August 13, 2003 News & Opinion » Featured story

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In the dark 

Will Rochester trash a corner of its past?

Peter Tautfest, a well-known European journalist who died this past winter, was truly a man of the world. He was born in Berlin, grew up in Chicago, was educated in Texas, and served as a foreign correspondent in Washington. His paper was Germany's most interesting daily, Die Tageszeitung, which not long ago helped disclose US corporations' meretricious deals with Saddam Hussein. Tautfest's lifetime itinerary shows he knew cities inside and out.

            Oh yes, he made at least one fieldtrip to Rochester. He made contact with local journalists. And he liked it here.

            Over coffee at Village Gate one day, Tautfest oohed and aahed over Rochester's wealth of 19th century buildings, starting with The Gate itself and moving through downtown proper. At first hearing, that struck us as weird. How could a cosmopolite from "Old Europe" delight in an upstart New World city?

            Then we thought about it.

            Like millions of Germans, Tautfest was weaned on cities that were stripped of their older building stock in the wartime bombings. Take his hometown. The German capital is still rising from the ashes, thanks to targeted investments, including money from the Marshall Plan. In many instances, Berliners were restarting with little more than skeletons of old architecture. But the "urban removal" philosophy seems not to have applied a death-grip. All over Berlin today, you can see buildings restored to their old contours by the artful blending of old and new --- often a lot more of the latter than the former.

            Think of it this way: What if Rochesterians had reconstructed old St. Joseph's downtown by fleshing out the shell with new, imitative materials --- and constructed an active church rather than a mute memory?

St. Joseph's remains a Rochester success story. At least there's something left. Thankfully, St. Joe's didn't entirely meet the fate of churches like the original Asbury Methodist. The latter stood on the southeast corner of East Main and Clinton till shortly after "farewell services" in 1884, says a blurb from a photo collection held by the Rochester Museum and Science Center.

            But take a quick diagonal look from the old Asbury site, and you realize that Rochester's spirit of preservation has a lot further to go.

            Over there, on the northwest corner of Main and Clinton, some 19th century buildings --- not shells or remnants, but whole organic structures --- are in the crosshairs. In particular, three small buildings sit where a new "Rochester Central Station" may be built to accommodate transit and intercity buses.

            By now the political tug-of-war has almost exhausted the community. Even the key players --- station proponent Bill Nojay, chair of the Rochester-Genesee Regional Transit Authority; opponent Louise Slaughter, the US Representative in whose district the site lies; and the wavering Rochester Mayor Bill Johnson --- sometimes seem strung out. And media attention has been, well, obsessive.

            Suffice it to say: Since early July, when US Senators Chuck Schumer and Hillary Rodham Clinton publicly expressed support for the plan, the construction of the new station has drawn much closer. And the three corner buildings' days are less generously numbered.

            But as with many things that gain significance only in extremity, some people are looking at the buildings afresh.

            First, you must realize these brick, iron-framed buildings are not exactly "abandoned" nor are they necessarily "eyesores." (Admittedly, there's vacant space behind the few businesses left operating in them, and the whole package is the realtor's "fixer-upper.") And they've got integrity, of the architectural type: They're units of an unbroken line of commercial structures that give the north side of Main Street its continuity --- a key draw for pedestrians.

            So let us introduce you to them, their names and numbers:

            • 216 East Main. This building, whose first floor houses Famous Jewelry, has two upper floors with large multi-paned windows. Since there's a southern exposure, the windows could abundantly illuminate the space within. The façade has a few reminders of --- cynics might call them cheap versions of --- classical columns and an entablature. Cheap or dear, the details are worth looking at.

            • 220-222 East Main. This structure houses Off the Hook Urban Wear; each of two upper floors has three solid-looking windows with masonry heads and sills.

            • 224-226 East Main. With Dixie Wigs and a discount jewelry shop sharing the ground floor, this building has a façade whose upper floors are almost wholly covered by a signboard. But old photos show it has attractive shallow bay windows which may still exist intact, or at least not fatally damaged.

            The tenants in this cluster of buildings include at least one de facto preservationist.

            Mike Picow, owner-operator of A-1 Buyers-N-Sellers Pawn shop, says he spends his workdays "in a 10x10 cell" at 3 North Clinton, a few yards around the corner from 226 East Main. City officials, he says, once told him "nobody could make a living in such a small space." Yet he's done so for eight years at this location, and he says he wants to stick with it.

            A Bronx native who now lives in Greece, Picow is direct.

