Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Beneath these streets lies potential

A few weeks ago, some friends and I took a tour of Rochester's abandoned subway. (you can read about another staffer’s adventure in a related post here). The standard group tour only went to the Broad Street Aqueduct, and from there our guide set us loose to explore. Most people left out the way we entered, but a small group of us, flashlights in hand, continued on into the darkness, not knowing what we'd find. It was simultaneously thrilling, creepy and amazing. We had spontaneous humming of the Indiana Jones theme song, our nostrils were assaulted by some smells of which I’d rather not know the source, and there were times I truly thought I would become fodder for the next Saw sequel, but overall it was incredibly inspiring. Our ragtag little group of strangers bonded as archaeologists of a lost urban landscape – a threatened landscape that stands to be erased.

We had earlier learned a brief synopsis of a proposed alternative to the city's plans to fill in the subway, one which was to restore the Erie Canal through the center of the city. Several groups have voiced their opinions of adapting the tunnels for use or even restoring Rochester’s rapid transit system. Most have been shot down.

Regardless of what plan you support or perhaps are indifferent to, the fact remains that downtown Rochester needs a shot in the arm. With the recent announcements surrounding the length of time it will take to see the Midtown Plaza project come to fruition, and all the Ren Square uncertainty, it’s truly an unsteady time for downtown’s future. Not only do we need business here, but we need people to want to live here. Sure, we need housing to make that happen, but we also need community to draw people into - community that is developed through arts and cultural happenings and places for people to gather.

So why am I telling you all of this? Because a current project in New York City somewhat parallels our issues and may serve as a positive model at which we can look for inspiration. This awesome project is finally coming to fruition through a long and arduous battle that has taken ingenuity, activism, some celebrity endorsement and old-fashioned elbow grease. I want to believe it is something we could accomplish here with a little bit of the right stuff.

For those not familiar, the High Line is a section of 1930s-built elevated railway on New York’s Lower West Side that was slated for demolition. It's now been preserved and is being turned into a "park in the sky" much like the Promenade Plantee in Paris. The project has been ongoing for about a decade after a couple of local men – Joshua David and Robert Hammond – got together and started formulating plans to save the High Line. Their work attracted stars such as Ethan Hawke (who used the Paris park, incidentally, as a setting in the awesome Before Sunset), along with several other talented and dedicated activists who have committed thousands of hours to making this a reality - activists like my love, Edward Norton (seen in the photo below obviously getting ready to sing me a song of adoration because we are totally in sync with our thinking about our responsibilities to the world).

Contrary to what you might think, I swear I didn’t know about Ed's involvement until I started reading more on this project. I was pleasantly surprised since it is also a fact that I will shamelessly take any opportunity to combine Ed and my work here at The Landmark Society. So yes, in addition to being that awesome-preservationist-green-living-Barack-Obama-documentary-
to-be-a-better-human-being guy, Ed has lent his considerable voice and clout to this project. You can see some of his work on the project here.

But I digress. The High Line project is a success story that has even spawned a new neighborhood. This article in New York magazine says it all: "The abandoned railroad that made a park...that made a neighborhood…that made a brand..." Just think of the possibility something like this could offer Rochester. Of course our version may not embody a plethora of green space (considering the majority of the subway is underground) however, I am sure that with the abundance of creative and artistic minds here in this city that a better use could be found for that space other than a dirt fill.

When the subway was closed down, a whole new landscape emerged in its place. There is art - seriously good graffiti art with use of color that will blow your mind. There is incredible light. There are plants sprouting up in places plants wouldn't normally belong. There is life in these here tunnels!

Check out the snapshots in the slideshow below and then tell me that there isn’t potential for some seriously creative and innovative action to take place down there. How about a park in the area that is illuminated by the natural light from the arches of the Broad Street Bridge?How about an urban art center showcasing the creativity seen down there? How about some park space in the areas where the tunnels come out into the open sunshine? How about even a restaurant - think how lovely it would be to enjoy a glass a wine and a good meal while looking out over the river, bathed in natural light.

How about anything other than destroying this amazing place...?

I couldn’t help but emerge into the light and mourn the possible loss of this part of our history. I love this city. I want to see it become a place that can retain young, creative minds rather than further digressing into a springboard for young talent to jump onto other places. Enough with the business as usual approach. We’ve had enough promises of the "next great thing"'s time to make it happen. I'd love to hear your ideas of adaptive reuse of this treasure under our streets.

And, once again, Ed babe, if you're reading, my offer of discussing these things over dinner and wine is still open. Call me.

posted by Laura Keeney Zavala, Director of Marketing


Two Big Projects Taking Shape

At the end of today’s Preservation Issues Committee meeting, one participant commented, “that was a meaty meeting!”

