Old County Hall Table of Contents

A History of the Old County Hall

by Alison Kimberly, Editor

Pressure to consolidate functions of City and County government in one central convenient location led to the introduction of a resolution before the Buffalo Common Council in November, 1871 by Alderman John Pierce, that a committee be formed to consider the project of building a new city hall. In December 1870, the committee resolved that a pubic building for the use of the courts and public officers of both the City and County of Erie should be erected. Enabling legislation was passed by the State Legislature in April 1871, empowering the Governor to appoint a committee of citizens of Erie County "whose duty it shall be to fix upon a site in the City of Buffalo for the erection of a public building to be known as the County and City Hall," costs of construction and maintenance to be shared equally by the County and City. The site was to be on property owned by either the City or County.

In May 1871, the appointed commissioners selected the site known as Franklyn Square, bounded by Franklyn, Eagle, Delaware and Church Streets. The major portion of the site had been purchased by the City many years before for $1.00, and until 1870, when it was leveled off for baseball grounds, had been known as Franklyn Square Cemetery, a burial plot for soldiers of the War of 1812.

Old City and county buildings, Franklin Square
Some of them were old buildings, when occupied by the city, 1852, used as public offices until the erection of the present City hall, 1876

Source: "The Picture Book of Earlier Buffalo," Severance, Frank H., ed. Buffalo Historical Society, Vol. 16, 1912, 218

The southern portion of the property had been purchased by the City in 1851 from Hiram E. Howard for $60,000, and was occupied by buildings in which Council meetings were held and City and County departments had offices.

Andrew J. Warner, architect of Rochester, was selected at the May 1871 meeting and commissioned to prepare plans for a fee of $24,000. In August 1871, the plans prepared by Mr. Warner were adopted by the Board of Commissioners and ground was broken for the building's erection.

The style is known as Late Victorian Romanesque. The building is a double Roman cross, with bases adjoining and extending North and South. The body of the cross is 114' x 225', the arms and head having each a 20' projection and 52' front. The total building length is 295' and a width of 158'.

The principal front is on Franklin Street and in the center of this is the clock and bell tower. The main walls are 80' high and are constructed of Clark Island (Maine) granite, then considered the best building stone in the country. The first story is of uncut stone with chiseled edges; all the stone above is bush hammered. Above the main walls originally rose 12 dormers and 14 turrets each 20' high.

The clock and bell tower rises from the base 270', of which 170' is masonry, built 40' square. The rest is an iron spire, originally roofed with slate. The clock section and the tower originally held an observatory.


At each of the upper corners of the stone portion of the tower are turrets 8' square, surmounted by pedestals upon which rest statues. The statues were cut from 30 ton blocks of granite by a Mr. Sala, an Italian immigrant, at Clark Island, Maine. Mr. Sala had already rendered himself famous by being the artist, who, a few years since, wrought the famous Cardiff giant.

Each statue was 16' tall and weighed 16 tons. At the northeast corner stands Justice, southeast corner, Agriculture, northwest, Mechanical Arts and southwest is Commerce. Justice was raised through the rotunda to the tower on April 8, 1875. Assistant Superintendent for Construction, John Druer, developed a derrick crane for raising the statues, a feat most contractors of the day deemed impossible.


The tower clock was manufactured by the E. Howard Co. of Boston, Massachusetts. The 9' 3" diameter dials were backlit with reflected gas light. The size of the flame was controlled by the clock mechanism, possibly the first use of an automatic pilot. The clock had numerals 15' high, a 4' 3" minute hand, 3' hour hand, 4,700 lb. bell, 190 lb. trip hammer and a 14' 3" pendulum. A half ton weight used to drive the mechanism had to be raised by two men every 8 days.


Ground was broken for the City-County Hall on August 21, 1871 and on June 24, 1872, the cornerstone was laid at the south east corner of the building. Work progressed rapidly and through 1871-1875, contracts for supplying materials or completing various portions of the work were let by the special commission. There was no general construction contract, as is the practice today, but a Mr. S. H. Fields contracted to act as superintendent of construction for $2,500 per year. Approximately 42 separate contracts were let, not including the purchasing of some furnishings.

Costs of material in that era were:

The Board of Commissioners had presented an estimate of $772,000 in October 1871. By 1875, this had increased to $1,207,234. In April of 1875, the State Legislature passed an act providing $1,450,000 and requiring that the Commissioners complete all duties assigned to them by 6 years from the time of their first meeting.

At 4:00 pm on February 7, 1876, Mayor Becker set the tower clock in motion by initiating the swing of the giant pendulum. The building was illuminated for the first time (by gas) on March 10, 1876. There were no formal announcements issued, but the public was allowed into the building. Sixteen hundred gas burners provided the light. A chandelier with 24 globes hung in the vestibule. Three of the same type, and a fourth with 36 burners hung in the Council Chambers. On Monday, March 13, 1876, the building was officially opened to business, coincidentally during the National Centennial year.


