St. Mary's Square
The Sisters of St. Joseph have a long tradition of deaf education dating back to the eighteenth century in Lyons, France. After establishing their first American school for deaf education in St. Louis, Missouri, they established Le Couteulx St. Mary’s Benevolent Society for the Deaf and Dumb (later, the St. Mary’s Institution for the Instruction of Deaf-Mutes) in Buffalo in 1853, which later became St. Mary’s School for the Deaf. Constructed in 1862, the four-story brick building (now a condominium) that stands at the corner of Edward Street and Elmwood Avenue in Buffalo was one of the earliest religious residential schools for the deaf in the United States.
The building occupies a one-acre, triangular site at the northeast corner of a former charitable complex administered by the Sisters of St. Joseph. Initially, the school lacked the money needed to erect an educational building, so three temporary structures were moved to the lot from the surrounding neighborhood for use as classrooms. The school, which at first offered instruction as a day school, opened and closed several times in its early years before opening permanently under superintendent Sister Mary Ann Burke in 1862.
During one such suspension, Bishop John Timon initiated the construction of the center wing of the plain, four-story brick building that survives today. By 1881 all three wings, separated by recessed bays, and an extended addition to the rear (north) were complete. Constructed of red brick over a Medina sandstone basement and visually unified by a wide cornice, this structure has seen few exterior changes since the 1880s.
The central portion, constructed in 1862 to house eleven students, measured 28 by 34 feet in plan. It originally contained a kitchen, dining room, sitting rooms, and sleeping quarters. The increase in students over the next few years necessitated substantial additions, which were made as quickly as funds allowed. Each addition extended the appearance of the original building in red brick and Medina sandstone, with a hipped roof and spare architectural ornament concentrated primarily at the cornice and windows. In 1866, the east wing of the school was extended to house dormitories for male students. Five years later, in 1871, the west wing was added with a chapel, boys’ classrooms, playrooms, and a dining room. The rear (north) wing was added in 1878 to house additional dormitories and private spaces for teachers. The school was completed in 1880 with the construction of the full east wing, housing a girls’ dining room in the basement, playrooms and assembly hall on the first floor, classrooms on the third floor, and dormitories on the third and fourth floors.
In the school’s ninth annual report in 1880, superintendent Mary Ann Burke reported that the final phase of construction had been completed, commenting that “not one cent goes for the purposes of mere ornament or display, which, to our thinking, are sadly out of place in a building erected at the people’s expense.”
In 1876, a two-story brick building was constructed at the back of the lot with spaces to house adult workers, a stable, and a printing shop. As vocational and industrial training became a more significant part of deaf education in the latter half of the nineteenth century, the Le Couteulx school became the printers of the Catholic publication Union and Times as well as their own weekly paper for the deaf community, the Le Couteulx Leader.
By the time it was completed in 1880, the school had grown to one hundred and fifty students. The interior layout and functions changed over time as required by evolving functional requirements. Modest porches and stairwells on the exterior, mechanical alterations for steam heating, and one substantial interior alteration were allowed as part of the final addition: the dark and narrow staircase at the center of the building was converted to circular staircase to allow more light and air into the school at what had become the main entrance.
Two years after the final phase of construction was completed, the rapid increase in the number of students led the Sisters of St. Joseph to purchase a tract of 23.5 acres in Buffalo's Parkside neighborhood, 2.5 miles away. The school began a gradual transition to the new location that culminated with the opening of the current St. Mary’s School for the Deaf in much larger facilities in 1898. Once the school had vacated the earlier building, it remained in the possession of the Sisters of St. Joseph as part of a larger charitable complex oriented toward the care of women and children and the building itself was used as a home for women and girls through World War II.
In the late 1940s, the Sisters sold the property for use as veterans’ rental housing. The property was then used as apartments through the 1970s, but the building fell into disrepair as the number of tenants declined. Although it was listed as a contributing structure in the 1977 Allentown National Register Historic District, it was scheduled for demolition in the early 1980s.
At that time, the building was put forward as a pilot case as part of the National 510 Demonstration Project, a federal experiment in several U.S. cities aimed at resolving the conflicting needs of affordable housing and historic preservation. The rehabilitation was headed by Kideney, Smith, Fitzgerald, and Laping, who designed the exterior restoration based on historical photographs. The project, which ran substantially over budget, drew criticism but it was ultimately regarded as a successful adaptive reuse project. Retaining the original exterior appearance of the school, the St. Mary’s Square condominium complex began selling units in 1983. Today the former school building is one of the few remaining buildings of the Sisters of Saint Joseph charitable complex that previously occupied this site.
Brady, Karen. “St. Mary’s Square: Brand New Life for a Grand Old Building.” Buffalo News, July 10, 1983.
Burke, Mary Ann. “Le Couteulx St. Mary’s Institution for the Instruction of Deaf-Mutes, Buffalo, New York, 1859–1893.” In Histories of American Schools for the Deaf, 1817–1893, vol. 3. Washington, D.C.: The Volta Bureau, 1893.
Hornaday, Hilton. “Converting Asylum to Homes Will Cost State $250,000.” Buffalo Evening News, December 6, 1949.
Kowsky, Francis R., and Buffalo Architectural Guidebook Corporation. Buffalo Architecture: A Guide. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1981.
Ninth Annual Report of the Le Couteulx St. Mary’s Institution for the Instruction of Deaf-Mutes, to the Legislature of the State of New York, from September 30, 1879 to September 30, 1880. Buffalo: Illustration Print, 1881.
Zremski, Jerry. “Low-Income Condos Just Don’t Work.” Buffalo News, June 23, 1985.
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