By Tim Tielman
The J.N. Adam department store (also known as AM&A’s, for the last long-time tenant), is downtown Buffalo’s largest and best example of modernism. Completed in 1948, it was the last department store construction project in the city of Buffalo. Now, just over 50 years later, it is threatened with demolition by the Erie County Industrial Development Agency, which is proposing to spend $11 million to acquire and demolish the building for a shovel-ready site. The agency would gain an estimated $2 million in fees from the transaction.
The architects were Starrett & van Vleck, the premier department store architects in the U.S. between 1914 and 1945. They were also accomplished skyscraper architects, designing the pioneering Art Deco Downtown Athletic Club in New York in 1926, among others. J.N. Adam is actually an organic mass of buildings dating to the 19th century, parts of which were designed by Grren & Wicks and Esenwein & Johnson, still visible on Washington Street.
The Buffalo design owes a debt to Louis Sullivan’s Carson-Pirie-Scott store of 1899-1904 in Chicago, as modern in its horizontality (and ahead-of-its-time) as the Guaranty was modern in its verticality.
Architectural historian Vincent Scully, in speaking of the Chicago store, could just have well been speaking of J.N. Adam: “In the Carson-Pirie-Scott, which we should regard as the last of [Sullivan’s] epoch-making metropolitan images, Sullivan suppressed the vertical columns in order to stress and even to exaggerate the horizontality of the structural bays...The upper floors [are] liberated to take on a kind of horizontal velocity, like that of the busy street they so splendidly define...[The original cornice enhanced] that movement. The building still rides to its intersection as the most effective embodiment so far created of the lush and exhilarating life of the downtown, big-city shopping street.”
“In urbanistic terms, the Carson-Pirie-Scott Store was the horizontal, space-defining complement to the…freestanding tower of the Guaranty. The two types…were to shape the major new urban groupings of the middle of the coming century.”
Sullivan’s influence can be seen in futuristic drawings of the architectural renderer Hugh Ferris and Edward Durrell Stone’s Museum of Modern Art (1939). Terminating the building against the sky without resorting to mere decoration is a central problem in modernist design. In Ferris’s drawing of Hoover dam and Stone’s Met, the cornices consist of a receding top cast in deep shadow by an overhanging planar roof, the edge of which is pratically flush with the wall plane. Hence, in feel, a classic and secure termination of the wall with sheltering roof, yet without decorative effects which belie the materials and construction techniques is made. Erich Medelsohn, the great German Expressionist and modernist, brought department store design to its modern peak in Stuttgart (1928) and Chemnitz (1929) during the heady days of the Weimar Republic.
These influences can be seen in Starrett & van Vleck JN’s. Obliquely, the cornice becomes a narrow horizontal slot reinforcing the run of the street. At night, the effect is reversed. The upper floor windows glow from within, while the stout columns are floodlit. Everything above is black.
Minoru Yamasaki’s M&T Bank next door attempts a similar effect much less successfully, as do later buildings by Stone, such as the Kennedy Center in Washington and the Buffalo News building in Buffalo. The setback of the M&T building in a deep plaza along Main Street somewhat diminishes the effect and intent of the JN Eagle Street elevation. The thin window bands toward the rear of the Eagle elevation stream like pennants from a glazed vertical shaft marking the division with the Main Street front. The elegant metal sash windows on Main and Eagle were replaced with unsympathetic windows and metal grilles in the 1970s