Around Brown’s Square

I found myself wandering around in my map files the other day, and I was struck by this 1820 map of the city. I noticed two things of particular importance. In the lower right of the map, there is an open space labeled “Public Square.” I know this place quite well – it’s Washington Square Park, where the Soldiers and Sailors Monument stands (sculpted by Leonard Volk, in 1892), the one surmounted by A. Lincoln.

The land for the Square was generously given as open space forever by one Elisha Johnson, in 1817. So it makes the 1820 map.

A century after Johnson’s gift, and nearly a century ago, the Square looked like this:

The Square is mostly empty now, what with 4G and DWTS and all, but it still is a lovely place to stroll. Not that anybody strolls downtown much anymore. Still, it is a nice space. I was strolling there the other evening, and admiring the monument. But I was almost bulldozed by a gang of skateboarders doing their damnedest to wreck the thing. And yet, it really is a nice urban space. Honest.

But that’s not what really touched my sense of curiosity. In the upper left of the map, there is another space labeled “Public Square,” and this one too still exists. It’s Brown Square, and was given by the Brown Brothers likewise prior to the 1820 map. The Browns owned 200 acres or so of land abutting and immediately north of Colonel Rochester’s 100 acre tract, and conjoining their holdings was central to the creation of the city.

I had a dim memory of Brown’s Square, or  Brown Square as it is called today. It’s over by the baseball stadium, a block from Kodak Headquarters. Railroads run by it, I could recall. And it’s pretty plain vanilla stuff. And lumpy I remembered – filled with grass-covered berms.

But it too is still there. So I thought I would wander around the Square and get to know a bit of its story. I was in for a bit of a shock.

Now some of you, my dear readers, must be convinced by now that I am taken by places in the city that are fuzzy and warm and tidy. I would deny this with some vehemence, and to prove it, get comfy.

Brown Square and its neighborhood is, and always was from the first, a giant, wonderful, tangled snarl of a mess. How it and it’s surrounds survived – and one of its most important neighbors didn’t survive, but that comes later – is completely mysterious. Here we go.

In 1875, the city’s plat for Brown Square looked like this:

It’s easy to see the Square – it’s green. To the east of the Square, those round things are railroad roundhouses. The Square’s  easterly neighbor is the maintenance yard for the Buffalo and Niagara Railroad – by 1875 swallowed by the New York Central.

A block and a half to the southwest is the Erie Canal. A few blocks to the northeast is the Genesee River, and all of the mill races constructed there to industrialize the city’s greatest asset – the High Falls.

In this plat, the Square is surrounded on at least two sides by homes, though the ones to the west face the Square and a few active tracks. Not for long.

Next comes a plat from 1888.

The rail yards are a bit more extensive. The Square, bounded by Brown, Jay, Kent and Jones Streets, is still cut off from the homes to the west – tracks continue between the Square and the homes on Kent. And there are more large pink blobs – factories and warehouses.

Nonetheless, the Square was filled with life and exuberance. Mr. Stone took many pictures of the action here in the first decades of the 20th century, as did others. Here’s a sampling.

1903. Looks bucolic, but remember, the railroad is rumbling on at least two sides of this place.

Mr. Stone was so taken with all these kids, that in 1913 he took two shots. I like the next one better.

The rail yard is crystal clear in the background of these two shots. I wonder what Mr. Stone said to the kids to get them to mug for him?

In 1921, the Square’s field house was home to a branch of the library.

Brown Square existed at the farthest eastern edge of what was, and still is, called Dutchtown. Dutchtown was filled with many thousands of immigrants, starting in the late 19th century. Germans (it was originally Deutschtown), Irish, Italians, and lots of others,  mostly workers. And, obviously, lots of kids.

In 1919 some enterprising soul brought a rail car from Boston filled with fresh seafood. He parked the rail car on Kent Street, against the Square, and there was an instant feeding frenzy.

