By Chris Hawley
If all goes according to plan, the Erie County Industrial Development Agency (ECIDA) will use its eminent domain powers to take over and demolish the former J.N. Adam department store at 389 Main Street at Eagle in the heart of downtown Buffalo (left, in 1948. Photo courtesy of Buffalo & Erie Co. Historical Society). This will cost taxpayer’s about $11 million. The ECIDA will get around $2 million in management fees for its role. These fees are the lifeblood for the ECIDA and similar agencies. That the fees are often available only on sites occupied by buildings, it creates a clear incentive for, preservationists argue, development agencies to turn into vampiric sponsors of demolition, sucking the blood out of downtown by harvesting buildings for cash. J.N. Adam is important historically, architecturally, and functionally to downtown. That such a building is being targeted by the ECIDA, spurred on by the cheerleading Buffalo News, is an essay into the counterproductive process that has ruled the development industry in Buffalo for 50 years.
Completed in 1948, J.N. Adam is an essay in humanistic Modernism going straight back to Frank Lloyd Wright and Louis Sullivan by way of Erich Mendelsohn: dynamic horizontals anchored by a powerful vertical element, and a body of warm brick and stone with subtle textures. Also known as AM&A’s (which moved into the space in 1960), the complex was built in stages, beginning in the 1880’s (three distinctive facades on the rear Washington street elevation are by Green & Wicks and Esenwein & Johnson, Buffalo’s pre-eminent firms of the turn of the last century).
The 1935/1948 building, which tied together all previous structures and gave the store the Modernist image it is known for, is by New York architectural firm Starrett & Van Vleck, capped off the last building campaign. J.N. Adam wasn’t the only flagship department store by Starrett & Van Vleck. They designed Sak’s Fifth Avenue, Bloomingdale’s, Lord & Taylor, Abraham & Strauss, and Alexander’s.
Glamour, Sophistication, Modernity: J.N . Adam, 1948
The collected moments of the people of a city are left behind in its architecture. Preserving the past, even the recent past, is essential in linking public memory with contemporary experience, sustaining a community’s sense of place, and creating meaning in the built environment. Nothing embodies the importance of this more today than in the underdog fight for the JN Adam’s Building, whose best chapter is overshadowed by the history of the beloved AM&A’s, which occupied the building after J.N.’s closure in 1960.
J.N. Adam was the single greatest, most luxurious department store in the history of the city of Buffalo. In 1946, the store was not only selling the finest women’s clothing from Paris and Milan, serving martinis in the seventh-floor Magnolia Terrace restaurant, it was selling airplanes on the fifth floor. The French Ercoupe could be had for under $3,000, complete with flying lessons. .
The leadership of J.N. Adam sought to make the store synonymous with progress. As soon as the end of the war ended restrictions on civilian construction, J.N. Adam announced the long-delayed completion of its Modernist make-over, begun in 1935. “There is not a store in America,” proclaimed company leader Albin Holder when announcing the store’s 1946 expansion, “which will be so far advanced at the time this is completed.”.
The building would be completely “wired for television,” have a rooftop helipad and an air beacon visible for 150 miles, featured “various types of rays such as infrared and ultraviolet for therapeutic treatment of colds and other common maladies.” The prize for coolest store in Buffalo history goes to... J.N. Adam!
It was also the largest store in Buffalo history -- 600,000 square feet of space that included four restaurants, one of the largest sporting goods sections of any department store in America, the prestigious Empire Room where $12,000 designer coats could be purchased, a center for modern home furnishings, as well as a bargain basement thrift store.
Keeping the can-do spirit of that time alive in this city requires the continued existence of the buildings that best embody it. No building in Buffalo represents the optimism and hope better than this one. The fight for its survival is a fight for the soul of downtown.
