Monday, June 13, 2016

The Five and Dime

By Matt Shoen

In the last blog published by Preservation Studios we discussed the Newberry Building, our project in Batavia. Built in 1881 the building was used as a storefront for over a century before closing in 1997, though rehabilitation plans are in place to ensure the restoration of this lovely commercial block. The building's history can be neatly divided into two eras, the first lasting from 1881 to 1929 when it was owned by three different furniture makers/undertakers, and the second spanning 1929 to 1997 when it was used by the J.J. Newberry Company. The last blog didn't spend too much time on the history of Newberry's and so today I think it's best to give this chain store its due and look at the history of five-and-dimes.
The Newberry Building in Batavia

The original five-and-dime was owned and operated by F.W. Woolworth, a Watertown native who began his business in Utica. The Utica five-and-dime quickly fizzled and Woolworth moved shop to Lancaster, PA where it caught on. Woolworth followed up the success of his first store by expanding rapidly, building new stores in towns and small cities throughout Pennsylvania. The rationale behind his building frenzy was with more stores he could purchase more product, earning discounts from suppliers and ultimately making it easier to sell goods cheaply. Additionally, rather than sell one consistent line of products, i.e. clothing, or groceries, Woolworth introduced the idea of the variety store, selling all manner of useful household items for the magic price of a nickel or dime. This wide product line, combined with inexpensive goods, was a new model of American shopping. Previously, people outside major cities made their own goods or took trips into cities to shop at large department stores when the occasion called for it. The five-and-dime brought downtown shopping to smaller communities and impoverished sections of cities such as Buffalo. Five-and-dime stores transformed frugal Americans into consumers, stretching dollars and allowing them to mean something. Better living, culturally and materially was ushered in by the five-and-dime store as newfound purchasing power helped connect people in small ways to the American dream of ownership.

The five-and-dime chain store offered another counterpoint to the downtown shopping experience. In downtown malls shoppers were guided through the experience by attendants, saleswomen who were responsible for making the shopping experience pleasant and encourage a shopper to make a few splurge purchases. This was attractive to to the upper crust, but a bit off-putting to less affluent shoppers. The five-and-dime, often operating in the early years out of hole-in-the wall establishments, or tiny rented storefronts didn't have the space or staff to guide shoppers around. Five-and-dimes allowed women to browse at their own leisure with only a sharp-eyed cashier watching to ensure none of the store's products slipped into a pocket or purse. In many ways it was a more familiar system for immigrant women, used to wandering through markets and picking through a vendor's goods before making their final purchase.

In these ways the five-and-dime model proved itself successful. It offered a clear counterpoint to the elite department stores of the era both in price and presentation, converting millions of Americans into consumers in the process. These Americans, often immigrants and poor took to the five-and-dime stores for the bargains they offered, and oftentimes for the travel convenience as five-and-dimes were often built in smaller communities that couldn't support a department store.

Around the Lunch Counter from
Ultimately, the success of Woolworth's inspired many businessmen to begin their own five-and-dime chain stores, among these businessmen was John Josiah Newberry. Newberry was a Pennsylvania man who began opening five-and-dime stores in 1911. The chain grew rapidly and by 1930 there were 335 Newberry stores, including our building in Batavia. Growth peaked in the 1960s when there were 565 stores in the chain and it was the fourth largest five-and-dime chain in America. The model for the success of a five-and-dime didn't vary much from company to company. Savings were the draw, and savings were what each five-and-dime chain store offered its patrons.

In Batavia, Newberry's sold all manner of household goods, from clocks to brooms, cloth, griddles, and random knickknacks. Oftentimes these goods were not essential to the household, but for the price, they couldn't be beat.

Newberry's Popular Logo from

Tuesday, May 31, 2016

The Commercial Block

By Matt Shoen

For this post I decided to move a bit outside Buffalo and talk about our project in Batavia, the Newberry Building at 109-111 Main Street.  Truthfully, its a simple building, the sort of Italianate commercial building everyone is used to seeing all along the main streets of small towns throughout the country. However, this three-story building in downtown Batavia demonstrates how even perfectly banal buildings can have an interesting history.                                        
The Newberry Building
The Newberry Building began its life as the C.H. Turner & Sons Furniture Store and was used by C.H. Turner, a local furniture maker and undertaker. Turner stayed in his building for six years before selling the building and business to George Williamson and George Weeks a pair of undertakers from Palmyra. Weeks was soon bought out and Williamson ran the undertaking business until 1910 when he died and the business was scooped up by H.E. Turner (No relation to C.H. Turner). H.E. Turner was the last local businessman to own the Newberry Building. In 1929 he sold the property to the J.J. Newberry Company a nationally known five-and-dime chain store and moved his undertaking business to a different part of Batavia where it exists to this day.

