Friday, January 22, 2016

The Storefronts of Main Street

 Sometimes you come across information and facts that you had no reason to collect, but ended up learning regardless. This was the case when I offered to take Martin Treu’s book Signs, Streets, and Storefronts and craft cliff notes of it's biggest themes. I come from a rural town so businesses weren't common, or they were farms and herds of milk cows gave a quick explanation of the sort of work that went on.

Moving to Buffalo I still had a tendency not to notice signage and the way it impacts our streets. Treu’s book changed that and now it seems like I can’t walk down the block without being struck by the different signs and styles along my section of Main Street. 

Take for example Just Pizza near Main and West Northrup Street. According to Treu, Just Pizza with its standardized logo, and bright wraparound awning is an example of the commercialized storefronts which developed in the 1950s as large corporate entities began to command more and more market space. Companies sought to create an effective branding tool and began to strip out the individualism which had once been a trademark of advertising with local store owners commissioning unique graphics and signs to attract people into their establishment. As entities like Just Pizza expanded they did so through homogenous designs, exchanging more memorable signs for what amounted to a cattle brand stamped across the façade of their buildings. All over Main Street you can see this carried out. The Mobil logo plastered above the gas pumps at Franks Convenience Store, the wraparound logo of IconZ hair studio, and the slim crimson lettering of Jim’s Steakout all follow the branding aesthetic of Just Pizza in a way which, to the untrained eye, blends quickly into the background, but after reading Treu’s book I notice it constantly.

Older storefront aesthetics can be seen on a number of other Main Street buildings. One of my favorites is the 1940s inspired storefront of Talking Leaves… Books. Though established in 1971, Talking Leaves has sensibilities pulled from the 1940s and even earlier. Take for example its banner painted just above the glass storefront. In traditional sign circles this area is known as the fascia. Prior to the 1870s,when buildings became wildly ornate and finding space for advertisement became challenging, commercial buildings devoted a portion of the façade just above the entryway to advertisement, this was the fascia. The fascia left little room for eye-grabbing imagery, usually the name and slogan of the business sufficed. Talking Leaves follows this principle devoting the space to its name, a small leaf graphic (playing on the leaf borders which run between the storefronts) and some minor facts about their products. It is a simple system, augmented by a hanging sign which became popular among merchants looking to extend their advertising onto the sidewalk.

Below the fascia, right on the street, one can see the 1940s contribution to Talking Leaves. Ask yourself, why are glass storefronts clear, why is there no backdrop encasing the objects we see in the display window? The answer, clear storefronts let a person see straight into the store and were created in response to the Great Depression. With spending at a historic low advertisers were desperate to boost commerce and someone came up with the idea of removing display window backdrops in storefronts. Doing this allowed people on the sidewalk to see right into a store, observe the products and business transactions within, and thereby be tempted to go inside. It’s striking how this simple alteration really changes the feeling of a store, opening it up with natural lighting and tempting passerby's walking home from work. Also, opening the display window allows the cat in Talking Leaves a very pleasant place to sun itself. 

These are just a few of the really noteworthy storefront types I found on Main Street, but Buffalo is littered with stores and signs that give hints to the city's commercial past and the evolution of signage and advertisement throughout Buffalo. Look around, you'll be surprised what's out there and the snippet of storytelling it offers.

Friday, January 8, 2016

Former P.S. 24 Part II

Sorry for the long delay but work got in the way of concluding this blog on Public School 24. I left off with P.S. 24’s work with the blind, highlighting the school’s role in educating the blind, and children with sight impairments. The school maintained citywide importance throughout the 30s and 40s  with children oftentimes being bussed to School 24 to take part in sight-saving classes. However, as I alluded to in my earlier post the school took steps beyond educating the physically handicapped. P.S. 24 was one of the first schools in Buffalo to take on the education of mentally handicapped children and adults.

