First Court House - A Circular Plat - First Jail - Destruction of the Court House - Another Erected - The Second
Jail - Erie County Penitentiary - The Third Court House - Erie County Alms House - Movement for a County and City
Hall - Law Authorizing It - Commissioners Appointed - Franklin Square Selected - Ground Broken - Laying the Corner
Stone - Changes of Material - The Work Completed - Celebration of the Event - Description of the Building - The
THE first court house in the present county of Erie was erected for the use of Niagara county by the association
known as the Holland Company in the year 1806 and 1809. It was a frame building located in the centre of a half
acre of land, laid out in the form of a circle, the centre of the circle being in the middle of North Onondaga,
(now Washington) street, in the village of Buffalo, just east of Lafayette Square, and immediately in front of
the site of the new court house- the one used from 1817 to 1876. The erection of the court house and jail was made
incumbent on the Holland Company by the Legislature as a condition of the formation of the county of Niagara. It
does not appear to have been accepted by the Judges of the County Court, in accordance with the law until 1810
- at all events the deed of the lot before mentioned (which recites the acceptance of the building) was not executed
until the 21st of November in that year. Even then it was not completed, for it was mentioned the next year as
"an unfinished wooden court house."
The jail, which the Holland Company was also required to build was of stone, and was situated on the site of the
"Darrow block," on the east side of Onondaga (Washington) street, between where Clinton and Eagle streets
are now located.
On the 30th of December, 1813, as already related, the village of Buffalo was burned by the British and Indians.
The wooden court house was destroyed without difficulty, but the jail was harder to conquer. A fire was built in
it, and the wood-work was somewhat injured, but the building as a whole, was not seriously damaged. It was repaired
soon after the war, and remained in use as a jail nearly twenty years.
Scarcely had the news of the conclusion of the treaty of peace been received, when the Legislature, in March, 1816,
passed an act authorizing the supervisors of Niagara county, to raise four thousand dollars with which to build
a new court house, This act was not carried into effect, apparently for the reason that the supervisors thought
the people could not stand so heavy a tax; for on the 17th of April, 1816, the Legislature passed an act loaning
five thousand dollars to the county of Niagara, with which to build a court house, and appointing Samuel Tupper
and Joseph Landon, of Buffalo, and Jonas Williams, of Williamsville, as commissioners to direct its construction.
Joseph Ellicott's plan of having the court house in the midst of a circular tract, which should cut Onondaga street
in two part's, was set aside, the street was made continuous, and the west part of the block lying just east of
the old site was acquired by the county for the new structure. In the spring of i8x6 work was begun, and the building
was so far advanced as to be occupied early in the year of 1817. It was built of brick, two stories high, with
a porch in front, ornamented with white pillars running up to the cornice. A portion of the first floor was occupied
as a County Clerk's office. It was considered and probably was the largest and finest building in Western New York.
This was the only court house in Erie county until 1850. It was increased in size, however, by an extension to
the rear, and other improvements were made in 1826. The old jail was also given up in 1833, or '34. the east part
of the court house block was acquired by the county, and a new jail built upon it.
In 1846 a law was passed authorizing the supervisors of Erie county to erect a penitentiary or work house for the
occupation of prisoners under sentence for minor offences, for whom there was neither room nor labor at the jail,
and whom it was not desirable to send to a State prison. It was erected in 1847, being substantially built of stone
and located on Fifth street, between Pennsylvania and Root streets, Buffalo.
In 1850, the old court house having become entirely inadequate to the business of the county, a new one was erected
on the southeast corner of the same lot, facing on Clinton street. This was a square building of brick, three stories
high, and built in the plainest manner, as may be seen on inspection, it being the structure now occupied by the
Young Men's Christian Association. It cost about $17,000.00. It was used for twenty-five years jointly with the
older building-courts being held in one or the other as was convenient.
In 1851 and 1852, the previous arrangements for the poor proving insufficient, a new alms-house was erected on
a tract of one hundred and fifty-three acres of land located in what was then the town of Black Rock, but is now
just inside the city of Buffalo on Main street, or, as that part of the street was then called, the Williamsville
road. The first cost of this structure was $20,000. The main building was destroyed by fire on the 21st of February,
1855, and was rebuilt the same year.
But little change or effort for change was made in regard to the buildings belonging to the county until the winter
of 1870 and '71, when the Common Council of Buffalo and many leading citizens took steps to bring about the erection
of a large structure sufficient for the use of both county and city. On the 21st of April, 1871, the Legislature
passed an act providing for the erection of such a building. Commissioners #1 were duly appointed by the Governor,
who, after examining various proposed sites, selected Franklin square, between Delaware avenue and Franklin streets,
Buffalo, as the most desirable location. The first estimate of the Commissioners placed the cost of the building
at $772,000. In July, 1871, the Commissioners employed a superintendent #2 and accepted proposals for furnishing
foundation stones, and ground was broken on the 21st of August, 1871.
In April, 1872, A. J. Warren was employed as architect and his plan of the building #3. in October, 1 873, an amended
estimate was adopted, providing for the use of granite in place of a softer stone, for the use of black walnut
or other hard wood in place of pine, and for various other improvements, making the total cost $1,207,234. This
change was sactioned by the Legislature and by an act which declared that the total cost should not exceed $1,400,000.
