For most of Buffalo’s history, the easiest place to shop was Main Street downtown. Until the 1980s, the largest and best-stocked dry goods and department stores had names like AM&A’s, Hengerer’s and Hens & Kelly.
Today we look back at the blocks that would eventually become those stores that any Buffalonian over the age of 40 or 50 will fondly remember – especially this time of year.
The building that was constructed for Hengerer’s opened in 1904 but was a famous Buffalo address long before that.
In 1880, is was the location of one of Buffalo’s leading hotels, the Tifft House.
The Tifft House replaced the Phoenix Hotel, which was built in 1835 on the east side of Main between Court and Mohawk.
For more than 90 years, AM&A’s was across Main Street from the spot we now remember. Adam, Meldrum and Anderson took over the more familiar spot from JN Adam & Co. starting in 1959, and lasting until the store closed in 1996.
The JN Adam & Co. store building was purchased by AM&A’s in the late 1950s.
JN Adam built his store on the spot where the Arcade stood, until it burned in 1893. When built, the Arcade was Buffalo’s largest office building.
The light-colored building is the Arcade, which burned down. That block of buildings was replaced by storefronts for Kleinhans, Woolworth’s and, eventually, AM&A’s. The ornate building across Lafayette Square is the German Insurance Co. building, and was replaced by the Tishman Building, now home of the Hilton Garden Inn.
Hens & Kelly:
Hens & Kelly’s downtown flagship store was built on “The Old Miller Block” at Main and Mohawk.
The store was opened in 1892, and closed 90 years later.
In the days before Mastercard and Visa, there was the Charga-Plate – a little metal card with your name and address that in Buffalo, was good at all the downtown merchants.
The Charga-Plate was introduced to the Buffalo market in 1936, as reported in the Courier-Express.
“J. N. Adam & Company and the Wm. Hengerer Company will begin operation of a new credit system on Wednesday. The plan, known as the charga-plate system, is designed to save delay and to protect the charge customer from fraud.
“The charga-plate is made of metal about the size of a calling card. On one side is embossed the owners name and address, and the number of his account, on the other is a specially treated card on which his signature is affixed indelibly. An addressing machine prints the information in triplicate upon the sales slip signed by the customer when a purchase is made. The former delay thus is avoided, and the name is not spoken, thus preventing anyone overhearing it and using it to charge purchases fraudulently.
“At the top of each plate is a notch, representing J. N. Adam’s, at the bottom one representing Hengerer’s. This permits Buffalonians with charge accounts at both stores to use one plate.”
While today not knowing whether to insert or swipe or which button to hit for credit can leave you feeling a bit befuddled at the checkout, there was a time when the idea of a credit card was completely foreign.
The Binghamton Press carried an article explicitly outlining the process of using a Charga-Plate to check out.
“Each plate is a thin metal tag, resembling a military ‘dogtag,’ on which the customer’s name, address and account number have been embossed.
“On the reverse side of the plate is a card insert for the customer’s signature. A red leather carrying case is provided for convenience in spotting the Charga-Plate in handbag or purse.
“After the customer selects her purchases, the clerk lists the articles and their prices on a sales slip. Space at the top of the slip reserved for the customer’s name and address is left blank. The customer then is asked to sign her name.
“Then, the customer is asked for her Charga-Plate. The clerk places the plate, embossed side upward, on a small, hand-operated device called an addresser, slips the top of the charge slip over the plate and presses the handle down.
“When the handle is lifted, out comes the slip clearly imprinted with the customer’s name, address and account number.
“The clerk then hands the plate with its little leather case back to the customer, and another charge sale has been made.
“Customers, the stores urge, should carry their Charga-Plates at all times unless they want to go through the old time-consuming routine.”
By 1963, stores like Hens & Kelly and AM&A’s began offering their own credit cards, and it was only a matter of time. By the end of the 1960s, the era of Charga-Plate shopping had ended in downtown Buffalo, even though many clerks at some of Buffalo’s finer department stores were still calling your debit card a “charge plate” well into the ’90s.
Bandleader and clarinetist Benny Goodman was known as the “King of Swing.”
In 1938, his band was the most popular in the world, and his brand of swing jazz helped pave the way for nearly every form of popular music that has followed since.
Goodman and his orchestra played in Buffalo twice in 1938.
A month after Goodman played the first jazz or popular music concert ever at Carnegie Hall, he was at the Connecticut Street Armory.
The newspapers were filled with sponsors trying to associate with one of the early mass-media pop music stars. Buffalo-brewed Stein’s Beer took out ads reminding people that it was the exclusive drink at the armory. Goodman’s appearance in the sixth-floor record department at JN Adam was advertised for days in advance.
Benny Goodman plays at Glen Park, Williamsville, in 1938.
A brass band and a caravan of several hundred fans — “Goodmaniacs,” according to The News — escorted Goodman from the New York Central Terminal to his room at the Statler.
Rod Reed wrote up Goodman’s appearance in The News the next day.
Benny Goodman and his orchestra are playing in a Detroit theater today after giving the Jitter bugs a delirious night in the 174th Armory, winding up at 1:30 this morning. I am no good at sizing up a crowd and never believe what promoters say, but the consensus of my staff of estimators is that there were between 5,000 and 6,000 people drawn out on a rainy night to watch the gum-chewing (drummer Gene) Krupa, the hammer-pounding (vibraphone playing Lionel) Hampton and the clarinet-clicking Goodman in action.
If the orchestra’s principals are not suffering from writers’ cramp today, it is only because they have long been used to the arduous business of writing their names.
