Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Extreme Makeover: Home Edition

...or is it extreme demolition: national tv style? Doesn't "makeover" imply working with what is existing, enhancing it and polishing it? Wasn't the original concept of the show to expand and remodel? When was the decision made that wholesale demolition of the existing home, and replacement with a mega-house, was the best way to serve the family? Aren't we as a nation making a push towards greener lifestyles, less waste, reduced carbon foot prints, etc.?

These are just a few of the questions that go through my mind when I see a cover story about a 150 year old farm house falling victim to this television show.

This is the home. Now, maybe there is a mold problem that I'm not aware of. Maybe the roof is shot and the foundation is on its last legs. Maybe the house has become a death trap and it is literally unsafe for the family to remain. It sure doesn't look that way to me. The only mention that I could find in over 50 articles on this process is that the "150-year-old house [is] showing its age." Per this same article (click here) it is the homeowner's dream to have the house demolished to make way for a "small boxing gym to help more kids in need." Is the house really standing in the way of this dream? Can't a building be constructed on the grounds? As someone who literally dreams of one day owning a 150 year old home I simply can't identify. The preservationist in me cringes and wants to approach the producers with a master plan for the home that can see it sensitively rehabbed. The environmentalist in me wants to point out that they are demolishing a perfectly good building, sending how much waste into the landfill needlessly. At the very least salvage the windows, fixtures, anything that can be reused. How about letting Habitat for Humanity have the kitchen cabinets? And I won't even get into the social and economical implications of the often far our-of-scale-with-the-rest-of-the-neighborhood houses that are constructed in 7 days. Isn't one of the recipients of an Extreme Makeover house going through a foreclosure?

(Deep breath)

It appears that in the case the house that is being constructed does have some relation to the architectural history and era of significance of the town. Sort of.

So, lets just say that this is not my favorite television show.

posted by Rebecca Rowe, Preservation Program Coordinator for The Landmark Society.


Tuesday, August 19, 2008

To demolish or not to demolish? That is the question...

I have only lived in Rochester for about a year. One of the big things that was happening when I get to town was the demolition of a number of Kodak buildings. I watched from the comfort of my couch, not really knowing my way around town and not really having a special affinity for the buildings that would drive me to want to see it in person.

I had, and still have, a lot of mixed feelings about these demolitions. History was made there. This is an internationally important company. Those buildings were a big part of that story, were from the heyday of the company, on and on. Were they beautiful? I'm not sure, I didn't really get to see them. Does it matter? Not so much.

On the other hand how, where, when would these buildings ever be rehabilitated, ever be needed again? Because of their scale and their location in a less then thriving economy it would take a miracle for them to be reused. Should they be allowed to sit vacant, deteriorating and becoming a part of the urban blight of the city because of their history?

Right now at Rochester Contemporary there is an exhibition on the State of the City. One display in this exhibition is photographs of Kodak buildings throughout the world in various states of demolition and deconstruction. Robert Burley, the artist, has stated that these buildings were often not just buildings, a shell, but were in essence gigantic machines were it would be impossible to extricate the processing equipment without dismantling the entire building. And that the nature of the equipment, for manufacture of film, was not likely to ever be needed or used again given the shift to digital formats over 35 mm film. This makes these buildings very different from, say, an old carriage of box manufacturing facility that could be rehabbed as housing, offices or retail.

While Rochester is still relatively new to me, the problem of the vacant Kodak buildings are not. I am, as I have probably written about 800 times, originally from Binghamton...Endwell specifically for those that know Broome County. Just a few miles from where I grew up is Endicott, NY - the birth place of IBM and a huge district of the attendant office space, cafeterias, manufacturing facilities, etc. The majority of which are now currently vacant and not likely to be reused. If Rochester's economy is kind of tough, Binghamton/Broome County's is on life support. While these buildings are of a scale where they could be more easily rehabbed then the Kodak buildings the economy simply does not need them. Right down the street from this complex is the graveyard of what used to by Endicott Johnson, a shoe manufacturer. These buildings are beyond derelict, with most windows smashed and nature reclaiming the space foot by foot. Should the IBM buildings be demolished or designated? (Not that one necessarily precludes the other). Again, this is a company that went on to have a long term international impact and this where it all began.

