Fire in Black Rock
When I saw fire trucks roll down the street the other day I could tell the emergency was somewhere close, but it was a shame to find out what burned. Seeing the this photo in The Buffalo News made me cringe. What caught fire was the John Esser House, an Italianate home built circa 1887.
You can see the intricate jigsaw work on the gable and fenestration. Fire also exposed the original clapboard hidden away by vinyl siding. Below is what it looked like before. If it hasn’t happened already, it is scheduled for an emergency demolition.
The building is/was located in an especially historic part of an historic neighborhood. Just half a block away at Market Square are new plaques commemorating the 200th anniversary of the Burning of Black Rock during the War of 1812. The building to the east is St. John’s United Church of Christ, a congregation founded by German immigrants back in 1847. (Coincidentally, the church sanctuary caught fire in the 1970s.) To the west is the Jacob Smith House and Tavern, dating back to the 1830s. Across the street is what used to be the St. Francis Xavier Church and School, now known as the Buffalo Religious Arts Center. I highly recommend touring their museum. And just two doors away, somewhat ironically, sits the former Engine #15 Firehouse. It was built in 1912 but closed decades ago. Converted into an apartment, for a time the building was the residence of the famous poet Robert Creeley.
Pardon the pun, but John Esser had a banner year in 1887. At the time he built this home he was Erie County Treasurer as well as President of the Black Rock Business Men’s Association. That same year, H. C. Zimmerman sold out to his partners Esser, Frederick Ogden, and Henry Shuttleworth of the Banner Milling Company, who expanded their operations by buying the Erie Mill. A few months later he would create the Black Rock Land Company, the first development company in the area. Esser Ave., Angus St., Roesch Ave., and Ullman St. in Riverside are named after him and his Land Co. investors, with the exception of John Hertel.
Luckily no one was hurt and fire did not spread to any neighbors. I feel bad for the people displaced by the blaze and would rather not post more photos of their misery. When I visited a few hours ago the roof was completely gone, the entire back of the building charred, and the smell of smoke still hanging in the air. But the demolition of this home does seem to erase the deep imprint the Esser name left on Black Rock. The aforementioned St. Xavier’s, closed several years ago, featured an ornately carved, wooden lectern dedicated by the Esser family. (Note: I have not confirmed any direct connection to John Esser himself.) Very recently, the Key Bank at the corner of Amherst and Dearborn moved out. That building can trace its history back to the Black Rock Savings & Loan, founded in 1892 by–you guessed it–the Black Rock Business Men’s Association.
Within four blocks you had the Erie Canal, a mill, a tavern, two churches, a school, a market, and a locally supported bank that funded it all. John Esser had his hand in much of that. Here’s another sad irony: a photo of John Esser as a director of the Erie Fire Insurance Company. He is at the top row, second from right. Click for a larger version.