Smash for Cash
The demolition of J.N. Adam would be a huge mistake. Buffalo’s coolest building would be lost, a two-block wide swath would be laid bare right on Main Street, and the opportunity to use of a great collection of buildings for housing, retail, and office uses would be gone forever. In addition, the downtown real estate market would suffer from the disincentives created by unfair subsidies, other empty lots downtown would remain fallow and not a single new job would be created.
The reason for demolition? According to owner Richard Taylor, M&T Bank chairman Robert Wilmers and developer Carl Paladino blanched at the idea of a charter school operating in the building. Within a week of the announcement last in the late spring of 2003, Mayor Anthony Masiello went from offering his office as the site for a press conference announcing the deal to a full-bore opponent of it and an advocate for demolition.
What happened? In what should be seen as a real estate scandal, an expensive subsidy package was devised to make profitable the wholesale clearance and possible reconstruction of the site rather than pursue a less expensive, but more bureaucratically involved, renovation of the existing structure.
An idea hatched by Stuart Hunt of Hunt Real Estate in 2002 came to the fore:A public agency would take over the building by eminent domain and demolish it, on the pretext that a new building could be built there. Hunt was the real estate agent for Taylor, and had grown frustrated by Taylor’s reluctance to accept any of the deals Hunt had lined up to sell the building. Seeking to lure to National Fuel Gas company to stay downtown two years ago, Hunt broached the idea to current Campaign for Greater Buffalo executive director Tim Tielman, who told Hunt such a scheme would be opposed by preservationists. Why not just build it on the publically owned parking lot one block away, Tielman asked? It was already cleared, had good visibility, and would have the virtue of filling in a gaping hole in the downtown landscape.
Why create another gaping hole which might not be filled (indeed, National Fuel has since decided to move its headquarters closer to it’s executives’ homes in the suburbs), and simply renovate the building instead, for much less than the $11,000,000 slated for its public acquisition and demolition?. The answer is that Buffalo development agencies, including the ECIDA, Downtown Development, Inc. (DDI), and the Buffalo Urban Renewal Agency (BURA), are incompetent and impatient in that area. A much more efficient way for everyone to make money, and fast, is harvesting buildings for cash.
A site with buildings on it is preferable, because state and federal programs urban renewal programs only fund new buildings projects that include acquisition and demolition on occupied sites, and incentives to developers are similarly available on those conditions. A public agency could claim an administrative fee on such a deal of around 20% (over $2,000,000 in the case of the J.N. Adam building) and a real estate company handling the transactions could also get fees. Lastly, there would be millions of dollars of contracts to dole out for the demolition.
Money being the mother’s milk of politics, what’s not to like? Even if a new building doesn’t come to pass, politicians would actually take a bow for creating another “shovel-ready” site. Empty lots, once the very symbol of urban failure, have been repositioned by a cunning bureaucratic spin into prudent public policy. Nothing could be built on the J.N. Adam site, and that would be deemed good.
The only thing necessary was a developer who could state for the record that he had an intent to erect a building there. Enter Carl Montante, who in the past has erected buildings in heavily subsidized government-driven projects like the Griffin-era Elm-Oak corridor. Montante has dutifully attempted to find a tenant for a building which doesn‘t even exist on paper. (Did such exist, be assured it would have been published in booster articles in Business First and The Buffalo News.)
It has been declared that not only is J.N. Adam “vacant and blighted“ (a legal requirement of urban renewal programs), it, and its associated warehouses across Washington Street, are simply unsuitable for whatever tenant might possibly be lured. The building must come down (and the warehouses, for parking, despite the recent addition of 800 parking spaces to the Adam Ramp across the street). It has also been declared that the building is not historically or architecturally significant.
That could not be further from the truth. It is the city’s early Modernist icon and the home of the greatest department store in Buffalo history -- J.N.’s. It is also vital to downtown’s future. We must stop wasting Buffalo and start saving it. A new vision for downtown -- one that promotes a marriage of preservation and economic development under the umbrella of “character development” must triumph over a downtown establishment that can’t see beyond the sugar teat of taxpayer-funded demolition programs. We can start by recognizing what we have in J.N. Adam.
