BuffaloResearch.com
Genealogy & Local History in Buffalo, NY


The Old Curiosity Shop: McDonnell & Sons Monument Company

McDonnell ad

Excerpt from advertisement in Buffalo city directory, 1891

Parks 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 seepage.

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.

McDonnell and Sons

When 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 there).

The 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 80 years).

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 entrance arch.

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.


At 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.

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.

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.

 
Updated August 11, 2012
 
BuffaloResearch.com