Tom Buechner played an essential role in restoring Main Streets into 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. However, even beyond his professional work, it was Buechner’s astute understanding of how to transform the places within his own community that made such a powerful impact on the Placemaking world.
An artist and designer, Buechner trained and worked all over the world, from Amsterdam to Puerto Rico. Early in his career, he worked on display design at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and he 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, where he served until 1971. He made it a priority of the Museum to reconfigure its display practices in order to bring 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 featuring salvaged pieces from multiple sites throughout New York City. Following his time at the Brooklyn Museum, he served as the president of Steuben Glass and chairman of the Corning Glass Works Foundation, and he returned as the President of the Corning Museum of Glass.
Throughout his career as a director and executive, Beuchner continued to practice art as both a painter and an illustrator for Chicago Tribune and Washington Post. In 1986, he began painting full time, focusing on portraiture, landscapes, and still life. He was featured in multiple solo and group exhibitions, and he published many books and articles on 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 Corning’s Market Street had disappeared—twenty-five percent of the stores were vacant and a feeling of despair was palpable. Fortunately, several women from the local historical society saw the potential of the many late-nineteenth century commercial buildings that lined Market Street. They did everything they could to promote the preservation of the street’s historic architecture, and Tom Buechner quickly joined their cause.
Working as chairman of the Corning Glass Works Foundation at the time, Buechner was an important corporate executive in the area, and he understood the importance of preserving these buildings and turning 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. With an understanding that Corning would not survive without such places, Buechner knew that a professional effort was needed in order to implement a strategy for saving these buildings and bringing energy back to downtown. He had few resources, however, from which to draw resources or ideas. from nothing at all existed in the U.S from which to draw inspiration or ideas.
Undeterred, in 1974 Buechner created a not-for-profit organization devoted to the revitalization of Market Street. Buechner generated support from local leaders and secured the initial funding for the project. Norman Mintz became the organization’s first director, and thus the country’s first Main Street manager—an idea that inspired the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s Main Street Program, which now exists in thousands of communities across the country. With a keen understanding of the value of downtowns as community hubs, Thomas Buechner is remembered as a great leader, mentor, and true pioneer of Main Street.