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The Mystery of the Stone (Benvenuto) Lions

January 11th, 2015

Here's hoping maybe YOU can help us solve the case of the stone lions. [PHOTO: RochesterSubway.com]
By Mike Governale

Last summer Rochester developer and restauranteur, John Tachin called up RocSubway with a history mystery for us to solve. After four months of digging, we came up empty. But here’s hoping maybe YOU can help us solve the case of the stone lions.

Cue the Pink Panther Theme Song external link, this one’s a doozy…

John Tachin owns land on Lake Ave.  once owned by Benvenuto Wrecking Co. [PHOTO: RochesterSubway.com]
Tachin owns a bit of property external link on Lake Ave (crammed between Charlotte Appliance, School 42, and the Charlotte branch of the NYCRR tracks) which was previously owned by Benvenuto Wrecking Company.

In November of 2002, while digging the foundation for a new warehouse he was building on the property, Tachin stumbled upon buried treasure. [PHOTO: RochesterSubway.com]
In November of 2002, while digging the foundation for a new warehouse he was building on the property, Tachin stumbled upon buried treasure.

Hiding in an open pit beneath slabs of concrete were two huge stone corbels, each carved with a lion head atop a decorative scroll. [PHOTO: RochesterSubway.com]
Hiding in an open pit beneath slabs of concrete were two huge stone corbels external link, each carved with a lion head atop a decorative scroll.

In addition to the lion heads were four stone lintels – like something you might see over the door way of a big old building, or monument. [PHOTO: RochesterSubway.com]
In addition to the lion heads were four stone lintels external link – like something you might see over the door way of a big old building, or monument. All six pieces had to be lifted out with a crane, and Tachin estimates they weigh between 7,000 and 9,000lbs. A truly massive find.

Tachin led me up to the site where I snapped these photos and took some measurements. [PHOTO: RochesterSubway.com]
Tachin led me up to the site where I snapped these photos and took some measurements. Each of the two lion corbels is 2 feet wide, 7.5 feet tall, and extend outward 4 feet at the top. Near the bottom of the scroll they taper down to nothing.

The four lintels (or cornice) each have simple styling on the front face. [PHOTO: RochesterSubway.com]
The four lintels (or cornice external link) each have simple styling on the front face. Each of these are 5.5 feet deep and 20″ high. Two of them are 80″ long, and two are 100″ long. When lined up end to end these four pieces span 30 feet. Interestingly this width would be a fairly typical city lot – particularly in some of the oldest sections of downtown, near the river.

When lined up end to end these four lintels span 30 feet. Interestingly this width would be a fairly typical city lot – particularly in some of the oldest sections of downtown, near the river. [PHOTO: RochesterSubway.com]

• • •

Any number of configurations could be made with the 6 pieces…

Any number of configurations could be made with the 6 pieces. Maybe they formed a cornice at the top of a building? [PHOTO: RochesterSubway.com]
However, because of their extreme depth and mass, I’d guess the stones were not positioned at the very top of a building, but rather somewhere sandwiched between the ground floor and upper floors of a 3-story or taller building. Possibly like this…

Because of their mass, it's more likely the stones were not positioned at the very top of a building, but rather somewhere sandwiched between the ground floor and upper floors of a 3-story or taller building. [PHOTO: RochesterSubway.com]

• • •

For over a decade Tachin searched to find someone who might know where the stones came from. But the search would not be easy. Benvenuto Wrecking Co. demolished houses and buildings all across western New York, from Buffalo to Syracuse and north to Watertown, from the 1940s all the way through this country’s disastrous “urban renewal” period of the 1960s and 70s.

Benvenuto Wrecking Co. demolished the RKO Palace as well as hundreds (maybe thousands) of other buildings in the city of Rochester. [PHOTO: D.O. Schultz / Rochester Theater Organ Society]
Under a typical demo contract the wrecking company agreed to remove all remnants of a building. But often they would the right of salvage – meaning they could do what they wanted with the salvaged material.

