With a bit of nosing around, we can learn all sorts of things about the cities we call home. Often the stories we unearth bring us to a sad present, but just as often that sad present suggests a happier future. What in the world am I talking about? Let me explain.
Recently, colleague Bob Williams suggested that I get to know a bit about a lost place in the Rochester cityscape: Franklin Square. Since I have been getting to know some of these Rochester stories, and places, I have learned much about how extraordinary this place once was – really, really terrific – and how low it has fallen, mostly due to cars and sprawl. And, I think, some fairly immeasurable stupidity. The story of Franklin Square, and the bonus story I discovered in the process, is a perfect example of what afflicts us here, and in so many like cities now overrun with wide streets, too few residents, and too many cars. Pull up a chair. Herein lies the tale of two city places.
First, this is Franklin Square in a 1919 photo taken by the Army School of Aerial Photography, which was located here, at Kodak Park, during WWI.
Look how dense the city was then! No surface parking lots, buildings jammed in all over the place, and a really lovely city square as counterpoint to the surrounding density. Now this is a real city. North is to the upper left.
To get a better view of Franklin Square, take a look at this, from the City Plat books of 1925.
Here are some undated views of what the Square looked like in its heyday. I note that the hand coloring and gauzy photography really help, but nonetheless the Square looks pretty wonderful.
And from Albert Stone, another view. He took this photo in 1919.
The crowds had formed in front of the Jewish Young Men’s Association, on the western side of the square, to protest the pogroms underway in Russia.
Clearly, Franklin Square (even though it wasn’t square, but ovoid instead) played an important part in the life of the city – as green relief in the dense urban fabric, as gathering place for events, as shady relief from the heat, as recreation space for children.
But here’s what I found curious. I know where Franklin Square is – all I had to do was look at the aerials and the plats. But there is nothing there today called Franklin Square. What’s there today is called Schiller Park.
Here’s a view of the Square/Park today, from Google Earth.
Pretty awful, I’d say. Looks like a bomb went off. Which of course is what happened. What’s left of Franklin Square/Schiller Park is just beneath the expressway, the Inner Loop.
And here are a couple of views I made yesterday of what’s left of Franklin Square/Schiller Park.
Schiller Park nee Franklin Square, looking northwest.
Schiller Park nee Franklin Square, looking north.
Only about half of the old Square remains. The northern half – at least – has now become the moat – the Inner Loop – beyond the tall chain link fence, between the Park and the old Post Office (that long two-story building, now abandoned, of course, by the USPS). The lovely oval shape is a goner, as are the surrounding roads, the big trees, the surrounding buildings but one or two, and the people. Would anyone really want to go to this place and listen to the traffic on the sunken expressway?
Well, maybe. The old Square has a secret. And here is where things get pretty interesting.
As I searched for Franklin Square, I saw on maps that it is now called Schiller Park. Here’s why.
Yes, that’s a bust of Friedrich von Schiller, one of the greatest of German literary giants. It turns out that the setting for the bust (sculpted by Carl Augustus Heber) was designed in 1908 by the very noted architectural firm of Carrere and Hastings. You might be familiar with another one of their designs: the New York Public Library.
So that’s how Franklin Square got to be Schiller Park. Schiller is there. And now the story takes an interesting turn, again thanks to Albert Stone.
When I went to search the Stone archive for images of Franklin Square, I only found the one above, the 1919 protest. But when I typed Schiller Park into the archive to my complete astonishment, I got this:
Yes, there stands Schiller. But in this image from about 1930, he is standing in what was then called Anderson Park, just a few blocks away from where he would later end up, in Franklin Square/Schiller Park. Schiller originally stood in what was called Anderson Park.
It turns out that when the Inner Loop was constructed, they moved Schiller from Anderson Park to what was left of Franklin Square, and renamed the fragmented space Schiller Park. That was in August of 1964 or so. I know this because there is now a plaque saying that the bust was rededicated on August 23, 1964.
But back to Anderson Park. In the 1930s, Anderson Park was a nice urban space. Here are a couple more of Albert Stone’s views of the space.
And then I found a really nice image, clearly indicating how important the little Park, at the intersection today of two busy streets, was to the life of the city. Take a look.
Christmas, 1913. That’s the Rochester Christmas tree, lavishly lit with the latest of devices, the electric light bulb. The Park is jammed – must have been a pretty fun place that evening. Love the hats.
And now – sorry but I have to do this – and now, here is Anderson Park today. Do not look away.
Though the geometry of the place has been substantially altered to make way for roads and the on/off ramps for the Inner Loop, I think Schiller would originally have stood just beyond and to the right of the sign, looking to the left. More views of the space today:
The bus in the middle of the picture is passing over a viaduct above the Inner Loop. Good, wide roads, don’t you think?
I am not sure how to use this space today – it’s worth one’s life to get across the traffic just to even stand there, much less to enjoy the lighting of the City’s Christmas tree.
So what have we discovered? Two once terrific urban places, in the fabric of a once lovely city. Two spaces absolutely savaged by cars and roads. Two places where memorable things once happened, events that didn’t save them from savagery, but events still worth recalling, and preserving.
Cities hold our memories, our stories, in all of the places where we gather and stroll. And those places in turn tell us what we care about and what we think counts most.
Clearly these two spaces today tell us that we no longer care about walking our city streets – we’d rather drive. These spaces today tell us that we no longer want to gather alone, or in groups – we’d rather move on, and out of the city. Passing through trumps being there.
But if we should ever change our minds – and I pray we do, and soon – we don’t have to look far to find out how to remake things. The old city which has passed away is made of an urbanism, made of a way of shaping and making urban places, that is now nearly extinct. But it sure was fabulous while it lasted.