Still Rebuilding from Prohibition, Because It’s Always a Rebuilding Year
or, How My Unbeatable Liver Uncovered a Conspiracy Built Completely on Heresay
Some days, for whatever reason, you want to drink yourself stupid. That’s easy enough to accomplish. Other times it creeps up on you and you’ll go from feeling pretty good with a gin & tonic in your hand to sleeping on the couch in your clothes with the burnt remains of a pizza that sat in the oven for six hours.
The other night I found myself faced with option three: no intention of getting sloshed and apparently lacking in the physical ability to do so as well. You keep ordering drinks and even toss in a shot or two before your buddies start bailing on you, but it’s not sticking. There’s a hint of a buzz creeping in, but not much else and now that other group of idiots with their smarmy ringleader who has a permanent duck-face and Jersey Shore wardrobe who totally cheats by leaning three over the line to take his shot has edged you out from the dartboards. You’re all right calling it quits and heading home.
The good news is that the next morning you wake up and remember how you got there and made it all the way through the movie you put on, even if that movie was Sweet Dreams. You also remember the conversations you had at the bar, specifically the one with your buddy about a visit he made to Lockhouse Distillery, the first such business to operate in Buffalo since Prohibition, in the Pierce Arrow Building.
The Pierce Arrow Building, in case you’re not aware, is the massive complex facing Elmwood Avenue between Amherst Street and Hertel Avenue. It was built in 1906 for the Pierce Arrow Motor Car Company by Albert Kahn. Along with at least ten different buildings for Packard, he designed most of Detroit. Perhaps most importantly, he worked with Henry Ford on his River Rouge plant, which was the ultimate embodiment of Ford’s assembly line dreams. Ford couldn’t have done it without Kahn and Kahn couldn’t have attained that perfection of integrated factory design without the Pierce Arrow Building in Buffalo.
Thankfully, unlike the Larkin Administration Building, after Pierce Arrow declared bankruptcy in 1938, the complex carried on and still stands today. It was divided into smaller pieces for an assortment of companies and businesses over the years from theater groups to casino dealer training. And now a distillery.
In 1887 there were three distilleries in New York State, two of which were in Buffalo. Until Prohibition shut it down after 70 years of operation, C. Person’s Sons was considered the finest distillery in the state. There may not have been much competition for that title, but they were well regarded for the quality of their product and respect for their customers.
It may have taken quite a bit longer for distilling to come back to Buffalo then its brewing counterpart, but now we have Lockhouse Distillery. From what I’ve heard, it’s been worth the wait. Originally named Eight Buffalo Spirits, Lockhouse has so far released vodka but is already aging rye, and plans on tackling gin this summer. After selling out of their initial 800 bottle offering in less than two hours that business will surely continue to grow. Their expanded products is similar to what C. Person’s Sons offered a hundred years ago and given their predecessor’s reputation, that’s not a bad legacy to pick up. Lockhouse certainly is on its way since just recently they won the gold medal for grape-based vodka from the American Distiller’s Institute.
The interesting part of our conversation wasn’t even about the distillery at all. My friend had talked briefly with one of the guys behind Lockhouse about how they ended up in the Pierce Arrow Building. Finding a suitable location wasn’t that easy since it seems all those unused buildings and empty lots around the city aren’t as ignored and neglected as they seem. Most of those commercial properties that would have been suitable for their needs were owned already but not in the absentee landlord sense we all assumed. They aren’t owned by real estate speculators hoarding lots for a big payday when a new hotel or strip mall is proposed by one of the big name developers, allowing them to cash in. These properties are part of a plan with development projects in various stages of planning.
I’m not naïve enough to believe these developers are investing in the city simply out of the goodness of their hearts. Their financial futures are tied directly to the city’s. The improvements on the waterfront will lead to further development with Ohio Street, the Webster Block, Uniland’s new Delaware North headquarters that began construction recently at Delaware and Chippewa. The continued expansion of the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus brings improvement to any vacant property within two blocks of anything they slap their logo on.
These projects aren’t spontaneous. There’s no mad dash to flip the nearest empty building every time Ciminelli, Rocco Termini or Uniland announces a new project. The plans are in place, property is owned and proposals are flying. This may make it harder for companies like Lockhouse to find a suitable location, but they will. Their success, the success of independent pipe-dream niche businesses, however small or grand, any idea what begins with, “Hey, wouldn’t be cool if—” is tied to the success of these sprawling mixed-use developments like HarborCenter or the renovated FWS building on Elmwood that Buffalo Spree recently moved into, intended to become part of “Pierce Arrow Village.”
The average person only sees a piece of the puzzle in North Buffalo or a piece of it along Fuhrman Boulevard and can’t comprehend that it’s all leading towards a grander integrated vision. These developments have not happened by chance or accident. There is a plan.
“They know what they’re doing,” my buddy said, “This city… in ten years we won’t’ even recognize it. It’s going to be amazing living through that.”
He’s one of several people I know who bought a bottle of Lockhouse Vodka. It may be amazing to witness the changes in the city, to watch us feed our post-industrial sickly self, and watch as pound by pound development companies put some meat on our bones. It’s even more amazing to be a part of it, even one $35 dollar bottle of it at a time.