, was changed in 1870.
The Prospect Avenue Baptist Church (also known as the Ninth Street Baptist Church before the name of the street was changed) began as a Sunday school in a building at Niagara and Virginia Streets called "The Beehive." The church lot on the corner of Prospect Avenue and Georgia Street was purchased for $5,500 in 1866. F. W. Taylor, one of the first deacons, resided with his family at 56 Whitney. The new Prospect Avenue building was first used in 1868; the main auditorium was dedicated in 1882. The auditorium was originally lit by one hundred sixteen gas jets.
Lake steamer captains, bankers, tailors, clerks, cabinetmakers, conductors, ship chandlers, painters, meat packers, secretaries, and judges all lived in the West Village in the late 1800's. They were the pioneers who built the first homes and molded a community. Today, the West Village, which has always been a residential community, has been designated an historic district under the city of Buffalo's Landmark and Preservation Ordinance. The Landmark and Preservation Board extended this designation in recognition of the area's historic and architectural value. In 1974 the West Village Community Association formed to encourage awareness of the architectural and historic value the community possesses and to provide guidance for revitalization and rehabilitation.
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