The history of Allentown begins with two villages, Buffalo and Black Rock. Founded before the birth of the nation, the two frontier outposts became fierce competitors when the westward movement swept by them and up the Great Lakes disclosing untold treasure in minerals, copper, iron ore, furs, food and timber. Both villages, formerly little more than trading posts for the rich farmlands surrounding them, began to enjoy the wealth that western trade provided and grew in status and population as they were recognized for the meccas of opportunity they were. Inexorably, the two villages stretched toward each other until they met at the western end of what is now known as Days Park. At the hub of the competition, then, was the land that would finally be known as Allentown.
Lewis Fallie Allen arrived in Buffalo in 1827 from Massachusetts, as an agent for the Western Ensurance Company. The “Ensurance” business must have been as profitable then as it is now, since Lewis Allen quickly began speculating in land. By the time of Lewis Allen’s arrival, Buffalo was already in the grip of an industrial boom unprecedented in any other city in the country. Allen bought 29 acres of land from the extensive Holland Land Company holdings and built his home near Williamsville Road (now Main Street), where he also planted orchards and began to indulge an interest in breeding short-horn cattle.
In 1832, when Buffalo was incorporated as a city, the wagon trail known as Old Guide Board Road (now North Street), which branched west from Williamsville Road, became the City’s northernmost boundary, about a thousand feet from Lewis Allen’s door. The swelling population of the city began looking northward for land that was at once close to the arrears of industry and far away from its noise and stench. This was no time to be letting the cattle meander. And furthermore, to the devil with the orchards! Lewis Allen was sitting on a gold mine.
In 1833, along with several of his old Massachusetts cronies, Allen bought all save 1,700 acres of Grand Island. In time, cattle and apple trees both were moved to an 800 acre farm at the southern end of the island and Allen began the parceling and sale of his 29 acres on Williamsville Road. He named his Grand Island farm “Allentown.” Ironically, it is the land he sold away which today bears that name with such fierce pride.
Allen remained a potent force in the life of Buffalo. He was one of the founders of the Buffalo Historical Society and of Forest Lawn, and he promoted the planting of the Elm trees which were once the hallmark of Buffalo’s streetscape.
Lewis Allen had a nephew who had read for the law and Allen, fond of the young man, sponsored him. Allen and his nephew parted company over politics, however. Allen was a staunch Republican and his nephew a Democrat. When his nephew, Grover Cleveland, ran for president, Allen voted against him.
In the days when Lewis Allen was a gentleman farmer on Williamsville Road, he faced a serious problem. As his interest in cattle-breeding grew, his modest 9-acre farm could not meet his needs for pasturing the herd. The problem was solved by driving his herd from the rear of his estate west for just over a quarter-mile, to a large untenanted pasturage ample enough for the new herd’s grazing needs. The well-trod path became known as Allen Street.
The pasture land belonged to Thomas Day, another of Buffalo’s eager new entrepreneurs who saw in the land at its northern boundaries the wave of a profitable future. Day arrived in Buffalo in 1823 and made a small fortune operating the village’s first brick kiln, and investing his profits in real estate ventures.
Thomas Day donated the greens-common which stretches from the western end of Allen Street to the northern end of Cottage; to the City of Buffalo as perpetual parkland in 1854.
The park, although not a Frederick Law Olmstead Park, received the Olmstead touch during the period when the great designer was Parks Commissioner of the City of Buffalo. It was lushly forested with elms; sandstone planting berms and walkways enhanced the western end of the park and a rather grand fountain spouted at its center. Even today, a view of the sunset down the sites of the park is spectacular; one can only imagine what it must have been in the days of the park’s first glory.
During the early 1830’s a group of prominent Buffalo gents organized a Board of Trustees and drew up a charter for the University of Western New York. One of the trustees, Judge Ebenezer Walden, donated a massive portion of his Allentown holdings, from Allen to North Street, and on the west, from College Street (which is how it got its name) to Franklin Street on the east. Plans for the venture were scratched by the financial panic of 1837.
Judge Walden owned a great deal of the land now known as Allentown. In addition, he had substantial holdings to the west and north of the Pennsylvania-Wadsworth-Hudson city line, in the village of Black Rock, which became a part of Allentown. He owned a large suburban estate bordered on the south by the narrow lane now known as Edward Street, which today forms the southern boundary of the Allentown Historic District. Title for the land, part of the Holland Land Company grant, was conveyed to Judge Walden on March 1, 1809. It appears to have extended from west of Delaware Avenue to North Pearl Street on the east, incorporating Franklin (then Tuscarora) Street and extending on the north to the boundary of Lewis Allen’s estate.