Benvenuto Wrecking Co. demolished houses and buildings all across western New York, from Buffalo to Syracuse and north to Watertown.  [PHOTO: D.O. Schultz / Rochester Theater Organ Society]
According to old newspaper stories, the Benvenuto’s often exercised this “right”. In fact, James and Nick Benvenuto owned a small restaurant and motel in Cape Vincent called Sleep Hollow which they practically built and furnished entirely with salvaged material.

So at least we know this was fairly common for these guys to save oddities like our stone lions.

• • •

At least three different stories ran in the local paper following the discovery of the lions in 2002. [PHOTO: RochesterSubway.com]
“There’s a story here,” Tachin told a D&C reporter. “Unfortunately, the lions can’t talk so we have to try to find it out.”

At least three different stories ran in the local paper following his discovery. “They even printed my phone number,” Tachin recalls, somewhat regretfully 11 years later. “I got sooo many calls. A lot of nice old ladies telling me stories about a lot of different things… but no ideas about where these guys came from.” He laughs to himself as he runs his hand across the top of one of the lions.

No one came forward with any real answers as to the lions' origins. But one member of the Benvenuto family did say the lions were cursed, and should be reburied. [PHOTO: RochesterSubway.com]
Then he tells me about “THE CURSE” – as told in this D&C story from September 2003…

Sinister overtones to snarling stones
John Tachin has heard some interesting hunches about the origin of two giant stone corbels he unearthed last year in Charlotte. Now, he can add a theory about why they were buried in the first place – they’re cursed.
It’s an opinion that Tachin and others don’t put much stock in.
The corbels were found hidden underneath giant concrete slabs on property formerly owned by the Benvenuto Bros. wrecking company off Lake Avenue. The faces of lions are carved on the corbels, which are stone brackets that protrude from a building wall to support a cornice or arch.
Tracking down their origin is difficult because the now-defunct Benvenuto company demolished buildings throughout western New York. Tachin’s story was featured in the Democrat and Chronicle last month.
Since then, he has received more than 150 phone calls offering tips.
One of the callers – a member of the Benvenuto family who declined to talk publicly about the matter – claimed the corbels are cursed and were buried intentionally. The caller advised Tachin to rebury them because workers who came in contact with them seemed to get hurt.
Such talk is just phooey, said Josephine Benvenuto, who worked at the company as a secretary and was the sister of the late Nicholas Sr. and James Benvenuto, who controlled the business from 1958 until it closed in 1986.
“He’s pulling both your legs,” she said. “At least, I never heard of it.” She thinks her brothers were preserving the corbels by burying them. “I think they all forgot about them.”
Jack Benvenuto, a son of James Benvenuto, said he also never heard of such a curse. “I don’t know anything about them,” he said. “It’d be interesting, though: The curse of the lion heads.”
Tachin admitted he was a little spooked when the family member called him and mentioned the curse. But, he added that since he uncovered the corbels, he hasn’t been injured.
“I’m not a superstitious person,” he said. “They’ve been good to me so far. They haven’t bit me.”

Cursed or not, Tachin is not about to put these babies back in the ground. He really wants to find out where they came from. [PHOTO: RochesterSubway.com]
Cursed or not, Tachin is not about to put these babies back in the ground. He really wants to find out where they came from. Were they from a building in the Rochester area? And why did the Benvenuto brothers go to such lengths to haul them here, and hide them?

The number of possible buildings easily number in the thousands. Unfortunately the Benvenuto brothers have past on, and as far as I can find, no record exists of the properties they dismantled.  [PHOTO: D.O. Schultz / Rochester Theater Organ Society]
The number of possible buildings easily number in the thousands. Unfortunately the Benvenuto brothers have past on, and as far as I can find, no record exists of the properties they dismantled.

In 2003 the D&C interviewed local historian Donovan Shilling and architectural historians Cynthia Howk and Jean France of the Landmark Society of Western New York. All three were unsure of the stones’ origins.