And in 1922, at Christmas, the kids were lined up for “Christmas Tree Exercises,” whatever they were. Maybe one of you knows.

Then comes the plat from 1926. Things are getting a bit dicier for the neighborhood.

The Kent Street homes are gone – the railroad has claimed them for an expanded rail yard. The Erie Canal is gone, too, replaced by what is called an Industrial Railway – it’s the city’s oft lamented subway, here riding in an open cut in the ground. And now let’s travel a block to the south, to Frankfort (now Plymouth) and Platt.

Brown Square is at the top of the railyard, just off this plat. In the middle of the image, near the big number 2, is St. Patrick’s Cathedral.

And here is what the Cathedral looked like in 1896. There had been a church here on this site since the 1820s.

A bit later, the parish managed to raise the spire, and in 1923 St. Pat’s looked like this (remember this image – it’s going to return shortly):

Yes, that’s a factory next door to the church. In fact, It’s Eastman Kodak.

If you walked down the neighborhood streets in those days, you might get a view like this, from 1919:

Not exactly a tame and sedate urban view.

Because it was a Cathedral, it was the site of all kinds of important events. Let’s take a look at the Cathedral’s interior, from some time in the 1920s. Not sure what the event was, but the place was packed. Looks like a funeral, but I’m not sure.

By the mid 1930s the Cathedral was surrounded by Kodak. Here’s a view showing the church with Kodak Tower looming above. I believe that this postcard image has been, um, photoshopped. The picture of the Cathedral is from Mr. Stone’s 1923 image, above. Kodak Tower has been added in the background.

And then – wait for it – KABOOM!

Kodak acquired the Cathedral in September of 1937, for $350,000, and then tore it down, to make way for further corporate expansion.

Please do note all the parked cars in this aerial view.

I discovered, as I looked into this bit or our story, that in the preceding years Kodak had made other offers to buy the church. Apparently the diocese was slow in considering these offers, and they were never accepted.

But several things seem clear by 1937. The diocese was strapped for cash – the depression had clearly been felt – and there were a handful of churches nearby that the parishioners could use as alternates.

What Kodak got in the deal was the Cathedral, the rectory, and several other buildings in that block between Platt and Brown. A year later construction had begun on the site, and the explosive expansion of the Company ($18 million a year in capital improvements in the late 30s – and well into the middle $50 millions by the mid 50s) continued.

I have combed through the newspapers of the day, and while there was some solemnity about the passing of the Cathedral, and a party line from both Kodak and the diocese that got repeated ad nauseam (Kodak: our facilities are maxed out – we need room to grow; diocese: we’re surrounded, our faithful can go elsewhere, and we need the cash), there was not much hand wringing or whining. I suppose that first, parishioners must have seen this coming – there were other offers. And next, Kodak was the roaring engine not just of this neighborhood, but of the city, and the region. Don’t bite the hand that feeds.

So in an instant, the church was gone. At least it didn’t become a parking lot…. Unlike much of the neighborhood surrounding the Square.

Today Brown Square remains, and while it is not nearly as seductive as it once may have been, it is still there – as a regular venue for events in Rochester’s wonderful world of music, as an example.

That’s jazz flutist Herbie Mann, onstage in the Square in 1995. And in 2009 the tradition continued.

From The City Hall Photo Lab collection.

Somehow Brown Square has survived all manner of the enormous pressures of change. But change has not been kind to the neighborhood – there’s not much left but Kodak and the Red Wing’s ballyard. It’s amazing it made it.

As I look at a century or so in this part of our city, read the newspapers, look at the images, get to know the places and a few of the faces, and recognize the fast pace of change, I understand how we ended up with what is, essentially, a kind of twilight zone, in place of what was a vital, albeit messy, urbanism.

We made our choices. We thought it was progress. It wasn’t.

