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J.N. Adam (AM&A’s): Modernist must-save

By Tim Tielman and Chris Hawley

"The store of today that is designed in the tempo of tomorrow. A new store—and a modern spirit of architectural design—that reflects the vigorous character of American life and industry as we know it today. A store whose beauty of line, simplicity of color and freedom from superficial details of design will keep it a young store when another half century has rolled away. Today, in Buffalo, the new J.N. Adam & Co. store is an outpost on the architectural frontiers of the city. It reflects a style in modern architectural design that will be commonplace within a generation. It marks a new era."

The above quote,copy from a 1935 ad announcing the first phase of the J.N. Adam department store’s final incarnation, was right on all counts, except one: its warm urbanity did not become common in Buffalo. In fact, as far as commercial buildings go, J.N. Adam & Co.’s big store at Main and Eagle streets (also known as AM&A’s, for the last tenant), is Buffalo’s last outpost of urbanism, the end of an era.
To place JN’s architecture with the more familiar modernities of the age, the ad features eight vignettes showing the streamlined forms of ships, planes, cars, trains, furniture, houses, and clothing. This was necessary because the 1935 building was so different from other department stores across the street and the nation and because the aesthetic intent was incomplete: the new building represented only the first stage of an expansion strategy that would fill up a large parcel of land it had acquired in 1923. War moved back full realization by several years.

Completed in 1948, JN’s stands as the last department store construction project in the city of Buffalo, and a gem of postwar urbanism. Currently optioned to Cornerstone Development, it has successfully evaded a demolition campaign championed by business leaders and the Buffalo News after plans were announced in the spring of 2004 to convert part of it into a charter school. The Erie County Industrial Development Agency (ECIDA), has gone so far as to propose spending $11 million to acquire and demolish the building for a “shovel-ready site.” The agency would have gained an estimated $2 million in fees from the transaction. The Buffalo News made itself part of the story, with a regular barrage of editorials haranguing the building, misleading headlines, and unflattering photographs.

What if the Cornerstone option leads to naught, as have owner Richard Taylor’s talks with various other interested parties? Look for a renewed campaign to take the structurally solid building down. It would be new mayor Byron Brown’s first preservation issue.

This is one building complex worth saving, and maybe not for obvious reasons (also on the threatened list would be several buildings on the block immediately east of the big store). The architects were Starrett & van Vleck, the premier department store architects in the U.S. between 1914 and 1950. They were also accomplished skyscraper architects, designing the pioneering Art Deco Downtown Athletic Club in New York in 1926, among others. The J.N. Adam store is actually an organic mass of buildings dating to the 19th century, parts of which were designed by Green & Wicks and Esenwein & Johnson, still visible on Washington Street.

The design of the final build-out owes a debt to Louis Sullivan’s Carson-Pirie-Scott store of 1899-1904 in Chicago (left), as modern in its horizontality, and ahead-of-its-time, as the Guaranty Building 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.” Buffalo has both these Sullivanesque forms, just blocks apart.

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 a 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 MoMA, the cornices consist of a receding top story cast in deep shadow by an overhanging planar roof, the edge of which is practically flush with the wall plane. Erich Mendelsohn, 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 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 an isolating plaza diminishes the effect and intent of the JN Eagle Street elevation. It was conceived for buildings on the opposite side of Eagle Street to force an oblique perspective. In historic photographs, the thin window bands at the rear of the Eagle elevation snap 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.

That is an indignity that the building can bear. Whether it can survive a renewed demolition campaign by Buffalo’s establishment is another matter.