Shilling said the Benvenuto brothers did most of their wrecking during the renewal period here in town. And so he was fairly certain the stones were from Rochester – perhaps a private home or a building in the Corn Hill neighborhood or downtown.

Howk offered that the corbels were likely built between the 1890s and 1930s and these types of architectural details were common during this period.

When I interviewed Howk and France again this fall, I was hoping maybe they’d come across some new information during the last ten years. But they were still stumped. However, Jean France did tell me she felt they were late 19th century rather than later.

I was left with one option; flip through old newspaper articles to try and track down as many Benvenuto jobs as I could possibly find. Then search photos of those buildings to try and find our lions.

So far I have a list of suspect buildings that can be ruled out, and some that I haven’t found pictures of yet…

Ruled Out

  • Security Trust Co.
  • Union Trust
  • Lincoln First Bank
  • RKO Movie Palace, Rochester – Clinton and Mortimer
  • archway to the beach at Lake Ontario
  • American Brewing Co.
  • Rochester Savings Bank, Main and Fitzhugh
  • Rochester School 28, 458 Humboldt St, Daily Record, 9/26/1968
  • Numerous wood-framed homes/residences and warehouses
  • Watertown National Bank building (Washington & Stone Streets. a.k.a. National Bank of Northern New York or Jefferson County National Bank)
  • Watertown City Hall
  • Old Stone Vault, (“used for many years by local undertakers for body storage in winter months” Watertown Daily Times, 10/22/1966)
  • Home of Music building (Watertown, directly behind National Bank of Northern New York)

Suspects (need photos)

  • Central Trust Co., demolition, cement błock gas station at 1822 East Ave (1969)
  • Warsaw School Buildings, Wyoming County Times, 9/23/1954
  • Rochester School 31, Daily Record, 5/15/1941
  • Centennial Building (“one of Rochester’s oldest downtown structures… to be razed for parking station… First Federal Savings & Loan Associates purchased it for $375,000… a portion of lot may be used for drive-in teller booths.” Daily Record, 4/9/1964)
  • Odd Fellows Temple, 114 Stone St (“purchased by the Marine Midland Trust Company of Northern New York. The bank plans to use that area for parking facilities. Watertown Daily Times, 10/2/1969)
  • Armstrong Shoe Factory,15-157 Exchange Street
  • Watertown, 29 structures on 18 parcels on Court, Jackman and Jackson streets. Including old City Hal (ruled out). Watertown Daily Times, August 2, 1966.
• • •

Tachin isn’t sure what he’ll do with the stones. He says he’s turned down an offer of $6,000 for them but he’s not interested in selling them. He’d rather learn about their past. So would we.

Can you help solve the mystery of the Benvenuto lions? Drop a comment below. [PHOTO: RochesterSubway.com]
And this is where you come in. If you have any ideas or clues that might be checked into further, drop a comment below or contact info@rochestersubway.com. I’m also hoping we can pull our friends from Syracuse and Buffalo into this search as well.

To be continued…

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This entry was posted on Sunday, January 11th, 2015 at 11:25 pm and is filed under Architecture, Art + Culture, Rochester History, Urban Development, Urban Exploration. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

33 Responses to “The Mystery of the Stone (Benvenuto) Lions”

  1. Is the stone granite?

    Considering the size, I would rule out most houses and small commercial buildings. This kind of stone work would only be on something major like a civic building or bank.

  2. It looked like granite to me. It wasn’t concrete or sandstone. But I’m no geologist either. I’m fairly certain they’re granite.

  3. Donna Bour-Purdy says:

    I don’t know about these Lions, but the Benvenuto’s had a huge business and were very creative. My father tells the story that he and his buddies used to go to the brick piles and scrape off old mortar for a few cents per brick. They would stop when they had enough to go to the movies.. pretty cool.

  4. Talk your dad, parents, grandparents, etc… ask them if they recognize these lions!

  5. Stephanie says:

    Part of the old, private hospitel in Charlotte?

  6. John Zicari says:

    Have they checked for Jimmy Hoffa under there yet?