In 1838, during a period when relations between Canada and the United States were so strained that some believed war would result, part of Walden’s land was leased by the United States Government and three companies of artillery were garrisoned on the land, called Poinsett Barracks.
A row of officers’ quarters facing the parade ground (Delaware Avenue) was the most prominent feature of the Poinsett Barracks, including a large house built fro the use of the commanding officer and the post surgeon. When Poinsett Barracks was abandoned in the late 1840’s, this house was sold to Buffalo Judge Joseph G. Masten. In 1883, Dexter Rumsey purchased the house for his daughter and son-in-law, the Ainsley Wilcoxes.
The Buckingham Hotel was built on the growing commercial thoroughfare, Allen Street, in order to accommodate visitors from around the world. A number of other commercial buildings went up to take advantage of the anticipated markets. The Ainsley Wilcox family remodeled and enlarged their home. They were among the social leaders of the city and would be expected to entertain important visitors to the 1901 Pan-American Exposition. One such visitor was William McKinley, lately Ohio’s pride, and now President of the United States.
There were other visitors to the fair, some of whom could not imagine that the bright promise of the new century extended to their ranks and, on September 6, 1901, one of them, Leon Czolgosz, shot President McKinley, who lay between life and death until September 13. The next day, Theodore Roosevelt took the oath of office in the library of the Wilcox Mansion.
The turning century made many changes in the Allentown streetscape. Immigrants, eager for their own betterment, took up the workman’s cottages left behind by the stavers, the joiners and the tinsmiths of the earliest days on Hudson, Wadsworth, Mariner, College, Orton and further west. The sound of many tongues could be heard on Allen Street on market days, as it can to this very day. “Modern” young couples wanted a new kind of housing- efficient, free of land responsibilities and right in the thick of things. So “apartments” went up in fashionable Allentown- and up and up- the higher up you were, the sturdier you could claim to be. Allentown’s commercial interests thrived. Merchants dealt in necessities, niceties and specialties and their scores of customers lived just steps from their shop doors. “Modern” money in Allentown was made a dime at a time.
Buffalo did not escape the financial panic of 1929, or the depression that followed. In Allentown, the prosperous little businesses failed, the sprightly cottages fell into disrepair, the grand houses became too great a burden for even the wealthiest to bear. They were sold for institutional use, broken up into apartments or turned into rooming houses. The excellence of their construction upheld them when very little else could. Allentown got a shopwarn look about it, like a great lady who’d seen better days.
The late 1940’s and early ‘50’s brought war-weary youth drifting back to Allentown, eager to share in the polyglot atmosphere that was the sum of all of Allentown’s parts. Young families settled in side-by-side with the beat generation and the emerging Latino and African-American population, and they all lived next door to the gentlemen and ladies of the past, who had managed to hold on.
The Allentown Association began in 1960, with the efforts of Olive Williams to create a consciousness among neighborhood residents of the historic and architectural tradition exemplified by every street in Allentown. Olive’s North Street Association was incorporated as the Allentown Association in 1963.
The Association’s first efforts combined cultural and social event with the harder business of maintaining the appearance and viability of the neighborhood against the blight which seemed to be everywhere. Recognizing that the City’s government had played an integral role in the disinvestment quandary faced by old neighborhoods, the Association commanded substantial upgrades in city services. When the first low-interest home improvement loans were made available to private homeowners by the Department of Housing and Urban Development, the Association was instrumental in getting Allentown designated as a demonstration site for the federal program. The loan program provided an incredible shot in Allentown’s rehabilitation efforts and centered the imagination of the City on its lovely streets.
The Association also involved itself in the social needs of the community. An old church at No. 111 Elmwood Avenue was purchased and rehabilitated by a private fundraising and an extensive program of services and classes for young and elderly participants was established. The programming has grown so extensive in scope over the years that the Allentown Community Center has become a fully separate corporation with a large staff of its own.
Today, the Allentown Association is in the forefront of preservation and rehabilitation efforts, aiding homeowners to effectively preserve their properties, providing help in conforming with the City’s Preservation Code, and technical assistance in neighborhood planning. It works with the City of Buffalo’s Preservation Board and Planning Board, and assists owners to bring their properties into compliance. The Association has been directly involved in efforts to save and use buildings endangered by the threat of demolition, including the 800 block of Main Street that is currently being restore and renovated for mixed-use development.
(Excerpt taken from "A Field Guide to the Architecture and History of Allentown," written by Louise McMillan and edited by Richard Stockton, Jr., 1987)