When the J.J. Newberry Company bought the building at 109-111 Main Street the company was one of the fastest growing five-and-dime chain stores in America.These five-and-dimes sprang up after the success of F.W. Woolworth's showed the model of providing low cost goods in smaller non-traditional markets could be profitable. The five-and-dime stores were predicated on the idea that owning just one store, or even a few, was not economically efficient. Multiple stores were necessary to leverage greater buying power and provide consumers with goods at low price. By 1929 when Newberry's purchased their building in Batavia, the company had 335 stores, primarily on the East Coast. The history of Newberry's and the way they factored into the commercial experience of shoppers in the early twentieth century is worthy of its own blog, as the company's business model was indicative of a new form of shopping that would carve out a place for itself in America starting in the late nineteenth century. For now however, I'd rather focus on the building itself.
Newberry Company occupying 109-111 Main Street Photo from 1995

The Newberry Building was owned by Newberry's for sixty-seven years during which time it served the community as a popular shopping spot. Additionally, the J.J. Newberry Company converted the second and third floors to office space that was rented by a number of different tenants ranging from doctors and lawyers to a Depression era organization dedicated to matching unemployed farmers with work in Genesee County.

The upper floors of commercial blocks such as the Newberry Building have always interested me. In the case of the Newberry Building  the upper floors are accessed via a small staircase at the left-most corner and lead up to spacious offices where a number of beat up but lovely historic features remain. These features include the original flooring, bannisters, and staircase and give us clues to how the space once operated.

The second and third floor units highlight an interesting crossroads of commercial history. The coexistence of multiple businesses under one roof is a model we don't frequently see today. Today companies build their own one-story box stores, preferably with a large parking lot out front. The sharing of space and reuse of a building like 109-111 Main Street is something we have gotten away from unfortunately. The density of our streets have decreased as companies attempt to gain their own spaces, damaging the feeling and cohesion of our cities. Simply look at images of old Batavia to see how the city's commercial district used to be dominated by three story Italianate buildings, filled with large stores and commercial tenants on the upper levels. Much of these are gone, replaced by box stores and the downtown mall.  The Newberry Building is actually a bit of an albatross, standing between buildings put up in the 1950s. The fact that the building maintained its form from 1881 to the present day is remarkable, even more so considering Newberry's company-wide remodeling plan from the 1950s that sought to sheath many of its buildings with metal siding. The Newberry Building in Batavia escaped this treatment, making it one of the few buildings in Batavia to survive relatively unscathed from the city's heyday. Though its history lacks any flash the presence of the building in Batavia is significant enough, reminding pedestrians of the shape of their old Main Street.

Postcard of Batavia from 1905, the Newberry Building is the
second building on the left

Friday, May 20, 2016

The Old Campus

By Matthew Shoen

St. Lawrence University in Canton, New York is a small private liberal arts college that recently found its way onto Best College Reviews list of the top 50 Historically Notable Colleges in America. St. Lawrence also happens to be where Derek and I went to school so now seems like a good opportunity to shamelessly plug the university and look at its early years.

For people who've attended St. Lawrence the basics of its history are commonly retold. The university was founded in 1856 as a theological school by the Universalist Church and became the first coeducational institute of higher learning in New York State. The Universalists who founded St. Lawrence believed that the illimitable love and goodness of God would triumph over evil in human society, and that God, irrespective of religious creed was a force of love in human life.[1] Less concerned with theological differences and proper religious practices, the Universalists were eager to create a theological school to promote their views. Leaders among the Universalist community, whose members primarily came from New England, Western New York and the Finger Lakes Region eventually decided to build their university in Canton, a small town in St. Lawrence County. Those members of the congregation in favor of  Canton argued that they had found, “a site of twenty acres of good available land, centrally and beautifully located on a gentle eminence.”[2] The construction of what would become Richardson Hall, St. Lawrence’s first building, started in 1855 and in the course of its construction the citizens of Canton convinced the Universalists to expand the scope of their theological school to include a college of Letters and Science forming the base of the liberal arts education for which St. Lawrence is known.

