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Rochester’s Old Federal Building Should Go

September 19th, 2012

Old Federal Building (now City Hall). [PHOTO: Richard Margolis]
“Listed in the National Register of Historic Places and designated a city landmark, the old Federal Building is considered a fine example of Richardsonian Romanesque architecture. No one’s particularly interested in using it, however, because inside it’s dark, gloomy, usually uncomfortable and just plain ramshackle. Blow it up. It’s an ugly thing…and not particularly interesting inside or out…It should be demolished. A modern, tax-producing building would be a better use for the site and would give more new life to that section of downtown…”

Old Federal Building (now City Hall) atrium. [PHOTO: Rick U.]
Those were some of the thoughts printed in a series of newspaper editorials from 1969-1972. When the new Federal Building was built on State Street, the old building was left behind – seemingly without a good reason to live…

'Don't Weep for Federal Building' -Editorial, Rochester Times-Union, 8/28/1969 [PHOTO: Rick U.]

And this…
'Old Federal Building Should Go' -Editorial, Rochester Times-Union, 2/2/1973 [PHOTO: Rick U.]

Luckily, good sense prevailed. The following is an account from Rochester History: Rochester’s City Halls of how the old Federal Building became Rochester’s new City Hall:

In 1972, when officials dedicated the new Rochester Federal Building, the destruction of the old one seemed nearly certain. Already, however, the Landmark Society of Western New York had submitted an application to gain National Register status for the building while the city’s Preservation Board conferred to make it an official city landmark…The city, which changed administrations following local elections in 1973, was persuaded to pay for a series of feasibility studies on the re-adaption of the structure for use as a new city hall.
Superficial deterioration and unwise maintenance practices in the old federal building gave rise to more than a few second thoughts about its suitability for purchase and reuse. Strongly worded editorials in both local newspapers suggested that preservationist efforts in its behalf were misdirected. Indeed, during the last years of federal ownership the building presented a forbidding and gloomy appearance. Much of its interior had, over the years, received coats of government green paint; woodwork was covered with dark varnish and falling plaster attested to problems in the roof. Dirt covered the exterior sandstone and the skylight which had been designed to illuminate the cortile external link.

[Thanks to Richard Margolis external link and Rick U. external link for the great photos, and Rick also for story idea.]

Update On Zoning & Preservation Code Changes…

And in an update to a related story, you might remember that Mayor Richards had been seeking to change Rochester’s zoning and preservation laws to make easier for buildings to be demolished. After those documents were leaked on RochesterSubway.com, neighborhood leaders across the city voiced their disapproval and the administration has backed down – for now.

According to the Landmark Society, changes to the preservation code have been tabled for at least six months (possibly a year). Minor changes may be made to the zoning code but any changes in the future will be vetted through the preservation community first. And any future changes will continue to allow for a 3rd-party landmark nomination; something the City had tried to do away with in a previously “leaked” draft. The Mayor’s office and the Zoning Director did not return my requests for comment.

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This entry was posted on Wednesday, September 19th, 2012 at 8:04 am and is filed under Rochester History, Rochester Images, Urban Development. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

10 Responses to “Rochester’s Old Federal Building Should Go”

  1. Barbra Ann says:

    That building is obviously worth saving . . . but moving City Hall to a newer building is entirely possible. Fitzhugh St. – art studios. . . City Hall . . . Kodak on State St.

  2. Mike Roesser says:

    Barbara, the article was a look-back at what might have been. City hall isn’t going anywhere.

  3. Michael Delaney says:

    Good thing the building was saved back then – if for nothing other than the atrium. That space is beautiful! My brother, a civil servant, was married there!

  4. David Shein says:

    I have a topic for you that has been in the back of my mind for over ten years. There is a huge Victorian era building with a Mansard roof that is falling apart on North Fitzhugh between Main and Court on the east side of the street. It looks similar in design to the old City Hall building. Why is it being left in this condition, and who owns it? Are there any plans for it?

    Dave

  5. @David, are you referring to the Academy Building? I believe it’s on the west side of the street so please correct me if I’m wrong. That building is now, finally, being renovated. The city has worked for years to find a new use for this old school building.

  6. Barbra Ann says:

    oh …. nevermind …..

  7. David Shein says:

    YES! That’s it! You are correct. It is the west side of the street. I had the map turned upside down in my head. Please do a piece on it! I’ve always wanted to take a look inside; it’s such a gorgeous structure and so dilapidated. I’d love to know how the project is progressing.

  8. Douglas A. Fisher says:

    In their testimony this summer in the cherry-paneled former federal courtroom in this building, now the central public meeting room of City Hall, representatives of the soon-to-be-sold North American Breweries fought the proposed landmark designation of 13 Cataract Street, repeatedly calling it an eyesore and asserting that no one would visit the planned new brewpub if they had to walk past the 1889 brewery building.

    That unique 1889 structure was contemporaneous with the City Hall building in which they testified. City Hall is also of Romanesque influence, appreciated now, but not in the pictured editorials.

    To give a yardstick by which to evaluate the stated ugliness opinion, I cited these very 40-year-old newspaper editorials in my own testimony, as I directed listener attention to the fine courtroom architecture that now houses City Council chambers, reminding people that long-ago opinion-makers once urged its demolition.

    In the case of the Federal Building that is now City Hall, time has proven that what may look like an eyesore in one era can be much prized in another era. The challenge is to help the questioned buildings to survive in order for the appreciation to build and take hold.

    Unfortunately, that big-picture approach was not taken with the “eyesore” 1889 Romanesque brewery building.

    However, the lesson really needs to be enshrined as the implicit core of City preservation policy.

  9. Rich Rolwing says:

    Mike–I’ve always wondered what kind of attitudes were behind the raging impulse to tear down seemingly historic and architecturally valuable structures (and in the process seemingly vibrant “cityscapes”) in the urban renewal era. These fascinatingly snide editorials really provide an insightful window into those attitudes. There’s almost a “Get off my lawn!” crotchetiness that seems to belie the conviction behind the writers’ exhortations to “embrace the progressive and modern.” It’s ironic in view of this that the growth of the preservation and re-use philosophy on the other hand is driven by young (or, in my case, younger) people.

  10. Wayne Goodman, Landmark Society of Western NY says:

    Rich,
    There is no better way to say what you stated . . . preservation, especially creative adaptive use, is craved by the young / younger generation. And, it is because preservation creates spaces that are unique, vibrant, interesting and sustainable. Further, they create jobs that can’t be exported overseas, they stabilize markets and they provide, by default, an increase in local tax revenues. Preservation is the gift that keeps giving, and I’m glad, despite frustrations, it seems that preservation is gaining momentum across the populace. Thanks for your understanding of just why preservation is vital.


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