23 thoughts on “Around Brown’s Square

  1. Howard:

    As always, a great read and a chance to learn more about parts of Rochester that I might not have had the time to learn about otherwise. One question that you might be able to ask around about come to mind, though. Where is the city at with their “revitalization” of Browns Square? I’m asking because there was a RFP floating around a couple of years ago for consultants to work with the city in assessing the future uses and needs of Browns Square. Perhaps one of your readers that’s tied into the city hierarchy might be able to help.

  2. Chris, thanks. Good to hear from the mid-Atlantic region this morning.

    I think the RFP you mention came out a couple of years ago, and was focused on studying moving the music festival to the Square. I can’t find any other recent RFPs focusing on the Square. Maybe, as you suggest, one of our readers will have more insight.

    Oh, and another question, which came to me from astute urban observer Bob Williams: where is the Washington Square cannon? Apparently it’s missing, though it was there in May, according to a photo I found. Anybody know what’s up?

  3. That would be the one I was thinking of. It would be nice to have a place to hear music during the summer for events like Party in the Park that isn’t a parking lot.

  4. Fantastic as always, Mr. Decker!

    Re: Washington Square cannon. I have no idea where it went but had noticed in recent years that its wooden wheels were disintegrating. Also, could never quite figure out its connection to Rochester. Doesn’t the plaque read something like “Italian cannon captured by Austrian troops…” ??!! How and why did it end up in Washington Square?

    Re: Brown Square as festival site. I will respectfully offer that this is a pretty terrible place for a festival site and hopefully that RFP died a merciful death. Buffalo’s “Thursday in the Square” concert series works so well because of Lafayette Square’s central location and ability to send post-concert crowds off the reasonably proximate bars of Chippewa Street. Brown Square would not be able to do that. And it’s so remote from downtown, that most people attending any concert there would probably drive from their downtown parking space to somewhere closer to Brown Square (this is Rochester, after all) and then high tail it back to Webster and Greece when the concert is done. As for a downtown gathering space for things like concerts, I think we need to re-think Crossroads Park along the River, Washington Square itself, or the new public plaza proposed for the Midtown Plaza site.

  5. Also, thank you so much for the insight into the story of St. Patrick’s. I’ve long been disappointed by the lack of easily accessible information on this chapter of Rochester’s history. I’m hypothesizing here, but it also seems to me, to offer insight into Rochester’s rather docile and accepting population, compared to the more rough and tumble civic culture of Buffalo, where, even in 1937, I think people would have been more prone to “bite the hand that feeds.” This in turn reinforces my belief that Kodak’s long legacy of benign paternalism fostered this culture, as opposed to Buffalo’s more militant union-vs-management struggles.

    Against this background, it amazes me that the citizens of Rochester rose up to stop the construction of the Genesee Expressway through the South Wedge and Swillburg in the 1960s and 1970s. Which is another story that needs to be told.

    There is a small detail that I can’t figure out though. On the 1926 plat map, there is a solid wall of masonry structures on the north side of Jay Street, west of the John Williams School (west of Verona Street). And yet today, there is a house on this site, two doors west of Verona, north side of Jay, that is set back from the street. It is the unfortunate recipient of a picture window and vinyl siding, but the massing, roofline, and bracketed eaves mark it as a mid-19th century home. Was it hiding behind that row of masonry buildings in 1926? Did the map makers miss it? Is it possible it was on another site and moved here?

  6. Jason, thanks and thanks.

    First, as to the mystery of the cannon, I will have to do some additional sleuthing. Stay tuned.

    Next, as to Brown Square as a venue for any city-wide events, you have hit the nail quite squarely on the head. Not the place, I think. The poor Square really is in a twilight zone these days. It is astounding that there aren’t cars there – it’s a pretty lonely survivor.

    Next, I must say that since we have come to Rochester, I have found myself often thinking about the benign autocracy that clearly once ruled this city. It has almost certainly left a kind of powerful cultural hangover.