  7. Jamie Boyd says:

    I tell you what. The CEO of Eastman Kodak at the turn of the 19th century lived right up the road on Lake Ave. Its were that school is now. I wonder if when they took his house and demolished part of it then added onto it and made a mental hospital. That happened back i think in the 20s or 30s. Im not sure on my dates but i would check out that house and see if there are pics of it from back then

  8. Patty Uttaro says:

    Have you checked the photos in this library pathfinder on architecture? http://www.libraryweb.org/rochimag/architecture/ArchIntro.htm

    There are some interesting buildings in the “Lost Rochester” section that I didn’t see on your “ruled out” list.

    Also, if they aren’t Rochester, you might find some photos on the New York Heritage website – newyorkheritage.org.

  9. Mary K Jung says:

    Have you checked with the people at the George Eastman House. They may have some ideas of where they came from or buildings they could have been a part of.

    How about the entrance to one of the smaller cemeteries in the area. Something in Highland Park?

  10. Kevin Yost says:

    They look a lot like the lion head columns in the median of Exchange Boulevard along Corn Hill.

  11. John Cullati says:

    My Grandfather was a stone cutter from Italy arriving in the US in 1910. He started in the Boston Area building bridges but came to Rochester to work as a general forman for Frank Norris (Norris Stone) he soon after started his own Company – Rochester Cast Stone on Highland Drive. He built a lot of stuff around Rochester including the White horse in Avon. What I do know is that he did not do the Lions.

  12. Renee says:

    Maybe Matthew Denker could incorporate them in his new digs and the lions could have a new home. 🙂

  13. @Renee – Great idea, but sure to clash with vinyl siding.

    I’ve been digging, but haven’t found much about the lions. Benvenuto did the demo that tore down most of the middle of Watertown, and it could potentially be from there, but they’re not apparent in any of the old photos of downtown Watertown before urban renewal.

    That said, they’re very deco looking, which leads me to believe that they might be somewhat newer than the dates in the post.

  14. Bob says:

    Vinyl siding? Matt, you’re better than that.

  15. Christopher Brandt says:

    They are most certainly not art-deco. The brackets have an exaggerated classicism to them that is characteristic of late 19th century american architectural design…specifically Queen Anne, and American Reniassance.

    Mike, I’ve poured through all of the LOC photographs DEtroit Publishing and otherwise, along with many of the photos on the Rochester Images database.

    I have not found any particular building that it could be from. The “Centennial Building” may be referring to the Elwood Building which was demolished to make was for the First Federal Plaza and Crossroads Building. The Elwood building did have some pretty awesome gargoyles which were put into storage before being demolished (there’s a story for you to investigate!), but there were no lions.

    Also I would almost irrefutably say that the brackets most certainly were part of a cornice on a 3-5 story commercial building. If it is still possible that they came from a Rochester building the only streets that had these type of grander late 19th century commercial buildings were primarily State, Main and South. Maybe there’s a slim chance of something that used to be on East Avenue…but otherwise I think you might want to start looking for Buffalo and Watertown buildings that came down.

  16. Christopher Brandt says:

    You could also start looking at plat-maps from around the turn of the century and see which commercial buildings (no long standing) match the total width of the stone cornice (28-32 feet).

  17. Christopher Brandt says:

    You could also start looking at plat-maps from around the turn of the century and see which commercial buildings match the total width of the stone cornice (28-32 feet).

  18. 1.) Bob – I was only kidding! There’s no way our house will be vinyl sided.

    2.) Chris – The cornices are very classical, but the lions look much more deco to me, more 1920s than 1890s. I guess I could be crazy too, though.

  19. Bri says:

    I know this sounds crazy but could it be a stone tiger instead of a lion? Something to consider…

    looks similar to this type of carving that’s labeled as a ‘tiger’, not a lion
    http://www.ecvv.com/product/3726614.html

  20. Bri says:

    RIT tigers? haha idk

  21. Not crazy at all. It could be a tiger I suppose. But it appears to have a mane.

  22. BEN says:

    Well this is a mystery that’s hard to solve.. For some reason they strike me as something that would have been on a theatre building. Perhaps it’s because the bottom section looks like curtains. I have spent hours going through old photos with no sucessful outcome though. Maybe that will help someone else figure out the mystery. Also is it possible they could have been in the interior of a building like part of a stage?