Architecture to Inspire, Not to Destroy
J.N. Adam is one of the earliest commercial Modernist buildings in Buffalo. The Main Street elevation was built in two stages, the first completed in 1935 (the other—delayed by WWII—was completed in 1948). This was only seven years after Modernism’s codification and call to action — Le Corbusier’s Towards a New Architecture—was introduced to the English-reading public.
Inspired by the emerging Modern Movement in Europe (itself enraptured by Buffalo’s grain elevators and Frank Lloyd Wright’s Larkin Building), the suave and sweeping aesthetic of J.N. Adam fully embodies it.
It is clearly influenced by Erich Mendelsohn’s Schocken department stores in Stuttgart and Chemnitz, Germany, constructed in the late 1920s. Mendelsohn was an independent within the Modernist movement, sidestepping the harsh rationalism of the Bauhaus in favor of a warmer, humanistic approach that stressed the use of traditional building materials like brick and granite. Mendelsohn was taking Louis Sullivan’s Carson Pirie Scott store in Chicago up to the minute. With smooth horizontal bands of stone and glass, recessed upper stories, rooftop terraces, the termination of long horizontals with sharp vertical elements, and most importantly in the absence of superficial details, Mendelssohn positioned his client as as part of an international progressive vanguard.
That was something J.N. Adam wanted to be identified with as well. As it declared in one of its artful advertisements:
“The record of progress is the record of simplification. Modern art, modern architecture, modern industry reflect a new spirit in the elimination of the unessential. There is a new and practical appreciation of beauty in line and color and design. Its fundamental principle is in keeping with the vigorous tempo of this vigorous day.”
Dashing Lines, Warm Materials
The choice of materials at J.N. Adam were luxurious -- polished Wisconsin black granite, crystalline-quality blue pearl granite, and honed-finished, yellow Kasota Veine stone: the finest materials available. J.N. Adam’s optimism in the depths of the Depression was a rock of hope, it’s building a dauntless symbol.
J.N.’s subtle variation of brick above the first two stories, where sequential, repetitive bands of double-width brick gives the building a rhythmic quality that critics described as “musical.” This horizontal movement in modern commercial architecture, seen achieved by Sullivan, shaped, as well as reflected, the pace of modern life. As Mendelsohn wrote, “Contemporary man, in the excitement of his fast life, can only find balance in the stress-free horizontal.”
J.N.‘s owes other debts to masters like Sullivan and Hugh Ferriss (an influential architectural renderer and visionary). Sullivan’s Carson, Pirie, Scott store provides the inspiration for J.N.’s seventh floor balcony and roof, which is the same in every way to Sullivan’s late masterwork. The undecorated structural piers supporting a slab-like roof extending over a setback thrown into shadow is repeated in Ferriss’s famous rendering (Figure 4) of the Hoover Dam. This kind of balcony, also found in Erich Mendelsohn’s department stores, is in fact a powerful instrument intended to dramatize “the horizontal” and provides a sense of secure shelter without resorting to pitched roofs or super-scaled cornices (which was becoming a stylistic problem in skyscrapers in the 1890s
The New Preservation Frontier: Saving the Recent Past
One of the problems in preserving a building like J.N. Adam is that it remains so modern looking that many people simply cannot equate it with their notions of historicity. It is a common problem. In the 1960s, Second Empire houses and buildings were simply old and decrepit, fodder for Charles Addam’s cartoons and Alfred Hitchcock movies. Within ten years public perception totally changed, and Second Empire mansions were sought after from Allentown to Altoona. The same is happening with buildings built in the 1940s, 50s, and 60s.
Preservation of the recent past is something that has been discussed by preservation professionals for almost 30 years. Now, just as Second Empire houses became valued because the unthinking demolition of so many of them brought attention to their intrinsic value, Modernist and populist architecture of the post-war era is coming to the fore.