The bright side? Is there one? Last year my brother got married at the McKinley in Endicott - the former IBM corporate cafeteria now a little more dressed up as an events facility.

This is a fantastic recent past resource, a marvel of modern architecture. It was a great night and a great example of what can happen with a building that has to find a new use. So, are we throwing some of these building away needlessly? Do they just need a little more time, need to find someone with enough imagination and the right business model? Or, are we doing the right thing by demolishing them before they become a blight? Which is the greater detriment to our urban character?

No answers here. Anyone else?

posted by Rebecca Rowe, Preservation Program Coordinator for The Landmark Society.


Wednesday, August 13, 2008

A Special Opportunity in the Susan B. Anthony District

By Conrad Floss, City of Rochester Department of Community Development, Bureau of Housing

Having traveled the east coat, I have visited many different towns, and especially enjoyed those that offered some sort of historic significance. One such place was Charleston, South Carolina. Having never visited a city with such an abundant collection of historic resources, I was astounded that such a place could exist, let alone be only a 16-hour car ride from home. Walking these streets was truly an experience for anyone taken back by historic mansions, rustic taverns, cobblestone streets, and horse and carriage passersby. More captivating was Charleston’s Battery Park, where a rich mixture of Victorian, Greek Revival and Italianate mansions line the boulevard overlooking the Ashley River. Of course, passion for old churches and creepy graveyards is essential to this experience accompanied by an evening ghost walk tour with a local story-teller. Absorbing all of this, I concluded that this was the place to be. I held steadfast that I would return here, if not make it my permanent residence.

When I left Charleston that fall of 1998, I did not know I would return five years later to celebrate my honeymoon, having just been married in the grand parlor room of the Hamilton Turner House in Savannah, Georgia. Savannah was another historic paradise I had heard about, located just south of Charleston. To historians, it is a must-see. Upon my departure from Charleston, I was determined to somehow get more involved in historic preservation upon my return to Rochester. Being welcomed back to City Hall to resume the mundane business of returning phone calls, answering e-mails, and fixing the City’s lead hazard control problem, that fortitude quickly evaporated. It only re-emerged several years later when an opportunity presented itself.

Last July, my supervisor unpredictably invited me into her office and asked me, if I were to take on something new, what would that be? Mulling this over for several minutes, I suddenly came to the realization that this was the time to see through my prior intentions. I replied by telling my Charleston story and asked if I could initiate some type of involvement with historic preservation. Perhaps I could engage Corn Hill or the Susan B. Anthony district, or dabble somewhere in High Falls. The response was overwhelmingly positive and I was given a green light to charge out of the gate. It was decided that my initial focus would be the Susan B. Anthony neighborhood.

My first thought about this newly assigned task was, ok, now what? Chief on my mind was how I would be productive in an environment I really knew nothing about. Historic architecture was about as familiar to me as the North Pole; I hadn’t the faintest clue about building restoration, and knew as much about Susan B. Anthony as I did Thomas Jefferson (I fixed that). Further down this insecurity was how I would be welcomed by the local neighborhood association. I heard they were a serious group and pondered how “the new guy from the City” would be accepted, especially someone not from the neighborhood. Like a fish out of water, I was somewhat reserved, but I soon got over it. I simply said to myself, oh well, just dive in, do what comes naturally, and try not to do anything stupid.

I figured to start this new project I should probably go for a walk and look at things first-hand. I looked at all the houses, sat in the park, waved to a neighbor, and gave thought to what a good starting place would be. My supervisor had previously commented on a need to market the City-owned 3-story brick building that sat vacant at Madison and Main Streets. Ok, I’ll start there. The initial thought was to undertake a request for proposal sale. This was something the City has done two times before, but achieved little success. Things would need to be done differently this time. Something, if successful, that might later serve as a model for how the City could re-develop historic buildings. In this pursuit, I gathered as much information about the building that was available and spoke to as many people as possible that knew anything about this place. I quickly came to the long-standing conclusion that everyone else had: we need to do something! I took an inventory of all the things that developers frowned upon during prior RFP sales and, one by one, attempted to unravel each of them. This was successful to some degree, but it was concluded that the building will always face certain challenges that can’t easily be solved.

