Monday, June 15, 2009

175 Years Of History In 20 Minutes!

Working as an intern on a survey team of downtown buildings last summer I was often nearby, when Cynthia Howk the Landmark Society's Architectural Research Coordinator and the oracle for us "architecture groupies," would be giving one of her lunchtime downtown tours.

It was a nice respite from our team's task of documenting downtown's modern buildings and sites that, although very rewarding and revealing, could also be somewhat mundane. The tours gave us a splash of color and decoration that contrasted with our survey's focus on engineering marvels that have their own stories and sculptural qualities yet were often built with concrete and steel and lacking ornament, were rather stark. I personally find many of the "moderns" downtown to be amazing examples of their era and believe that they must be protected. Still, it sure was nice to hear about the brick, stone and terra cotta-clad buildings that came before them as I munched on a sandwich on a beautiful summer day.

This month's "Architecture for Lunch" 20 minute tours are crash courses in downtown's architectural and social history that feature many ornate and sturdy treasures of the downtown built environment from the early 1800's on. You get a lot of information on a variety of buildings and sites and even visit the interiors of some of them. However, the tours never seem rushed. When the tour ends you are left wanting to hear (and see) more. Cynthia surely understands this basic rule of showmanship. In this case, you are also left feeling that the mystery surrounding these buildings that we often see from the inside of a car has been removed and you get the sense of how you are a link in the long chain of local history. You also come to see the buildings not only as historic "museum pieces" but also as vital and working structures that are now more familiar and accessible.

The first tour of the month was centered on the area west of the Four Corners and featured buildings of the father and son team of architects: A.J. and J. Foster Warner as well as other structures associated with the period in Rochester history when it emerged as a dense and bustling city. Buildings older than the city itself were on the tour and were open for visitors to explore. Former hotels, banks, schools, courthouses and governmental buildings (and even a department store) were showcased and their current uses explained.

Cynthia showed us the cornerstone of the former Monroe County Courthouse (now the County Office Building) and told the story of the three dates carved into it. We also learned why the front door of Old City Hall (now an office building) was in the "back" of the building and how the annex to the County building was once a small outdoor park in front of our former City Hall.

Our iconic second empire "wedding cake" The Powers Block was the staring point of the tour and also where mine ended as I followed Cynthia inside and asked her a question about the building that had perplexed me for a while. The Powers Block has been the beneficiary of care and updates since its completion in late 1800's and now features a wonderful atrium and café are in its formerly open air central light court that mixes era-appropriate materials and fixtures yet is obviously modern.

Yet, there was one area of the building that I had seen in photographs and books but could never locate. The massive and ornate main staircase of the Powers Block rises throughout the building and is built of marble and cast iron. After talking with Cynthia I now knew how to find it. The staircase does not reach street level but instead begins a floor above (which is considered the first floor of the building). The guard confirmed this and, after a short elevator ride, I finally found the mystery staircase. It was worth the wait!

Perhaps foolishly, I decided to ascend the full height of the staircase and then enjoy catching my breath on the way down. I am not quite sure how it happened but I actually ended up in the cast-iron tower that Daniel Powers famously added to the building to retain bragging rights as owner of the tallest building in the city.

The view was spectacular and as I surveyed the skyline I pondered the view that Mr. Powers must have enjoyed from his office a few stories above me. I then made my way down to the street with a better understanding and appreciation for one of the city's finest examples of its history and architecture.

Posted by Dan Palmer, Landmark Society Volunteer

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