Western New York Heritage

Thruway Plaza: Western New York's Pioneer Suburban Shopping Plaza

Photo at the opening of the Thruway Plaza, 1952. Photo source: BECHS

The University Plaza, located at Main and Kenmore in the city of Buffalo, was Western New York's first shopping plaza in 1939.  But it was the Thruway plaza's opening in 1952 that heralded the shift of shopping from downtown to the suburbs, following the
population growth.

Buffalo Courier-Express October 17, 1952

100,000 Visit Thruway Plaza Opening

An estimated 100,000 persons arriving by autos, buses, and on foot invaded the new Thruway plaza at Walden and Harlem yesterday afternoon and evening in what plaza officials called the most spectacular opening of any building development of its kind.

The crowds saw the $7,000,000 plaza - the largest in the state and second largest in the country - sprawled on its 69-acre site exactly as it looked on the architect's drawings.

Police Chief Walter J. Marynowski of Cheektowaga said the 3,000 car parking area in front of the plaza was filled within 50 minutes after opening ceremonies at noon. A police detail of 50 kept traffic moving smoothly and directed the overflow of about 1,000 cars to the rear parking area. Marynowski estimated 50,000 persons visited the plaza within four hours after it opened.

"Shopping once was a chore and burden," declared Sigmund Sommer, president of the Sommer Bros. Construction Co. of Iselin, N.J., which built and will operate the plaza. "In design of this new plaza and of each store, we have tried to turn shopping into fun for the whole family."

The carnival atmosphere at the opening was aided by the presence of the Cisco Kid, Western television star, who gave out some 25,000 autographed photographs. He left the Thruway site briefly to visit patients at Children's Hospital and at Immaculate Heart of Mary Orphanage.

In the "bit top" behind the plaza, children watched animal acts offered by Gengler Bros. Circus. The circus and the Cisco Kid will remain at the plaza through tomorrow.

Also present for the opening ceremonies were Abraham Sommer, vice-president of the construction company, executives of the firm who have stores in the plaza and supervisor Benedict T. Holtz of Cheektowaga. Holtz cut the ribbon and accepted a television set from the Sommer brothers for the orphanage.

Several stores in the plaza are not yet completed and a 30-acre adjacent lot is reserved for possible later additions. A department store is scheduled to be added to the plaza next year.

1957 Thruway Plaza advertisement. Image source: private collection

The Thruway Plaza remained a magnet for shoppers until the advent of the mall. When the Seneca Mall opened on Ridge Road in West Seneca in 1969, the plaza's days were numbered. Despite the owners' covering of the plaza, creating an imitation mall, tenants dwindled and the plaza was sold at auction in 1994 to Benderson Development. The plaza stores have been razed and, in their place, a mix of big-box stores have been built on the 75-acre site.