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East Avenue architecture allows a stroll through Rochester history

ANNUAL MANUAL '10: Architiecture: from Federal to 

East Avenue architecture allows a stroll through Rochester history

MICHAEL LASSER

There was a time when city leaders thought Lake Avenue would be Rochester's grand boulevard, rather than the old dirt road along which a horse and cart could clip-clop from Pittsford to the falls of the mighty Genesee. (There was no Liberty Pole in the way in those days.) Even George Eastman, who owned land on Lake Avenue, had thought about building himself a house there, but -- noblesse obligebe damned! -- he decided he didn't want trolleys filled with workers on their way to KodakPark clanging past his house every day. He moved to East Avenue and, in 1905, built his mansion there.

            The development of the avenue that began after the Civil War had nearly finished by then. Earlier, the first generation of prosperous Rochesterians had built in Corn Hill, but their children had other ideas: the neighborhood was filling up, the lots and houses were insufficiently grand, and because there was no zoning, a worker and his pigs might live right next door to the boss. The young married progeny of Rochester's upper crust chose instead to build big, but in what was then the middle of nowhere. Nonetheless, East Avenue soon became Rochester's most fashionable address, and the home of its most lavish parties.

            A decision by one man, Hiram Sibley, helped to spur this new generation to act. Western Union's first president and Rochester's richest man before Eastman, Sibley left Mendon to build a grand house at the corner of East Avenue andAlexander Street in 1868, thereby giving people's itch to move both impetus and legitimacy. If someone that rich was doing it, it had to be OK.

            The stories behind the houses that line East Avenue and its side streets from Winton to Alexander serve up a full portion of human accomplishment and eccentricity. Architect James G. Cutler could afford to live there because he invented the mail chutes that became a staple of high-rise apartment buildings and hotels, while AzariahBoody, a local farmer, had Prince Street named after his horse or his dog. Nobody's sure which.

            Taken as a whole, though, East Avenue and its surrounding off-shoots offer a living history of nearly a century of American architecture. Its houses represent every important style from the early 19th century to the early 20th. From Federal in 1816 to Frank Lloyd Wright in 1907-08, these houses transformed a street and its environs into one of America's grandest boulevards.

Even in a smallish, out-of-the-way city on the southern shore of the smallest GreatLake, farmland turned into blocks and neighborhoods, and buildings were leveled to be replaced. But the extraordinary fact of East Avenue comes down to this: during the 1960's, the demolition of the Thompson House to build the Strathallan hotel became one of the watershed events that mobilized area residents to protect the area.

            The City Preservation Ordinance, passed in 1969, ensures the survival of the historic houses of East Avenue. Rather than settling into genteel decline followed by wholesale destruction, East Avenue re-emerged, not as a dusty museum of tired buildings, but as what Cynthia Howk, architectural research coordinator for the Landmark Society of Western New York, calls "a vibrant urban neighborhood." While some houses remain private residences, others have been restored as apartments or offices. Not since the mid-1960's has any significant building been demolished to make room for an undistinguished box like the apartment buildings at 1400 and 1600.

            Most of the houses that remain are the original mansions built between the end of the Civil War and 1913, when the new federal income tax began to limit the extravagance of the upper classes. But for that time period, they reflect a confluence of contemporary taste, American confidence and expansionism, and theatricality. This was the time of the robber barons, and while there were no Vanderbilts or Morgans in residence, there were local versions of bigwigs to contend with. The original residents were intent on having houses commensurate with their wealth and authority -- as well as their unspoken desire to show off. This was "home, sweet home" for Rochester nabobs from Sibley to the Messrs. Bausch and Lomb to the less-well-remembered H.H. Warner, who made his fortune as what one writer called "the patent medicine king."

            Most of the houses are examples of the many building styles clumped together loosely under the term "Victorian," from Greek Revival, through Tudor and Gothic Revival, to Richardson Romanesque, and more. During this eclectic period in American building, even a Queen Anne house -- a distinctive style in itself -- could borrow details from almost anything that tickled its architect's fancy. East Avenue's most distinguished example of that style, at 737, was designed by Rochester architect Harvey Ellis in 1883, and was restored as apartments in the early 1970's. No house is more eclectic, though, than the much more ornate Queen Anne at 1545, a wondrously fanciful hodge-podge of different building styles from 1878.

            Compared with, say, Euclid Street in Cleveland and James Street in Syracuse, East Avenue's survival rate is actually pretty good. Euclid and James have lost upwards of 90 percent of their original mansions. Donald S. Hall, the former director of Strasenburgh Planetarium, who has a strong interest in East Avenue, estimates that of the original 100 mansions that existed between Winton and Alexander, about 50 survive. AsburyChurch alone required the demolition of four houses. Of the four houses that stood between Oxford and Merriman streets, only one remains. And so on down the avenue. Building every apartment building and nearly every church meant the destruction of houses during the years before the 1969 ordinance.

Yet among the buildings that remain are some of the most beautiful and significant: the Italianate Bates-Ryder House at 1399, the Greek Revival Woodside at 485, and on side streets, the Federal-style Oliver Culver House at 70 East Boulevard, the Edward Boynton House by Frank Lloyd Wright at 16 East Boulevard, and the Gothic Revival house at 7 Prince Street. Their appeal remains for anyone who wants to learn about history or architecture, or who enjoys a walk in the presence of something majestic yet human, a mirror of another time and a present-day home for hundreds of citizens.

            Of all the interesting places for walking in Rochester, few equal East Avenue, where, in addition to the houses, there are trees for shade, ample sidewalks, and places for a cup of coffee nearby. For those who don't know much about architecture, the Landmark Society of Western New York gives periodic walking tours.

            For those who want to venture forth on their own, CythiaHowk suggests looking closely and raising questions for yourself. For instance, what makes these old houses different from what you're used to? What do you think about the mixing of different materials and elaborate ornamentation? What kind of people do you think lived in them? Maybe, says Howk, the wondering will lead to curiosity and even a search for answers and a deepening understanding of some of the things that have been going on around you for more than 100 years. What it takes to keep East Avenue alive and well, is "a vigilant and preservation-oriented public," says Howk. "The laws are on the books, but we need to make sure they continue to be enforced."

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