    I am at once grateful for all that Mr. Eastman did for this place – he was a force for good here – and certain that his presence and his power served to silence lots of conversations about what was good for the city, and any criticism of what his, or his corporate offspring, might be planning to do here. After Eastman, the company exploded globally, and the economic power the company represented, and wielded, must have been completely overwhelming.

    It was very striking that I had so much trouble finding out what happened to St. Pat’s. On the web – near silence. Even doing hard research in the library only served to illustrate that any potential criticism, even minor neighborhood moans and mutterings, fell victim to a set of attitudes that induced silence at least, or worse, media policy that amounted to suppressing any static in the air. It was an eerie silence that I encountered.

    And finally, as to Kent and Jay and your little house, I Google Earthed it.

    I can report that either the building was moved there – common in the early part of the 20th century – or it was constructed later than the mid 30s. A 1935 plat of the area shows something called Continuation School (not sure what that place was – continuation of the school across the street? Some other school?) on that site, so the house could only have shown up later. The school was next door to the Rochester Perry Realty Corporation, about which I can find absolutely nothing.

    Back to the library, I guess.

  7. Oh – and as to Swillburg and the South Wedge and the expressway, I have considered this on several occasions, only to have something else pop up. I have done some research – much more needed.

    And I have a couple of other ideas in the pipeline at the moment.

    But I must say – who wouldn’t really love living in a city with a neighborhood called Swillburg. Fabulous.

    Reminds me of Goose Island in Chicago. Some say it got its name because the Irish immigrants that lived there kept geese in their yards.

    I’m on it, sooner or later.

  8. I’ve noticed something else I can’t quite figure out. The final photo you have of the cathedral, partially roofless, presumably taken from somewhere high up on the Kodak buildings, could the image be reversed or mirrored somehow? I swear the building in the background, kitty-corner from the cathedral and partially obscured by the lower part of the tower, is the former firehouse that was preserved and now forms part of Frontier Field, at the southwest corner of Plymouth and Platt (AKA Morrie Silver Way).

  9. Bingo! You are exactly correct. It is the former firehouse – it says so in the plats – and it is now embedded in Frontier Field. I have flipped the photo so that it is now correct.

    As usual, my thanks.

  10. I was thinking a bit more about Washington Square and share you experience with the skateboarders there. While they don’t show poor Mr. Lincoln the respect he deserves, they do bring some life and vitality to an otherwise sadly under-utilized public space.

  11. It’s true – some people in the Square is better than no people in the Square. But take a close look at the base of the monument. It’s taken a real beating from these guys.

    I’m not sure we should fence it off, but we might see about embedding those little steel bits that keep the boards off the surfaces. These kids are wrecking the place.

  12. Speaking of skateboarders, what ever happened to the proposed skate park planned for under the bridge between the river and South Ave?

  13. I was perusing an old map of the city dated either 1837 or 1847 (the map is damaged and the date is hard to read) and it shows Brown Square in the same place as the 1820 map. That is Brown Street bisects the square, entering it from the center of the sides, in the manner of Center Square in Philadelphia or Pariser Platz in Berlin.

    Sometime between 1847 and 1875, the square shifts northward to occupy the block bounded by Brown, Jones, Jay, and Kent. Brown Street no longer bisects the square, but rather forms the southern boundary and a small piece of Rochester’s classical city planning is lots.

  14. Jason, I too found a map, this one by Silas Cornell in 1838, that shows the Square half a block to the south, with Brown Street bi-secting the Square. By the late 1840s, this had been changed – I found a second Cornell map dating from 1845 that shows the Square as it is today.

    What I have not found is any indication of what it was like in its old place, or any indication of why it moved north. My strong suspicion is that it had to do with the railroads – that big rail yard at the south end of the Square shows up pretty early in its life.

    The change would have happened in the early days of photography, so I suspect we will never really know what it was like. Maybe there’s an old plat book somewhere that would give us some help. I’ll keep snooping.