The early years of St. Lawrence were difficult and the university nearly went under as it struggled to attract students and faculty to the remote North Country. Still the university managed to provide for its students and built out the campus starting with the Herring Library in 1869 and the Fisher Theological School in 1883. The addition of the Cole Reading Room in 1902 gave Herring-Cole its present form and marked the end of St. Lawrence’s challenging first phase of development.[3]
Image of Richardson Hall and the Herring Library taken from the National
Register of Historic Places Nomination Form for Richardson Hall.

Where the nineteenth century had been challenging to St. Lawrence University’s Universalist founders, the opening decades of the twentieth century were far kinder. Between 1904 and 1911 the university was able to build many of the academic buildings that hold classes and offices today. These buildings include Carnegie, Cook, Payson, and Memorial Hall. Carnegie Hall became the university’s first science building after a donation of laboratory equipment from A. Barton Hepburn, a North Country native who became one of St. Lawrence University’s greatest patrons.[4] The ability to hold science classes in Carnegie allowed the university to convert Richardson Hall into a lecture space dedicated to the humanities. In addition to private donors such as Hepburn, the 1910s saw New York State involve itself in St. Lawrence’s affairs paying for the construction of Cook and Payson Halls to serve as the first State School of Agriculture.[5] The state would purchase a 63-acre farm and use the farm and new academic buildings to house dairy laboratories, horticultural devices, and plantings. St. Lawrence would later purchase both Payson and Cook Halls and the agricultural school would become SUNY Canton starting in the 1960s.

With its finances growing increasingly secure and with endowments coming from numerous sources St. Lawrence cemented itself as a top flight university in 1929 with the dedication of Hepburn Hall where Marie Curie the two time Nobel Prize winning physicist and chemist and pioneer of radiation research spoke. Curie was convinced to inaugurate the opening of Hepburn Hall by Owen D. Young, university trustee and internationally known financier. In addition to convincing Curie to come to Canton, Young was the mastermind behind the construction of St. Lawrence’s Gunnison Memorial Chapel, Sykes Residence for Men, and Dean Eaten Hall.[6]
Historic Image of Herring-Cole
Taken from the National Register of Historic Places Nomination Form for the Library

With the building of Dean Eaton Hall and Sykes Residence the shape of St. Lawrence was effectively finalized. Expansion of the campus would continue as the university sought more students and a more diverse curriculum, but every building that came after the completion of Sykes in 1930 reflected the types of buildings already built, i.e. residences, libraries, common spaces, and academic halls. The university’s historic core, expressed in buildings such as Herring-Cole, Sykes Residence, Richardson, Carnegie, and Hepburn Halls trace the fascinating story of St. Lawrence’s first eighty years of existence. From a single brick building on the edge of Canton to a thriving liberal arts college hosting internationally renowned guests like Marie Curie the story of St. Lawrence is one of triumph. Importantly though, it is not the story of triumph over overwhelming odds or adversity, instead it is a triumph of ideals, a triumph of education and a triumph of a belief fostered by people ranging from the citizens of Canton who asked the Universalists to expand the mission of their college, to financiers like A. Barton Hepburn and Owen D. Young that knew education in this quiet part of New York could be something special.
Marie Curie Comes to Dedicate Hepburn Hall October 26, 1929
Taken from St. Lawrence University's Digital Collection

For additional information on the history of St. Lawrence University consider following these links:

[1] Cornelia E. Brooke, “National Register of Historic Places Nomination Form: Richardson Hall, 1974.” Section 8, Page 1.
[2] Brooke, “Richardson Hall,” Section 8, Page 1.
[3] Sadly Fisher Hall burned down in 1951. The building of Herring Cole continued the pattern of unity between St. Lawrence University and the local community as Potsdam Sandstone, a locally and widely sought building material was used to erect the building.
[4] Hepburn, president of Chase National Bank from 1904-1917 also endowed the university with the money necessary to begin an Economics program
[5] John Harwood, “National Register of Historic Places Nomination Form: St. Lawrence University Old Campus Historic District, 1981” Section 8, Page 1.
[6] St. Lawrence students will find amazing is that Dean Eaton is actually considered historically significant.

