Tom Buechner played an essential role in restoring our Main Streets as places that people want to be. While in Corning, New York, he recognized the importance of successful Main Streets in creating community vitality, setting in motion what would become the country’s first Main Street program. Yet it was not Buechner’s professional work that led him to make an impact as a placemaker, but rather his ability to understand what would make his community a better place.
As an artist and designer, Buechner trained and worked all over the world including Amsterdam and Puerto Rico. Early in his career, he worked on display design at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and later served as the first director of the Corning Museum of Glass from 1950 to 1960. Under his watch, the museum worked to establish glass as a respected medium, rather than simply a “craft.” He organized numerous traveling exhibitions and founded two professional journals, The Journal of Glass Studies and New Glass Review. In 1960, Buechner, then only 33, was hired as the Director of the Brooklyn Museum and served until 1971. He made it a priority of the Museum to reconfigure the way that it displayed work in order to move a large number of pieces out of storage and make them accessible to the public. Historic preservation was also a focus for Buechner at the museum—he created a sculpture garden that featured salvaged pieces from sites throughout New York City. Following his time at the Brooklyn Museum, he served as the president of Steuben Glass, chairman of the Corning Glass Works Foundation, and returned as the President of the Corning Museum of Glass.
Throughout his career as a director and executive, he continued to practice art as an illustrator for the Chicago Tribune and Washington Post and also as a painter. Beginning in 1986, Buechner began painting full time focusing on portraiture, landscapes, and still lifes. He was featured in solo and group exhibitions, and published many books and articles regarding his perspective on art.
The Importance of a Thriving Main Street
In the 1960s, the commercial district of Corning, NY struggled like many other small downtowns. Many retailers had fled to the new mall, and the vibrancy that was once so much a part of Market Street in Corning had disappeared. Twenty-five percent of the stores were vacant and a feeling of despair was very evident. Fortunately, a number of women from the local historical society saw the potential of the many late nineteenth century commercial buildings that lined Market Street. They did whatever they could to promote the preservation of the street’s historic architecture. It was Tom Buechner who rallied to their cause.
Buechner was an important corporate executive in the area, working as chairman of the Corning Glass Works Foundation at the time, and saw the need to preserve the buildings and turn them into social and economic assets for the community. He knew that people wanted to live where there was a thriving downtown, filled with places to eat, shop, and interact with other members of the community. He understood that Corning would not be able to survive without places where residents wanted to spend their time. He had the vision and understanding to know that it would take a professional effort to implement any strategy to save the buildings and bring energy back to downtown. Yet nothing at all existed in the U.S from which to draw inspiration or ideas.
Undeterred, in 1974 Buechner proposed creating a not-for-profit organization devoted to the revitalization of Market Street. Buechner generated support from local leaders and also secured the initial funding for the project. Norman Mintz was hired to be the organization’s first director. In so doing, Mintz became the nation’s first Main Street Manager, a concept that gave birth to the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s Main Street Program – a program now in place in thousands of communities across the country. It is Buechner who had the confidence to understand the importance and value of our downtowns. His vision and courage helped create a national standard.
He is remembered as a great leader, mentor and true pioneer of Main Street.
Thomas S. Buechner, How I Paint (New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 2000).
Thomas S. Buechner, Norman Rockwell: Artist and Illustrator (New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc. 1996).
Thomas S. Buechner, “Transients,” Penland (1982): 8-9.
Thomas S. Buechner, “The Ring in Glass,” New Glass (July/September 1987): 204-207.
Thomas S. Buechner, “Fat Eggplant,” Around & About Visitors Publication (Summer/Fall 1990): 12.
Thomas S. Buechner, “Shelf Life.” Ad for the Hayden-Hays Gallery, Colorado Springs, CO, Southwest Art (January 1992).