This former department store (Sibley, Lindsay & Curr Company) is truly massive. Rochester’s Sibley Building weighs in at over 1.1 million square feet (23 acres of floorspace) – easily the largest building in Monroe County.
WinnCompanies out of Boston now owns the property and plans to spend up to $200 Million over the next five years to bring it back to life as mixed-use space. Holy smokes, do these guys have their work cut out for them. You may have noticed new windows and awnings along Main Street? Some 2,000 windows have yet to be replaced.
Last week the UofR Urban Explorers Club went on a tour through the maze of hallways and spaces, from the dark sub-basement all the way up to the two massive water tanks on the tower rooftop…
Before we begin, here’s a look at department store around holiday time, 1938. At one time you could get anything here. Clothing, shoes, hats, belts, handbags, cosmetics, fine jewelry, sportswear, household items, decorations, coins and stamps, electronics, cameras, portraits, groceries, baked goods, etc. There was a pharmacy, ice cream shoppe, sidewalk cafe, a gourmet restaurant; even a deli and butcher shop. See the old store directory here .
“Inverted” means that the clock was mounted on this pole upside-down – the clock faces had to be removed, flipped right-side-up, and reinstalled.
Above the clock, the 5-story glass-enclosed atrium installed in 1990 is not original to the building. This atrium was cut open to let sunlight light in. Helicopters were used to lift the glass panels into place.
According to a news article on September 23, 1936 these were the very first escalators in western New York. On Sept. 30, 1936, hundreds of shoppers looked on as Mayor Charles Stanton pulled a cord which started the 1,500-foot, five-story conveyance system. All ten escalators cost $250,000 to install and could carry 8,000 people an hour.
WinnCompanies has just completed the restoration of ONE of the nickel-brass escalators at a cost of $200,000. All ten would cost just over $2 Million to renovate.
These escalators have been running nearly non-stop since 1936. Rather than replace the inner workings with all new mechanics which might last 20 years, they say it made way more sense to restore and reuse what is already there. And there’s no reason why they shouldn’t run for another 80 years.
There are a total of 22 elevators in the building. The ones on the ground level in the main lobby are surrounding by green Italian marble. Sibley’s renovated the main floor and had a Grand Reopening on November 2, 1942. They hired an artist to create these relief sculptures to be displayed above each elevator. These first two represent the progress of Main Street over the previous 75 years.
The next two celebrate local achievements in engineering and agriculture – harnessing the power and energy of the land and Genesee River…
…to fuel industrial growth, productivity and spur enhancements in education, culture, energy, architecture, etc.
It’s quite dark in here. But we see a few chairs, shelves, some old Sibley’s boxes, and empty packs of cigarettes. CORRECTION: Those are Sibley’s bags, not boxes. I didn’t touch them so I wasn’t sure. But they looked super-thick like boxes!
Outside the men’s room and just past the guest elevator was this weird space. It has been reported that this was the kids’ Barber Shop? Anyway, there was a neat series of folksy murals on the wall, painted in the 1950’s by Lindus Vilimas from Sibley’s own Display Department…
I don’t know what this room is. The Super Mario Bros. room maybe. OR, this could be the room that powered the pneumatic tube system for the building. Thirty-five miles of pneumatic tubes sent transactions from the sales counters to the “tube room” where change was counted out or the purchase was put on a charge account. Nearly 1,000 such transactions took place each day. Each one taking less than 40 seconds roundtrip. Who needs a computer anyway!
After several twists and turns I have no idea where we are now. This looks like it could have been a cafeteria – for employees maybe? Could also have been the phone-order department. Operators here would handle nearly 10,000 calls each week. Phone orders at Sibley’s made up 5 percent of total sales.
Uh oh. It’s intensely dark and claustrophobic when finally I realize I made a wrong turn and have to head back. I’m completely removed from the group at this point. The clanging pipes are drilling into my cranium.
Back on track now. This area was sort of strange, spatially. It was probably a 50,000 square foot space. Huge. But it felt just the opposite because of all the support columns everywhere. Like being deep inside a thick forest.
Ok, at this point I can’t hear any of the voices from my group. I’ve fallen way behind and need to kick it into high gear to catch up before I get trapped down here.
Eventually we come back up and come to the main lobby of the tower. The tower was built in two phases with floors 7 through 12 added in 1924. By 1939, Sibley’s would be the largest department store between New York City and Chicago.
Notice the fancy mailbox. This is connected to a Cutler mail chute, invented and produced in Rochester, NY. This one was in working order through at least 2000. It may still work but it’s currently not in use. Maybe because there are only two tenants in the tower now?
Great views of midtown from here. Lots of neat renderings and floor plans showing the new renovated Sibley building. From left to right: the office & retail lobby elevators, building exterior showing the green rooftop deck, and the residential (tower) lobby.
These are the original original plans (from 1904). Hand drawn on silk and with famous local architect J. Foster Warner’s signature on each one, each page looks like a work of art and is worth as much as $1,000 per page to collectors.
We’re taking another walk down the hall to see some more stuff. I love these doors. It feels like we are on the set of “Mad Men”. Each door has a teeny mail slot. At some point our mail must have gotten larger because some of the doors have been modified with a larger one. These will all become high-end apartments. Because of the historic landmark status of the building, WinnCompanies cannot alter the doors or hallways in any way. The doors will have to open into a vestibule with another, more secure door inside.
HISTORICAL NOTE: My very first full time job was working for an internet service provider called EZnet (late 1990’s before the dot com bubble). Behind this glass door was where I designed my first professional web site – for the company that made Jolt Cola.
Now we jump on yet another elevator to head up to the 12th floor.
At one time Sibley’s had fur storage vaults up here on 12. A D&C article in 1939 noted these vaults contained “thousands of valuable coats on miles of racks.” In addition to the vaults were “high pressure blowing machines for cleaning the furs before storage.” We didn’t see any of that. Just lots of open space with nice views.
That’s the Temple Building and the Liberty Pole peeking up above the roofline.
A webcam was installed here by the City to capture photos of the Midtown construction across the street.
WinnCompanies plans to install a green rooftop deck up here as well. This one would be for the apartment residents. There might even be a disposal chute for doggy waste. Neat-o.
The tower is actually shaped like an irregular triangle. In the center is a big open space so that interior offices can have a little daylight. WinnCompanies also plans to install a rooftop patio down in there.
You may have noticed this little brick building way up on top of the big Sibley’s building tower. Well, it’s not so little from up here. Have you ever wondered what’s inside there? Let’s check it out…
Up here we find not one, but two huge water tanks. Originally created to use gravity and provide enough pressure for both the fire sprinkler and domestic water systems in the building. Today these 30,000 gallon tanks lie mostly empty and dormant, the ultimate pigeon roost.
And there she is. Sibley’s, the former pride of Rochester retail. From top to bottom. Rochester is excited to see the updates WinnCompanies will bring to the old girl. Follow their progress on Facebook or their website
Tags: abandoned places, downtown Rochester, EZ-net, Main Street, Rochester, Rochester NY, Sibley Building, Sibley's, Sibley's Department Store, Sibly Lindsay & Curr Co., University of Rochester, urban exploration, urban explorers, UrbEx Club, Winn Development, WinnCompanies
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