It was indeed. We discussed two very large projects that have the potential to significantly reshape key areas in our region.

One of the two is a project called CityGate, where a developer proposes to demolish a complex of nine National Register-eligible buildings and redevelop the site as a mixed-use complex. This property is at the southeast corner of Westfall and East Henrietta roads, and was formerly the Iola campus, a tuberculosis sanitarium developed between 1911-1931. The complex has been determined eligible for the National Register due to its architecture (representing early-20th century institutional architecture; the work of German-trained architect Siegmund Firestone plus three notable Rochester architects) and for its social history, as a public health facility.

The site has very few neighbors, and thus far, there has been very little public interest in the project and few public comments. The Landmark Society is one of the few parties to have commented in the past, and we are currently working on our comments on the current iteration of the design. I would like to very strongly encourage anyone with an interest in urban design, historic preservation, planning, sustainability, adaptive reuse, etc., to take a look at what is proposed for the site and submit your comments. To do so, go to this site and click the link for the CityGate Draft Generic Environmental Impact Statement. It’s a big file and may take a long time to download; hang in there!

The majority of today’s meeting was devoted to a detailed presentation by Mark Tayrien of LaBella Associates and Dorraine Laudisi of the City of Rochester regarding the Midtown project, focusing on the City’s vision for the site, the process of making decisions regarding the historic buildings (the State Historic Preservation Office has determined that the entire Midtown site is eligible for the National Register of Historic Places), and the procedure for public input.

We were pleased that our committee was the first audience for the city’s brand-new outreach presentation that will be presented to a series of audiences as the city seeks broad public input on this very significant downtown project. We have a small team reviewing the planning documents in detail and preparing official Landmark Society comments. I also encourage everyone interested in the future of downtown Rochester to review and comment; the relevant documents are located here. There are quite a few documents posted; go first to the Draft Generic Environmental Impact Statement, dated November 10. You might also want to look at specific appendices, notably Appendix G, which deals with historic issues. It was clear from the presentation, and from the DGEIS, that some big decisions regarding the future of the site are not yet set in stone and the time is ripe for public input.

Comments on both projects should be submitted to Dorraine Laudisi at the city of Rochester (Dorraine.Laudisi AT; please send us a copy! Dorraine told us today that the City is very eager to receive and incorporate comments from the public, particularly from people with expertise in planning, design, and historic preservation. She and her colleagues really rely on these comments to help guide the City’s decision-making, and to help them steer the developers toward the best possible outcomes.

Posted by Katie Eggers Comeau, Advocacy Coordinator


Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Seen the new phone book?

Have you seen the new 2009 white pages? The new book prominently features a vignette from the Susan B. Anthony neighborhood, one of Rochester's eight preservation districts. This compact neighborhood includes a nearly intact streetscape of vernacular 19th-century houses lining all sides of a picturesque central square, which is now adorned by the magnificent sculpture "Let's Have Tea" by a local artist (who can see his creation from his front window).

The house in the background is one of the neighborhood's best success stories from the past few years. A few years ago, new owners purchased and rehabilitated this house, formerly one of the most problematic properties in the neighborhood. Today it is one of the most distinctive houses on the square, and the owners have gone on to rehabilitate other properties on King Street. Thanks largely to their efforts, King Street looks much better than it did a few years ago and is no longer riddled with vacancies. The photos below show the house before, during, and after rehabilitation.

Congratulations to residents Michael Warfield and Angel Licea for the great work on their house, and to Pepsy Kettavong, the sculptor of "Let's Have Tea" - what a joy to see their work so prominently featured for all of the Rochester region to admire all year long!

By Katie Eggers Comeau, Advocacy Coordinator


Monday, November 17, 2008

Did The Landmark Society touch your life this year?

This has been a challenging year as economic pressures cause all of us to tighten our belts and make tough choices. All of the reports that I am seeing this year indicate that year-end giving will be down, not a surprise. Here at The Landmark Society, we are hoping that our loyal members and donors will continue to support our mission as the demand for our preservation planning services continues to rise.

Villages, towns, cities, counties and individuals invariably turn to us for help. With fiscal constraint and careful planning we have been able to accomplish much. Here is a brief summary of some of the great work we have done this year with support from our members and donors:

For the past decade, The Landmark Society has been actively engaged in revitalization efforts in the Susan B. Anthony neighborhood. This year, we obtained a grant from the National Trust for Historic Preservation for a program we dubbed “The Susan B. Anthony Neighborhood Preservation Initiative.” With these funds, we brought the highly regarded architect, John Bero to an initiative that partners with the neighborhood association to educate homeowners on their specific ‘old-house’ maintenance needs and to provide the funds to implement preservation-minded improvement projects such as porch repair and exterior lighting.

