The soft-edged memories of AM&A’s Christmas Windows

By Steve Cichon
steve@buffalostories.com
@stevebuffalo

Like so many of our great cultural traditions in Buffalo, trying to pin down the concise history of our collective amber-hued fuzzy memories of Downtown Christmas shopping is difficult and can even get combative.

AM&As Christmas windows, 1980s. (Buffalo Stories archives)

For many of us, all those warm recollections seem to get lumped into a generic category of “AM&A’s Christmas windows,” and to imply anything else is often met with side eye looks, and sometimes with outright hostility.

Looking south from Lafayette Square on Main Street in the 1950s. All the stores to the right in this photo were torn down to make way for the Main Place Mall in the mid-60s. To the right is the home of JN Adam & Co, which would become the home of AM&A’s in 1960. (Buffalo Stories archives)

Through the decades, some stores moved, some changed names, all eventually closed. Taking the fuzz off memories and bringing them into focus with the actual names and dates can be dangerous business, but that’s the dangerous business we’re in. So here we go.

AM&As on a snowy day in the late 1960s. (Buffalo Stories archives)

The tradition of decorating downtown stores for Christmas dates back before anyone reading this can remember. Downtown’s department stores were fully decorated, for example,  for Christmas 1910.

Click this 1910 image of AM&A’s at Christmas time to see about a dozen 1910 department stores decorated for Christmas… along with what those places along Main Street downtown look like today. (Buffalo Stories archives)

Since those stores—some with familiar names—decorated their windows more than a century ago, plenty has changed along Buffalo’s Main Street, especially in the areas where generations did their Christmas shopping.

The most tumultuous change came between 1965 and 1985, the time when most of our memories were forged and influenced. The buildings we shopped in for decades came down, new buildings were put in their place, and traffic was shut down with a train installed in place of the cars.

The Wm. Hengerer Co., 1960s Christmas time (Buffalo Stories archives)

The one constant through all of that, our collective memory tells us, is those wonderful AM&A’s windows.

AM&A’s is one of the few traditional Buffalo retail giants which survived into the Metro Rail age on Main Street. (Buffalo Stories archives)

Adam, Meldrum, and Anderson was a Buffalo institution between 1869 and 1994, when the Adam family sold the chain to Bon-Ton. That being the case, for as long as anyone can remember, people off all ages would line up along the east side of Main Street, looking in those big AM&A’s windows, before going inside and taking the escalators up to AM&A’s Toyland starring Santa himself.

Well, here’s where the hostility sometimes comes in.

If you remember looking at windows in that spot before 1960—you weren’t looking at AM&A’s windows, you were looking at the windows of JN Adam & Co.

What, what?

For more than 90 years, AM&A’s was located directly across Main Street from the location where the store’s flagship downtown location was for the final 34 years of the chain’s existence.

The home of AM&A’s for 90 years was directly across Main Street from the AM&A’s store we remember from 1960-1994. This original AM&A’s home was torn down as a part of the Main Place Mall project. (Buffalo Stories archives)

JN’s closed up in 1959, so AM&A’s moved into the larger, newer building. Soon thereafter, the original AM&A’s was torn down to make way for the Main Place Mall.

JN Adam’s in the late 1950s, with Woolworth’s to the left, and Bond Menswear , Thom McAn, and the Palace Burlesk to the south (on the right.) From Bond south were torn down to make room for the M&T Headquarters and green space. AM&A’s made this JN Adam store its flagship store in 1960. (Buffalo Stories archives)

Adding to confusion is the similar name of the two stores. JN Adam and Robert Adam—the Adam of Adam, Meldrum & Anderson—were Scottish-born brothers who founded department stores which would eventually compete with each other across Main Street from each other.

 

Both stores also took their window decorating—especially Christmas window decorating seriously. But so did all the Main Street Department stores. On the same block as JN’s and AM&A’s, Kobacher’s, which had a location in a spot now occupied by the Main Place Mall, had a memorable giant animated, talking Santa in its window. Hengerer’s, a bit further north, always had well decorated windows.

“Kobacher’s each Christmas propped a huge, stuffed Santa Claus in its front window. This Santa rocked and bellowed a half-witted laugh that throbbed up Main Street. The puppet’s eyes rolled, and shoppers smiled grimly because the general effect was a little spooky,” wrote the late Buffalo storyteller and pop culture historian George Kunz in 1991.

Still, AM&A’s and JN’s made the spot just south of Lafayette Square the epicenter of Christmas décor in Buffalo. As early as 1949, JN Adam was promoting “animated Christmas windows.”

