Posts Tagged ‘Olmsted’

On September 6th, at some o’clock in the evening, it is very likely that you can view a film entitled “Make No Little Plans: Daniel Burnham and the American City.” Here in Rochester, our local PBS station, WXXI, will carry the film at 10:00pm. I know – it’s late. But it’s worth it.

To take a look at some clips about the film, you can check this out:


I was fortunate to spend over ten years in helping this project reach the screen – doing interviews in Chicago and New York, and being interviewed in Washington by friend, colleague, and former architecture critic for the Washington Post, Ben Forgey.

Judith McBrien and her Archimedia Workshop authored and produced this terrific film. Our goal in the work was to recover Burnham’s life and work, and to reassess his role in shaping American urbanism.

Here in Rochester, two of Burnham’s colleagues, Arnold Brunner and Frederick Law Olmsted the younger, authored “A City Plan for Rochester” in 1911. Sponsored by the Rochester Civic Improvement Committee, the plan is squarely situated in the City Beautiful Movement begun by Burnham. None of the Rochester plan was constructed – their greenways are now expressways. Sigh.

Brunner and Olmsted worked with Burnham in Washington in 1900, and were good students of his urbanism.

Take a look – I hope you enjoy the film.

Read Full Post »

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.

Read Full Post »

Rochester and its river, the Genesee.

What better way to get to know a new home place than to imagine it as a case study for examining the next city?

Here we are in our new neighborhood, and in between fresh paint, endless trips to the hardware store, and nearly daily (but very enjoyable) snow shoveling, I am spending time getting to know how Rochester got to be the city we inhabit today. I do this in the hope that I can use Rochester as a kind of object lesson in how our cities can make themselves into fit and durable communities for the future. It’s going to take a while to figure this one out.

Every day brings new discoveries. I have learned the very hard way that only by understanding a city’s past can one speculate about a useful future. And so I have been trying to mine the rich history of this place, trying to understand some of the layers of now vanished Rochesters that have been the progenitors of the city we inhabit today.

Every city disappears every day. What was is gone in an instant, replaced by some new place, altered to fit new circumstances and needs. The bank building at the corner a few  blocks away (I think it was a bank building – maybe it was an office building – but it looked like it was about 25 or 30 years old), with its attached multistory parking garage, has mostly vanished since we arrived. We’re not sure what comes next, or why, but that urban fragment is gone, and with it one version of this entire place.

So here are some early thoughts, observations, and discoveries.

As a kind of urbanism, Rochester is as dominated by the automobile as any you know or could imagine. The city of about 210,000, and the region of about 1.1 million, is filled with evidence of sprawl everywhere you go. Downtown has almost no retail, though it was all there once, and almost nothing else, either. Offices for Kodak and Xerox, lots of surface parking lots, but none of the bustling activity that was once daily life. Four big shopping malls, one out in each quadrant of the region, replace what was once all centralized downtown.

The downtown of the present is ringed by an inner expressway loop. And the city, and all its suburbs, are connected by an outer loop. Because Rochester is on a river and on the south shore of Lake Ontario, this outer loop of highways is three-sided, with water on the fourth. Like this:

And here is a look at downtown, encircled by the truly unfortunate inner loop in a kind of shoe shape, like this:

That darker line that enters the picture from the left, humps northward, and then goes out of the frame diagonally on the right – that’s the railroad, the CSX right-of-way also used by Amtrak. The rail alignments have always been central to defining the character of the city. I sensed this, but it was made clear when I made a discovery yesterday afternoon. Here’s what I found:

It’s easy to see the rail line, in the same place in this map of the region created in 1912 as in the shot from Goggle Earth. But even more interesting is another discovery.

In 1911, the Rochester Civic Improvement Committee commissioned Arnold Brunner (who worked with Daniel Burnham on the 1903 “Group Plan” for Cleveland, and sat with Burnham on Washington, D.C.’s Commission of Fine Arts), and Frederick Law Olmsted Jr. (whose father was so instrumental in creating Central Park and the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition. Rick, as he was known, worked very closely with Burnham in Washington, and probably needs other introduction), along with rail transportation expert Bion Arnold to create a “City Plan for Rochester.” (An interesting side note: The Rochester Civic Improvement Committee was chaired in 1911 by James G. Cutler, who was both a very noted Rochester architect, and the City’s mayor from 1904 to 1907).

Brunner and Olmsted, using a version of the map above, made a plan that looked like this:

This is where things start to get really interesting. Olmsted’s and Brunner’s greenways are now almost all expressways. The late 20th century expressway system was founded on abandoned railroad rights of way, proposed but never realized greenways, or the alignment of the old Erie Canal, which was replaced by the Erie Barge Canal not long after the 1911 plan. Just one example: the greenway running east and west just north of downtown, between the Genesee River on the west and Irondequoit Bay on the east, is the precise alignment of the Keeler Expressway, local route 104, built in the 1960s and 70s.

I guess it will take a while to peel this particular onion….

Read Full Post »