Calumet Building - Table of Contents

The Calumet Building

46-58 West Chippewa St., Buffalo NY

Calumet Joins National Register
By Kerry Traynor

Buffalo Spree

Kerry Traynor of kta preservation specialists worked with Paul Lang of Carmina Wood Morris and NYS Historic Preservation Office's Daniel McEneny to prepare the registration form, excerpts below:

The Calumet Building

The Calumet was designed in 1906 as a commercial block by prominent Buffalo architects Esenwein and Johnson for Robert Keating Root, manager of the Francis Hinsdale Root Estate.  It is a wonderful and unique example of glazed architectural terra cotta with an ornamental vocabulary that explores stylized running reeds, or "calamus," their leaves and flowers.  The structure and ornament fuse, becoming a singular expression as defined by the piers, spandrels, frieze band and pediment.  Glazed architectural terra cotta, as a material facilitates this fusion.

The builder, as indicated on Esenwein and Johnson's job records was James N. Byner.  The fee for the production of "plans & spec for 3 story store bldg. located on Chippewa Street" was $1150.00, and it was, as noted on the job record, paid in full.  Esenwein & Johnson had an active practice in Buffalo in the early decades of the 20th Century.  Their index of job numbers suggests that during the course of their practice they had close to one thousand commissions.  Their designs include The Temple of Music for the 1901 Pan American Exposition in Buffalo, the original Buffalo Statler (demolished 1967); the General Electric Tower (1912, NR 08000865); the Ansonia Building (1906); the Niagara, a hotel in Niagara Falls (1916, NR 08001145); the Root Building (1916) and the Buffalo Museum of Science (1929), among others.

The Calumet Building is an excellent example of ornamental glazed architectural terra cotta.  In the early decades of the 20th century, Esenwein and Johnson were using glazed terra cotta almost extensively in their designs.  In many instances the glazed units were used as a cladding throughout the body of the building, while the detailing at the windows, frieze band and cornice took full advantage of the moldable, plastic material.  The white, terra cotta Electric Building, for example, depicts a wonderful play of modern ornamental motifs, within the traditional tall building paradigm.  The demolished Statler Hotel, Ansonia Building and Calumet Building begin to break out of that paradigm and become more expressive of the steel frame structure.

Esenwein and Johnson's composition is suggestive of the work of Louis Sullivan and the Chicago School.  The combination of vegetative ornament, and its relationship to structure recalls Sullivan's Guaranty Building located a few blocks away on Church Street.  The Chicago School addressed the issues of the tall building, as did Sullivan's work.  The Chicago tripartite window, set within spandrels and piers denoting the steel frame construction is a major component of Esenwein and Johnson's Calumet Building.  However, the Calumet Building evokes the approach of the Chicago School on a horizontal, as opposed to vertical scale.  The Calumet Building is a relatively modest building.  Perhaps the architects were having fun, fully aware of Sullivan's Guaranty Building, and their own previous, large-scale projects, but were not willing, able, or expected to execute a building quite on that scale, for this somewhat speculative commission.

Building Exterior

The property has a frontage of 110-feet on Chippewa Street, and 80-feet on Franklin Street.  The structure, which consists of steel and cast iron columns, rolled steel girders and wood joist framing, allowed for flexibility in plan and elevation.  The Chippewa Street elevation is dynamic, undulating in both the vertical and horizontal planes, while being held in check within the constraints established by the vertical piers.  The ornamental program reinforces this movement, utilizing the moldable plasticity of architectural terra cotta, and the durable, resilient colors achievable through the glazing process.

As designed, there were six retail bays and a central entrance to the upper stories along Chippewa Street, and one retail bay at the southwest corner of Franklin Street.  The building has been altered, and the number of storefronts reduced to three along Chippewa Street, with two to the east, and one to the west of the central entrance accessing the upper stories.

The storefront, which was originally located at the south corner of the Franklin Street elevation has been enclosed, and the kitchen for the restaurant is located behind.  As a result of the change from seven to three tenants, and a significant change in use, the interior spaces have been altered from their original configuration.  None of the original material fabric remains.

The retail spaces as shown on the construction drawings were open spaces.  The only details noted are the cement floor and marble thresholds at the entrance.  The specification called for the wood at the storefronts to be mahogany, and the doors to be veneer.  The transoms were originally Luxfer prisms.

The Chicago-style windows on the upper floors are pivoted, although few remain operable.  The windows form a semi-hexagonal bay between the piers, moving from the inner edge, but not projected beyond the piers.  Each bay is defined by a structural pier, which extends through the height of the building and is capped by an arched, glazed architectural terra cotta block.