JN Adam, 1949 ad. (Buffalo Stories archives)

AM&A’s decorating team, eventually headed by Joseph Nelson, started adding animated displays as well, although it wasn’t until the 1960s—after AM&A’s moved into JN Adam’s old space—that AM&A’s made the presence of the windows a part of their Christmas advertising.

AM&A’s animatronic window displays were a beloved part of Buffalo Christmases for generations. Click to read more about AM&A’s 1970 holiday display. (Buffalo Stories archives)

It’s tough to tell even if the “AM&A’s window displays” which have popped up around Western New York over the last couple of decades were originally created for and by AM&A’s. AM&A’s took over not only JN’s building, but also many of its traditions, and quite possibility the actual displays and accoutrements of those traditions.

Another JN Adam yuletide tradition which also became an AM&A’s tradition after the move was the full-floor Toyland.

Click to read the toys available at JN’s Toyland in 1945. (Buffalo Stories archives)
AM&A’s was advertising the Toyland idea in 1967. Click to see the toys being advertised. (Buffalo Stories archive)

All this is to say, if you walked down Main Street in mid-December 1955, the magic and wonder you were filled with was only partially Adam, Meldrum, and Anderson-inspired.

In this 1954 ad, these AM&A’s shoppers were NOT heading to the exact place you remember as AM&A’s. Buffalo Stories archives)

But AM&A’s was the survivor—which is why we remember.  But just keep in mind– it’s very likely that 1955 window you remember was a JN Adam’s window.

Buffalo Stories archives

But no matter which store displayed these windows when, they have always been a universally beloved Buffalo institution, right?

a 1930’s Kleinhans Mens Shop Christmas window. Kleinhans was around the corner from JN Adam/AM&A’s, facing Lafayette Square. (Buffalo Stories archives)

Well, once again… not exactly. As traditional Main Street retailing was gasping its last breaths in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, the Christmas windows were often derided as a part of the larger problem—rehashing the same ideas instead of trying to appeal to a new generation. The dated, tired animatronic scenes seemed out of place and woefully out of date in the Nintendo age.

There were fewer kids and more nostalgic adults looking at the windows in the 80s and 90s. (Buffalo Stories archives)

When this snarky review of AM&A’s holiday decorating efforts appeared in The Buffalo News in 1993, the writer probably didn’t realize he was looking at the penultimate effort of a nearly-dead Buffalo institution.

In the AM & A’s window downtown, the same (manger scene) figures are placed in front of a set of free-standing Baroque pillars, all marbleized in green and gold. Lofty, that. If Gianlorenzo Bernini were around today, that’s what he’d be doing for a living: AM & A’s window displays…

A mid-80s AM&A’s manger scene. (Buffalo Stories archives)

(And) at AM & A’s downtown, the other holiday windows display a charming mixture of images, though if any community actually tried to build like this, folks would be petitioning for a design review board before the developers knew what hit them: New England covered bridge here, rough-hewn alpine furnishings there. One window features a frilly pink Victorian cottage that looks as if it could have been plucked off a side street in Allentown.

Since AM&A’s flagship downtown store was closed shortly after selling to Bon-Ton in 1995, the legend of the window displays—and the actual displays themselves—have spread far and wide.

AM&A’s was sold to Bon-Ton following the death of Robert Adam, the grandson of the store’s founder, in 1993. Adam was the President or CEO of the department store which bore his name for 44 years. (Buffalo Stories archives)

In the mid-90s, Buffalo Place refurbished and displayed the most-recently-used scenes along Main Street. Some of those, along with older scenes as well, have appeared around Western New York in holiday displays in the Village of Lancaster and in Niagara Falls, as well as around Rotary Rink near Main and Chippewa.

The actual displays are interesting, but seeing them out of context—or even worse, trying to pry an iPad out of the hand of a toddler so she can appreciate them—seems to miss a bit of the point.

Mesmerized by AM&A’s windows in 1967. (Buffalo Stories archives)

A Victorian man carving a turkey or a big white bear handing another bear a present isn’t what make those memories so wonderful—it’s the way the memory swells your heart.

Here’s to whatever makes your heart swell this Christmas season.

What it Looked Like Wednesday: Dun Building, Buffalo’s first high-rise

By Steve Cichon
steve@buffalostories.com
@stevebuffalo

In 1892, Buffalo’s skyline was filled with church steeples and old city hall — the building we now call old County Hall on Franklin Street. Those structures weren’t yet competing with office towers and apartment buildings for airspace above the city.

