(TOP) Trico circa 2012 outside and inside. Inside photo provided by Trautman Associates. (BOTTOM) Trico circa 1932 photos courtesy of the Dale and Janice Rossi Collection.
By Marian Hetherly
The fate of the former Trico Plant #1, including the original brewery at its center, has been the subject of heated discussion since it recently became public that the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus, the property’s designated developer, wants to begin demolishing the century-old complex this year. BNMC President and Executive Director Matthew Enstice has been quoted as saying that John R. Oishei’s former windshield wiper manufacturing headquarters, located at the corner of Washington and Ellicott Streets in downtown Buffalo, is suffering from extensive water damage and environmental contamination and at least some of it needs to be torn down to make way for new development that would serve the needs of the growing medical campus and adjacent neighborhoods. Some developers have said a smaller footprint is necessary to make any project on the site financially feasible.
Local preservationists—led by Preservation Buffalo Niagara and the Campaign for Greater Buffalo History, Architecture and Culture—instead want to delay demolition at least until a study can be conducted on possible re-uses for the 600,000-square-foot landmark listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Developer Rocco Termini, who has converted half a dozen vacant buildings, has made it known that he has some ideas for re-using the third-largest building in Buffalo if New York State lifts the $5 million cap on preservation tax credits. Locally posted GIS renderings by Detroit’s Nicholas Tyler Miller have revealed the architectural details and idiosyncrasies underneath the building’s deteriorating exterior that inspired his own re-use ideas.
Local residents who have made their opinions known to news outlets and at neighborhood meetings seem split on the property’s future and the conversation is ever changing. However, there is no disputing the building’s architectural history. The existing 10-building complex was the original manufacturing facility for Trico Products, the first manufacturer of windshield wipers and eventually the largest employer in the City of Buffalo. Most manufacturing was moved from the site to Texas and Mexico by 1988 and Trico ceased all operations there in 1998. The property remained vacant and unmaintained until 2010, when the Thomas R. Beecher Innovation Center, 128,000 square feet of research and development space housing life sciences and biotech companies, opened in buildings #9 and #10 on the Ellicott Street side of the complex.
As stated in a 2000 application for landmark designation to the NYS Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation written by SUNY Distinguished Professor Emeritus Francis Kowsky, the oldest portion of the 10-building complex is the brick and sandstone cold storage warehouse of the former Weyand Brewery. Christian Weyand was a German-speaking immigrant from the Lorraine province of France who began brewing with partner John Schetter at 794 Main Street in 1868. Weyland became the sole operator of the brewery in 1883 and later brought into the business his two sons, John and Charles. Shortly after 1890, the family expanded the brewery with the construction of the four-story, 40,000-square-foot warehouse. With a capacity of over 1 million barrels per year, the Weyand Brewery was one of several large breweries in the former German-American neighborhood.
Weyand closed in 1920 due to the Eighteenth Amendment, which established prohibition. Ulrich’s and the Weyand warehouse are among the few remnants of Buffalo’s once-flourishing beer-making history.
At the time of Weyand’s closing, Buffalo-born theater manager John R. Oishei was developing the manually operated windshield wiper with Buffalo inventor John Jepson. His initial success prompted Oishei to buy out Jepson’s interests in the product and move operations into the closed Weyand Brewery. The area around the brewery became known as Trico #1 and expanded over the ensuing decades. Oishei established a foundation in 1940 for worthwhile community projects that today bears his name and is the area’s largest private foundation, with nearly $267 million in assets. Automotive journalist and editor Jim Donnelly also interestingly noted in 2011 that while the family surname is Irish, Oishei’s father, Giuseppe, arrived in New Orleans in 1859 from Italy before opening a saloon in Buffalo. Oishei’s maternal grandmother is believed to be the first Italian to settle in Buffalo.
As stated in a 2006 assessment by the Buffalo architectural firm Trautman Associates, Trico #1 is representative of a steady progression of buildings and building additions from 1924 through 1937 by the Buffalo architectural firm of Harold E. Plumer and Paul F. Mann that expanded the existing configuration to its present footprint. The overall construction of the complex is complicated and includes a series of interior stairways, elevators and ramps to link structures. Kowsky called it an outstanding and increasingly rare example of the design and engineering characteristics of the daylight factory, which answered the need of manufacturing for wide open, naturally lit floor space in fireproof buildings that were inexpensive and quick to erect. Daylight factories broke from the masonry and wood tradition of earlier multi-story structures to use a system of embedding steel rods in concrete to create a strong, fireproof structural system that allowed layer upon layer of unobstructed floor space.
As talks continue about Trico Plant #1, there is hope that a solution can be found that allows Buffalo to remain both proud of its heritage and prosperous in its future. The accompanying photographs may provide some insight into what that solution may be.!