Macys Jamaica (1947): An Unsung Modernist Masterwork In Queens by Joseph Masheck
My interest in abstract art developed out of an interest in modern architecture that began with the very early experience of a particular building, an experience that was repeated while I was still a child, and has retained vivid reverberations for a good sixty years. Recently, I was reminded of this experience while reading a Docomomo newsletter about the Macy’s department store, built in a then-fashionable, bulked-up, urban fortress on Queens Boulevard in Elmhurst Queens, 1965, by Skidmore, Owings and Merril. But the article gave one the impression that this was R. H. Macy & Company’s first incursion not only into Queens but into the outer boroughs, though a Macy’s store had been purpose-built at Parkchester, in the Bronx, as early as 1941.
More to the point, I knew there had been a Macy’s in Jamaica before about 1950. And while it is true that the Elmhurst building (afterwards a Stern’s) was especially oriented to car traffic,1 (being cylindrical with a helical ribbon of parking wrapped five times around) Macy’s Jamaica, an excellent but now forgotten building, had gained public notice almost a generation earlier for providing roof parking accessed by built-in spiraling ramps. Besides, it was an urbane and more than respectable work of art, not merely a clever solution to a problem, nor just a way-station, either, to the suburban tailgate party of the mall in the increasingly city-phobic ‘fifties.
It took me a while to track the building down, but happily it survives. Macy’s Jamaica has not been completely overlooked, though it has not been taken artistically seriously. In their ever-fascinating New York 1960 picture book, Stern, Mellins and Fishman say that it asserted a respectful if undistinguished presence in an outer-borough neighborhood.2 Well, I remembered something considerably better than that, even if, after fifty years, my first significant architectural experience had become idealized.
This elusive department store had provided nothing less than the most memorable and no doubt formative artistic experience of my boyhood, an experience of sheer architectural wonder, soon after it opened in 1947. What had so impressed me was its open, ground-level selling floor as a thrillingly lofty space. I also remembered being fascinated by the pleasantly loose coexistence of various types of light fixtures embedded into and attached on an irregular, ad-hoc basis to adaptable mounts on the high ceiling (I still love the sense of relaxed order which this entailed!). Until provoked by the article on the other, later Queens Macy’s to see for myself, I never expected to experience the pneumatic space of that room again, assuming that the building must have succumbed to demolition or at least adulteration. There has, after all, been so much gratuitous anti-modernism in the age of the illiterate Yuppies. Yet appreciation of this building, at the time, precisely as modern should not be underestimated: at the age of 93, my only recently deceased aunt still remembered the store as the most streamlined building in what was then our part of the city.3
Last summer I was finally able to visit the site, expecting the worst but therefore in just the right pessimistic frame of mind to be happily surprised by the building, now known as Jamaica Colosseum Mall. I could hardly wait to describe it afresh, and consider it art-historically, as a major work by someone lately rediscovered: one Robert D. Kohn, and also a John J. Knight, who had worked together (and with Frank E. Vitolo) on 444 Madison Avenue (the sometime Newsweek Building), built in 1931. True, the main-floor ceiling is not quite as high as I remember it from first or second grade; but then again, I also remember that in the winter of 1947 a person could not even see over the snow banks on the streets! Nevertheless, the space remains lofty indeed, especially relative to the mean low ceilings to which most Americans are now accustomed, even in government buildings, let alone department stores.
The sleek, low-slung, single-storey exterior has an understatedly intelligent interplay of forms that could be considered functionalist even in that it avoids that potential dyslexic confusion of similar distant parts which affects many symmetrical buildings, classical or modern the problem here being a single low rectangular solid facing onto three streets. Imagine two people agreeing to wait at the corner after the distractions of shopping, only to find to their frustration two entrance corners, too far apart at that to see from one to the other. The corners, however, are distinct: the northeastern (165th Street and 89th Avenue) is quarter-round, its three bronze-framed bays consisting symmetrically of a central doorway and flanking shop-windows; while the northwestern (89th Avenue and 164th Street) is squared but asymmetric, with a doorway only on the northerly side, as the shorter leg of an ‘L.’ One can just see the difference in the exterior photograph from the southeast and above, where the far edge of the parapet is curved at the right while the right-angled corner is discernable at top right.