The work was carried forward through the years 1874 and 1875. Early in 1876 the building was announced to be ready
for occupation, and on the 13th of March, it was formally taken possession of by the Judges the Bar and the various
county and city officers. A meeting of the Bar was held at the old (that is the oldest) court house on the preceding
Saturday, at which a valuable and interesting paper was read by Hon. James Sheldon, giving a history of that court
house, and of its predecessor, destroyed in 1813, and another by Hon, George R. Babcock, filled with reminiscences
of the judges and lawyers who had there displayed their judicial dignity and legal acumen-with brief addresses
by Hon. George W. Clinton and Hon. James M. Smith. On the 13th the Judges, the Bar and others met again at the
old court house, and marched in procession to the new, where addresses were delivered by Hon. S. S. Rogers, Hon.
A. P. Nichols and Hon. E. C. Sprague.
The Common Council chamber was formally taken possession of on the afternoon of the same day, when addresses were
delivered by Hon. Philip Becker, Mayor of Buffalo; by A. S. Bemis, Esq., President of the Common Council, and by
Hon. George W. Clinton, Judge of the Superior Court, with short speeches by Aldermen Simons, Lothridge, Ambrose
Of the building thus dedicated, in its completed form, we need say but little. This work is intended for the citizens
of Erie county, and there are and will be few citizens of that county who have not gained or will not gain from
actual observation, a better idea of the county and City Hall, than can be conveyed by printed words. Nevertheless,
for convenience of reference, we will give some facts regarding it.
The building is a double cross in foirn, having its main front on Franklin street, with atotal length, parallel
to that street, of two hundred and fifty-five feet-its greatest width, (through the arm of the cross, being one
hundred and fifty-eight feet.) In other words, it may be described as a rectangle, one hundred and fourteen feet
wide and two hundred and fifty-five feet long, with six projections, one at each end and two on each side; each
projection being fifty-two feet broad, and running out twenty feet from the main part. The area on the ground is
thus thirty-five thousand three hundred and ten square feet-or five hundred and sixty-two feet more than four-fifths
of an acre.
It has three stories above the basement; the first being finished on the outside in rough granite; the two higher
ones in dressed granite. The parapet of the cornice is seventy-four feet high, while the highest parts of the slate
roofs are one hundred and five feet high. The whole is surmounted by a large, square, central tower, containing
in its lower part an immense clock, with four dials, each nine feet in diameter, while at the extreme top is an
observatory two hundred feet above the earth. On turrets, situated at the four corners of the tower, stand statues
sixteen feet high, representing, the one at the northeast corner, "Justice;" at the northwest, "Mechanic
Arts;" at the southeast "Agriculture;" at the southwest, "Commerce."
The general system of the interior is such that the county offices, court room, etc., shall be on the north side,
while the city officials shall transact their business on the south side, although there are necessarily two or
three exceptions to the rule. It is farther arranged so that those offices most used by the people, such as the
County Clerk's, County Treasurer's, City Treasurer's, etc., shall be on the first floor; the Court rooms principally
on the second floor, and the Common Council chamber, Supervisors' room, etc., on the third floor. The Comn4on Council
chamber occupies the whole south end of the third story, and is furnished in a style of remarkable, if not superfluous
splendor. Two or three court rooms, however, are on the third floor. The center, from top to bottom, is occupied
by a large open space, with corridors extending north and south, while three apertures through the two upper floors,
provide for ample ventilation.
The floors of the hall and corridors, and of the uncarpeted portions of the rooms, are of marble; the exposed wood-work
is of black walnut, and the metal-work, of which there is considerable, is composed of or finished in bronze. In
the basement are furnaces, together with engines and appliances for supplying all karts of the building with either
warm or cold air, according to the season.
As a whole, the County and City Hall, as to both its interior and its exterior, impresses the spectator with the
idea of solid construction, convenient arrangement, and harmonious proportion in a remarkable degree. We think
we are perfectly safe in saying that there is no building in the city of New York, belonging to the public, which
equals it-hardly one that approaches it in either of these particulars. We do not believe there is one in America,
which surpasses it in those respects. Although some tax-payers have doubtless thought that a smaller and less ornate
structure, costing less than fourteen hundred thousand dollars, would have served equally well the purpose of the
public; yet all who understand and have examined the subject, admit that such a building as was erected could not
have been constructed for less money, and that it is in every way admirably adapted to the present and future use
of the county of Erie, and the city of Buffalo. It is a good, honest, substantial, serviceable structure, inside
and outside, from front to rear, from end to end,
"From turret to foundation stone."
The only County buildings erected since the County and City Hall, have been the new jail and a wing to the Insane
Asylum connected with the County Alms House. The former is situated on the west side of Delaware Avenue, opposite
the County and City Hall. It is plainly built of gray stone, but is of ample size, and cost about two hundred thousand
dollars. It was built in 1877 and '78. The wing of the Insane Asylum was also erected during the same years.
1) The first Board of Commissioners consisted of James M. Smith, Dennis Bowen and Albert P. Laning, of Buffalo;
Jasper B. Youngs, of Williarnsville, and Allen Potter, of East Hamburg. In May, 1872, by authority of an act of
the Legislature, James Adams, Philip Becker and George S. Wardwell, of Buffalo; and John Nice, of Tonawanda. James
M. Smith was chosen chairman. In May, 1872, he resigned his place as commissioner on account of his appoiniment
as Judge of the Superior Court. George W. Hayward, of Buffalo, was made commissioner in his place, and Mr. Wardwell
was chosen chairman.
2) The first Superintendent was Samuel H. Fields; he was succeeded in October, 1873, by Cooley S. Chapin, who remained
in charge until the completion of the building.
3) The corner stone of the 'County and City Hall" as the structure was named, was laid on the 24th of June,
1872, with Masonic ceremonies by Christopher G, Fox, Grand Master of Masons in the State of New York, after an
imposing procession through the streets, and an eloquent oration by Hon. Geo. W. Clinton.