Buffalo Electric Vehicle Company, Buffalo New York

Date added: August 04, 2023 Categories: New York Industrial Auto Companies
Main Street, facade (2005)

The Buffalo Electric Vehicle Company was associated with 1219 Main Street during the entire time that the company manufactured automobiles. This was, however, a period of only four years from 1912 to 1916. The first mention of the Buffalo Electric Vehicle Company is in the 1912 City directory at 1219 Main Street and by 1913 the listing is expanded to include 1221. Ac. 1914 photograph shows the two southernmost showrooms (1219 and 1221) identified as Buffalo Electric Vehicle as well as a sign below the fourth-floor windows, extending the width of the five central bays, saying "Buffalo Electric Vehicle Company". The latter sign would be indicative of the manufacturing space on the upper floors reached through 1219. The last listing for Buffalo Electric Vehicle at 1219 is in the 1916 City Directory while the 1917 City Directory shows the Eastern Truckford Co., auto truck manufacturers, at that address. The Buffalo Electric Vehicle Company appears nowhere in the 1917 and 1918 City Directories and in the 1919 publication it is listed at 14 West Bennett, a large building shown as a brewery on both the 1914 and 1926 Sanborn maps. The Buffalo Electric Vehicle Company disappears from the City Directories after this obscure 1919 listing.

Although it produced cars for only four years, the Buffalo Electric Vehicle Company is significant as the culmination of an influential technological trend in the early automobile industry: the electric car. At the very beginning of the 20th Century, development of steam, electric, and gasoline-powered automobiles and trucks occurred simultaneously. For a short time, it appeared that electricity would prevail over other forms of power. Not only was electrical power cleaner and easier to use, in addition, it was a growing new technology, highlighted locally by the development of hydroelectric power in Niagara Falls. The transmission and distribution of this power to Buffalo is a history of its own and is personified in the landmark General Electric Tower built in downtown Buffalo in 1912, the very year of the incorporation of the Buffalo Electric Vehicle Company. It wasn't long before the gasoline engine took precedence. As early as 1902, a Buffalo Courier headline "gasoline in the lead" sat above a story of how gasoline vehicles were outnumbering electric-powered models, although the electrics were the first to come to Buffalo. Still, electric cars were "Popular with the ladies because they were silent, clean and easy to operate... " The mass production of the gasoline-powered automobile, promoted by Henry Ford, drastically lowered the price of these vehicles as compared to electrics and the growth of the petroleum industries and resulting spread of gasoline stations throughout the country, gave the internal combustion engine a real advantage. The development of the electric self-starter in 1912 and its subsequent appearance on Cadillacs of 1913 removed any real advantage that the electric car had and by the end of the teens, many makes failed with only a handful remaining in the 1920s. A 1909 sales brochure for the Babcock Electric Vehicle written and designed by the Roycroft's Elbert Hubbard promoted electric cars by boasting that:

Doctors, lawyers, merchants and commercial chiefs endorse the Babcock Stanhope Model 1...you never have to tie it to a post. Nor need you twist your back and rupture your vocabulary cranking it...it never wheezes, coughs, grunts nor grows sulky...

It is very telling that a promotional catalog for the Buffalo Electric printed only four years later would state that the model is "designed along the lines of the latest type gasoline cars".

