Ninety years ago, after Michael Shea constructed his 2,500-seat movie palace on Seneca Street, it quickly became a cultural hub for the growing South Buffalo community. Like his other theaters, the opulent Shea’s Seneca—situated steps away from the Olmsted-designed Cazenovia Park—featured retail storefronts along Seneca, with the movie theater in back.
“Back then, that was the only place you’d go to see any type of film,” said Jake Schneider, president of Schneider Development, which owns the building today. “That was your gateway to the world, to see exotic places, and the thinking was that you’d make these elaborate lobbies and transport people from the time they entered to the time they left.”
And transported they were—until tastes changed in the 1960s, and glittering movie palaces were replaced by modern multiplexes. The theater itself was demolished in 1970, and a series of tenants took up residence in the remaining street-level and upstairs spaces, including the Skyroom music venue.
By the time Schneider began exploring the property about three years ago, the landmark building was an old, neglected warehouse, and the ensuing restoration became the most challenging project Schneider’s 16-year-old development company has tackled to date.
Unveiled late last year, the revitalized Shea’s Seneca includes 23 high-end apartments, four banquet spaces and four retail spaces. And, thanks to Schneider’s vision—and the expertise of many local craftspeople—it is once again the vibrant center of a growing South Buffalo community. Here’s an inside look at how they brought Shea’s Seneca back to life.
From the outside, the building looks much the same as it did when it opened in 1930, as a series of rectangular storefronts leads to the former theater entrance, with three arched windows and ornamental scrollwork above. Only the original 61-foot blade sign, similar to the one outside Shea’s Buffalo downtown, is missing.
The marquee, however, is back, its cascading lights dancing on Seneca Street once more. If the marquee looks nearly identical to the original in historic photographs, that’s because it is—in fact, they were created by the same company, Flexlume Signs, in its shop on Main Street in Buffalo.
“The overall color and design is very similar to the original,” said owner Curtis Martin. The biggest change, Martin noted, is the use of LEDs, which were first introduced in the ’60s. “The technique used to build it is a little bit different. That sign is all made out of aluminum, whereas back in the past it would have been steel.”
More facade upgrades included fresh storefront signboards and landscaping. And that’s just the beginning of the work outside—Schneider said he and the other developers, business owners and residents in the Coalition for a Vibrant Seneca Street are working to create a walkable community by investing in various properties and advocating for streetscape improvements and changes to traffic patterns.
The centerpiece of the restoration is undeniably the building’s entrance and lobby, the latter of which is now run as a banquet space by restaurateur Molly Koessler, along with a patio, bar and ballroom. Today, the former lobby space is as grand as ever, with magnificent chandeliers, intricate molding, faux marble columns and towering mirrors that make the long space feel even larger.
“This is what enticed me to want to do the entire project—to see this space lost would have been a sin,” Schneider said, recalling the lobby’s crumbling state two years ago. “People had spray-painted on the walls stuff you wouldn’t want to repeat. Someone had taken a sledgehammer to a lot of the plaster. It was full of junk, the chandeliers were gone.”
To restore the beautiful plasterwork and match the historic paint colors and patinas, Schneider brought in Swiatek Studios, a family-run company with more than 50 years of experience in painting restoration and historic conservation.
“Too often in years past we would destroy buildings like that and knock them down because the thought was they were too expensive to fix up,” said owner and artisan Brett Swiatek. “With this new philosophy of restoration and adaptive reuse, that is the most rewarding aspect of [projects like this]—that we can learn from our mistakes and utilize old crafts and artisan abilities to recreate these spaces and restore them for modern-day use.”
The company researched old photos of Shea’s Seneca and other Shea’s projects, and performed a paint analysis to determine what the space would have looked like. Then, with more than a quarter of the historic plasterwork damaged or missing altogether, Swiatek created molds of any existing details so they could replicate them elsewhere in the space—a process that took about a year of research, development and meticulous installation to perfect.
“Swiatek built scaffolding all the way up to the ceiling,” Schneider said. “It was like the Sistine Chapel; you could get up there and touch the top of the barrel vault. It was really cool.”
Throughout the project, Schneider worked closely with the National Park Service and State Historic Preservation Office to ensure the restoration preserved the building’s heritage while keeping in mind its modern-day use. For the retail spaces, the only historically significant aspects were the windows and facade—and the space that became April Spencer Floral Design.
The flower shop boasts a unique domed ceiling unlike any other retail space in the building (or throughout the city). A neighborhood resident, Spencer launched her business in 2010 and was outgrowing her basement workshop when the opportunity arose to open the shop. Once on board, she got her family involved in refinishing the hardwood floors and painting the store a deep navy blue.
“This is dream-worthy,” Spencer said, as she prepares a seasonal window display to attract passersby. “I wake up every morning and almost pinch myself because I can’t believe this is my space and I’m part of this project.”
The building also includes the Skyroom Lofts: 23 high-end apartments, including four downstairs and 19 that span the entire second floor. The upstairs corridors showcase banners that pay homage to big-name acts that played the former Skyroom music venue, as well as original artwork by Jake’s wife, local photographer Katie Schneider.
The apartments range from one-bedroom, one-bathroom units to the stunning two-bed, two-bath loft that’s situated directly above the marquee. The latter makes stunning use of the building’s two-story arched windows to bathe the entire space in natural light. Like other units, this one includes granite counters, a washer and dryer, and ample storage, but the signature here is the mezzanine master bedroom, which opens via barn doors to look out over the living room and kitchen.
All of the lofts are now occupied—adding new life to Seneca Street and this South Buffalo neighborhood.
“If you’ve heard the term in hockey, ‘know where the puck’s going to be,’ that’s my business philosophy—where’s the puck going to be in terms of business opportunity?” Schneider said. “This is what the community has been working for, for so long, and it’s finally happening. Buffalo’s renaissance is finally moving out beyond Downtown to the neighborhoods.”
Continuing the craft
To bring Shea’s Seneca back to life, Schneider Development raised a venerable army of trades and craftspeople, with as many as 100 people working in the building simultaneously during the peak of construction. In addition to Schneider’s own team, here are just a few of those who made this project possible:
Marquee Flexlume Signs
Facade work Abraxas Restoration and Renovation
Ornamental plasterwork & paint restoration Swiatek Studios
Windows Lancer Door & Glass
Electrical Ricmar Electric
Plumbing Aurora Plumbing & Excavation Co.
HVAC Tri-R Mechanical Services
Story topics: Community