Each terra cotta block is detailed with a centrally located reed or running stem, and four leaves, set against a burnt sienna background.  The reed shows buds and the leaves are veined.  The reed extends vertically through the frieze band to the cornice, now removed, where a simple concave circle terminates it.  The cornice, which projected out approximately 2'-0" beyond the plane of the wall and contained the copper gutter, was removed c1965.  Originally, tendril-like brackets projected out of the concave circle and around the projecting cornice.  Above the cornice the piers continue through, and above, the top of the parapet where an arched, glazed terra cotta cap stone marks it terminus.  At the parapet the pier blocks contain a multi-petal flower with drooping buds.  Above the inset band another multi-petal flower is set within the arch of the cap stone.  The result is a controlled, vertical composition that is both structural and ornamental.

The parapet, with its flower banding, completes the horizontal composition. Thirteen flowers, each with a reed and six leaves, are located between each pier.  A flower is located in the curvature below the cap stone.  The piers, with their flowers, drooping buds and curved caps, continue beyond the line of the parapet to reinforce the verticality of the composition.

Entry and the Upper Floors

The entry and stairs accessing the upper floors of the Calumet Building retain a high degree of integrity.  A significant portion of the original material fabric remains intact.  As one enters through the wood door, the word "Calumet" greets the visitor once again.  This time the words are spelled out in tile - burnt sienna colored tile, set against a white tile background.

Given the layout of the space, and their assigned names, as indicated on the original drawings, it is likely that the third floor was occupied by a private social club.  At the top of the stairs was a hall with a coat check to the right, and a lodge room to the left.  The lodge room had an open span of approximately 43-ft, running the entire depth of the building, with a plate girders spanning 50-ft to the columns on the center-line of the structural grid.  The bays to the left were divided into an office, kitchen and serving space, toilet spaces, a banqueting hall, rathskeller, billiard room, sitting and reading rooms, and inner and outer ante rooms.  

Despite the construction date of 1906, there is no elevator.  Three stories would not have been considered an outrageous distance to climb via stairs to access the upper stories.  This was a simple commercial block; there was no necessity for an elevator.  As a result there is no penthouse penetrating the roof. 

Growth, Decline, and Rebirth of Chippewa

The construction of the Calumet Building saw the beginning of the shift of Chippewa Street from a primarily residential area to a mixed-use, retail block.  Management of the Root estate by Robert Keating Root continued the entrepreneurial spirit of his grandfather, building on land, which had been purchased by Francis H. Root before 1872.  The Calumet Building was constructed as a somewhat speculative real estate investment as indicated by the open plan of the retail bays, and by the lack of partitions on the second floor.  The third floor is built-out with lodge room, banquet hall, kitchen, office, billiards room, reading room, sitting room and ante rooms suggesting that an anchor tenant, with specific spatial needs, was in place.  Robert K. Root envisioned the commercial potential of Chippewa Street.  In 1916 he would commission Esenwein and Johnson to design an even larger mixed-use block, the Root Building, at 70-88 West Chippewa Street.

The Calumet Building was highly successful. Chippewa Street and the Calumet Building were bustling with commercial and retail activity in the early decades of the 20th century.  Examination of city directories shows that the Calumet Building had few vacancies up through the early 1950s.  The tenants on the first floor tended to be high-end jewelers, furriers and tailors.  Dentists occupied the space on the second floor, as did architects, artists and various business enterprises.  Interestingly, the Klu Klux Klan, under the name of "Kay-Bee Adsign Company" had offices on the 3rd floor during the 1920s.  By 1951 the space was being altered, and interior retail space combined.  It was not until the mid 1950s that the vacancy rate in the building began to climb, and many of the spaces remained empty.  By 1955 there were only three tenants in the building, a trend that would continue through the 1960s, until 1975 when only d'Amore & Scioli, a tailor, remained.

By 1980 the building was completely vacant.  Similarly, Chippewa Street saw an increase in vacancy rates, and a shift from specialty shops to discount shops.  By the 1960s the exodus to the suburbs was well underway.  Businesses closed and buildings became vacant.  In 1990 Mark Goldman purchased the Calumet Building, and 56 West Chippewa Street became the Calumet Restaurant.  This marked the beginning of a movement back onto Chippewa Street, which has once more become active, a street defined by restaurants, bars and coffee shops.


Source:  National Register of Historic Places Registration Form, Kerry L. Traynor.


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