Architectural Portraiture By Landmarks And Follies' items Go to Visions of Architecture by Landmarks and Follies

Friday, December 31, 2010

Rochester's Past Futures: Genesee Crossroads Parcel 3

Between the years 1950 and 1975 over a quarter of downtown Rochester's 400 acres were cleared for urban renewal projects. This excludes the many surface parking lots that already existed in lieu of buildings during the 1950's, or the land taken  for expressway-building. Taken as a whole, it is easy to see that the majority of downtown was demolished and remade in the 25 year period of post-war urban renewal.

Despite the richness of the remaining architectural treasures found downtown so much has been lost that a Rochester time traveler from 100 years ago would have to be placed at the corner of Main and Fitzhugh to have any sense of where they were. There, the visitor would quickly recognize the majority of the buildings as this is the most historically intact area downtown and it retains the styles and scale of the late 1800's and early 1900's.

Still, the visitor would be surprised and confused after walking in the Powers Hotel to rent a room only to find out that the "hotel" - now called the Executive Building and lacking the opulence of the hotel's lobby as well as lodging to rent - is an office building. He would become even more disoriented as he crossed Fitzhugh to shop at the Duffy-Powers department store and was instead treated to the sight of county employees spilling into the lobby at the end of a workday.

Should the visitor have the courage to continue on and head east along Main Street the alien landscape he would experience would bear very little resemblance to how it was in 1910. Only the Granite Building, still standing at the corner of St. Paul and Main as it has since the 1890's would provide the visitor a visual anchor.

The buildings that lined the Main Street bridge are gone as is the entire Front Street neighborhood and the majority of the adjacent Water Street district. In their place stand towers and plazas, hotels and "parks", temples and glass cubes, parking garages and failed fountains. This is the Genesee Crossroads Urban Renewal Area, the largest (as built) urban renewal project planned and developed downtown.

Click on the image for a larger view and to see the dozens of buildings cleared to create Genesee Crossroads.

Thirty acres were cleared and redeveloped along the banks of the Genesee River north of Main Street as well as along the Main Street bridge and at the Four Corners.

The Monroe County Civic Center (11 acres), Midtown Plaza (8.6) and the Community War Memorial (4) combined do not measure up to this one project.
The original World Trade Center, a gigantic project even by New York City standards, covered "only" sixteen acres in lower Manhattan.

The Southeast Loop Urban Development District plan - for the neighborhood where Manhattan Square Park and Apartments now stand - was far larger in scope and was planned to become a fully redeveloped 60 acres of land along the Inner Loop's southeastern quadrant.

While most of the land was eventually cleared and redeveloped - First Universalist Church survived, Monroe Avenue through downtown did not - less than half of the project was built as designed.

At Southeast Loop only the park, two of the apartment towers and a garage were completed as planned leaving Genesee Crossroads the undisputed champ of Rochester Urban Renewal!

By now the time traveler has surely fled back to the familiar confines of 1910 Rochester.

However, in keeping with the time travel theme I thought it would be fun to explore downtown's recent pasts with you.

Recent pasts?
Why plural?

Well, we already can see what was built - just walk or drive around downtown or use Google Street View - and we can read about how they came to be (Rochester's Downtown Architecture: 1950-1975 hint, hint).

What about the recent past projects that never came to be?

Bob Smith, during my interview with him on 1370 Connection (http://danpalmermodernarchitectureinterview.podbean.com/) inquired about the many projects - and the variations of built projects - that were proposed but never built.

Although I did include some examples in my book there just was not enough space to fully examine the rejected proposals.

Now, thanks to this blog and my gradual sifting of an avalanche of newly discovered (and as yet undiscovered) archival documentation I can now take the time to fully research these proposals and share the stories of Rochester's alternate pasts with you!

The Genesee Crossroads Urban Renewal District was sectioned into 6 parcels, each with its own designated use.

Parcel 3 of the Genesee Crossroads Urban Renewal Area originally consisted of plots of land on either side of the river north of Main and an assumed redevelopment of the Main Street Bridge. Many studies were created to determine the particular use and relative look of the project's parcels. Once a basic plan was finalized it would serve as a guide to prospective developers.