In addition, a grant award from the Preservation League of New York State for $7,500, helped to lay the groundwork for a future rehabilitation of the currently vacant, city-owned building at 556-560 W. Main Street, a strategic corner that is an important gateway to the Susan B. Anthony neighborhood.

We continue to engage in productive discussions with key planners and decision makers regarding the Midtown project, Renaissance Square, Memorial Art Gallery and others currently on the table, and we have brought attention to the tremendous opportunities for the redevelopment of downtown’s historic resources.

The Landmark Society and the Rochester chapter of the American Institute of Architects are partnering through ‘Archipedia’ ( a public survey effort to raise awareness of recent past architecture. This new and proactive initiative focuses on identifying, evaluating and protecting resources of the recent past, encompassing structures and resources built during the years 1930 thru 1970. These structures are ready to be recognized, interpreted and treasured as the newest frontier of our cultural legacy.

In addition, we continue to offer technical expertise, educational and advocacy services to members and the public at large. Outreach includes such programs as Walk the Walk; Encounters with Rochester’s African American Ancestors, Annual Preservation Conference, House and Garden Tour, and our ode to city living and stimulus to economic development, The Inside Downtown Tour.

We intend to continue to serve our nine-county area with energy and success. But we cannot sustain this level of intensity without the help of our loyal donors.

Please choose to give a gift to our 2008 Year-End Appeal,
click here to access our secure website. Gifts to the 2007 appeal have helped us tremendously through this tough time.

Your contribution will help us maintain our essential capabilities and could help us grow to meet the ever increasing need.

Posted by Susan Latoski, director of development, The Landmark Society of Western New York


Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Olmsted was on to something

Frederick Law Olmsted, who designed Rochester's Seneca/Maplewood, Genesee Valley, and Highland Parks, was convinced that exposure to nature was necessary to counteract the effects of city life. Here's what Olmsted and his design partner Calvert Vaux had to say, describing their plan for Central Park:

[The purpose of urban parks is to provide] the feeling of relief experienced by those entering them, on escaping from the cramped, confined and controlling circumstances of the streets of the town; in other words, a sense of enlarged freedom is to all, at all times, the most certain and the most valuable gratification afforded by a park. [cited in Witold Rybczynski, A Clearing in the Distance]
Here's how I described this in the National Register Documentation for the Municipal Park System of Rochester:

Olmsted's urban parks were intended, first and foremost, to contrast with the city. Like other advocates of the pleasure ground movement, Olmsted firmly believed that access to nature could be physically and psychically restorative to city dwellers. He stated that landscapes with the right combination of characteristics could "refresh and delight the eye and through the eye, the mind and spirit." Olmsted was convinced that this restorative process could only work subconsciously, through exposure to an environment that appeared to be totally natural, even if it was actually manipulated to some degree.
Olmsted's approach was to create large urban parks (pleasure grounds), their specific character rooted in nature but enhanced by the skilled hand of a landscape architect, that provided access to the particular scenic effects that had the most positive psychological impacts on park visitors. In Rochester, Olmsted designed a classic pastoral landscape (gently rolling hills, calm water, and broad curves, intended to provide a sense of unity and harmony) for Genesee Valley Park, and a contrasting picturesque landscape (rugged terrain, bold landforms, and dramatic scenery, intended to inspire awe at the mystery and grandeur of nature) for Seneca/Maplewood Park. Scientific research appears to support Olmsted's views on the restorative power of nature. A recent blog post uses 21st-century language to describe a very 19th-century, Olmstedian concept:

Thoreau would have liked this study: interacting with nature (at least when compared to a hectic urban landscape) dramatically improves improve cognitive function. In particular, being in natural settings restores our ability to exercise directed attention and working memory, which are crucial mental talents. The basic idea is that nature, unlike a city, is filled with inherently interesting stimuli (like a sunset, or an unusual bird) that trigger our involuntary attention, but in a modest fashion. Because you can't help but stop and notice the reddish orange twilight sky - paying attention to the sunset doesn't take any extra work or cognitive control - our attentional circuits are able to refresh themselves. A walk in the woods is like a vacation for the prefrontal cortex.
The next time you feel like you need to restore your psyche, spend some time in an Olmsted park, and thank Frederick Law Olmsted, a man ahead of his time, for his magnificent gifts to our city.