Next, I collected information about funding sources available to developers that could serve as financial tools to make the anticipated high cost of renovation more palatable. The obvious piece that was missing in all this was some sort of professional document that could be given to developers to help them understand the building. In walked The Landmark Society and the New York State Preservation League. As luck would have it, they had funding available to undertake a Main Street project to study development possibilities for second and third floor re-use in historic buildings. These groups agreed to produce an existing conditions and restoration report for the building at 556 West Main Street. The Landmark Society subsequently contracted with Bero Architecture to produce this report and three months later the document was delivered.

The final step in planning the sale event was figuring out who would be available to assist developers with the City RFP process and navigate the other funding resources being introduced. Also, did we have a City steward available to developers to help coordinate the City’s review process for submitted plans? I thought, there should probably be a point person for all of this. As it turns out, it’s me.

Property showings for the sale will take place between August 25-29. Not only will we be showing 556 West Main Street, all other City-owned property will be available for viewing as well. This includes three residential properties at 54-54 ½ Madison Street and 2-6 Madison Street. We will also offer two vacant lots located at 20 and 42 King Street. The hours of the event will be Monday, Wednesday and Friday between 9-11a.m. and 2-4p.m. We will also schedule appointments for that week if requested. Proposals will be due back to City Hall, Room 028B by September 29th by 4:00p.m.


Tuesday, August 12, 2008

The Fastest Mile in America

The Driving Park Race Track at the southwest corner of Maplewood was in existence from 1874-1899. It was bounded by the Driving Park Avenue in the south, Birr Street on the north, the railroad tracks to the west and Dewey Avenue on the east. Perhaps you knew that the name Driving Park Avenue comes from the name of the race track that was once there. But, did you know why the track was called “the fastest mile in America,” with excursion trains from New York City and ferry boats from Canada bringing tens of thousands of spectators? Or that the Vanderbilts raced their horses there? Or that a woman cyclist raced against a mare there and the cyclist won? Learn about all this and more, and see hitherto unpublished, recently digitized photographs (many made available for the first time by private collectors) that capture the life and times of the race track and its people.

Landmark Society volunteer Nicholas Zumbulyadis will present this illustrated lecture on Thursday, October 16, from 12:30-1:30 p.m. at the Penfield Recreation Center, 1985 Baird Road.

Our dedicated volunteer, Nick Zumbulyadis, asked me to post the above information about his upcoming lecture. It brings up a topic that is of endless interest to those of us who are interested in history and, especially, the history of places: how places got their names! There are so many interesting place names around us, from streets like Driving Park Avenue to entire neighborhoods, villages, and towns. What better way to show that you're a true Western New Yorker than to correctly pronounce Chili or know the origins of Swillburg!

So readers, let's hear from you: what are your favorite place names, in Western New York or elsewhere? Are there any local place names that make you really scratch your head? (If so, I'll ask Cynthia Howk, our architectural research coordinator and resident encyclopedia of Rochester-area history, if she has an answer for you!) And be sure to check out Nick's lecture, which is certain to be fascinating.

Posted by Katie Eggers Comeau, Advocacy Coordinator, and Nick Zumbulyadis, Landmark Society Volunteer


Thursday, August 7, 2008

Re-Enliven Downtown Rochester: Gauging the Genesee Crossroads Park

Rochester is a very interesting city from economic, cultural and architectural viewpoints. A city started as a 100-acre tract by a Southerner has grown to be the Imaging Capital of the World. The city has a fascinating history of being a flour city, then the “flower” city, the hometown for the Cunningham Carriage Company to modern technology giants like Xerox and Kodak. Being one of the earliest American boom cities, Rochester has also garnered a rich cultural heritage. Its inhabitants include migrants from all of America, and immigrants from Europe and Asia. Architecturally, Rochester’s charms, unlike some of the other American bigwigs, lie not in imposing structures in downtown but in residential settings as the city hosts a plethora of historic neighborhoods exhibiting the coming of age of contemporary American architecture.