Monday, May 2, 2016

Preservation Podcast #1: Back to School

Preservation Studios is proud to announce our new podcast series where we'll discuss building design and history across New York State. Featuring a revolving cast from the employees of Preservation Studios (as well as occasional guests), the podcast will not only discuss the complexities of our company's projects, but delve into topics such as proper application of the Department of Interior Standards, tax credit syndication, and cultural heritage preservation.

Be sure to check out the first episode below. Since our presentation at this year's New York State Preservation Conference is titled, "Back to School: Pairing Historic Schools with Affordable Housing," we though it was appropriate to talk a little about the evolution of school design between 1900 and 1930, and the policies and practices that shaped those changes:

Friday, April 22, 2016

From Hats to Homes

By Matthew Shoen

Hats have been a key element of fashion for most of recorded history. A hat can be a signature statement of who you are, and what you represent. They're a space for branding or individuality. We even have hats that hold beer.

Historically, hats have been popular and individuals who made hats, called milliners, have been important figures in the fashion world. In the 1910s, milliners and millinery reached an apex, with hat manufacturing becoming an increasingly important seasonal trade, particularly for women and teenage girls looking for supplemental income. In Buffalo, several different milliners occupied a large chunk of downtown in the vicinity of Lafayette Square. From their buildings these milliners manufactured and sold hats throughout the city. One of these wholesale millineries was owned by the Sinclair and Rooney Company and is currently in the process of being rehabilitated into a mixed use apartment building. With that in mind, I decided to look back on the history of hat fashion to examine some of the interesting styles that dominated hats in the early twentieth century.

Before proceeding I first must acknowledge that this will be a look into the history of women's hats. Male hat fashion is relatively boring with bowler hats and other simple designs being the most prominent choices for men in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. Male hat fashion was much more restrained and resistant to seasonal fluctuations, fitting more with the male ethos of the time. The hat was a head covering, not an expressive display, therefore its design was marked by simplicity bordering on austerity.

Because of the stability of hat fashion for men, the millinery industry and the milliners at Sinclair and Rooney did not make their fortune off the male hat trade. A man might only buy a few hats in his lifetime. Instead, it was with women and ladies headwear that milliners dedicated their efforts year in and year out, trying to predict the seasonal trends that would dominate the trade in a given year.

Some Ladies fashion taken from
Unlike mens hats, the hats designed for women were always in stylistic flux. Hats came in and went out of style sometimes as fast as within six months. One spring the style could feature lacy veils and lots of ribbon tied up in bows around the hat's brim. Other years could offer up massive wide-brimmed hats strewn with flowers and feathers. Some hats needed pins to hold them in place and others were set off at seemingly impossible angles to give off a flirtatious look. Hat materials were also constantly changing. Felt, straw, and lace all had their years of prominence. Perhaps the most interesting phase of millinery in Buffalo and the United States came around 1910 when it became chic to decorate hats with dead birds. Stuffed owls, grouse, and songbirds were set among nests of imitation fruit and lace in bizarre but interesting designs. If the milliner didn't make use of the whole bird he or she would no doubt use the wings or feathers to give color and size to the hat they were working on. Ostrich feathers were popular for this purpose to the point that an entire ostrich feather trade cropped up and became big business around 1910.

Unlike the stable male hat industry, high style women's hat fashion was mean to be expressive and flamboyant, drawing attention to the wearer in the anthesis of austere men's fashion. There was a sense of art to these hats, a beauty reflective of the sadly ornamental role women played in their world. Still, though we can lament the ethics of the 1910s, we cannot deny that those ethics helped create some fascinating and beautiful hats.

The millinery industry was always conscious of the fluctuations in ladies fashion and milliners often went out of business by misjudging a season's hot item. Putting too much money into ostrich feathers and lace when stuffed cardinals and elderberries were in season could be disastrous, and the unpredictability of ladies headwear caught up to Sinclair and Rooney in 1927 when the company went bankrupt. Still, for almost twenty years the company ran its business out of 465 Washington Street where the Sinclair Apartments are set to open sometime this spring . The millinery's handiwork can no doubt be seen in classic photos of Buffalo's past and in the basements of some of this city's older residents, reflecting an interesting period of both fashion and culture in Buffalo.