The Buffalo Electric Vehicle Company had its roots in the Buffalo Electric Carriage Company which produced the Buffalo Electric from 1900 to 1906 with a factory at 226 West Utica Street. Frank Babcock headed the company. Babcock was born in Hamden, Conn. in 1850 and came to Buffalo in the late 19th Century. In 1900, at the age of 50, he became associated with the Buffalo Electric Carriage Company moving up to manager. For six years this company produced the Buffalo Electric. In 1906 Babcock formed the Babcock Electric Carriage Co. and produced the Babcock Electric from 1906 to 1912. In 1912, perhaps due to a tightening of the market for electric cars, Babcock led the incorporation of the Buffalo Electric Vehicle Company, formed by consolidating four firms: his Babcock Electric Carriage Company, the Buffalo Automobile Station Company, the Van Wagoner Electric Vehicle Company, and the Clark Motor Company. The new firm was started with $1,000,000 in capital for the production of electric pleasure and commercial cars. A 1912 article in The Horseless Age stated that the newly formed company had secured the entire building "at the corner of Main and Parker (sic) streets, which has been used by the Denniston Co. for the manufacture of automobile bodies". The article goes on to state that commercial vehicles will continue to be produced at the former Babcock plant on West Utica while pleasure vehicles will be built at the new Main Street facility that also will provide a salesroom with 75 feet of frontage on Main Street. A few months later an article in The Motor Truck speaks of Buffalo Electric Vehicle's new Main Street building saying the "upper floors (are) devoted to manufacture of pleasure cars and the lower floor will be a salesroom of all types of vehicles...It is now being fitted for uses of the company."

The company produced a make called, again, the Buffalo Electric, priced in 1913 at $2600 for a 2-passenger roadster Model 29 and $3200 for a four-passenger coupe Model 30. Considering that comparable models of the Model T of that time sold for $525 and $600 respectively, the prices of the Buffalo Electric geared the car toward the wealthy. Although capable of speeds above 30 mph and beautifully fitted with fine upholstery and wire or artillery wheels, the Buffalo Electric, like all electrics, had reached the climax of popularity and marketability. When the Buffalo Electric Vehicle Company began production in 1912 "The sun was setting on electric vehicles. Only the alert, well managed companies would survive, and they by making another product." The Buffalo Electric Vehicle Company would cease production by 1917.

1219 Main Street was built for Alfred A. Berrick and Edward J. Meyer (records suggest that they were related through marriage). Although the Denniston and Buffalo Electric Vehicle companies would be major tenants in the early years of the building, Berrick and Meyer remained owners and, in fact, a 1914 photograph shows the building identified as the "Berrick Building" and the building remained in the Berrick family until the early 1950's. As late as 1986 the building was still referenced in City Directories as the "Berrick-Meyer Building" at the address of 1233 Main Street.

After the departure of the Buffalo Electric Vehicle Company in 1916, the upper floors were used for the manufacture of trucks by the Eastern Truckford Company with the first-floor showrooms dedicated to the sale of various makes of cars. The first floor spaces remained occupied by auto dealers up to the 1950s and then by various commercial enterprises including music stores and broadcasting facilities. One of the last uses of the first floor spaces was for a vocational training center. A 1938 remodeling added a second stairway and elevator in the northern-most bay of the five-story building. This unit was renumbered 1233 (from 1231) and 1233 became the address of the upper-floor spaces. After the end of use for auto-related manufacturing in the 1930s, the upper floors saw tenancy by various publishing, printing and book-binding companies, the last of which left in 2002. Current owner, Mark Pagano, has been associated with the building since 1996. The five-story Buffalo Electric Vehicle Building is vacant today and being considered for rehabilitation into artist's studios and residential space.

The far end of the one-story addition became a United States Post Office in 1938 and remains as a Post Office today. The remainder of the 1-story addition was converted to use by various commercial salesrooms and offices and by the 1980's became office space for Social Services and medical uses. Today, the interior of the one-story building is so altered as to show no indication of the former auto showrooms.

