Timing and, ironically, a poor economy have made the difference as to why many 19th- and early 20th–century wood, brick, and concrete manufacturing facilities in the century-old factory town have survived and been renovated as both commercial and residential spaces.

“After their heyday, and due to Buffalo’s economy at the time, there was no money to demolish them and build new,” explains locally based architect Robert E. Stark, partner at CJS Architects.

Planning for Buffalo’s rebirth started several years before the 2008 economic collapse, with development focused mostly on its waterfront and medical campus rather than salvaging the Larkin-area factories, since that neighborhood had become less desirable. An exception was Howard and Leslie Zemsky’s Larkin Development Group, which began rehabbing icons such as the 1911 Terminal Warehouse, once home to the Larkin Soap Co., into commercial offices.

“The deterioration, abandonment, and dishevelment of the buildings as well as the public infrastructure, particularly along Seneca Street [a thoroughfare], presented us with a daunting challenge,” says Leslie Zemsky.

Samuel J. Savarino, president and CEO of Savarino Cos., who renovated old warehouses for mixed-use development elsewhere in Buffalo, became interested in a 325,000-square-foot complex, also located on Seneca, as the economy recovered.

Originally, the building housed one of the world’s largest paper-box manufacturers, the F.N. Burt Co., in a 1901 wood structure that grew to include numerous brick and concrete, four- to six-story additions up through 1927. In 1959, the company moved to suburban Cheektowaga, according to city planner and local history buff Chris Hawley, who writes The Hydraulics Press blog. A major sports-cap manufacturer, New Era Cap Co., moved in, then relocated in 2004. Once vacant, the unmaintained building deteriorated.

Diamond in the Rough
Savarino envisioned converting the newer additions for commercial tenants and demolishing the wood building, which he thought was unsalvageable. But his investment partners at Frontier Development Group and Stark felt the entire complex should be rehabbed for its historic significance and the chance to earn federal and state historic tax credits.

Another reason to preserve the older structure was that Mary Cass, a clerk, had become its general manager in 1909 and grew the firm from a regional to a national company, even before she could vote in a presidential election.