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Preservationists begin rehab of 1840s brothel

72 Sycamore St. in Buffalo
Mike Desmond
What was once a brothel now stands at 72 Sycamore St. tattered and boarded up near the intersection with Michigan Avenue.

One of Buffalo's oldest buildings was the site of the oldest profession, at a time when prostitution was apparently rampant in the growing port city. Preservation Buffalo Niagara said the building can be saved and the agency is working on a redevelopment plan.

The building at 72 Sycamore St. stands tattered and boarded up near the intersection with Michigan Avenue. It's stood there since 1848 when a madame, Eliza Quirk, used the insurance money from an earlier fire of her prior business to build the brick structure, labeled as a rooming house. She ran her operation for nearly 20 years.

"After she died, the building did kind of go through probate and was inherited by some distant relatives." said PBN Preservation Services Director Christiana Limniatis. "They ultimately sold the property and, from her ownership on until we secured ownership and the work in 2017 happened, it operated as a boarding house and rooming house up until the 1990s, early 2000s."

Limniatis said the building was apparently the little house on a barely mapped dirt street in the forest when built.

"In the 1840s, when she built the building, Sycamore is basically the edge of civilization on that side of downtown," she said. "We have reports that St. Mary's Church, which was only a couple of blocks away and built in that same time period, that early parishioners described the area as a forest. So we're talking about the edge of development."

Limniatis said people in those days didn't put together lists of where prostitution took place, although residents apparently knew were to go. Not many decades later, Canal Street was said to be one of the wickedest places on earth, with a map and operations like Dug's Dive available right on the waterfront from the beginning.

"It's in pretty good condition for an incredibly old building," she said. "There are certainly condition issues and things that we will address in this rehabilitation project. But, again, all of the ownership over the years, no one has really put back major investment into the building. Every owner just kind of plopped the new layer of paint, put the new layer of Linoleum on the floor."

When the most recent owner wanted to knock it down along with the building next door, preservationists united to save it.

Mike Desmond is one of Western New York’s most experienced reporters, having spent nearly a half-century covering the region for newspapers, television stations and public radio. He has been with WBFO and its predecessor, WNED-AM, since 1988. As a reporter for WBFO, he has covered literally thousands of stories involving education, science, business, the environment and many other issues. Mike has been a long-time theater reviewer for a variety of publications and was formerly a part-time reporter for The New York Times.