The Buffalo Electric Vehicle Company building was constructed in 1911 with reinforced concrete floors and roof on a concrete-encased steel frame. It is an extant example of the Early Generation Automobile Factory, prototype for what would later become the "daylight factory". Architect Albert Kahn pioneered this form as a solution to the needs of the American automobile industry. Kahn lacked formal training in architecture and compensated for this with an innovative design philosophy that approached individual projects as problems in need of design solutions. Kahn worked with his brother Julius, an engineer, who held patents for building processes involving the use of reinforced concrete. While more academically trained and professionally ambitious architects shunned factory design, Kahn used his new building method to satisfy the needs of the new and growing automobile industry. The industry sought structures suited to assembly line manufacturing that offered good natural light, quick construction and the ability to be reconfigured for changes in assembly processes. The use of concrete and steel allowed thin (fireproofed with concrete) columns that permitted large exterior glazing and minimal obstruction to interior floor space. Kahn was chosen as architect for the Packard Motor Car Company and did nine early factory buildings for the company. It was, however, Building #10, built in 1904 on Detroit's East Grand Boulevard, which would become the prototype for the American automobile factory of the future. The reinforced concrete structural system allowed for wide-open spans on each floor, thus permitting easy reconfiguration of the workspaces. Additionally, the pier spans on the exterior walls provided support for broad expanses of glass that brought natural light flooding into the open interior work areas. It has been said of this building:

"Everyone marveled at the new building. Visitors said it was clean, open, airy, bright, handsome, pleasant, comfortable, efficient, healthful, simple, bold, and well proportioned. Orders from other automakers began to pour in." and Rayner Banham, in A Concrete Atlantis, refers to Packard #10 as an "innovative structure [that would] bridge the gap between the older tradition and the stunningly new type of factory..."

Not long after, Kahn designed Ford's Highland Park factory in 1910 using similar building and design techniques. This was the "birthplace of the moving assembly line". Kahn would go on to develop the full-blown "daylight factory" that would find expression in buildings like Ford's huge River Rouge Complex in Michigan and the Ford (later Trico) plant on Main Street at Hertel Avenue in Buffalo. While other architects used stylistic forms as subtle detailing on industrial buildings', Kahn shunned this approach giving his buildings, by comparison, a naked and almost brutal appearance. Kahn's industrial work is well described in the statement from a biography of the architect: "The best of Albert Kahn's work implies a different aesthetic based on simple construction, standard materials, and ease of construction. In this sense it was more like the manufactured product than a symbolic interpretation."

The Buffalo Electric Vehicle Company building at 1219 Main Street, while not designed by Kahn, is remarkably similar to Packard's East Grand Boulevard Building. Photos show the stylistic parallels in the two buildings. 1219 Main Street is a five-story building with seven bays on the east and west facades and a grade-level basement allowed by the slope of the lot. The steel frame is encased with concrete for fireproofing and the floor and roof slabs are of reinforced concrete. This structural system identifies the Buffalo Electric Vehicle Company building as an example of the predecessor of the full-blown daylight factory. The west (principal) facade shows the best articulation of the structural system with cast metal pilasters separating the showroom windows and raised brick pilasters separating the window bays on upper floors. Thin stone sills underscore the triple window glazing and a metal cornice crosses the top like a pencil line. Overall the effect, especially as built, is of sheets of glass supported by a thin frame. Although the east (rear) facade was finished in an even simpler manner, the rhythm of the fenestration clearly reveals the underlying structure of the building. Both facades serve as examples of the clean, unadorned surfaces of Kahn's prototype buildings. As originally configured, the first floor was built to allow division into seven auto showrooms opening on Main Street, one in each bay. When the building opened, this floor was divided so that larger (double) showrooms were available. By 1916, the Buffalo Electric Vehicle company occupied the two southern most bays (1219 and 1221). The northern showrooms were leased to other automobile dealers. The original showroom windows completely filled the bays with transom glass above and the windows were framed on the exterior with metal pilasters and a metal cornice above a brick signboard. Concrete block and modern windows that do not reflect the original showroom bays have filled in these window areas. Inside, the showrooms, themselves, have disappeared, due to the conversion of the first floor to office space in recent years. However, ceiling heights and a mezzanine that appears to have been constructed after 1911, remain to give indication of the original spaces. When first built, access to the manufacturing space on the upper floors was by stairway and elevator in the southernmost bay and the address for the upper floors was 1219 Main Street. The elevator was capable of accommodating automobiles and moved to all levels of the building. It is still present and operational today, but not code-compliant. The upper manufacturing floors were built as open lofts, with concrete-encased steel beams and columns and wood-covered concrete floors. Broad open spaces are reminiscent of Kahn's early developments to provide flexibility for the auto industry. Some of the original wood flooring remains in the upper floors. Office and lavatory spaces were provided on each floor. On the west or principal facade wall, one-over-one wood double-hung windows, in groups of three, filled the wide spaces between the exterior columns and the exterior face brick was covered inside by hollow fire tile. The building's relatively shallow depth and unusually large glazing bring abundant natural light into all parts of the loft spaces on the upper floors. The lot slopes to allow for grade-level access to the east (rear) side of the building. Here seven garage door bays gave entry to an auto service space in the basement. It appears that this level may have contained a single open space originally or at least had a large, multi-bay open service area. Some open space remains today, but most has been enclosed for office and individual storage use.