Main Street Bridge, before urban renewal

It is ironic how it is now often pointed out that the view of the river from Main Street was "opened up" during the 1960's when in fact the first few serious plans for this area included new buildings along the Main Street Bridge that would have blocked the view to this day!

An early master plan by the famous architecture firm I.M. Pei  & Associates from October 1960 proposed low rise concrete apartment buildings - similar in design to Pei's Kips Bay Plaza in NYC from the same year - lining both sides of river and flanking the centerpiece of the proposal, a 20-story Miesian behemoth of a hotel straddling the river along Main Street. The plan was later abandoned.

However,at least one aspect of the Pei plan appeared in future plans, albeit for a different use...

 A Miesian office (not hotel) tower straddling the river PLUS additional buildings on the south side of the Main Street Bridge can be seen in this 1964 concept.

Gotta love those "opened vistas!" 

In October 1965 proposals for the six parcels were revealed. Not one proposal was made for Parcel 3 due to its large size (5 acres) and the expense of the bid to develop it ($790,000). However, a proposal was made later in the year by a prominent developer and construction company for a tower that would have dominated the skyline of Rochester.

On Christmas day in 1965 the company responsible for building the Empire State Building, Starrett Brothers, proposed a new headquarters for Marine Midland Bank on the west half of Parcel 3. The 32-story glass and steel tower would surpass the Xerox Tower - under construction at the time - in both height and office space.

This tower was never built and would instead only cause more confusion for the bank as it had to decide between this building and an already planned 10-14-story building at the Four Corners.

In the spring of 1966 three serious proposals for Parcel 3 were revealed.
Only one proposal included buildings along the Main Street Bridge, an indicator perhaps of the move toward an "open vistas" redevelopment of the old bridge.

Once again, Starrett Brothers offered to build a high rise headquarters for Marine Midland Bank. The 30-story tower would feature a facade of textured precast concrete similar to the concrete "screens" of Edward Durell Stone's designs of the time. Colonnades would frame the large windows along the top and bottom of the tower's exterior. Spanning the river would be twin theaters and a large landscaped area. On the east half of the parcel retail and parking  facilities would also include an entrance plaza at the corner of Main and St. Paul.  S.J. Kessler and Sons of New York City were the architects of this proposal.

In the end MMB built a 21-story tower , designed by Skidmore, Owings and Merrill on the other side of downtown in the Southeast Loop area in 1970.

Ahh...corporate decision-making!

Another New York developer, Tishman Realty and Construction Company, builders of the massive 100-story John Hancock Center in Chicago, proposed two high rise towers on either side of the Genesee, a restaurant built over the river and a two-story retail/movie theater/exhibition facility along St.Paul Street. As was expected, plenty of plaza space would be included as well. The towers (24 and 28-stories tall) and the retail/theater bustle represent project architect Skidmore, Owings and Merill's typical take on Mies's black-framed, exposed/expressed structure and I-Beam mullion motif so prevalent at the time amongst the big corporate firms. While the towers recall Mies's Lake Shore Drive Apartments and SOM's own Equitable Building in Chicago more so than they do his Seagram Building the retail/theater building looks like it was taken straight from the low rise bustle of SOM's Union Carbide Building (now JP Morgan Chase) on Park Avenue.

Local developer L.S. & G. Corp. proposed a 372 foot high office tower whose exterior columns would be sheathed in white marble. The tower would be located across the river from a department store/parking garage/restaurant complex. A covered pedestrian bridge across the river would link the two projects. New York architects Raymond and Rado designed this proposal.

None of these projects would be built...

Finally, in 1968 L.S. & G Corp began construction of Parcel 3 with the development of the eastern half of the parcel, along Main and St. Paul Streets.