    By the way, I still don’t know what happened to the cannon in Washington Square Park.

  15. Thanks, bonniehull! No, not the Lone Ranger, but it sure is interesting to snoop around this place and find out why it is like it is. I have quite a store or stories to tell at this point – all I need is the time to put them together.

    I find that I always start out in one direction in my detective work, and I always end up in places I never expected. Facts are funny things, sometimes.

    Hiyo, Silver!

  16. can’t sleep tonight. seems like all my creative thoughts come between the hours of 2-5 am. Howard, i want to say thank you for the lecture on December 7th, you are a true Urban predator and this city desperately needs more. Although i was born in Rochester, i have recently moved back. So from afar i have witnessed what has happened to our city, which was once powerful and energetic. Returning now with :fresh eyes” and as an architect, i see great potential in a city with amazing bones. We just have to understand that political will is a renewable resource!

    The avant garde has historically been associated with that which goes against the establishment, essentially sugarcoated with negativity. i ask why? this started me thinking about the innerloop and is there a way to make this something positive. The depths of my heart say that at least some stretch of the innerloop, particularly up near North Union, is heavily underutilized and would serve the city better as taxable land. But let’s face it, if the city is willing to put a bus station right off Main street, do you really think the mindset is there to demolish the innerloop? doubtful at best.

    If you have not studied any of Jaime Lerner’s work on Curitiba please research. Simple solutions to complex problems, but i guess simple is always a value judgment! I won’t go into this, but to really be aggressive and sustainable from a human energy perspective we need a mayor who is savvy in planning and architecture, not a default because the current Mayor is moving up in the political arena (and what a wonderful opportunity we have!).

    So, let’s take the innerloop for all it’s schism-like faults and create a larger multi-modal loop that is faster, easier, and more sustainable than driving your car around the city. If, instead of going under all the bridges, it can rise up to meet certain streets. What you would find happen is those gaping holes that once severed our districts would become nodes of growth as you can see currently in cities such as Salt Lake City, Phoenix and San Diego. Again, this would be a larger loop that would supplement more intricate inner-city people movers, but from a planning perspective it certainly has some potential for re-connecting our neighborhoods.

    Glad i got a chance to get this off my mind…ahh Friday morning and the children aren’t up yet. Better start the coffee.

  17. Robert, thanks for coming to the presentation, and for your nice words. I enjoyed putting the show together.

    As to the Inner Loop and its future, there is in fact a plan to fill in the portion you note and bring it up to street level, making real intersections with existing streets and reclaiming land, especially along Union. It is part of the RRCDC vision plan for downtown, adpoted by the city. Perhaps one of these days it will actually happen. You can find the plan at the RRCDC website.

    As to Jaime Lerner and Curitiba, I am familiar with all of his work there. It is a life lesson in what real leadership can do for a city, and in a very short time. Amazing progress.

    Sorry about the insomnia.

  18. The city isn’t going to be the impediment to raising the Inner Loop. Far more likely to be a recalcitrant state bureaucracy.

    One would think the state, in these dire financial times, would only be too glad to rid itself of excess infrastructure to maintain.

  19. Jason, I think you are correct. I know that the city applied for funding for the work of reclaiming a portion of the loop, and the request was not accepted.

    Getting rid of the highway would not only rid the state of infrastructure to fuss over. It would put real estate back on the tax rolls. Makes sense to me.

    But then as a newcomer, I don’t quite understand the whole Inner Loop thing at all. How bad WAS traffic in the 40s and 50s? Was it bad enough to inspire tearing down the city?

    I’m a great one to talk, I suppose. I grew up in Chicago, and I watched for 50 years as that region destroyed itself with highway after highway. And interestingly, when we were back a couple of times this past summer, the traffic and congestion on the roads was simply breathtaking.

    A lesson: more roads, more traffic – more roads, more traffic – more roads, more traffic. It’s a closed loop, so to speak.

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