This is a view from the foot of Main Street– it’s now Canalside. The spires of St. Joseph’s Cathedral, old County Hall (then Buffalo City Hall), and St. Paul’s Cathedral are all visible and unobstructed. (Buffalo Stories archives)

Having been in Buffalo for about five years, M.F. Wright, manager for the Union Central Life Insurance Company, put together a proposal for Buffalo’s first high-rise.

“Now my proposition is this: If the citizens of Buffalo will take insurance in the Union Central Life for an amount that will justify the undertaking, I propose to cause to be erected a fire-proof building eight stories high, which when completed will be worth, with the ground, not less than $150,000. It will be an office building, and perfect in every particular, of course to be known as the Union Central Life Building. I have a contract, signed, sealed, and delivered, that as soon as the necessary amount of insurance is subscribed for the structure will be begun, and pushed to completion.”

By the spring of 1893, Green & Wicks architects were accepting construction bids on what had become a 10-story design made of granite, steel and terra cotta at the corner of Pearl and Swan. The expected cost was $175,000.

The building of Buffalo’s first high-rise was carefully followed in the press.

It will be a 10-story structure, all of ornamental fireproof construction, and will be about 140 feet high. It will have a base of Medina sandstone, the body of the building to be of light colored brick. The doorways will be of terra cotta to match the sandstone base. The effect will be very pleasing. Steel construction will be the rule throughout. The floors will be of steel beams and brick arches, with proper woodwork. The halls will all be of marble mosaic. The basement of the building will be used as a restaurant, which will have independent entrances, as well as approaches from the building itself. The boilers, engines, and dynamo for electric lighting will be under the sidewalk. The first floor will be the Union Central Life office. Above this will be nine floors of eight offices each. The entrance hall proper will be all marble. The roof will be flat and asphalted.

Even the digging and building of “the best and most elaborate foundation in the city” received glowing press.

Perhaps caught up in the excitement of it all, Union Central Life’s Wright also became involved in building speculation at another site downtown, and was unable to make payments on the larger structure’s bonds. R.W. Dun & Company swept in, paying the bills on the nearly completed building and putting its own name on it in the process.

Among the first tenants of the Dun was the US Weather Bureau, which was first organized by Buffalo native Gen. Albert J. Myer 25 years earlier.

The Dun Building may have been Buffalo’s first high-rise building, but excitement waned as it was the first of many. Just as construction was wrapping up at Pearl, Swan and Erie, the structure of the Morgan Building at Niagara and Pearl was already 12 stories high, and the eight-story Brisbane building was going up at Main and Clinton as well.

It’s not the best image, but the unusual angles of the Dun Building are evident in this 1913 photo. (Buffalo Stories archives)

But “the hope of the average Buffalonian” hinged on an almost unimaginable building that would “occupy a whole square block in the very heart of the city,” at a point where all the streetcar lines converged. The Ellicott Square Building was the world’s largest office building when it was completed with much fanfare in 1896.

“Buffalo was in a building boom, started with the Dun Building, and crowned with Ellicott Square,” wrote The Buffalo Courier in 1895:

“When this block is built the fame of Buffalo will thereby be heralded from the Atlantic to the Pacific. It will be a monument befitting the city which shall be known as the great electrical center of the globe.”

As Buffalo’s eyes were going up, they were also going back. The construction boom made historically minded Buffalonians scramble to codify quickly vanishing vestiges of Buffalo’s past. In 1902, a wall of the Dun Building became the site of one of the city’s first historical markers, marking the spot as where Buffalo’s first schoolhouse stood — before it was burned during the War of 1812.

Torn-Down Tuesday: Laube’s Cafeteria, Pearl and West Eagle streets

By Steve Cichon
steve@buffalostories.com
@stevebuffalo

A 46-year era came to an end in 1968 as Laube’s Cafeteria – first opened in 1922 – closed as business nearly ground to a halt with the building of the Main Place Mall across the street and demolition started for the Rath Building just to the south.

Charles Laube started the restaurant empire, which briefly spread to Rochester, in 1907 after moving to Buffalo from Germany. His first place was called “My Lunch,” a 32-seat diner at 33 Niagara St. When the larger building opened up around the corner at Pearl and West Eagle, Laube hopped at the chance and created one of Buffalo’s most beloved dining spots through the 1930s and 1940s.

The Family Court Building now stands where generations of Buffalonians ate affordable meals at Laubes Cafeteria. Buffalo News archives

The Family Court Building now stands where generations of Buffalonians ate affordable meals at Laube’s Cafeteria. (Buffalo News archives)

Diners catching one last meal before the neon and grills went cold remembered how novel the idea of balcony seating was when the place first opened.

