Buffalo’s Early LGBT Roots

This review of historic LGBT sites in Buffalo, NY by Chrissy Lincoln originally appeared in the newsletter of Preservation Buffalo Niagara. Acceptance and solicitation for National Register and National Historic Landmark nominations has recently begun with a new LGBT Heritage Study announced by the National Park Service, and expected to be published in 2016. At this time, Stonewall Inn is the only National Historic Landmark, along with four additional National Register sites, officially recognized.

It’s Pride week and as the rainbow flags of the LGBT community go up, we’ve found most of the early remnants of this movement have come down. Initially centered around Washington and Chippewa Streets, Buffalo’s gay pride community started much earlier than most cities, some say as early as the 1930′s. Many of the Buffalo locations were social clubs or bars. In the 1950′s Buffalo had one of the first gay centers in the country at Main & Utica, a building which has since been demolished. Here are some other locations that shine a light on the LGBT community’s history in Buffalo and shape our neighborhoods even today.

The oldest of the bars was Ralph Martin’s at 58 Ellicott Street. It opened in 1934 and closed after Ralph died in 1951. It was located on what is now the pitchers mound of Coca-Cola Field. Another early gay-friendly bar, Downs’ at 684-86 Michigan at Genesee, operated from 1935 until 1938. The building was demolished in the 60′s to make way for the Kensington Expressway.

Washington Market in Buffalo, NY. Image courtesy of Forgotten Buffalo.

 

Some of the oldest commercial buildings in the City of Buffalo are located on the blocks bordering Genesee, Chippewa, Washington and Ellicott Streets. Due in part to the Washington Market, these mixed use buildings housed small shops, commercial markets, boarding houses and saloons and thrived in the late 1800 and early 1900′s. By the time the highways were built and the Washington Market was razed in the 1960′s, the neighborhood had fallen out of favor and business suffered due to population decline. This meant cheaper rents for businesses and bars that catered to a “less favorable” clientele. Three clubs were located in what is now a parking lot just east of the old Gold Dome Bank. Carousel 1 at 33 E. Chippewa operated from 1950-55, The Oasis at 60 E. Genesee from 1957-60 and Johnny’s Club 68 at 68 E. Genesee from 1953-60. Carousel moved to 457 Ellicott Street and was there until 1965 when it was closed by the vice squad and liquor authority. The building was demolished soon after and there is a vacant front lot with a machine shop located in the rear of the property now. Closures and demolitions in this part of the City eventually led to the counter- culture moving into the Allentown neighborhood.

The Swan Club (now Golden Swan and mostly straight clientele) was located at 437 Ellicott during the 1980′s. It has the distinction of being the 3rd oldest operating bar in Buffalo. The Kitty-Cat Lounge, now Eddie Brady’s, acted as a gay social club from 1950-67.

Club Ki-Yo at 172 E. North Street has a demise different from others in the City. It was burned down in 1967 during the race riots that disrupted the east side of Buffalo from June 26 until July 1st. Dozens were hurt and many businesses torched. It was the on the site of the BMHA Woodson Gardens Housing Complex which was recently demolished for City Honors’ athletic field.

Townsend Hall was the location of The Mattachine Society of the Niagara Frontier. Image courtesy of Western New York Heritage Press.

 

The first gay and lesbian civil rights organization in Western New York started in Buffalo in 1950. The Mattachine Society of the Niagara Frontier, formed after the Stonewall Riots in 1969, had their headquarters in The Avenue in Townsend Hall, pictured above. The bar closed when the building was demolished in 1972, and it is the current site of the City Court Building. It is rumored that the power was shut off in the building and early meetings were conducted by candlelight.

Eight eighty four (884) Main Street has been home to many different bars catering to the LGBT community starting in 1986 and most recently Roxys, but was originally a brick Italianate mansion built for Mr & Mrs. Edwin Gilbert in 1880 according to city directories. Edwin Gilbert is listed as a maltster and commercial merchant who worked at the Board of Trade Building, now a parking lot across from the Pearl Street Grill and at 79 Main Street, a building owned by a precursor to HSBC Bank. He was also a member of the Buffalo Historical Society. Edwin died in 1888 and he and his family are buried in Forest Lawn Cemetery with an elaborate Sphinx monument. By 1898 the home was owned by Dr. & Mrs. Marcelle Hartwig and their two daughters. Dr. Hartwig was President of the Buffalo Academy of Medicine and a consulting surgeon and lived in this property into the 1920′s. The property was recently up for sale.

153 Delaware Ave, formerly Club Cobalt. Image courtesy Howard Goldman.

 

The former Club Cobalt at 153 Delaware Avenue also has its beginning as a mansion. One of the only mansions remaining close to the formerly residential Niagara Square, it was built in the mid- 1860′s for jeweler Hiram Hotchkiss according to Buffalo’s Delaware Avenue Mansions and Families by Father Edward Dunn. By the 1890′s, it was owned by Dr. Thomas Lothrop. Dr. Lothrop was editor of Buffalo Medical Journal, superintendent of Buffalo schools, President of the Buffalo Academy of Medicine and President of the Erie County Medical Society. He passed away in 1902 and his adopted son Earl lived in the home for a number of years. According to a 2007 Buffalo Rising article, it was converted into a bar and rooming house sometime in the 1940′s. It served the gay population from about 1989 until 2005 and was bought and restored as a residence by Howard Goldman in late 2006.

There are many more examples of early LGBT hangouts, seen here, in historic neighborhoods and buildings. Since most were not so welcoming of this specific community, older homes, businesses and neighborhoods were all these business owners could afford in a time when many residents were fleeing to the suburbs. Because of that, this early subculture is the reason a lot of our historic resources exist and thrive today.

About the author: Preservation Buffalo Niagara

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Preservation Buffalo Niagara (PBN) is dedicated to fostering historic preservation in the Buffalo Niagara region, serving seven counties in Western New York.

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