The seven first-floor showroom spaces were originally numbered 1219-1231 Main Street. Obviously, a need arose for more showroom space and a year after the construction of the five-story building, a one-story addition was erected to the north. Plans on file at Buffalo's City Hall indicate that along with the one-story addition, a five-story building designed by Wood and Bradney and resembling the main structure was considered. Only the one-story plan with a basement was constructed. This provided space for seven additional auto showrooms numbering 1233-1247 Main Street. The 1914 Sanborn map shows a twelve to sixteen-inch thick firewall between the two buildings. Like the five-story main building, the one-story addition had a grade-level basement opening with garage doors at the rear. This served as auto service space.

Over the next 4 decades, the street-level showrooms in both buildings would be home to dealers for a virtual cross section of the American automobile industry: Packard, Thomas Flyer, Franklin, Paige, Cadillac, Lozier, Detroit Electric, Buffalo Electric, Hupp-Yeats, Oakland, Nash, White, Elgin, Moon, Knight, Gardner, and as late as 1955, Hudson automobiles.

Buffalo's Automobile Industry

In 1893 Charles and Frank Duryea, having read of European precedents, made the first successful move from the bicycle to the automobile in America with the development of their own horseless carriage in Springfield, Illinois. Several others, including Ransom E. Olds and Henry Ford, were also working on developing their own automobiles at that time. This early work was concentrated in the American mid-West.

As the 20th Century began, the City of Buffalo was a contender for becoming a major automobile production center in the United States. Some of the big names in early automobile development were present in Buffalo in the early 1900's. Pierce Arrow built fine luxury vehicles on Elmwood Avenue and Ford built Model T's on Main Street, both in Albert Kahn designed buildings. The Thomas Flyer was a Buffalo-built make produced by the E. R. Thomas Company. Thomas exemplified the national transition from bicycle to auto production by moving his Buffalo plant from bicycle manufacture to motorcycles to his widely respected automobile. Although the proliferation of the auto was not foreseen at that time (a 1903 Buffalo newspaper article stated that "It is not possible that the automobile will ever become a poor man's vehicle---a machine for general popular use, such as the bicycle.) Buffalo was quickly becoming the premier New York State auto city. In 1912, the Buffalo Live Wire wrote that Buffalo manufactured nearly one-third of all autos, bodies and parts in New York State and that Buffalo's auto industry exceeded that of New York City. It was, perhaps, best stated by Colonel W. Mixter, president of the Pierce Arrow Company, who in 1900 said: "Not less than 100,000 people in Buffalo depend directly on the motor industry" and that the auto/truck industry was at that time the "largest single element in the vast manufacturing interests of Buffalo". In the end, over 30 different makes of automobiles would be produced in Buffalo throughout the 20th Century. Buffalo would also be the home to numerous automobile accessory companies producing the growing number of parts required in the modern automobile. Companies found in Buffalo included Dunlop producing tires, Trico manufacturing windshield wipers, the McCue Company making wire wheels and dozens of other manufacturers providing such necessities as batteries, auto tops, engines, shock absorbers and even complete auto bodies. One such producer, Harry O. Brunn, started by producing carriages and went on to design and build elegant bodies on the corner of Main and Summer Streets for the likes of Packard, Lincoln and Buffalo's own Pierce Arrow Automobile. The Buffalo area remains today an important source for automobile parts including radiators and auto engines.