On a larger scale of differentiation: at the northwesterly corner one sees strip-windows on two sides, though differently placed, while at the other, northeasterly corner one sees no strip-windows at all to the left, but a strip of office windows around to the right. This latter strip of windows, and a marquee on the same, northeast, side, are also the parts of the building most patently in need of restoration, the marquee owing to the rotting of its now exposed wooden framing on the darker and damper north side. Also, these long marquees carry triple-convex-banded (probably sheet-bronze) trim; and while serving as canopies, they refer only casually to particular entrances, as if at a stroller’s pace, and compositionally differently, one feels, on all three facades.
The westerly facade, on 164th Street, which accommodates the automobile entrance to the roof, and exit therefrom, is the most complex, with two marquees, higher and lower, and pedestrian as well as the automotive portals. Here, on an off-centered rise in the facade, where an elevator tower projects above the roof parapet, (a forward-thrusting vertical plane, originally a sign bearing vertical M – A – C – Y’ – S letters), is complemented by a floating cantilevered horizontal below it to the left. These three-dimensional forms relate, as well, to further asymmetries. If anything, the asymmetries of projecting and receding, vertical and horizontal planes, as here between a medium-high stretch of facade to the right with vertical ventilators and a long low stretch of facade to the left, amount to an understated, easygoing extension not only of De Stijl but also, for instance, of Mies’s van der Rohe’s street facade of the 1930 Tugendhat House, at Brno, in the Czech Republic, as already transposed in Rudolph Schindler big-band version of the idea for the John J. Buck House, Los Angeles, of 1934.
Robert D. Kohn (1870-1953), the most distinguished of the various architects who worked on Macy’s Jamaica, was a significant older practitioner experienced in earlier modernism. Born in New York, Kohn was as old as Adolf Loos and actually older than Gropius or Le Corbusier; when he built Macy’s Jamaica with the assistance of John J. Knight, he was 75 to 77 years old. After City College and Columbia, Kohn had studied at the Beaux-Arts and that was still in the early 1890s! In Cleveland, early on, he had worked on a clothing factory and a women’s clothing store. Closer in time and space, he had worked on expansions of two New York department stores: the last building phases, in 1924-25 and 1928-29, of A. I. Namm & Son, on Fulton Street in Brooklyn (with Charles Butler), as well as the flagship Macy’s at Herald Square, which he expanded westwardly in 1924, 1928 and 1931. By 1945-47, when the Jamaica project was under way, he had long since been president of the American Institute of Architects (1930-32), director of the housing division of the federal Public Works Administration (1933-34) and vice-president and a design official of the 1939 New York World’s Fair.4
As to actual design: by 1947 the handsome quadrant-rounded northeastern corner of Macy’s Jamaica resembled Albert Martin and S. A. Marx’s famous May Company department store on Wilshire Boulevard in Los Angeles, of 1939-40, also limestone-clad, its strip-windows broken, however, into so many equal and equidistant dashes (Czech functionalists sometimes did much the same, if with more confidence in an ‘industrial’ look). In their well known formulation of the ‘International Style’ Hitchcock and Johnson had offered an almost disciplinary condemnation of what was, to them, gratuitous quadrant-rounded corner. As a functionalist mannerism, this on an Innsbruck apartment house of 1930 The curved corner cannot be justified by function nor does it appear necessary to the design5however, in commercial circumstances, at least, there were ample precedents for the form, significantly for purposes of merchandise display.6 And if modern glazed quadrant corners for shop-windows are reminiscent of early Adolf Loos, in Vienna, even his, on a boutique scale, must finally recall, with characteristic Loosian Anglophilia, the quadrant shop-windows of Samuel Ware’s Burlington Arcade (1818-19, modified in 1911), in London.7
The 2005 Landmarks designation of Kohn’s earlier Brooklyn department store work by the City of New York specifies a structural steel frame, with reinforced concrete floors, clad in Indiana limestone with bronze trim in a highly sophisticated, elegant modern design . . . with a rounded corner . . .  all features consonant with a nevertheless categorically more modern Jamaica Macy’s, twenty years later. The Namm’s noted rounded corner, on Fulton and Hoyt Streets, belongs to the store’s later, 1928-29, phase. In the 1930s the Namms’ store drew customers not only locally but also from Long Island, as would Macy’s Jamaica before both markets withered with the appearance on the Island of such malls as Skidmore, Owings & Merrill’s Roosevelt Field (1956; modified beyond recognition in the 1990s), which would include its own Macy’s.
