I continue my research, as I try to become familiar with how our new home city came to be the way it is. And so I have finished reading the Frederick Law Olmsted Jr. and Arnold Brunner 1911 “City Plan for Rochester.”
It’s quite a document – vintage City Beautiful Movement in text, designs, and recommendations. I decided this afternoon to undertake a bit of a “then-and-now” comparison to examine what they suggested and what is actually in place today. You can find the whole book online if you’re interested.
The centerpiece of the plan is a recommendation for a new Civic Center. Much like Burnham’s 1909 Plan of Chicago, the Rochester Plan uses the proposed Civic Center as the central focus for an array of other recommendations. Here is what they proposed:
The plan view is an interesting piece of urban design, weaving building and streetways together: the Civic Center is placed astride Main Street, with roadways and trolley running through the building, which then enfronts a pair of large civic open spaces. North is at the top in this drawing from the Plan, below.
And here is what this site looks like today.
That’s W. Main Street running left to right (east and west) in the middle of the photo. The Civic Center would have run from the 490 Inner Loop expressway that you can see curving around downtown, east to Washington, which is the north/south street a block to the left of the red dot. It would have been about three blocks long east/west, and about two blocks wide, north/south.
City Hall today remains in a Richardsonian Romanesque building at Fitzhugh and Church Streets, about three blocks north and east of the proposed Civic Center.
This part of downtown is pretty sparse these days, as you can see. There’s nothing here except surface parking lots. Best part: the Red Wings baseball stadium just the other side of the moat, um, I mean the expressway.
Next I took a look at the City Plan’s proposal for a new train station. They proposed a site between Joseph and Clinton, bisected by Cumberland. Here’s what they recommended:
The station backs up to the raised railroad embankment, and enfronts a large plaza with semicircular parterres. Access is along either Clinton or Joseph, which have been turned into tree-lined parkways.
As Clinton and Joseph converge at Pleasant Street, another plaza is created, which features a large round area for a fountain or monument. This second plaza is an urban signal of the presence of the station, and a gateway to or from the station.
Here’s the site today:
There is a pretty nasty looking brick station and lots of surface parking. No plaza – just parking lots. And the second plaza, at Joseph, Clinton and Pleasant, falls smack dab in the middle of moat/Inner Loop.
Compounding this urban misfire is the fact that a great train station in fact was constructed on the site recommended by the Plan. Designed by very noted Rochester architect Claude Bragdon, the building opened in 1914. It looked like this:
Amy remembers this building vividly. The interior was quite gorgeous, with fabulous masonry and tile work throughout.
I say ‘was’ because the building was destroyed in phases starting in the late 60s, until it was completely gone by the mid 70s. Now if you want to catch the train you get to enjoy this:
The public library here says that losing the Bragdon station was “arguably one of the greatest losses to Rochester’s architectural scenery and history.” No argument there.
Rochester, like nearly every other American city, engaged in a decades-long gala festival of horrific urban decisions in the late 20th century. Time and again pretty much everything one could do to wreck a place, and employ the worst kind of city making, Rochesterians succeeded in accomplishing.
What’s interesting is that underneath all that horror are a few pretty terrific ideas, other ideas about city making that could perhaps represent some of the necessary new foundations for the next Rochester.
I will read on.