Excerpt from advertisement in Buffalo city directory, 1891
officials were mortified at the malfeasance. The Soldiers' and
Sailors' Monument in Lafayette Square was cracking and crumbling
only six years after its erection in 1882 during the city's
semi-centennial year. A structural review was undertaken, revealing
careless workmanship throughout the foundation of the monument. The
core of rubble and mortar was inadequate to the task of supporting the
granite shaft and statuary, which topped out at 85'. A copper box meant
to serve as a time capsule was not found in its intended chamber, but
three feet lower, embedded like just another foundation stone. It had
been cracked under the pressure and its contents destroyed by water
The Parks Department annual report for 1890 was candid:
The plans, the
specifications, the superintendence, and the masonry -- all exhibit, or
imply, gross ignorance or carelessness. It is really a disgrace to our
civilization that so prominent a structure, designed to stand as a
memento of our patriotism to all generations, should be built so
insecurely that it must be taken down within six years of its erection.
The monument was designed by George
Keller, a Hartford, Connecticut architect. It was erected by the
Mount Waldo Granite Company of Bangor, Maine.
a contract was let to repair the foundation, however, it went to a
local mortuary monument company, McDonnell & Sons. In rebuilding
the foundation, McDonnell & Sons altered the open stepped base of
the monument, creating a tight walkway around the shaft by eliminating
some of the base and walling in what remained, forming stairs at each
point of the compass, an arrangement which survives today.
In 1889, when McDonnell and Sons rescued the Soldiers' and Sailors'
Monument, it was a relative newcomer to the Buffalo scene, having
opened their Buffalo office only five years earlier.
McDonnell & Sons was founded in 1857 in granite-rich Quincy,
Massachusetts by Patrick McDonnell, an Irish immigrant once employed as
a stonecutter in the local quarries. Patrick retired in 1881, handing
the reins to his son John Quincy McDonnell. In 1884 John moved with his
wife and seven children to Buffalo in order to open a branch office,
which came to be located at 858 Main Street, between Allen and Virginia
streets (Another son stayed in Quincy to manage the family's business
old McDonnell office still stands. The structure's elaborate granite
facade served as a promotion for the company's products. An arched
pediment is surmounted by finials in the shape of funerary urns.
Supporting it are polished pilasters with rough-faced florets. An early
company advertisement describes the fašade as being "the handsomest in
the United States -- a recognized work of art that attracts the
attention of every passer-by and excites admiring comment from all."
As originally built only 16' on a side and one-story tall, the showroom
quickly proved inadequate for the growing company. A second story was
added, and the building was extended in stages to fill the entire
length of the 100' deep lot, assuming its final elongated form by World
War I. Window openings puncture the north wall at frequent intervals,
washing the interior with shadowless, even light.
Significantly, the later expansion of the building -- and the company
as a whole -- was overseen by John McDonnell's widow Emily, John having
died prematurely in 1894. After her husband's death, Emily did
something bold for a middle class, middle-aged Victorian widow with
dependent children: She bought out her brother-in-law Thomas's interest
in the company.
By 1900, McDonnell & Sons had two additional local branches, another
two in central New York, one in Connecticut, and one in Indianapolis.
Emily served as company president until her death in 1926. In a circa
1926 company brochure, McDonnell & Sons claimed to be the largest
granite firm, by sales, in the country. Emily's obituary in the
Courier-Express described her as a nationally-known businesswoman.
While tiny as a building, when read as a grave marker -- itself a sign
-- the granite fašade must have struck many as grand indeed. (In
simultaneously serving as shelter and sign, McDonnell & Sons
predated Robert Venturi's building-as-sign, "Decorated Shed" coinage by
Wealthy shoe merchant John Blocher
went to McDonnell & Sons with his plans for an extravagant memorial
to his son Nelson, who died shortly after the Main Street showroom
opened. Other notable Forest
Lawn commissions include the Philip Becker monument,
the Volunteer Firemen's monument, and the imposing Main Street
Other area projects include the Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry monument
in Front Park, soldiers' monuments in Springville and LeRoy, Hamburg's
Soldiers' and Sailors' Monument, the Father Hennepin Memorial in
Niagara Falls, NY, and the Laura Secord Memorial in Queenston. Company
brochures also boasted of commissions for public memorials throughout
the U.S. and Canada.
some point in the 1940s, with Emily's son James in charge, McDonnell
& Sons moved out of 858 Main and into a comparatively plain brick
building on nearby Main Street. James died in 1951, the last family
member to head the operation. In 1968, after 84 years in Buffalo and
111 years after its founding in Quincy, McDonnell & Sons vanished
from the Buffalo Polk Directory, the annual "City Directory" of
households and businesses.
Originally published in the Buffalo Preservation
Report, June 1996. The building has since been remodeled as The Granite Works. A sales brochure from the company is online at Archive.org.
The old headquarters building was continuously occupied until 1978. It
is now vacant. The city acquired the building last year in a tax
forfeiture. The building is structurally sound, but needs new
mechanical systems, roof work, and windows to bring it up to current
city codes -- work estimated at $150,000.
This monument of a building -- some neighbors call it the Mausoleum
Building -- is more than a pretty face, as finely cut and polished as
the day it opened 112 years ago. It represents a telling slice of
Buffalo's architectural, social, and women's history.