At Kohn’s Jamaica Macy’s, the capacious selling floor also offered something even more ‘organic’ than the exterior quadrant-rounded corner. The whole street level is open-plan, thanks to the slim columns at amazingly wide, 60-foot intervals, allowing a completely free disposition of counters and displays. At present, the space is filled with a multitude of cubicles, like a 1990s ‘free-market’ commercial version of the municipal markets built by the City in the 1930s; yet even these benefit by the exhilaratingly lofty and unobstructed ceiling. Originally, the interior architects, Daniel Schwartzman and Kenneth C. Welch, had this main floor broken up by moveable modules forming ‘organically’ irregular counters. When the building was new, this very irregularity in the interest of flexibility was criticized for being insufficiently gray-flannel conformist, by a writer for whom this disposition made for a sort of strained restlessness, a lack of dignity and comfort, and a different type of monotonous uniformity.9 However, a consulting architect on the project, Richard G. Belcher, spoke instead of the remarkably organic form sales counters of the new Macy’s main floor as free form islands.10 They were, after all, akin even to the rubbery biomorphic forms of Friedrich Kiesler’s 1942 surrealist Art of This Century gallery for Peggy Guggenheim, including Kiesler’s so-called ‘correalistic’ multi-orientable as well as multi-purpose chairs,11 though admittedly more regularly and discretely curvaceous.
The fortunately permanent centerpiece of the main floor is also somewhat organic: a staircase that, thanks to a certain modesty of scale, manages to be un-pompously splendid as its curls down to the basement level for what looks to be an almost windowless single storey building from without is experienced as a two-storey one from within. Cut into an oval in the floor, the feature embraces both the straight ramp of a single ascending escalator and a sweepingly curved, divided up-and-down stairway that finally splits, as if into twin tendrils, as it reaches bottom, the whole wrapped around by a continuous hefty plate-glass baluster and framed elegantly sturdily in bronze. As unostentatious as it is, this wonderfully organic modernist staircase, it should be noted, precedes by a decade Saarinen’s great Borrominian T.W.A. Terminal at ‘Idlewild’ (now John F. Kennedy International) Airport which Docomomo has helped to save.
Urbanistically, Macy’s Jamaica represents a pivotal moment in the suburbanization of the postwar U.S.A. Namms’ in Brooklyn had aimed to be classy and was left high and dry; this first Macy’s in Queens was a middle-class masterpiece left more fortunately to working-class adaptation. What I am supposed to say, of course, is that in Jamaica the demographics changed; but saying so only hides two unhappy truths that I remember because I was there: that in the 1950s Queens white people stampeded to sell their houses, in a reverse speculation of hysterical shock at the arrival of blacks from the South. The real problem was that many newcomers were essentially small-town folk quite unaccustomed to the ressentiments of urban living. By the time this Macy’s closed in 1977, I have been told, only a single entrance could be kept open in order to minimize thefts; yet on the other hand, the tearing down by the city of the elevated ‘subway’ on Jamaica Avenue, two blocks away, at just about the same time, can hardly have been good for business.
Rather than conform my account to the by now conventionally pro-suburban topos of the cornucopian mall of the postwar commodity fiesta (facilitated by the destruction of ‘interurban’ public transportation in the interest of a once grand General Motors, which at this writing faces bankruptcy), I would point up the social-historic context of the building somewhat differently. Macy’s Jamaica is an overlooked work of architectural art, not just a halfway station to the age of ‘mall-to-mall’ mediocrity. If we really wanted to get into the social history, we could consider why it took two years, from groundbreaking in October 1945 to September 1947, to build this simple, fairly small structure: for the reason concerned the new corporate economy into which the many veterans returned, with extensive labor disputes and strike actions against R. H. Macy & Company throughout 1946, as one can readily track in The New York Times Index for that year.
On behalf of a building that opened in 1947 and closed in newly problematic socio-economic circumstances in 1977, it might be best to end by saluting thirty years of purpose-use followed by another thirty years of easy adaptability, notwithstanding neglect of maintenance: hardly a bad record now that we see famous major projects of the 1960s and even ‘70s receiving, in so-called ‘good’ neighborhoods, often enough, their second rehabilitations. And if its author’s earlier Brooklyn store, of far less artistic significance, has already been ‘landmarked,’ why not this solidly beautiful structure, still in decent condition, which would surely make a fine annex to the enthusiastically hummingly busy but quite overcrowded main Queens Library, almost around the corner?