If Buffalo was a major player in the auto industry game, it was surely Main Street where that game played out. From Hertel Avenue to the North, south to downtown, both sides of Main Street were lined with automobile production, sales and service facilities. Most of these buildings were built specifically for auto-related use. Albert Kahn's aforementioned Ford Plant at the north end being one of the largest and block after block of dealerships built from the early teens up to the 1940s, including Pierce Arrow's renowned art-deco showroom on Main opposite Jewitt Parkway. The area surrounding the intersection of Main and Barker Streets would see factories, showrooms and supply and repair facilities at each address. A fine two-story building opened in 1921 across the street from the Buffalo Electric Vehicle Company building with brick-facing and stone and terracotta detailing. One of its first tenants would be a Cadillac dealership, replacing one that had existed previously in the one-story addition adjacent to the Buffalo Electric Vehicle Company building.

The 1219 Main Street building's first tenant was the E.E. Denniston Co., builder of gasoline-powered commercial vehicles as well as automobile bodies and tops. Denniston, who continued to produce trucks at his plant at 184 W. Mohawk Street, moved into 1219 Main Street after its completion with the intention of building automobiles as companions to his well-established trucks. The Automobile Trade Journal of 1912 indicated that Denniston's company, with an office and factory at 1219 Main Street, went bankrupt because he "refused to put his company in the newly formed Buffalo Electric Vehicle Company." City directories show 1911 as Denniston's last year at 1219 Main and 1912 as the first presence of the Buffalo Electric Vehicle Company at that address.

Building Description

The Buffalo Electric Vehicle Company Building is located at 1219-1247 Main Street, in Buffalo, New York. The former automobile factory and showroom is situated along the east side of Main Street between Northampton Street and Coe Street and is comprised of a five-story manufacturing building, a one-story showroom addition, a cobblestone alley and a stone retaining wall. The five-story main building was built in ca. 1910-1911 and its design is attributed to the Buffalo firm of Wood and Bradney. The single-story addition was completed in 1913. Both buildings are constructed of concrete-encased steel with brick exteriors.

The building has a fireproofed steel skeleton with reinforced concrete floors and roof. Walls are firebrick covered on the exterior with brown face brick laid in a running or stretcher bond pattern, stone-capped windowsills, and metal cornices and pilasters. Spandrels are of a similar brick pattern outlined with a soldier course of matching brick.

The building has two major facades facing West and East with secondary facades abutting neighboring buildings of lower height on the north and south. The primary or west facade faces Main Street and consists of seven bays that originally contained showroom windows on the first floor and upper floor fenestration showing 3 double hung windows filling each of the bays. The first floor bays are separated by metal pilasters, above which occurs a brick sign board surface topped by a continuous metal cornice. This cornice is repeated above the top (5th) floor. Floor-through brick pilasters separate the upper floor bays and each is topped by a metal cap above which is a continuous stone stringcourse. Most of the original 1/1 double-hung wooden windows remain in place on this facade, with some replacement windows at the third and fifth-floor levels. All replacement windows fill the original window bay spaces. Windows sit on stone sills with brick lintels and spandrels. The spandrels and end pieces have recessed panels. A 1914 photograph shows the original showroom windows completely filling the bays at the first-floor level, divided into large glass panels with a transom glass above. Flush glass doors are present and the brick signboard is visible above the transom area. Although the original first-floor showroom facades have been altered and filled with concrete block and modern aluminum framed windows, they retain the cast iron pilasters and cornice.

Although treated as a secondary facade, the east elevation has distinction due to the drive-in ground floor basement allowed by the slope of the lot. Like the West facade, the east or rear of the building contains seven bays filled with groupings of three double-hung windows with stone sills and brick lintels in each on the first through fifth floors. In the original configuration, the first-floor windows were 9/16 with the upper-floor windows 6/6. The fourth and fifth-floor windows have been replaced with modern metal 1/1 double-hung windows filling the original openings. There is no cornice on the rear elevation. At the basement level, the garage doors that led to this original service area have been replaced with modern overhead door units. The southernmost bay accommodates a stair and elevator tower with penthouse. This bay has two double-hung windows separated by a brick pier on each floor and into the penthouse.

