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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.

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Feds Trying to Rush Demos. Seek to Bulldoze Balcom-Chandler House, Erlanger Building, risking Big Hole on Niagara Square

Preservationists could not be blamed if they viewed the public review process for the proposed federal courthouse a sham. Now that sham could become a flimflam if the feds go ahead and demolish the block of the Joseph Ellicott Historic District before funding for the entire project is complete. The $100,000,000 project has not been able to muster full funding for three federal budgets. Instead, it got some money in the last budget, and it is expected to take one or two more budget cycles, at least, before full funding is in hand. Yet eminent domain proceedings moved forward on all buildings and properties on the site, and the possibility exists that Buffalo will be stuck for an indeterminate amount of time with a hole in the streetscape where historic buildings once stood. What if, given the uncertainties of the federal budget, the Buffalo courthouse keeps getting bumped? What if, at the end of the day, it is decided to simply retrofit the existing courthouse?

As it stands, the Federal government’s actions represent an unprecedented dismissal of the City of Buffalo’s efforts to protect its heritage, undermine decades of local preservation efforts, and contravene a civic understanding—how to build on Niagara Square—older than the city itself. The physical heritage to be lost includes the narrow and twisting Flint Alleys, paved in stone blocks, the Georgian Revival Erlanger Building, designed by the architects of Grand Central Terminal, and the Balcom-Chandler house, Niagara Square’s last original structure.

Built only 20 years after the incorporation of the City of Buffalo, the circa 1852 Balcom-Chandler house was built by local brick potentate Philo Balcom of bricks of his own manufacture.It is also the sole survivor of the early founding period, when houses of civic leaders surrounded the square.

Blue Cross: Unhealthy in More Ways than One—Isolated site, poor design, and stealthy land acquisition

By Tim Tielman and Chris Hawley

Here’s one that deserves to go down in flames: The new headquarters for Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Western New York, the local nonprofit medical insurer, on 15 acres of land behind City Hall. It is a local parlor game to rue development mistakes of the past. Yet, with Blue Cross, we are going to be saddled with a project that breaks all the rules of citymaking. We’ll pay for the pleasure, too. The deal includes, for starters, a $10,000,000 federal tax benefit, a taxpayer-funded $14,000,000 state environmental clean up that a private owner was obligated to pay, a probable city payback for a $16,000,000 parking ramp, and the selling of a 6.5 acre public parcel of land assessed at $3,500,000 to a private the developer for $1. All this merely to move a local company from one city neighborhood to another. It is a conceit that, knowing the folly of past developments, we will not repeat them.

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Campaign Landmarks East Side Block

Joe Violanti is the owner of Buffalo’s newest designated landmark: the Dellenbaugh Block, three buildings which occupy a block of downtown Broadway between Michigan Avenue and Nash Street.
Violanti called The Campaign for Greater Buffalo after the City of Buffalo designated his neighborhood (it includes the Michigan Street Baptist Church and the Rev. J. Edward Nash House) an Urban Renewal area. Violanti wanted his block landmarked, because of his concern that the Buffalo Urban Renewal Agency might forcibly gain control of his property and perhaps demolish all or parts of it. That concern was not misplaced: soon after designation, BURA “harvested” the famous Club Moonglo at Michigan and William.(there is a reason some preservationists call it the Urban Removal Agency)
Campaign member Mike Rizzo (author of the just-released Through the Mayors’ Eyes, a history of Buffalo mayors) handled the research and documentation. The block is named for Frederick Dellenbaugh, an early German immigrant and physician who had his home and office built at 173 Broadway circa 1842 and lived there until just before his death in 1891. The original house with its hip roof is visible on Nash Street, behind the storefront added in the late 19th century. A Deco restaurant occupied the storefront in the 1930’s. The most conspicuous part of the block is 163 Broadway, built in 1884 (pictured). It once contained Buffalo’s first 24-hour pharmacy, and the offices of prominent African-American physicians.

Saved by Campaign, Metzger Building rehab underway

In April of 2003, The Campaign for Greater Buffalo, alerted by neighborhood residents, sprang into action to block the emergency demolition of the Metzger Building at 842-846 Main Street at Virginia. Under the usual time pressures, The Campaign put together and coordinated a preservation squad of researchers, attorney, and architect/engineer. It worked closely with the Allentown Association to maintain public pressure to preserve the building, a gateway building in the Allentown Historic District. An agreement was worked out in court and with Mayor Tony Masiello to remove the emergency demolition order and devote city insurance proceeds for the arson-damaged building to its stabilization.

A developer, using historic tax credits, is now renovating the 1880 building, designed by George Metzger, and three adjacent buildings into a residential complex with ground floor retail. Metzger designed 842-846 at the age of 25. He went on to design the Lancaster Opera House, the Richmond Avenue M.E. Church, and the old Masten Avenue Armory, at the time the largest armory in the world. He was twice the president of the local chapter of the American Institute of Architects.

