Nov. 17—For many years now, Niagara Falls residents have wondered what might become of the old Jenss department store building that was a fixture on Main Street when it was still a thriving business district in the city.
This week, a federally funded non-profit group created to promote and protect cultural and historic sites in the Falls put the finishing touches on a public art project that honors a local artist while adding some color to the building, which hasn't welcomed a shopper since closing in 1995.
The "Women of Niagara" art installation, now on display at the building located at 1708 Main St., features 86 pieces of artwork by the late Polly King, a well-known Niagara Falls artist who painted more than 450 portraits over the course of her lifetime.
The installation features brightly colored renditions of King's portraits of Niagara Falls women — 74 in all — that have been placed in the windows along the Main and Division streets sides of the five-floor structure.
"The Jenss building is very special," said Sara Capen, executive director of the Niagara Falls National Heritage Area. "It is an anchor on Main Street. It is filled with memories of the past that are linked to people here in the present. What we wanted to do was highlight the significance of the building."
Niagara Falls Heritage Area, Inc., one of 62 national heritage areas in the U.S., was designated by Congress in 2008. The non-profit group's preservation and promotional work covers an 11-mile area stretching from Youngstown to Niagara Falls.
Using funds from New York state's Downtown Revitalization Initiative, representatives from the Falls heritage area hired the local graphics marketing company Streamline Designs to create vinyl reproductions of portraits of local women painted by King between the 1940s and the 1970s. The project came together with support from the Polly King Art Gallery and King family.
Capen described King's artwork as "an indelible gift that builds an intersection between place and people."
"All of the women are from Niagara Falls and were part of the fabric of Niagara Falls and had their own stories," Capen said.
Polly King built her portfolio of artwork as a painter and sketch artist over the course of decades and continued to create new pieces of art up until her death at age 91 in 1993.
Her granddaughter, Dr. Robin King, said the portraits she painted of women in Niagara Falls chronicle a piece of social history in the city during its days of economic vibrancy.
"This installation is a great opportunity to take an under-utilized old building and bring it to life with Polly's portraits of women from the area done when this building was a major destination on Main Street," she said.
Jenss Department store operated out of 1708 Main St. for just under 80 years before its closure in 1995. In a story about the closing of the department store, the Buffalo News referred to the building, which was built by the Jenss family in 1916, as the "grand old lady of Main Street."
Following the store's closing, the building was acquired by Youngstown developer Richard Hastings who, in the mid-1980s, started purchasing properties along Main Street as part of what he hoped would be a large-scale redevelopment project.
In 2019, Hastings reached an agreement to sell the former Jenss building and 36 other properties he owned on or near Main Street to a Buffalo-based investment group called Blue Cardinal Capital.
Blue Cardinal Capital and its main investor, Bob Richardson, announced plans shortly after the sale to refurbish the largely vacant commercial property on Main Street, including the Jenss building.
To date, the group has not been successful in its efforts and has encountered financial challenges, including what Richardson previously described as the loss of a key investor.
Capen said her organization made arrangements with representatives from Blue Cardinal to accommodate the Polly King art installation. Streamline Designs finished installing the portraits in the windows at the former Jenss building earlier this week.
While Blue Cardinal's vision for a revitalized Main Street have yet to happen, Capen said she hopes people will see the new look at the old Jenss building and be encouraged about the possibility of a brighter future for the street and the city as a whole.
"We feel strongly as an organization that by bringing art and beauty into Niagara Falls, people will feel better," Capen said. "It will give them hope, which is at a great deficit and it will attract visitors to come to Niagara Falls and to Main Street to better understand the history and culture of Niagara Falls."
The Jenss building public art project is the latest in a recent series coordinated by the Niagara Falls Heritage Area. To date, the organization has facilitated more than 40 public art projects in the Falls.
Representatives previously led an effort to paint the three-word message "Imagine the possibilities" on the front of the first floor of the Jenss building facing Main Street.
The heritage area has also been involved in the painting of murals on Main Street near the Niagara Falls train station.
Last month, the group unveiled another mural painted by local artist Chuck Tingley on the side of the building located at 1700 Main St., where The Connection teen center is located.
"Our purpose is to instill pride in place for the incredible history of Niagara Falls while building pathways to the future and what it can be," Capen said. "We as an organization are not embedded in the past, but we commemorate and celebrate the past in our work in hopes of building a better future."
Like Jenss, many businesses along Main Street have closed and many of the storefronts have remained empty and boarded-up in the years since.
"Many residents have fond memories of growing up around Main Street, and we hear often of Sunday strolls, delicious local cuisine — notably The Royal Chef which was located next to Jenss for many years, late bar nights, and favorite holiday shopping experiences at Jenss and beyond," said Ally Spongr DeGon, director of public art for Niagara Falls National Heritage Area. "Our public art work generates new and creative ways and places to share these stories, while activating spaces to encourage visions for the future of Main Street."
U.S. Rep. Brian Higgins, D-Niagara Falls and Buffalo, hailed the project as another example of the "incredible value and work" of the Niagara Falls National Heritage Area in the city.
"This project highlights the unique history and stories of Niagara Falls to grow understanding and dialogue while also enriching the look and feel of the city for residents and visitors alike," he said.