In the 1940s New York State began addressing the issue of educating children with cognitive disabilities. A 1957 law encouraged the inclusion of children with cognitive disabilities in the school setting while another law four years later in 1961 required school districts to provide classes for special needs children. Normally when laws are implemented by the state or federal government local bodies have to adapt themselves to the new regulations, however Buffalo didn’t face this problem because in 1960 a program to educate the cognitively disabled was instituted, thus beating out New York State by a year. At this time Buffalo had nearly 1,400 students with cognitive disabilities. The city formalized a plan to mix all students up to the third grade after which those with special needs would be separated to complete their coursework.[1] This program was intended for children who possessed an IQ between fifty and seventy, a range which in 1960s designated them as “educable.” Students below this IQ range were generally speaking not required to be educated as many assumed they would be in the lifelong custody of their family members. It was with these students, whose disabilities were considered too severe to educate, that P.S. 24 began an experimental program in 1960.

The program sought to educate children ranging from ages seven to twenty whose IQ’s rested between thirty and fifty. These students and young adults were classified as trainables, and often had never experienced education. The classes were put together to provide basic household skills and socialization opportunities for the students who, due to New York State’s mandate that a school did not have to accept students it deemed uneducable, had often times experienced very limited interaction with the wider world beyond their family home. Educators at School 24 were proud of the strides their pupils had made given the restraints which had been placed upon them from birth. Though the children were too disabled to work in anything besides a sheltered workshop, the effort to educate them showed Buffalo was ahead of the times in assuming that children with profound mental disabilities could be taught. Though the programs did not extend much beyond the most basic skills of arithmetic and writing, it is doubtless that the students who passed through P.S. 24’s doors were bettered by their education and the care they received inside the school.

Today P.S. 24 is empty, a casualty of the school closings and consolidations which occurred during the desegregation era. Currently the school is in the process of being redeveloped into an apartment complex. Once completed the former school building will serve the community and continue to stand as a landmark to Buffalo’s myriad of successful special needs programs.

[1] Special needs students were still integrated for gym and lunch to help socialize them.

Friday, August 7, 2015

Former Public School 24: Part I

The now abandoned elementary school built on the south side of Martin Luther King Jr. Park was one of the first projects I worked on at Preservation Studios.  Initially called P.S. 59 in our project folder I ran into a major issue during my research. It appeared there were multiple P.S. 59’s and the school we were researching, located at 787 Best Street, had once been called P.S. 24. It was a conundrum. Which school was I researching? Why had the school morphed from P.S. 24 to 59? In seeking the answer tot his question I dove deep into the school’s history. In doing so I discovered first that we were in fact trying to preserve P.S. 24 and second, we were looking at one of the most important school buildings in Buffalo, a building whose past programs are worth recounting. As one of the first sites for special education in Buffalo P.S. 24 carved out a unique place in the city’s education history.

In the twenty-first century we champion events such as the Special Olympics and binge watch a T.V show about a blind lawyer fighting crime in Hell’s Kitchen. It’s hard to imagine our generally accepting and inclusive attitudes towards those with physical or mental handicaps as extraordinary. However, looking back at the tail end of the nineteenth century it is frankly uplifting to see how far we’ve come.  

Prior to 1900, most children with disabilities (both physical and mental) were treated at specialized facilities, such as the State Institution for Blind Students in Batavia, which formed in 1866.[1] In North America and Europe the prevailing belief was that mentally handicapped, blind, and deaf children were “biologically and morally inferior,” and as a result many of the earlier institutions of care and education were religiously based. [2] Handicapped students were educated in the trades because factory labor was oftentimes seen as the best employment they could gain. Children with profound mental illnesses were often times sequestered from the outside world by their own families or taken in at asylums run by the state or religious organizations. Fortunately, these attitudes began to change as child labor and mandatory school attendance laws were passed. The handicapped began to find themselves increasingly educated in schoolhouses, albeit in separate classrooms, but it was a marked improvement from the isolated vocationally and religious focused education they’d been receiving in asylums throughout the country.