YWCA, modern rarity, for sale

There were few buildings designed in the humanist modern tradition in Buffalo. The YWCA at 190 Franklin Street is one of them, and a good one (another is the J.N. Adam store, right). It was designed in 1951 by Duane Lyman, possibly Buffalo’s most accomplished architect of the mid-20th century. The sale raises concerns because four nearby buildings sold in recent times were demolished for parking, including the early 20th century building immediately north of the Y, which last housed the New York State Department of Labor.

Further, the building is in that parlous point of its history when it no longer seems up-to-date to the general public and is not yet appreciated as aesthetically valuable. Part of this has to do with breakdown of aesthetic coherence through gradual unsympathetic change. Here, the interior furnishings have become a mishmash and the sweeping window bands on the exterior have been modified with colored reflective glass and exterior air conditioners. A similar process is going on in the Central Library, where that building’s best feature, its furnishings, are being jettisoned in favor of a Barnes & Noble motif, complete with Corian® countertops.

A sympathetic Y-buyer would play up the 50’s associations with properly scaled and styled furniture, walls, and floors. It could be cool.

Heathens demolish artel, 1970’s icon

ArtPark State Park demolished Hardy, Holzman, Pfeiffer’s iconographic ArtEl in April. No public hearings were held. There was nary a peep from Niagara Falls area residents, and the Buffalo News editorial page saluted the demo, saying it would return Artpark to its former glory.

Its glory was in large measure embodied in the ArtEl, where Nelson Rockefeller and Sam Aldrich’s vision for a place where citizens could see artists in the process of creation was conceived to rescue State Senator Earl Brydge’s performing arts theater from being stillborn flop. The architects developed a structure and a landscape plan that was a breathtaking break from the reigning orthodoxy. The country took notice.

ArtPark is an embarrassing shell of its former self, resorting to free concerts of dino-rockers and country crockers to jack up attendance figures. For essays and photographs, see earlier posts. Read them and weep.

Charlie Baker Block saved, for now

The Buffalo Preservation Board did hold a spring hearing on the fate of the Charlie Baker Block, the group of buildings on Genesee Street between Ellicott and Oak streets. It is named for the men’s clothing store that occupied the central part of the block into the 1970’s. The block is an emblematic 19th century streetwall, a rarity in Buffalo today. It is a scenic terminus to the eastward vista of Chippewa Street. and is the subject of a Charles Burchfield painting. It is also seen by tens of thousands of people entering the city each day via the Kensington Expressway, which touches down on Oak Street just north of Genesee. Bill Genrich, Jr., who has owned most of the block for over two decades, wants to demolish several mid-block buildings for on-site parking for a restaurant in a remaining building.

The Campaign for Greater Buffalo, other organizations and individuals (including Campaign members and neighborhood residents Nancy Siegal and her husband) spoke against the demolition. The Masiello administration also opposed the demolition, with the mayor and Office of Strategic Planning chief Timothy Wanamaker subsequently speaking forcibly against the demo proposal.

Paladino demo’s last Deco

Developer Carl Paladino in a patented quickie demo, demolished the last Deco Restaurant in Buffalo, at 389 Washington Street, next to the landmark Hotel Lafayette. This act was enabled by the Buffalo Preservation Board, which failed to put the demolition request on its agenda. With no public notice, the demolition occurred in early February.

The building, an eclectic gem of 1930’s De Stijl and 1950’s “Coffee Shop Modern,” featured a vertical ashlar stone slab and four horizontal bands, two of which intersected the slab. The principal horizontal was stainless steel, with the word “restaurant” spelled out in attenuated, sans serif stainless steel letters. The main body of the restaurant was fronted in glass, recessed under the horizontal bands. The tiny lot is vacant and for sale.

The chain got its start in 1918 with an 18-year-old Cold Spring boy, Gregory Deck, who was casting about for ways to pay tuition to Canisius College. He threw an old table and his family’s charcoal grill onto a wagon, bought some hotdogs, condiments, and rolls, and walked uptown 2 1/2 miles to Main and Lisbon, where he fired up the grill and waited for train and trolley passengers. It was a new neighborhood with little competition. Deco, though artful, actually does not refer to the architectural style. It is an amalgam of Deck’s last name and his “co-” workers, according to the Buffalo History Works. The business grew like topsy, with full-fledged restaurants across the state and in Toronto. The city of Buffalo alone had 50.

Deco’s were highly dependent on the urban lifestyle of crowded sidewalks and quick turnover. The chain was bought by Sportservice (now Delaware North) in 1961. The Washington Street location was the last Deco to close, in 1979. It was last occupied by the Sugar and Spice restaurant. For a detailed look at all things Deco, go to

Design-assisted Suicide? Behind Glam Façades, projects are moving forward that are as Hostile to Urbanism as our 1960's Urban Renewal Nightmares

They may know how to count beans, make thumbtacks, and sell real estate, but Buffalo’s leadership class is blissfully unaware that its very efforts to revitalize downtown Buffalo are what is killing it. That should be clear to all. A 50-year record of failure has transformed downtown from a complex ecosystem of interdependent uses teeming with street life to a dehumanized streetscape that more closely resemble a somnolent suburban office park.

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