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Unknown Stories of WNY: A bright future for a historic house with a sordid past

Once a brothel, the Eliza Quirk House is now on the National Historic Register with rehab plans in full swing

BUFFALO, N.Y. — As preservation continues to be a big part of Western New York's resurgence, the history behind a project currently underway on Sycamore Street may surprise you.

It's believed to have once been a place of ill-repute, a brothel. But it played a much more important role in the growth of our city, and that is why it is now on the National Historic Register and being developed for a new future.

Within Cheektowaga's united German and French roman catholic cemetery is a bit of hidden history says preservation architect Barbara Campagna. "She was this really interesting character she was known from new york city to buffalo as a notorious courtesan." A fancy word for a lady named Eliza Quirk. "She was known for her bold, bad life." Campagna says that her research shows that Eliza Quirk was actually a lady of the evening. "She really appeared to be one of the most famous prostitute in Buffalo history and certainly during the canal era."

But what makes this story unique brings us to 72 Sycamore Street. "We found this so interesting on so many levels, a woman who was an immigrant from Ireland who was the prostitute who was able to build her own brick house." So interesting that, after years of hard work by Campagna and Preservation Buffalo Niagara, it is now listed on the National Historic Register. The building dates back to 1848, built by Quirk as a boarding house, one of very few that still exist. Some say during those early years it also served as a brothel. Two years ago it came very close being lost to history as a fire destroyed the connected next door. 

The Sycamore Street address however was not Eliza's first home. Her previous address was in Buffalo's original red light district, what we now know and love as Canalside. "She originally lived and worked there and she owned two wood buildings there and one of them burned and she got $1,000 in 1845 for insurance." Campagna says that she used that insurance payoff to elevate herself socially, building this brick house that now has a new future.

Preservation Buffalo Niagara plans to restore the building, put in a new building next door and turn it into their new offices, space for workshops and housing, something this property has provided this neighborhood for the better part of a century and a half. "Quite frankly, I think this building probably tells the story of the evolution of buffalo history more than any other building I certainly ever worked on, in Buffalo or other big cities."

They are now in the process of securing historic preservation grants and if all goes as planned they hope to open the new facility in 2023.