A swell swing night it was.
Goodman was back six months later in July, this time at Williamsville’s Glen park, where the first half-hour of the show was beamed around the country as a part of a national network broadcast.
Mr. Goodman will do his WKBW 9:30 killer-diller, ripper-dipper, whooper-dooper, floy-doy direct from Williamsville’s Glen Park, where he will play for dancing, jeeping, trucking, kicking, hopping, howling and listening from 9 to question mark.
Watching Benny Goodman perform at Glen Park, 1938.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 one constant through all of that, our collective memory tells us, is those wonderful AM&A’s windows.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
But no matter which store displayed these windows when, they have always been a universally beloved Buffalo institution, right?
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.
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…
(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.
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.
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.
These photos appeared in the Buffalo Courier Sunday Magazine, New Year’s Day 1911. The quality of the images isn’t good enough to see what is in those window displays, but they still represent a great look at the retail scene on Main Street downtown more than 100 years ago.
Where possible, the 1910 images are presented with Google images of the current look of the same space.
Tuberculosis. TB. Consumption. The bacterial infection usually manifest in the lung is now exceedingly rare in the United States, but a century ago, it was a scourge.
People afflicted with the “Great White Death” were sent to sanitariums far away from the rest of the population, where it was expected they would eventually succumb to the disease that was one of the nation’s leading causes of death during the first half of the 20th century.
James Noble Adam was the owner of the JN Adam Department store and Buffalo’s mayor when tuberculosis became an acute problem in Erie County. He offered to buy nearly 300 acres of land in far-out Perrysburg if the state and city would build a TB hospital on the Cattaraugus County lot.
The JN Adam Memorial Hospital opened in 1912 with “comfort and contentment” of the patients at the hospital as the key concern.
In 1915, Buffalo was somewhat mystified and somewhat scandalized when “1,000 feet of motion picture film,” probably about 20 minutes’ worth, was shown as a fundraiser for the sanitarium. The packed house at the Elmwood Music Hall saw movies of “unclad children frolicking in the snow” at Perrysburg.
The images captured the first American implementation of Swiss physician Auguste Rollier’s “sun cure” for tuberculosis. Heliotherapy and fresh air was thought to be the only way to cure the ravaging disease.
The JN Adam Memorial Hospital was renowned in medical circles for its use of the rays of the sun to bring new life and vigor to TB patients. For decades, the place was the host of a constant stream of doctors wanting to see “the cure” in action for themselves.
Many of the images in this story appear in Char Szabo-Perricelli’s new book, “J.N. Adam Memorial Hospital: Her Inside Voice,” published in part by the Museum of disABILITY History in Amherst.
The book tells the story of the rise and fall of both the Perrysburg hospital and the sun cure — both of which saw a rapid decline after the discovery and more widespread use of antibiotics, especially after World War II.
The campus closed as a tuberculosis hospital in 1960 and was used as a facility for the developmentally disabled until 1993. It’s been mostly abandoned ever since.
Szabo-Perricelli has been photographing and collecting the stories of the J.N. Adam Hospital since 2001, chronicling the decline of the structures while finding meaning in what remains.
While there have been many who have worked to find new uses for the sprawling Cattaraugus County campus, the historic structures are suffering from the same fate as the people who called them home for decades: They’re out of sight, out of mind, wasting away.
There is buzz and tempered excitement over the purchase the old AM&A’s department store building on Main Street.
The building was last occupied in 1998 by Taylor’s, a short-lived high-end department store better remembered for its dress code (no sneakers!) than its offerings.
In 1995, Bon-Ton closed what was the flagship store of the Adam, Meldrum, and Anderson Department Store chain. Bon-Ton bought AM&A’s in 1994.
The building is now best known as the AM&A’s building, as it was from 1960-94.
For the 90 years previous, AM&A’s was directly across Main Street from that location, in a series of storefronts which were torn down to make way for the Main Place Mall.
For most of the 20th century, the building we call AM&A’s was the JN Adam Department store. Adam was a mayor of Buffalo and the brother of AM&A’s co-founder Robert Adam. In 1960, JN’s closed, and AM&A’s took over the building.
This photo, probably from the very late 1950s, shows Woolworth’s (which remained in that location until the chain dissolved in 1997), JN Adam, Bonds Men’s store (famous for two trouser suits), Tom McAn Shoes, the Palace Burlesk at its original Shelton Square location, then the Ellicott Square Building.
All of the storefronts between JN Adam and the Ellicott Square building were torn down for the M&T headquarters building and some green space.
After 78 years in downtown Buffalo, it was announced 55 years ago today that the J.N. Adam department store would be closing its doors — only to have the doors immediately reopened as the new home of AM&A’s.
Within months, it was an amazing sight to see as thousands of items were carried from the longtime home of AM&A’s across Main Street to the building it would call home until the flagship downtown store and all other locations were sold to Bon-Ton in 1994.
J.N. Adam and Robert Adam — the Adam of Adam, Meldrum and Anderson — were brothers who came to Buffalo from Scotland. It was the grandnephew of J.N. Adam and the grandson of AM&A’s founder Robert Adam who, as president of AM&A’s, facilitated the move on Main Street.
“AM&A to occupy J.N. Adam store”
“Some time next year J.N. Adam & Co. will discontinue its operations.
“Its store at Main and Eagle Sts. will be leased by Adam, Meldrum & Anderson Co. Inc. It will be remodeled and air-conditioned before occupany by AM&A.”