            "What the RGRTA is trying to do to little dickheads like us!" he says with exasperation. Because of the transit station plan, he says, "they'll send people to the unemployment line to fester, to start all over again." He wonders why, instead of spending $58 million on the station, officials don't spend a mere million on a facelift for the existing buildings. (The owner of the space Picow occupies, Edwin Cohen, could not be reached for comment.) "Why borrow $60 million to do a job that could be done for $6 million [in the Sibley's building]. Am I happy about moving? No. Am I happy about downtown looking the way it is? No."

Architectural experts have been sizing up the situation in their own way.

            "The three were given a 'green-minus' rating" in a 1980 study, says Cynthia Howk, the Landmark Society's architectural research coordinator. Green-minus means a building should be "saved or restored if possible," she says. "These are among the few remaining smaller [19th century] commercial buildings in downtown," she says, dating the buildings at circa 1860-1870.

            There's no doubt that mid- to late-20th century encrustations have taken the bloom off the buildings, however. And as anyone can see from photos in the city archives, the Rochester Museum and Science Center's collection, and other historical sources, large commercial ads are a special problem. And overwhelmingly large ads have been attached to the buildings since the 1940s.

            "What's been difficult is that you have the wrap-around signboard [at the very corner]," says Howk. "The first floors are what people have trouble getting past." (Today the signboard, which sticks out a foot or more from the exterior possibly to accommodate the bay windows, bears a recruiting ad from Monroe Community College. MCC's Damon City Campus is located across the street in the old Sibley's building.)

            Context is very meaningful in architecture and street design, of course, and the corner buildings have plenty of it. Just to the west, the former McCrory's building has a mid-20th century Art Deco façade, just the sort of thing that's greatly risen in value in recent years. Compare the old Hallman's Chevrolet showroom at 200 East Avenue, now the bustling Spot Coffee. Moreover, right around the corner on Clinton Avenue you'll see other upper stories with attractive windows and possibilities. Even much-ignored Division Street, a narrow urban canyon with rear entrances and bricked-upped windows, could become a pedestrian-friendly commercial area, given the right formula.

            Howk also cites 190 East Main. Home to the I&S Variety Stores, this tall, thin building's façade is graced with decorative faux pillars, complete with two modest gargoyles.

Current plans for Rochester Central Station, though, could doom or compromise all these buildings and their context.

            And this doesn't set well with Joni (pronounced "Johnny") Monroe, an architect who's now executive director of the fledgling Rochester Regional Community Design Center.

            "One of the things I think is interesting about Main Street is it's pretty much intact from Stillson Street to St. Paul," says Monroe, a city resident. She notes that this half-mile stretch of commercial buildings, which includes the historic Granite Building, Sibley's and Edwards department stores, and the former Scrantom's book store, among others, is uninterrupted. "But it's been bastardized," she says.

            The illegitimation, so to speak, could get worse if the new Central Station is built without regard for relationships to nearby buildings and sidewalks.

            As things are now, says Monroe, the north side of Main Street downtown would be the envy of many other cities. She recalls a recent trip to Nashville, which, she says, "has destroyed a lot of its downtown area."

            But Maine's largest city could serve as an example for us, Monroe says. Portland's downtown, she says, is comparable in size to Rochester's. But unlike Rochester, Portland, she says, has "methodically renovated and restored" its old buildings. And the actual port area there, she adds, retains "the grittiness" appropriate to such a neighborhood.

            (Many people have commented on the sterility of parts of downtown Rochester, which once boasted its own gritty commercial areas, especially on streets close to the Genesee River.)

Coming back to the corner of Main and Clinton, Monroe wonders if the threatened old buildings might survive in a retooled design of the station. "They could be integrated into something built behind them," she says. "I don't know how easy that would be to do."

            But Monroe is careful to say that she and her organization, by consensus, support an alternative plan: nixing the transit center on the northwest corner of Main and Clinton, and creating a more modest facility for bus riders in part of the old Sibley's building.

            The building of consensus is important: As Monroe says, the RGRTA-Nojay plan sprang from a very "top-down" process. "My hope," she says, "is that there will be an opportunity for public discussion" on the plan and alternatives. She concedes "it's a sensitive time, a delicate time" politically.

            What about the timing? Will people get turned on to the threatened buildings before it's too late? Monroe cites an architectural dilemma: "They're very vernacular buildings," she says, "and some people wish they had the character of Sibley's."

            But there's clearly value in them, individually and in context. Says Monroe: "We should be trying to celebrate the diversity... the combination of buildings reflective of the development of the American city."

            She mentions that the Design Center, now sharing space on Meigs Street, will be looking for its own permanent office. For future reference: It's still possible there'll be some bright, nicely renovated 19th-century lofts available at the corner of Main and Clinton.

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