The south elevation abuts a pre-existing two-story brick building at 1217 Main Street that sits on the corner of Coe Place. Above the second floor, windows are located in the center portion of the south wall, double hung windows appearing on each floor. A painted sign on this elevation identifies the last major tenant of the upper loft floors, the Breitwieser Printing Company. A one-story addition that reaches to Northampton Street and extends deeper into the lot abuts the north elevation. This addition was built two years after the main building and originally continued the showroom facades seen in the main building, separated by similar pilasters and a continuation of the cornice line. These facades have been altered (filled with concrete block) to accommodate a medical clinic and Post Office. The one-story addition also has a ground-level basement on the east elevation.

As originally built the interior spaces consisted of first-floor auto showrooms, ground-floor auto service bays and upper-floor loft space intended for manufacturing. The first floor was built with a ceiling height of 20 feet and was able to be divided into seven showrooms, each with a separate address. During the period of use as auto showrooms, some of the bays were combined to give double-sized spaces. The first floor spaces were altered for various uses over the years and most recently have been divided into office space. The 20-foot ceiling height allowed a mezzanine level with separate stairway to be added at some point and this remains showing remnants of use as offices and sound rooms for radio broadcasting. On the southeast side of the building near the stairwell, a vehicle elevator, that appears to have been built with the original construction, services each floor. It appears that this was the original form of transport to bring the new autos to the first-floor showrooms. The original interior stairway with wrought iron rail and balusters is located in the stairwell. A second interior stairway and passenger elevator, both serving all floors and the basement, were added on the northernmost wall of the main building in 1938.

The basement service bays were originally open with freestanding concrete encased steel piers on a poured concrete floor. Most of this level has been enclosed into office and storage spaces with two of the southern sections remaining open. The second through fifth floors were originally built for the manufacture of automobile bodies and the assembly of automobiles. They featured open lofts with twelve-foot ceiling heights, with wood covered reinforced concrete floors, concrete-encased piers and beams, and small, enclosed spaces for lavatories and offices. The relatively shallow depth of the building combined with the unusually large east and west-facing windows allowed natural light to penetrate to the very center of the loft spaces. Later alterations have produced enclosed office spaces of varying sizes on each floor, although some open loft space remains at each level.

Addition Exterior

A one-story addition that reaches to Northampton Street and extends deeper into the lot abuts the north elevation. This building was built two years after the main building and originally continued the showroom facades seen in the main building, separated by similar pilasters and a continuation of the cornice line. These facades have been altered (filled with concrete block) to accommodate a medical clinic and Post Office. The one-story addition also has a ground-level basement on the east elevation, complete with garage door openings similar to that in the Main Building. The addition extends further into the lot than the main building and has a loading dock facing the alley.

Addition Interior

The interior of the one-story addition originally contained a continuation of the first-floor automobile showrooms seen in the main building. There were seven bays providing space for seven individual showrooms. This one-story building has been extensively altered on the interior to accommodate a medical clinic and post office on the main floor and storage in the basement. All reference to the original showrooms has disappeared. Alterations to the addition are reversible.

Buffalo Electric Vehicle Company, Buffalo New York Main Street, facade (2005)
Main Street, facade (2005)

Buffalo Electric Vehicle Company, Buffalo New York East elevation (2005)
East elevation (2005)

Buffalo Electric Vehicle Company, Buffalo New York Third floor windows, rear elevation (2005)
Third floor windows, rear elevation (2005)

Buffalo Electric Vehicle Company, Buffalo New York Auto Elevator doors (2005)
Auto Elevator doors (2005)

Buffalo Electric Vehicle Company, Buffalo New York South stairwell (2005)
South stairwell (2005)