In Buffalo, P.S. 24 took the lead in first educating the visually impaired and later became one of the earliest training centers for children and young adults with severe learning disabilities. Through our research we discovered that P.S. 24 was the local headquarters of sight-saving classes in the Buffalo school district. Students would do oral exercises with their classmates, before heading to special courses where reading and writing would be taught with larger fonts and bigger writing implements. The school even offered Braille classes for high school students.[3] By the 1940s students were being bussed from around Buffalo to attend sight-saving, and braille classes in P.S. 24.

Where once children were isolated and educated to become productive workers rather, by the 1940s people had revolted against the idea that blind and deaf children were profoundly different, i.e. ineducable and morally deficient. In studying the evolution of education for the physically handicapped it was fascinating to see the evolution of American education practices. At the start of classroom integration it seemed that visually impaired students finding success in the classroom was greeted with pleasant surprise. The transition would be much slower for students with mental handicaps, however once again it would be at P.S. 24 leading the way in education for the profoundly mentally handicapped children.

Stay tuned for Part II…
Image courtesy of

[1] Margret A. Winzer, The History of Special Education From Isolation to Integration (Washington D.C.: Gallaudet University Press, 1993), 317.
[2] Winzer, 171.
[3] “Sight-Saving Classes for School are Given Praise by Group,” Buffalo Courier-Express, February 22, 1934, 11. Accessed 7/1/15 via

Friday, July 31, 2015

The Buffalo Hollywood Connection

Written by Matt Shoen, Assistant Historian at Preservation Studios

At 885 Niagara Street sits the mostly abandoned Queen City Dairy building. Built in 1903 the dairy collected milk from across Erie County, then pasteurized, bottled, and then delivered the product throughout Buffalo. Though Queen City Dairy, like so many Buffalo companies is gone, it has left behind a sprawling complex of offices and manufacturing space. 

To a casual spectator this may appear mundane; Buffalo has plenty of abandoned brick buildings from 1900s. However any assumption of 885 Niagara’s ho-hum conformity to Buffalo’s myriad of factory structures would be seriously flawed. In truth, 885 Niagara has a unique connection to Hollywood.

Walking through the building, currently used for storage by its owner, one might assume that 885 Niagara served as a set for some gritty 70s horror movie. With its dirt floor basement, creaking boards, and murky illumination provided by dangling incandescent bulbs this assumption wouldn't be a bad one, however the reality is far more benign. In 1903, construction of the Queen City Dairy began under the oversight of Sidney Woodruff, a local architect, who in 1926 would become one of Hollywood’s principal developers. In fact, it was Sidney Woodruff that erected the iconic “Hollywood” sign.[1]
Image courtesy of Mary Mallory's Hollywoodland

Years before his emigration to the Hollywood hills Woodruff was a well-respected architect in Buffalo. He took work with various architecture firms, assisting with the design of the original Pierce-Arrow showroom, a factory for the E.R. Thomas Motor Co., The People’s Bank of Buffalo, and working with Green & Wicks on the Buffalo Savings Bank. In 1923 Woodruff moved to California where he began his development in Hollywood. Following the fabulous success of Hollywood, Woodruff began scouting a new location to sink his teeth into. Choosing Dana Point, Woodruff began development just in time for the stock market crash of 1929 to derail his endeavors, effectively ending his career as a developer.

In California Woodruff’s impact rests on the grand edifice of the Hollywood Sign and the ruins of his unfinished work at Dana Point. However, just a few blocks north of the New York State Armory sits a building which Woodruff built, which like his other developments in Buffalo, allowed him to amass the capital to head west and develop a community in the dry hills of California. Knowing that an old brick building in Buffalo, New York helped fund the construction of one of the most iconic images of American cinema brings a smile to my face, but it also creates a question. If this structure can contain such history what stories do the other landmarks of Buffalo’s bygone industrial age tell?

Image courtesy of Library of Congress, from
Palmer's Views of Buffalo Past and Present

[1] Originally the sign read “Hollywoodland” however the last four letters were taken down in 1949.

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

When the Carrot Becomes the Stick: Who Will Preserve San Francisco's Heritage?

