Aug 15, 2013

The History of Hamlin Park Part IV: Hamlin's Driving Park and the Home Builders

Now that Hamlin Park has been listed on the National Register of Historic Places I've decided to do a short series of the history of the neighborhood. This information comes directly from the National Register nomination that Preservation Studios completed. Check back for additional installations in the series in the coming weeks. Stay up to date with all things Hamlin Park by liking the Hamlin Park Historic District on Facebook.


The other component of the Hamlin Park district was originally home of Cicero J. Hamlin’s Buffalo Driving Park. Cicero Jabez Hamlin was born on November 1819 on a mountain farm in Columbia County, NY and was the youngest of ten children. His family was born in New England and his father was a Methodist preacher. Hamlin moved to the Western New York region in 1836 and settled in East Aurora, a village to the southeast of Buffalo. By 1839 he had established a general store in the village that was relatively successful.
Cicero Jabez Hamlin - 1888
Cicero Hamlin moved to Buffalo in 1846 and established a dry-goods business under the name of Wattles & Hamlin, which was located at 252 Main Street. The partnership was dissolved the following year and Hamlin carried on alone until 1852. He established himself as a key employee in the carpet and home furnishings company of Mendsen and Co. in 1860. This proved to be another successful venture for Hamlin, who enlarged the business and reorganized it under the name of Hamlin & Mendsen during the same year.  He retired from the dry-goods business in 1871, but he continued to lease the Main Street building. Hamlin built a new building at 256-268 Main in 1888 that was designed by noted architect Cyrus K. Porter. At the time it was built, it was “the largest store in the city and one of Buffalo’s most noteworthy buildings.”  The building was dubbed, “The Hamlin Block” and was built for Barnes, Hengerer, & Co. Although it has been altered over the years, the building is still extant.
Hamlin Block in c.1890
Hamlin built many other buildings in the area between 1848 and 1888, including a house for his family at 432 Franklin Street, which remains intact as an example of Italianate residential architecture.  Hamlin’s East Aurora farm was used to breed over 500 cattle per year and was quite the attraction. The building is currently used as a restaurant and banquet facilities called the Hamlin House.

One of Hamlin’s crowning achievements was establishing the Driving Park on Buffalo’s east side.  Hamlin purchased the land in 1868 and built the Driving Park as a harness racing track and polo grounds in the same year. He was not alone in this venture, which became, “world famous in the annals of the race-course.” The Driving Park was a popular attraction and at its height was able to draw over 40,000 people in a single weekend, earning it the nickname, “The Kentucky Derby of the North.”

1888 Fair
Hamlin's Driving Park, which later was home to the Expo of 1888-1889
It was so important that Olmsted incorporated it into his design for Humboldt Parkway, which defined its eastern boundary. Patrons of the driving park would often spend the day enjoying the races, then walk en masse south on Humboldt Parkway until reaching The Parade (Humboldt/MLK Jr. Park). They would then enjoy inexpensive beers at the parade house designed by Calvert Vaux. After its popularity waned at the end of the nineteenth century, the driving park was abandoned. 

Fair Ad Front
Advertisement for the 1889 Fair on the former Driving Park Grounds
Fair Ad Back
Backside of the 1889 Fair advertisement
In 1888, the driving park was sold for development as an International Industrial and Agricultural Exposition. In 1896 the buildings were destroyed by fire and, although it was reported that Hamlin might rebuild the driving park, the venture was ultimately abandoned. In 1912 the driving park tract was sold to Toronto developer John C. Cook.  This marked the beginning of the transformation to a residential section.  Although Cook intended to rename it ‘Melrose Lawn,’ the name ‘Hamlin Park’ stuck.  Cook’s plan rejected nineteenth-century picturesque ideas and looked to progressive twentieth-century urban concepts. Lots were broad and uniform in design, with aligned setbacks and could not be subdivided. The driving park was a rectangular area bounded by Northland Avenue at the north, East Ferry Street at the south, Lonsdale Road to the west and Humboldt Parkway to the east.

Driving Park Layout
Original plot layout when the Driving Park went residential. Collection of Buffalo History Museum


Unlike some of the wealthier areas of Buffalo during this time period, the homes in Hamlin Park often showed little variety in their styles and were designed and built primarily by contractors. Some of the homes were also variations on styles that were offered in mail order catalogs made popular by companies like Sears & Roebuck during this period. Almost half of all the buildings in Hamlin Park have been documented as being constructed by one of several building companies.