Joseph Masheck, art historian and critic, and a former student in architectural history of Rudolf Wittkower and Dorothea Nyberg, was editor-in-chief of Artforum from 1977 to 1980. At present he is Centenary Fellow and Visiting Professor of History of Art at the Edinburgh College of Art, affiliated with the University of Edinburgh.
1. Kimbro Frutiger, ‘Irresistibly Rational: Macy’s Queens, 1965,’ Docomomo New York / Tri-State Newsletter, 2004, no. 1 (Summer), 3, 8.
2. Robert A. M. Stern, Thomas Mellins and David Fishman, New York 1960: Architecture and Urbanism Between the Second World War and the Bicentennial (New York: Monacelli, 1995), 1064
3. The critical term is interesting: Roger Fry used it as early as 1912 to indicate a new potential for ostentation in the very absence of traditional ornament: The amount of useless ornaments on the façades of their offices is a valuable symbol of the financial exuberance of big commercial undertakings; and, . . . the social status of the individual is expressed to the admiring or envious outer world by the stream-lines of an aristocratic motor-car, or the superfluity of lace curtains in the front windows of a genteel suburban villa; in ‘Art and Socialism,’ in his Vision and Design, 1st ed. 1920 (New York: Meridian, 1956), 72.
4. American Institute of Architects New York Chapter, A. I. A. Guide to New York City, 4th ed., ed. Norval White and Elliot Willensky (New York: Three Rivers, 2000), 225. Most of the information here on Robert D. Kohn, including his work at the A. I. Namm & Son, Brooklyn, derives from City of New York, Landmarks Preservation Commission, March 15, 2005, Designation List 359, LP-2170, ‘A. I. Namm & Son Department Store, 450-458 Fulton Street . . . Brooklyn,’ researched by Jay Shockley; available on-line at: www.nyc.gov/html/lpc/downloads/pdf/reports/nammstore.pdf.
5. Henry-Russell Hitchcock and Philip Johnson, The International Style (1932), 2nd ed. (New York: Norton, 1966), 226 (caption). The unfortunate designer was Lois (Alois) Welzenbacher. Hitchcock and Johnson still get too much credit for a term, ‘international style,’ already used by Karel Teige in his Modern Architecture in Czechoslovakia (1930).
6. In Prague, Mataj Blecha and Petr Kropajek’s boldly modern but in its own way ornamentally punctuated Supich Building (also known as the Moravian Bank) is an instance from as early as 1913-16; Rotislav Svácha, The Architecture of New Prague 1895-1945 (Cambridge, Mass.: M. I. T. Press, 1995), 86 with illus. on p. 87. Later commercial blocks turning corners in Prague include the radical Josef Goár’s rather conservative Brno Bank, 1921-23, and Frantiek Åehák and Milan Babuka’s ARA Department Store, 1927-31 (at least as reworked by Babuöka); these illustrated (as well as the äupich Building) in Ivan Margolius, Prague: A Guide to Twentieth-Century Architecture, photographs by Kieth Collie (London: Artemis, 1994), 94 with illus on 95; 64 with illus. on 65; 90 with illus. on 91, respectively.
7. H. M. Colvin, A Biographical Dictionary of English Architects 1660-1840 (London: John Murray, 1954), 651. The Piccadilly entrance to the Burlington Arcade was just in 1911 being modified.
8. New York, Landmarks Preservation Commission, ‘A. I. Namm & Son Department Store,’ 11.
9. Morris Ketchum, Jr., Shops and Stores (New York: Reinhold Publishing, 1948), 20, as quoted in Stern et al., New York 1960, 1064.
10. Richard G. Belcher, ‘Macy’s Jamaica is Designed Around Merchandising Methods,’ Architectural Forum 88 (February 1948), 100-04, here 100.
11. Interestingly, Belcher, op. cit., 102, complains, needless to say, before computer drawing, about having to specify and draw the fixtures to fit the curves, especially inside corners.
I am grateful for crucial advice, at different stages in the writing of this article, to Jeffrey Kroessler, of the Sealy Library at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, James Driscoll, president of the Queens Historical Society; Judith Todman, head of the Long Island Division at the central Queens Library, Jamaica; Robert Miller, retired librarian and volunteer at the same Library; and Barbara Sykes-Austin, of the Avery Library, Columbia University.
JOSEPH MASHECK is an art historian-critic whose most recent book is Texts on (Texts on) Art (Brooklyn Rail Press).