Monday, November 14, 2011

Byrne Square Building: One We Should Care About

Byrne Square Building: One We Should Care About
by Samuel D. Gruber

Not everyone is happy that the new Creekwalk jogs away from the creek so soon after leaving Armory Square. I'm guessing there was just no way to overcome security concerns at National grid to allow the Creekwalk to traverse NatGrid property, right under the building addition.

One great outcome, however, is the upsurge in pedestrian traffic past two of my favorite buildings. One is obviously the National Grid (formerly Niagara Mohawk) building itself. And then there is the Byrne Square Building at 300 West Genesee Street at the corner of Willow Street, the little terracotta clad jewelbox of a building, which has hardly gotten the recognition it deserves. Now 91 years old, it certainly merits protected landmark status - in its own right, not just for being close to Dinosaur Bar-B-Que.

The Byrne Square building is anything but square - its has a triangular plan, making it one of the city's many "flatiron" buildings - those wedge-shaped structures that have gone up at intersections when the city grid meets older streets, that then slice the orthogonal plan diagonally. Nor is the building named for Byrne Dairy, as claimed on the Yestercuse website.

The building was erected by Mathew V. Byrne, Syracuse representative of the Miller Rubber company (of Akron, Ohio). According to the Syracuse Herald of June 13, 1920 Byrne spent $100,000 on the "terracotta business block."

A year later (June 12, 1921) Byrne took out an ad in the Herald exclaiming "Four years ago Miller Tires were practically unknown in this section. today 65% of the tires sold in Syracuse are Millers. Four years ago we had the smallest service station in the City of Syracuse. Today we have one of the finest service stations in the entire country." A photo of the building in the Herald of June 8, 1923 a sign for Miller Rubber Co, M. J. Byrne on the frieze (now covered in black) above the first floor to the right of the doorway. The accompaning ad explains that Syracuse Grocers, Inc. have leased the entire second floor of the Byrne Square Building and have a few offices to rent. Today Arthur Murray Dance Studios occupies the old tire showroom and service station, remarkable for its large plate glass windows.

Terracotta was a popular material for cladding all sorts of buildings in the late 19th century and first quarter of the 20th century. sometimes it was used only as decorative trim - since it was relatively cheap to mold a repeating decorative detail or pattern. In New York City it was famously used for the Woolworth Tower (1911), which is clad in about 400,000 glazed white terracotta tiles. Nearly as tall is the Smith Tower in Seattle (1914), financed by Syracuse industrialist Lyman Cornelius Smith and designed by Syracuse architects Gaggin & Gaggin. One problem of using a terracotta skin on a large surface, however, is that the expansion and contraction rates of the metal frame and the terracotta tiles is different. In many cases decades of stress has damaged the tiles causing failure - or expensive repair.

By the 1920s glazed white terracotta was a favorite material for automobile showrooms and gas stations. The tiles looked sleek and modern, and they were easy to clean. Since these buildings are mostly steel frame, the terracotta clad thin walls could allow large windows - like those preferred for auto showroom.

Besides the Byrne Square Building, Syracuse doesn't have many terracotta buildings left.


  1. I would just like to correct that this building is associated with Byrne Dairy. My Great Grandfather, Matthew V. Byrne did run a tire business; but, when a tenant couldn't afford to follow through with a dairy business, my Great Grandfather decided to take a stab at it which is Byrne Dairy today.

  2. I'm from Syracuse and visited for the first time (Aug 9-12) in 25 years. I'm amazed at the beautification that has occurred to the beloved architectural beauties of my youth - 60s/70s