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

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