National Trust for Historic Preservation, in its Forum Journal of Summer 2004, offers evidence of the growing national movement:
"Since the preservation movement began, "underage resources" have always been threatened, the most notable example being Pennsylvania Station in New York. The neo-classical masterpiece designed by McKim, Mead and White was demolished in 1966, just shy of its 50th birthday. Its demolition helped galvanize the American preservation movement. In the decades following the passage of the Historic Preservation Act, in 1966, there has been a steadily increasing interest in preserving underage resources, beginning with the establishment in 1977 of the Society of Commercial Archaeology, a national organization devoted to the buildings, artifacts, structures, signs and symbols of the 20th century commercial landscape.
"In a 1978 article, "Remember Our Not So Distant Past," which appeared in Preservation magazine, professor emeritus of history and founder of the historic preservation program at the University of Vermont, Chester Liebs, asked, "Will historic preservation be able to accept and selectively conserve the architectural species of the modern era?" In 1979, only 13 years after the National Historic Preservation Act was passed, the Department of the Interior issued How-To Guide No. 2: How to Evaluate and Nominate Potential National Register Properties that Have Achieved Significance Within the Last Fifty Years. The guide was written to inform those who need to make recommendations of exceptional significance."
"DoCoMoMo, an international organization focusing on documentation and conservation of the modern movement, was created in the Netherlands in 1988 and a U.S. chapter was established in 1995/1996. (www.docomomo-us.org) Local chapters are now operating in the New York tri-state area, northern California, Midwest, Philadelphia, western Washington, and New England.
In recent years, two national conferences cosponsored by the National Park Service and the Association for Preservation Technology have been held on the recent past: Preserving the Recent Past, Chicago, 1995, and Preserving the Recent Past, Philadelphia, 2000.
"The Recent Past Preservation Network, a web-based advocacy initiative, was established in 2000 to assist preservationists by providing an open community platform for the development and revision of practical strategies to document, preserve, and reuse historic places of the recent past. (www.recentpast.org)
"There is also growing interest and activism occurring at the statewide and local levels. In Los Angeles, through the umbrella of the LA Conservancy, the Modern Committee or ModCom (www.modcom.org) formed in 1984 in response to the growing destruction of post-war buildings. The all-volunteer group focuses on the preservation of 20th-century architecture and related concerns through tours, exhibits, research, and direct advocacy efforts.
"In Wildwood, N.J., the Doo Wop Preservation League was established in 1977 to advocate for and preserve Wildwood’s collection of mid-century commercial (or “Doo-Wop” architecture (www.doowopusa.org). In Miami, Miami Modern (MiMo) formed to advocate for its now-threatened 1950s and’60s-era hotels north of South Beach. In Texas, Preservation Dallas has taken an interest in its recent past by sponsoring tours and events on the subject, resulting in sell-out crowds. Houston has also started a modernism committee."
J.N. Adam is downtown Buffalo’s most conspicuous and urbanistically important Modernist building (a distinction here: Modernist buildings make use of traditional materials and local customs in modern ways, while International Style buildings tend to glass and steel and exhibitions of technology). We have very few good Modernist buildings in the humanist vein of the 1930s and 40s (the YWCA downtown, General Mills on the Buffalo River, Kleinhans Music Hall, and several neighborhood schools are the best). In J. N. Adam we have a tremendous resource, one whose value is only going to become clearer over time.
Only the existing JN Adam building, and not a suburban-style office block proposed for its replacement, is likely to redevelop in ways profitable to urban life. Genuine urban revitalization will require an awareness of the potential of our existing assets -- no clean sweep, massive demolition, or rapid rebuilding will ever substitute for the kind of city we have always deserved.
To become involved in the fight to save the JN Adam’s Building, contact the Campaign for Greater Buffalo at (716) 884-3138 or e-mail us at [email protected]