The most prominent builder in Hamlin Park was the Volgamore-Cook Company, which built over fifty-eight houses in the district. The majority of the homes built by the Volgamore-Cook Company were located on Beverly Road, which was one of the last streets to be developed in the area. There were approximately six different styles of houses on the street, and some repeated exactly, while others had slight changes in details or fenestration. The Volgamore-Cook Company constructed the houses on Beverly between 1915 and 1920 as consumer demand fueled construction.  After the partnership with Cook dissolved, Volgamore went on to build at least twenty-three more homes by himself. Other prominent builders include the International Home Building Company, Robert E. Burger, Niederpreum & Co., F.T. Jenzen Builders, and George Steinmiller.

Beverly Road II
Homes by Volgamore-Cook on Beverly Road, complete with original planted median

Many of the prominent builders published advertisements filled with enticing descriptions between 1913 and the mid-1920s. Shortly after the driving park section started to develop, there was a large push to extend streets and build more homes. The International Home Building Company added another quarter section just one year after acquiring the property. An article in the Buffalo Express from that year explained, “The International Home Building Company is putting on another quarter section and extending Goulding Avenue west, as well as Wohlers Avenue through Northland. The opening up of these thoroughfares will facilitate traffic in this vicinity and will gradually improve the property.”

1912 - Ferry & Wohlers
Homes under construction on East Ferry at Wohlers Avenue. Note the brick entry columns, no longer extant. Collection of Buffalo History Museum
An advertisement from 1913 really captured what the development in Hamlin Park meant: “The value of the land as a place to live will never be impaired by unsightly structures nor unpleasant surroundings.” Even after a century, this statement still holds true.

Many home building companies that built in the Hager Division also constructed similar homes in the Driving Park section during or near the same period. The style of houses generally includes variations of the Queen Anne, Craftsman, and Colonial Revival, though nearly all are two-story frame-dwellings featuring open porches. Like many streetcar neighborhoods, there was a mix of doubles and singles to accommodate families seeking to rent or own. On any given block one can find the same house type repeated, but individual examples are differentiated from neighboring homes by details such as porch pediments, types of columns, placement of dormers, and variations in materials. As a result, similar architectural characteristics are carried through the entire district, creating a feeling of continuity throughout the neighborhood.


Several of the streets in the Hamlin Park District were named after prominent Buffalonians of the early 20th century. Although the history behind each of the street names is not readily available, some of them have been well documented.

Harwood Place
This short, dead-end street is located in the driving park section of Hamlin Park and was named after Mary Ann Harwood Lyth. Mary Ann was the wife of John Lyth who operated the first hollow tile factory in the United States, located in Buffalo. John and Mary Ann were married in their home country of England before immigrating to Buffalo. Before the street developed as residential land, it originally served as a drive that lead to the extensive stables and orchards behind the Lyth family mansion (183 Northland).

1872 - Lyth Mansion
Lyth Mansion constructed in 1872
The process of hollow tile making was invented by John’s brother, Francis Lyth of York, England. When John and his family immigrated to the United States, he brought along the techniques his brother developed in order to establish a new industry in Buffalo. John’s son, Byron, was a prominent homebuilder in Hamburg and built his own home in Hamlin Park at 2 Goulding Avenue. Some of the company’s products, like chimney pots, can be seen on several homes in Hamlin Park. One of the best-known examples of the decorative tile the company produced remains intact on the fa├žade of 16 Harwood Place, which served as the home of the Lyth family servants

Lyth cottage on Harwood Place, just behind the family mansion

Lyth Avenue, which is just outside the district, was renamed in honor of John’s grandson, Alfred L. Lyth, who served as president of the company. Alfred also operated the first Chevrolet dealership in Buffalo, located at 1159 Jefferson Avenue, opened in 1922 (extant). The street originally served as the driveway for the hollow tile factory that John Lyth established.

Hedley Place
Charles Harits Hedley was an instrumental figure in developing the Main-Humboldt area of Hamlin Park. Hedley served as treasurer of the Parkway Land Company and when he purchased this tract in the late nineteenth century, there wasn’t a single home on the land, which the exception of the Stone Farmhouse.

Hedley & Jefferson
South side of Hedley Place at Jefferson Avenue
Donaldson Road
Donaldson Road was named after prominent Buffalo banker Robert S. Donaldson. He was a self-made man who rose in the ranks of the Erie County Savings bank from office boy to president, serving the company for 64 years. Donaldson was a conservative, who seemed to always make the wisest decisions to secure the future of the bank. During the years prior to the Depression, his conservative choices enabled the bank to survive the market crash in 1929.

The grass plot circle on Donaldson, just above the hidden Scajaquada Creek

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