In the recent past, though, Rochester, much like many other American boom cities, has suffered from the changing trends and global shifts of the economy. As a result, the once-ebullient downtown looks a pale shadow of itself. I have been working as an intern with the Landmark Society for the past two months. Along with two other interns, I am involved in conducting a survey of the Rochester inner loop buildings, built in the period of 1930 to 1970. The survey introduced me to some fascinating spaces in and around downtown Rochester.

One such space very close to my heart is the Genesee Crossroads Park, the urban park behind the First Federal Building on Main Street. Deplorably, in the current day, this park is completely abandoned and is home only for the homeless. The seemingly inconspicuous park, in my opinion, has much potential to become the heart of activity of downtown.

The plaza has a very interesting design, and if the connectivity of this park with the Aqueduct Park across the street is reinforced, this park can become the focal point of Main Street and Downtown Rochester. The park is designed as a sunken plaza right next to the Genesee River. A semi-circular arrangement of charming stone steps provides an amphitheater-like feel. The Sister Cities Bridge connects the Clarion hotel to the plaza. The central space of this plaza is most fascinating with a view of Clarion hotel and Riverside Convention hall to the east, Andrews Terrace housing on the north, and the marble-laced Federal building on the south. This urban park could be the anchor of downtown and serve as a seasonal activity center of the city.

I took my husband to this park on a bright Sunday afternoon and saw no sign of activity except a homeless man using the seating area as a bed. I remember that this park was used as a site for food festival a month ago, but otherwise it is not used for any events. I could visualize this park as a bustling activity center. It can be used for events like game shows, outdoor dances, concerts, markets and all the outdoor festivities.

I read the post by Rebecca and could relate to it. I spent two years studying in San Antonio and visited Austin frequently. I could visualize the park to be a miniature temporary version of La Vilita village, where artists had their studios, shops and restaurants. The Genesee Park could in fact be used as a platform for art shows. The work force of Rochester is committed to discovering a new place for Rochester in the technology landscape. It’s time we make similarly dedicated efforts in developing its future cultural fabric.

Posted by Nimisha Thakur, one of the Landmark Society's "Recent Past" Interns


Friday, August 1, 2008

A Long-Overdue Visit to the Queen City

Last month, I met up with my brother and his girlfriend for a day in Buffalo - their last stop in a two-week road trip through the northeastern United States on their way to Rochester. My brother and I grew up in Rochester, with strong family ties to Syracuse; the first time either of us could remember visiting Buffalo was for an event in 2001. Since then, I’ve been back a few times, but had never explored the downtown area.

What a surprise! I was floored by the quality and variety of Buffalo’s architecture. I had heard that Buffalo was like an outdoor museum of architecture, and of course I knew of some of the outstanding buildings there, but Buffalo really must be seen to be believed. We saw panoramic views of the city from the City Hall observation deck, a whimsical giant beer tap protruding from the corner of a row of New Orleans-like buildings, a building sporting two (originally three) replicas of the Statue of Liberty, a former church that now houses municipal offices, some incredible public interiors… The highlight for me was the moment when I rounded a corner and found myself looking at a church by Richard Upjohn with the famous Guaranty Building by Louis Sullivan in the background.

I was impressed by evidence of the efforts over the years to capitalize on the city’s world-class architectural heritage, and by the many buildings that have been rehabilitated in the past couple of decades (many using the federal tax credit program, which has rarely been used here in Rochester), but of course they are fighting discouraging demographic trends common across upstate New York. To a greater extreme than Rochester, Buffalo was built to support a population that has since dwindled dramatically, and it is more and more difficult for fewer and fewer people to maintain the rich cultural legacy of a more prosperous time.

After a self-guided downtown walking tour, we headed to Graycliff, the summer house Frank Lloyd Wright built for the Martin family on the shore of Lake Erie, about half an hour south of the city. It was a beautiful spot and an interesting story of a house that is being brought back to its former glory against tremendous odds.

I could see why the National Trust chose Buffalo over a very competitive field of applicants for their National Preservation Conference in 2011. It will be a wonderful setting full of preservation stories. We were glad to support Buffalo’s bid and are eagerly looking forward to taking part in the conference.

Posted by Katie Eggers Comeau, Advocacy Coordinator