By: Jason Yots[1]

I recently spent a week with my family in San Francisco, my first visit since 1999.  At that time, the city’s real estate market was heating up as a result of the late 1990s tech boom in nearby Silicon Valley.  If the market was hot back then, it’s absolutely scorching today, for largely the same reason.  Conversations on streetcars, at parties, and in shops and restaurants - among recent and long-time residents alike - centered on $3,500 one-bedroom apartments and cash-purchases of million dollar townhomes.[2]  Even the unprecedented California drought (entering its fourth year) and the city’s alarming homeless crisis (approaching 8% of its residents) took a backseat to real estate chatter.

During my visit, I was reminded that 80% of the city’s buildings were destroyed during the unmatched earthquake of 1906.  As a result, the city has a relatively “young” building inventory when compared to the 18th and 19th century cities in places such as the American northeast, and to the even older building stock that exists in European cities.  Nonetheless, many buildings are older than the 50-year-old measuring stick applied by U.S. preservationists when assessing eligibility for listing in the National Register of Historic Places (and, by extension, for rehabilitation tax credits (RTCs)).

Building renovations and “tear downs”[3] abound, with seemingly little consideration for historic (or even civic or cultural) significance.   Pre-war structures are routinely masked by character-shifting facelifts, creating increasingly homogenized streetscapes in many neighborhoods.  In commercial districts, storefront openings are scraped clean, replaced by less appropriate new commercial units.  While there certainly are plenty of solid examples of urbanism throughout the city (my family did not use a car all week), its 20th century architecture is under siege, and no one seems much bothered by it.  Out with the old, in with the luxury.

The federal RTC - a critical budget-gap-filler in places like Rust Belt cities – would be a mere windfall in San Francisco[4], with residential rents rivaling stratospheric New York City’s and downtown office rents approaching $100 per square foot.  At those rents, a building will pay for its own renovation costs, without resorting to government incentives.  And therein lies the rub for preservationists: when their most effective “carrot” - the RTC - is more of a hassle than a feasibility indicator, how do you prevail upon developers and homeowners to honor the historic significance of their buildings?

The simplest answer may be that you don’t, at least for now.  When the carrot becomes the stick, even the silliest rabbit will avoid it.  But if the drought endures, and the tech market crashes (again), and the homeless population reaches a tipping point, and healthy urban density becomes overcrowding, then people will leave the city, and rents will drop correspondingly.  And then rehabilitation activity that once paid for itself will require the same incentives currently relied upon by San Francisco’s less affluent American counterparts.

Are preservationists being reduced to ill-wishers, hoping for the economic demise of a place just so that we can regain some influence over the direction of its historic resources?  I certainly hope not, but what alternatives are there to preserve and honor beautiful, historic cities like San Francisco?  Stand-by preservation tools – historic districting[5], preservation ordinances, conservation easements[6], civic responsibility/shame – likely will be ineffective in those places, where demand for shelter far outstrips its supply.  Until the carrot returns to being the carrot, preservationists may, in fact, be reduced to hoping against hope.

[1] Jason Yots is a tax credit attorney and the President & CEO of Preservation Studios, a Buffalo-based historic preservation consulting firm.
[2] Almost impossibly, the city has added nearly 95,000 new jobs, but only 10,000 new housing units, in the last five years, creating ever-increasing pressure on commercial and residential rents and on home prices.
[3] The phenomenon of acquiring a serviceable building, tearing it down and replacing it with a much larger new building.
[4] If it’s even accessed at all: in 2014, only four “Part 2” approvals (the government’s indication that a project’s design is RTC-worthy) were issued in the entire state of California.
[5] There are several local, state and National Register-listed historic districts in the city.  Based on the RTC statistics, the NR districts are not generating RTC activity (they otherwise have no teeth).  Local districts afford cities and citizens the most participation in historic resource decisions.  I could not locate (low-hanging) data indicating whether San Francisco’s are largely honorific, or if their preservation laws are actively enforced by a (staffed) commission with (binding) jurisdiction.
[6] San Francisco Heritage, the city’s preservation advocacy charity, has collected only 60 preservation easements since 1974.  Not shabby, but not game-changing in a city the size of San Francisco.