Laubes Cafeteria Buffalo Stories archives

Laube Cafeterias. (Buffalo Stories archives)

“Being taken to Laube’s for lunch before a matinee at the Buffalo Theater was a treat – maybe the best part about coming downtown,” remembered one Buffalonian.

At its peak, 2,000 people a day ate at Laube’s Cafeteria, where the well-known slogan was “famous for food.” Laube’s was also famous for quality and high standards, only giving into the overwhelming savings of paper napkins over cloth napkins within the last few years of operation.

The fate of the Laube’s building was sealed within months of the restaurant’s closure. The City of Buffalo bought the property, and leveled it with hopes of a companion development to Main Place Mall.

The Laube family still operated a cafeteria inside the YMCA as well as a full-service restaurant inside the Lord Amherst Hotel at Main and Kensington in Snyder.

By then, the family’s best remembered restaurant, Laube’s Old Spain, located next door to Shea’s Buffalo Theatre in downtown Buffalo, had already been closed. The City of Buffalo assumed ownership of the Shea’s Buffalo and Laube’s Old Spain building for back taxes at the same auction in 1975.

Laubes Old Spain, Main Street, next to Sheas Buffalo. Later the home of Swiss Chalet, it is now The Sheas Smith Theatre. Buffalo Stories archives

Laube’s Old Spain, was located on Main Street next to Shea’s Buffalo. Later the home of Swiss Chalet, it is now the Shea’s Smith Theatre. (Buffalo Stories archives)

 

Torn-down Tuesday: Gas station behind City Hall

By Steve Cichon
steve@buffalostories.com
@stevebuffalo

It’s been the site of a parking lot for most of recent memory, but in 1951, as you left City Hall, walking up Niagara Street towards the West Side, an interesting little gas station was among the first buildings you’d encounter.

Buffalo News Archives

The gas station, which was on Niagara Street, is long gone, but the building next door on the very short piece of West Mohawk Street still stands.

Buffalo News Archives

Even Old Buffalo Looking New: Ch.4’s 1960’s Buffalove

By Steve Cichon | steve@buffalostories.com | @stevebuffalo

BUFFALO, NY – My friend Libby wrote something the other day which made me think. She was talking about the cold and the gray and the snow, and how we don’t even realize how the darkness of it all creeps into our personality.

“Honestly do not even realize I am depressed, until the sun comes out and everything is sunshiny and I feel the depression lift!”

skyway
I read this amidst my going through my collection of old radio and TV trade magazines. In the late 50s and early 60s, these magazines were filled with ads from local radio and TV stations looking to appeal to national advertisers. They talk about how great the station is, but also how wonderful the city and it’s people are– a great place to sell your stuff.

There are plenty of great ads from Buffalo stations. It’s like a Buffalo version of the wacky creative efforts you might see from the guys on Mad Men.

WBENTVbuildings

I’ve used these old magazines as a resource for years. Decades even. This time, however, the feeling was different, and Libby’s exaltation helped me put my finger on what made some of these ads better than they were the last time I looked.

These ads look better and more interesting, because there is hope and brightness in Buffalo like we haven’t seen here since the late 50s.

These ads, from 1958 and 1964, show WBEN-TV’s excitement for Buffalo and what is to come, and are meant to showcase the “just-over-the-horizon New Buffalo” that was on it’s way.

These ads feel fresh and great, because while there was a 60 year lag, that New Buffalo really is just around the corner this time.

WBENTVgrainelevators

When we were filled with gloom and darkness about our city, we would look and read these, and point to the empty, rotting grain elevators as a vestige of a vanished industry.

We’d look closely on the Skyway image, and see the beams marked with the logo of Bethlehem Steel. It was a bridge built to get 15,000 men from the city to their jobs in a plant that’s been cold for 30 years.

We imagine what Buffalo would have looked like if we didn’t build highways and downtown office buildings for 2 million expected Western New Yorkers, and we lament the buildings that were lost because too much of downtown was torn down too quickly for the wrong reasons.

But now, with the sun out here for the first time in generations, we look at these images and see progress and what’s to come. We now recreate under the Skyway, with promise of more to come. Grain elevators and malt houses are becoming the avant-garde, up-and-coming spaces that the next generation of Buffalonians realize are incredibly unique to us alone, as moves are made to re-imagine and re-purpose what makes us unique.

WBENTVskyway

And with cranes and scaffolds up in dozens of places around the city, the thought of “new building” isn’t necessarily followed by “oh no.”

As the sun shines, and us Buffalonians feel the depression about our city lift, we’re beginning to figure out how to make our dynamic past, part of our dynamic future.

And we’re getting excited about seeing how the same ol’stuff starts to look different with some sunshine on it, warming the face and the soul.