The phoenix has been a common emblem in Buffalo for over two hundred years. The infamous steamship Phoenix was built in Buffalo in 1845. The Phoenix Hotel once stood on Main street between Broadway and Mohawk before being demolished in 1865. There was also Phoenix Iron Works, Phoenix Mutual Life Insurance, Phoenix Bank, and Phoenix Refining Company, among others. More recently, the Phoenix Brewery building on Washington street was purchased and renovated to become the Phoenix Brewery Apartments.
But what exactly is a phoenix? And what’s the history behind Buffalo’s enthusiasm for this mythical creature?
Watkin’s Dictionary of Symbols describes the phoenix as the “most famous of all rebirth symbols — a legendary bird that endlessly renews itself in fire…the phoenix soon became an emblem of human resurrection — and eventually of the indomitable human spirit in overcoming trials.1 Watkin’s maintains that the phoenix has been used as a symbol for millennia: “On Roman coins the phoenix symbolized the undying empire. It appears in early Christian funerary sculpture as a symbol of Christ’s resurrection and the hope of victory over death.”2 According to Sacred Architecture of London, St. Paul’s cathedral memorialized the 1666 Great Fire of London with Caius Gabriel Cibber’s sculpture of a phoenix “rising anew from its fiery pyre, its resplendent rays radiating forth. The pyre burns on a plinth with the inscription ‘Resurgam’ — ‘I shall rise again.'”3
Buffalo suffered its own “great fire” during the War of 1812, when British troops razed the village on December 30, 1813. Out of about 180 buildings, only 3 survived. Prior to its destruction, Buffalo was a steadily growing community on the Niagara Frontier. According to James L. Barton’s “Early Reminiscences of Buffalo and Vicinity”, the village in 1812 “presented a lively business appearance. In the high exulting feelings of its citizens, Buffalo was already a great city. It had overcome its worst difficulties, and nothing could stop its onward progress.”4 But Buffalo’s burning was “the swift destruction to all high hopes and fancied greatness. The citizens were compelled to flee, many half-clothed…while the pathway of their escape was lighted by the blaze of their own dwellings.”5
Despite their devastating loss, the survivors began rebuilding Buffalo almost immediately. In early 1814, they discovered the same war that caused Buffalo’s destruction could also assist with its recovery. Barton explains: “The [American] army remained in Buffalo until the second of July…Trade flourished…The large sums of money paid to the soldiers, who scattered it freely, made money plenty, and all felt well, because they had plenty to do, and got high prices.”6 Like the phoenix, the village of Buffalo could regenerate itself — not simply in spite of its destruction, but because of it.
Rebuilding Buffalo would take time, but “Buffalo was now certainly mounting upwards…Her people were jubilant.”7 According to Buffalo Spree‘s Jay Pawlowski, “the first business to be rebuilt from the ashes of the nascent city was a tavern, which was then appropriately renamed the Phoenix.”8 This symbolic act signified the survivors’ intentions: Buffalo will rise up from the ashes.
Early Buffalo citizens exemplified the motto Resurgam, which doesn’t mean “I have risen again, this one time”; it means “I shall rise again” — every time. The phoenix as a symbol in Buffalo signifies the city’s strength in the face of adversity. Like the phoenix, Buffalo’s greatness comes from its endurance. And also like the phoenix, Buffalo is forever rising.
- Jack Tresidder, Watkin’s Dictionary of Symbols (London: Watkins Publishing, 2012), Kindle edition.
- Nigel Pennick, Sacred Architecture of London (London: Aeon Books, 2012), 133.
- James L. Barton, “Early Reminiscences of Buffalo and Vicinity,” Publications of the Buffalo Historical Society, volume 1 (Buffalo: Bigelow Brothers, 1879), 165.
- Ibid., 165-166.
- Ibid., 166.
- Jay Pawlowski, “Phoenix Rising: A Hoppy History,” Buffalo Spree (March 2011), buffalospree.com.
Fig. 1: Phoenix Brewery label. Courtesy taverntrove.com.
Fig. 2: Phoenix Hotel, G. Metzger’s Livery, and Timothy Crowley, undertaker and coffin maker (picture taken before 1865), Buffalo, NY. Courtesy Library of Congress Digital Archives. Available from loc.gov.
Fig. 3: “Travellers are generally surprised at the rapidity with which the village of Buffalo has risen from its ashes.” Raleigh Minerva (Raleigh, NC), August 13, 1815. Newspapers.com.
Barton, James L. “Early Reminiscences of Buffalo and Vicinity.” Publications of the Buffalo Historical Society, volume 1. Buffalo: Bigelow Brothers, 1879.
Pawlowski, Jay. “Phoenix Rising: A Hoppy History”. Buffalo Spree. http://www.buffalospree.com/Buffalo-Spree/March-2011/Phoenix-Rising-A-Hoppy-History/
Pennick, Nigel. Sacred Architecture of London. London: Aeon Books, 2012.
Tresidder, Jack. Watkin’s Dictionary of Symbols. London: Watkins Publishing, 2012. Kindle edition.