Bird hat from

Monday, April 18, 2016

Michael Shea and a South Buffalo Gem

April is going to be a great month. Now that the snow has finally gone away the city is coming back to life. Events are happening everywhere and it won't be long before we are all celebrating free summer concerts at Canalside. Before that however the North Park Theatre is screening Alien and Aliens on the 26th of April. The greatest space horror movie ever is coming to Buffalo and its got me thinking about movie theatres and the history of movies in Buffalo. With that in mind I decided to share some pictures from a recent project Preservation Studios undertook in an old theatre building in South Buffalo.

The early history of Buffalonians at the movie theatre was dominated by one figure, Michael Shea, a South Buffalo businessman and entertainer who was responsible for building many of the city’s grandest theatres, including gems like the North Park Theatre and Shea’s Buffalo on Main Street. 
Michael Shea
These two buildings demonstrate the pageantry and the beauty of 1920s theatre design with their gorgeous lobbies, hand painted murals, and intricate plastered ceilings that give both spaces a surreal dreamlike glow which patrons have been enjoying for almost a century. Prior to the 1970s, these were only two of the many theatres Michael Shea had built. Between 1920 and 1930 Michael Shea opened and operated Shea’s Roosevelt, Bailey, Buffalo, Hippodrome, Kensington, and Shea’s Seneca. Sadly these buildings have been largely destroyed leaving the North Park and Shea’s Buffalo as both beautiful reminders of what once was, and haunting reflections of what we’ve lost. However for one of these theatres a scrap of its beauty remains intact. Shea’s Seneca in South Buffalo lost its auditorium in 1970 but the rest of the building, including a massive commercial block and the theatre’s lobby are still intact. Though time has done its damage to Shea’s Seneca the community theatre’s lobby still bears the impressive hallmarks of Michael Shea’s other theatres and the magical atmosphere his patrons experienced each time they came to the cinema.

The current owner of the lobby uses it as storage space and piles of boxes mask the floor space and walls. Despite this, gorgeous details are still visible such as the massive barrel vaulted ceiling. This ceiling is covered in flowing lines and lionesses sitting at the ready, while the back wall, leading onto the street, is guarded by a pair of griffons. The walls still have fabric and intact leaded glass windows though the fabric has faded. 
The ceiling

Window and Wall View 
As you can see the details around these windows are phenomenal, highlighting how ornate theatres had become by 1930 when Shea’s Seneca was completed. Details like this aren't even visible in the North Park, built in 1920, ten years prior to Shea's Seneca. The Seneca was one of the last theatre projects Michael Shea completed before his death in 1934 and as such it synthesizes much of what he'd learned in over two decades of theatre building. 

The building features a large commercial block attached to the theatre space which was a common feature during the time. Commercial space was rented as businessmen and community members saw theatres as major local anchors that were guaranteed to attract a steady stream of consumers. In fact, Shea's theatres were considered major community boons and a sign that neighborhoods were on the rise. The community theatres were utilized as second run site following the first run theatres on Main Street and seated over 2,500 on average. Any businessman working in proximity to one of Shea's massive cinema's was guaranteed to see their business expand as people came and went to see nickel and dime pictures.

As a commercial rehab project the Seneca has massive potential and hopes are that its potential will be realized in a few years, bringing this commercial block and theatre lobby back to Buffalo, allowing us to make use of the last remaining piece of Michael Shea's entertainment empire, an empire that ruled the Buffalo cinema  scene and provided the city with some of its most beautiful and artistic buildings. Until that day comes, enjoy the restoration work that brought the North Park back to use, or catch a play at Shea's Buffalo, savoring the day when we can drive down Seneca Street and see the restoration of Michael Shea's beautiful community theatre.
Photo from the Seneca's Opening Day

Thursday, April 14, 2016

Dear Buffalo Common Council: Preserve our past, invest in our Future

Dear Buffalo Common Council,

As a concerned citizen in your district (I live at 179 Florida Street), I wanted to reach out to implore you to vote for protections for three historic Buffalo buildings. Though all are different, each tells a story about our city and the eras and areas they were constructed in. All three were built by important architects, all with unique styles, and all have much more potential than their current or proposed uses. Most importantly, they underline an important part of Buffalo's future. 