When completed in 1970, the Holiday Inn Rochester was the largest hotel in town with over 500 rooms.
A 12-story tower of reinforced concrete rises above a broad 2-story base that contains a restaurants and shops. Large windows afford sweeping views of the surrounding city and countryside while the rooftop pool and sundeck provide relaxation opportunities during the summer months. The hotel changed hands many times over the years and is now a Radisson Inn.

The plot of land along the west bank of the river took a while longer to be developed and the office tower went through at least one more round of concepts before arriving at the design that was eventually built.

In this concept from August 1969 Rochester firm Corgan and Balestiere propose a 15-story office tower rising from a tiered plaza that connects to Charles Carroll Park to the north. A recessed ground floor and the "expressed" structure form a colonnade at the base of the tower. Windowless east and west facades and the slender exterior columns lead me to speculate that the tower would have been a reinforced concrete structure with its service/elevator cores located in those solid, (likely masonry-clad) "bookends." Fronting Main Street is a separate bank building that is undoubtedly influenced by a modern treasure of New York architecture, completed a year before...
The Ford Foundation Building opened in 1968 and featured offices built around a central, glass enclosed courtyard in a shape very similar to the banking concept for Parcel 3. Prolific and important Late/Post Modern firm Roche and Dinkeloo finally emerged from the shadow of Roche's mentor, the great Eero Saarinen, with this gorgeous and urbane building.

Had it been built us "know it all's" would have loved pointing out the little bank's relation to the Ford Foundation Building to anyone who asked!

What was built on the western half of Parcel 3 would also be designed by Corgan and Balestiere and would have some neat features of its own.

First Federal Plaza opened in August 1977, seven years after the Holiday Inn, and was the final project completed at the Genesee Crossroads Urban Renewal Area. One of the tallest buildings in the city at 309 feet, First Federal Plaza's design incorporated public and private attractions that took advantage of the tower's great height and its central location downtown. An external glass elevator would whisk diners to the revolving restaurant at the tower's summit while one floor below valued patrons of First Federal Savings and Loan could socialize in the bank's personal lounge, the "Statesman's Club." Unfortunately, both of these attractions closed decades ago with their spaces converted for office use. A portion of the Main Street Bridge - cleared of buildings - is seen to the right of First Federal Plaza.
Today neither the hotel or the office tower command the interest of the public the way they did back before the "dream" of a pure and functional architecture that could solve the ills of society and usher in a Utopian era was yet to be shattered by the public backlash to the often banal and destructive modern projects that appeared across the country in the post war era.

Ironically, after all the talk about the "slum clearing" and "improvements" to the Front and Water Street neighborhoods in the 1960's it is these very same places that today people in Rochester miss the most!

Let's hope today's visionaries and local leaders take heed the lessons to be learned from these mega projects of the past.

From the recent debacle that was Renaissance Square and the ongoing controversy over the redevelopment of Midtown Plaza it seems that they have not learned much.


  1. Thank you for this excellent history lesson! I rather like the Tishman proposal. Too bad we're left with the ugly, and now pink-hued Radisson with attached, exposed aggregate-faced two-story parking garage. Lovely!

  2. Enjoyed reading this article - my dad, Al Balestiere, was the principle of Corgan & Balestiere - heard lots of dinner time stories about the struggles of getting First Federal Plaza done - lot's of issues with the bank's president and attorney - remember going to the "topping off" celebration and standing on the open top floor - Tom Balestiere

  3. Also... final design was considered somewhat controversial for conservative Rochester (compare final version versus original rendering). I remember my dad was inspired by revolving restaurants in Toronto and Seattle. Locals would say, "But Al, this is Rochester!" For a time, the Changing Scene restaurant was "the" place to go in Rochester - a decidedly hip place for a mundane city like Rochester and ultimately, it didn't last.

    1. Did your dad ever discuss the resemblance between the banking pavilion in the earlier design study and the Ford Foundation building in NYC? Any stories you could recall would be really informative and insightful.

    2. No, I never heard him discuss that comparison. Sorry - Tom B.

  4. wonderful! nice information about consructiop of building --- i like it . your blog is very useful and good about the construction and design of building . go up and sahre like this information to us. you can view more here
    Navalis construction & design