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.

Published by

Steve Cichon

Steve Cichon is a proud Buffalonian helping the world experience the city he loves. writing about the people, places, and ideas that make Buffalo unique and special. The storyteller and historian has written six books, worn bow ties since the 80s, and spent 20 years working in Buffalo radio and TV, climbing his way to news director at WBEN Radio. Since then, he's been an adjunct professor, produced PBS documentaries, and even run for Erie County Clerk. Steve's Buffalo roots run deep: all eight of his great-grandparents called Buffalo home, with his first ancestors arriving here in 1827.