Posted by Katie Eggers Comeau, Advocacy Coordinator


Thursday, November 6, 2008

Preservation Priorities for a New Administration

What should President-Elect Obama do to support historic preservation? The National Trust for Historic Preservation is asking people who value historic buildings, landscapes and communities to weigh in on their top priorities and to submit comments and suggestions as they prepare their official platform for preservation, to be shared with the new administration.

Vote on your priorities and submit stories, recommendations, and advice from your perspective here.

Posted by Katie Eggers Comeau, Advocacy Coordinator


Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Architectural Eye Candy...key to urban redevelopment?

Here's some eye candy for all of us who love great architecture – new and old. When I first looked at the site, I enjoyed it for its entertainment value – after all – the exhilaration of good or fun architecture is part of the reason we work so hard to save it when it is threatened, and if you can’t have fun with it, well…it could get serious!

Then I put my big idea hat on and thought – how very wonderful it would be if here, in the Rochester area, we could inspire the same exuberance of innovative architectural design. Lo and behold, when I scrolled down – I saw we did make the list – The new Strong Museum construction is identified as one of the “strange buildings of the world.” I also immediately thought about James H. Johnson’s ‘Mushroom House,’ built right next door in Perinton, NY. Shouldn’t that too be on this list?

And shouldn’t , as we look to redefine our urban core with the site potentials at both the Midtown and Renaissance Square sites, among other under-development sites, we be considering the construction of equally stimulating architecture? How about some positive controversy for a change!

To see more go here.

Yes – it costs money. And such design is not for the faint of heart. But, if it is designed well, and built to last, think of the long term benefits of that joy. I do.

Posted by Joanne Arany, Executive Director LSWNY


Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Voting at Ghost Walk - a test of honesty?


The Landmark Society's 15th annual Ghost Walk is now history. Well, I guess it's always history, since it's an event where actors portray the darker side of Rochester's past. But I digress.

We welcomed 2,000 participants over the last two weekends of October. As usual, they walked with guides to six different performance areas, where they witnessed an event from Rochester's history brought to life by talented actors. At the end of the tour the guides brought them back to our host facility, Third Presbyterian Church, for donuts and cider. And a social experiment.

We offered a voting activity, based on one of the stories they saw enacted on the tour. Here's the story from the past:

In 1904 a horrific fire in downtown Rochester destroyed the original Sibley, Lindsey and Curr department store (and many other buildings.) Sibley's had been the largest department store between Chicago and New York City - six stories of just about anything your heart desired.

One of the casualties of the event was the "fireproof safe" containing all the store's records. It crashed from the sixth floor to the basement as the interior of the building burned, cracking open as struck the bottom. All the contents were destroyed, including the records of the accounts receivable.

At a time when many sales were extended "on credit" - Sibley's had no way of knowing who owed them what. They knew how much money they were out, but not how to recoup. How could they collect on their bills? It seemed the store was destined for financial ruin.

I was curious to see what kind of response people might have today. As Ghost Walkers enjoyed their cider and donuts, they were presented with the following question:

What would you do if you ordered merchandise from and received it - then read in the newspaper that a virus destroyed their records, and all charges and delivery addresses have disappeared? You have not been charged for the merchandise in your possession.

Would you send in a payment?

Participants voted in an anonymous process - and we tallied the results for each group, and each evening of Ghost Walk.

We then announced the results to each tour group. And those results each night were pretty consistant. We collected over 1,500 votes. About 2/3 of all participants said they would send in a payment.

We did notice that when there was a large youth group in a tour, the numbers would change - with many more voting they would not pay. One of them commented to a Landmark volunteer "Well, if it was a Mom and Pop store that I knew, sure - but They have a ton of money."

We also then let the tour goers know what happened in 1904. Sibley's was not ruined. The money came in. People paid their bills. In the end, Sibley's estimated that about 90% of what was owed was paid. They were able to use the funds to build a brand new store, in the building many now associate with the former store - near the "liberty pole" sculpture in downtown Rochester.

So - were people in the past more honest than people are today? Or, was it that they felt a connection to this "home town" store?

And what does that all say about the level of honesty in our community, where many shop only online or in anonymous, big-box chain stores?

I think another benefit of liveable communities - with businesses you know, and business owners who know you - is that it contributes to a higher level of trust in our society. It helps us hold ourselves accountable, when we know the names and faces of those with whom we do business. As I write this entry on November 4th, Election Day, it seems to me that a higher level of trust is a very good thing for which to strive.

Think about that the next time you choose between the mega-mart and the locally owned place.

It was an interesting social experiment at Ghost Walk 2008 - which, it turns out, is more than just history.

Posted by Cindy Boyer, Director of Museums and Education - and Ghost Walk producer