In the 21st Century, unique cities are the ones that thrive. Is it any wonder that the biggest blunders in Buffalo's history (creation of neighborhood-killing highways and destruction of our original downtown street grid to name a few) were attempts to make us more like other cities? As more and more people flock to unique places, we need to acknowledge that Buffalo doesn't have the mountainous backdrop that Denver has, or the mighty Mississippi roaring through downtown like Minneapolis and New Orleans, and our modest bay will never match Boston, Seattle, or San Francisco. 

Sketch of the Bachelor Apartments,
Photo courtesy of
What are our strengths then? We have a wonderful waterfront, yet access is limited mostly to people with cars. We have a great park system, though we've damaged it with a thousand cuts, and one huge gash along one of the greatest parkways in America. Even though most people know us for wings, we also have great winter sports and a thriving arts scene. 

Yet, though we'll ramble off all of those things, we forget that one of our biggest assets is having one of the oldest building stocks in the country. No one goes to Boston and says, "I love this 1960s office building!" They're charmed by Back Bay and they bounce from shop to shop in the North End. New York City might be home to some of the tallest skyscrapers in the world, but more people are enamored with Brooklyn Brownstoness and Upper West Side apartments. 

Buffalo has some of the oldest housing stock in the country, right behind Boston, and actually ahead of New York. With over 30% of our houses built before 1940, we have something that Phoenix, Tampa, San Jose, and San Diego could never have. These three buildings are part of that character, that elegance, that comes with an older city, that people use to describe Boston and New York, but would never use to describe Dallas. 

Don't let that character slip away, especially not for plans that fail to push Buffalo in a direction that accentuates the unique features that could attract people to our city. 

The Pratt Street Industrial Area
Photo courtesy of
The North Park Library is the only corner at that intersection with character, featuring a gorgeous landscaped lawn and a well-designed building in a sea of parking and dryvit siding. The architect, Howard Beck, designed civic buildings all over Buffalo, many of which have been demolished out of shortsightedness. Demolishing the North Park Library will continue that trend, trading a historic library for a bland building that won't help that corner, and will likely only make it an even worse gateway to one of our thriving commercial districts. 

The Bachelor Apartments were designed by one of our city's most renowned architecture firms, Green & Wicks, and the potential for it can be seen immediately across the street, where Buffalo Proper has revitalized a historic building to new glory. Demolishing it for a parking ramp is a disservice to our city and a waste of potential, especially since there are many undeveloped parking lots around this site, and several other viable sites owned by this very developer. 

North Park Library, Photo courtesy of
The Pratt Street Industrial Heritage Area contains buildings designed by Lansing & Beierl and R.J. Reidpath, two prolific architecture firms that designed hundreds of buildings in the Buffalo area. The buildings include examples tied to our brewing and metallurgic past, as well as document the growth of one of the largest companies still in the city. Landmarking these buildings will protect that past, but could also help achieve a future for them similar to the innumerable other examples of rehabbed industrial buildings, such as 500 Seneca, the Larkin Exchange building, and many others, all of which have combined innovation with our city's manufacturing past.

All of these buildings would be eligible for historic tax credits, making it easier to transform them, and indeed, bring more investment to the area. Unlike new construction, over 60% of the cost of historic rehabilitation is related to labor, meaning more money stays in the community where new construction would spend more buying materials that can be shipped from anywhere in the country. Plus, the plans to demolish two of these buildings just adds more refuse to landfills that are already filling at an alarming cost, making this a wasteful act when they could be easily reused and that space in the landfill (and the rising cost associated with trucking and storing waste) for things that cannot be repurposed or rehabilitated. 

In all, these landmark applications allow you to make a statement, not just about wastefulness, taste, or even the individual histories of these buildings, but about one of the most unique things about Buffalo's landscape. Our historic buildings are not just about our past, but about our future, as they are one of the only things Buffalo can truly differentiate itself from other parts of the country in this increasingly competitive climate for cities in the twenty-first century.

Again, please approve these landmarks, not just for our past, but for our future,
Derek King
Architectural Historian at Preservation Studios