  23. vernon says:

    looks like granite , but make sure if its not sandstone or limestone. then see if you can find the quarry if came from. Types of stone can be determined by region. the quarry may have records of job records for building stone.

  24. Bill Schmidt says:

    My opinion on getting to the bottom of this mystery is find someone who reads hyroglifics. It looks like there are sections that might tell a story. Just a thought!

  25. Kevin Knapp says:

    Meanwhile,Benvenuto and all of it’s money grubbing ass,had quite a hand in turning the City of Rochester into another Tim Hortons waste land of cheap looking garbage pleasing to the eye of yups,and “hipsters”,living in a city that has one of the highest rates of poverty going.Not lying,check it out.Front Street gone,Palace Theater gone…et al…it all made way for gentrification in 2015.That was the plan.Leave up a few solid assed buildings built w/o the aid of even a Black and Decker rechargeable screwdriver back in the day,by our grandparents,turn them into “Loft” apartment shit,and charge the saps that have the money,even after the hell of Reagan,and that ahole GWB, two grand a month for the rent.WTF???Rochester,all kidding aside,w/ it’s whitie urban sprawl starting in the fifties,to get away from “them thur others”…signed the death warrant for so many fantastic buildings that we used to have.”Urban Renewal” my lilly white BUTT!! Those in charge back in the late sixties,could already see that the “Hippie Generation” was starting to turn into the sellout,Bagger,corner office bunch of jerks we all have to live w/ now.Lord help us!!! A little moment of silence for the Palace Theater,and Midtown,and all the cool little shops that USED to be located in the city.What a loss!!! Middle Class…wake the freak up!!!You have been sound asleep,since probably around the time that ass Nixon lost to JFK.Rochester is a very funny mix of Fringe Festival types,Right Wing jerks,yuppies,Golfers,cornpone, suburban disgusting things that make sure the blue box is always out on garbage day,that deny the reality of climate change also,and just love the bullshit from Kevie Williams and his snow tie crap.No wonder the Palace Theater is gone…and front Street,and Midtown….screw you!!!!!

  26. Brian Burkhart says:

    Have you checked photos of the buildings affected by the 1904 Sibley fire in Rochester? It was a well-known fire in Rochester and I’m sure the Benvenuto Brothers might want to keep a piece of that history. Also, I saw my great-grandfather’s store (Gibbons and Stone Pianos) in some of those pics and I think there were some carvings of faces on one of the buildings. Just something to look into.

  27. Brian Burkhart says:

    P.S. If you would like any assistance during your excursions I offer my services. I am very interested in history, Rochester’s past, and especially its hidden past. I am also interested in the history of the 108th NY Volunteer Infantry, a Civil War regiment formed in Rochester. Thanks.

  28. Bill Schmidt says:

    I have sent a link to this page to Peter Benvenuto. His father and uncles owned Benvenuto Wrecking Inc.

    Maybe Peter he will remember what building these stones came from!

  29. Bill Schmidt says:

    That was suppose to be UNCLES not undes. lol

  30. Bill, if you can get those guys to turn up any information, that would be terrific!

  31. Ian says:

    I have been doing lots of research on the areas of Mt. Hope avenue near the old mental asylums there. Is it possible they were a portion of the original Monroe County Penitentiary or one of the other sanitarium buildings that were here over the years? Lions and other such ferocious creatures were often thought to fend off evil spirits, which coincides with past beliefs about the mentally ill and criminals.

  32. Eileen Gavitt Lester says:

    Very interesting article. I attended #42 School from 1960 – 1965 with Mary Benvenuto. I remember her saying that her Dad owned the business next to the school. I could swear there was a donkey down there! Can this be true? lol Hope the origin of these guys will be discovered.


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