For over 25 years the building apparently was adequate for the services rendered. In 1891, an underground tunnel was built connecting the Erie County Jail and County Hall. Used for prisoner passage to the courts, the tunnel is still in use today. About 1905, additional space became necessary. Balconies and mezzanines were built in some of the rooms. In 1908 the Manufacturer's Club, assisted by architect John J. Doyle Hoyt, proposed a four story building addition to the Delaware Avenue side of the hall. (This is now the location of the 1965 County Hall addition.) Also in 1908, $50.000 was allocated to electrify the building and the building was so fitted out in 1909. In the intervening years, the first set of elevators was installed.

In the 1920s the City determined it would build its own facilities and began to move out at the end of the decade. The County paid the City $1,512,500 for title to the building and grounds. Harold J. Cooke, Buffalo architect, was commissioned to prepare documents necessary for alterations executed from 1925 to 1931. The work was a major reconstruction project and included replacement of all floors, fireproofing of the entire structure, reconstruction and rebuilding of walls, replastering of the entire interior, acoustic treatment of court rooms, installation of marble tile and terrazzo...all heating, ventilating, plumbing, electrical work and air conditioning has been installed new, the high pressure boiler abolished, the generators eliminated and the current changed.

Expenditures for alterations during this period were:

Four new passenger elevators replaced hydraulic elevators, and a new prisoner's elevator was included in the work done in 1930. The usable floor area of the building was increased from 70,767 square feet to 128,864 square feet with an additional 6,000 square feet in the north end of the fourth floor which could be partitioned and finished in the future.

County VS. City Governments

Through this period there were feuds between the County and City governments. The withdrawal of City facilities was not altogether accomplished with pleasure. When the County Legislators removed desks and chairs from the Council Chambers to an unused courtroom, the Councilmen retaliated by occupying the Supervisors' Chambers which led to a problem when both bodies scheduled sessions at the same time. Separate water coolers were provided for County and City and each guarded its fountain from the other. Court action had been initiated by the County and Mayor Schwab, the last mayor to preside in the old City-County Hall was almost removed by eviction.

Scandals also were difficult to avoid. An unethical contractor from Rochester, engaged to improve the building's appearance by tuck painting and sand blasting, was faced with the walkout of local employees when he forced them to use rags and paper for joint backing, and thinned the mortar by adding more sand to the mix.

Some of the local newspapers, particularly the Times, harassed the local legislators with continued stories of extravagance in the elaborate redecorating of "Balthazar's Palace." By a special act of the State Legislature, signed by Governor Franklin D. Roosevelt, the building received its formal name of Erie County Hall on March 29, 1929.


Architect A. John Ort was commissioned about 1935 to complete alterations on the fourth floor. Under the supervision of Stephen L. Clergy, architect, the W.P.A. (Works Progress Administration), completed these alterations which included a Library, Judge's Chambers and Offices.

In 1938, the slate roofing of the clock tower was removed and replaced with copper. The clock was repaired in 1922 and 1940. The half ton drive weight is now lifted electrically every 3 weeks.
Thomas H. McKaig, structural engineer, designed a steel frame in 1946 to be constructed atop the stone masonry of the tower for raising, resetting and anchoring the four granite statues which showed marked signs of shifting since their original installation. The recommendation, reported to have involved an expenditure of $100,000, was not approved, but in 1949 and 1963, the statue bases were raked and repointed.

A 45 lb. piece of plaster cornice fell in one of the court rooms in 1953. Inspection by William Fisher, County Building Commissioner, resulted in removal of nine similar cornices and new facing being put on the walls. Alterations to the second floor Grand Jury Room, County Court Part III and north end courtrooms, designed by Pfohl, Stoll & Roberts, architects, were completed in 1959 and 1962.

The building facades were cleaned by sandblasting in 1963. At that time, construction was started for the new County Hall addition on the Delaware Avenue side of the building, the site proposed by the Manufacturer's Club 55 years earlier.

The old County Hall celebrated its centennial in 1976 when our nation was 200 years old. In that time span, two of the men who initiated their political careers in the City-County Hall as Mayor, achieved the position of the highest office in the land, Presidents Grover Cleveland and Millard Fillmore. The saddest event to befall the building was when the body of President McKinley, assassinated at the Buffalo Pan-American Exposition in 1901, lay In State in the center of the main lobby. A bronze floor plaque and roped off area commemorate the spot to this day,.

Local Landmark: 4/14/77
National Register: 5/24/76


Photos and their arrangement © 2002 Chuck LaChiusa
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