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Deep Inside Rochester’s Big Old Sibley Building

November 18th, 2013

The Sibley Building, Rochester NY. [PHOTO: RochesterSubway.com]
This former department store (Sibley, Lindsay & Curr Company) is truly massive. Rochester’s Sibley Building external link weighs in at over 1.1 million square feet (23 acres of floorspace) – easily the largest building in Monroe County.

WinnCompanies external link 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…

Sibley, Lindsay & Curr Co. around holiday time, 1938. [PHOTO: Rochester Public Library]
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 external link.

Sibley building atrium and clock. [PHOTO: RochesterSubway.com]
It’s a much different picture today. Fairly empty with a few scattered reminders of the glory days.

Sibley building clock. [PHOTO: RochesterSubway.com]
Like this clock. A plaque beneath it reads:

A SIBLEY TIMEPIECE
“Meet me under the clock” were the instructions that generations of shoppers used for their rendezvous at Sibley’s downtown department store. The four-sided timepiece originally hung from the first floor ceiling in front of the current escalators. The original clock has been restored, inverted and mounted on the steel pole for future generations to admire as a piece of past Sibley department store history.

“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.

Sibley building atrium. [PHOTO: RochesterSubway.com]
WinnCompanies has also started to repaint some areas of the building. These are the very early signs of a rebirth.

Sibley building escalators. [PHOTO: RochesterSubway.com]
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.

Sibley building elevators. [PHOTO: RochesterSubway.com]
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.

Sibley building elevator relief sculpture. [PHOTO: RochesterSubway.com]

Sibley building elevator relief sculpture. [PHOTO: RochesterSubway.com]

The next two celebrate local achievements in engineering and agriculture – harnessing the power and energy of the land and Genesee River…

Sibley building elevator relief sculpture. [PHOTO: RochesterSubway.com]

…to fuel industrial growth, productivity and spur enhancements in education, culture, energy, architecture, etc.

Sibley building elevator relief sculpture. [PHOTO: RochesterSubway.com]
Also not sure who the artist was.

Inside the Sibley building. [PHOTO: RochesterSubway.com]
Today there are still a few tenants hanging on, including MCC (for now) and a Rainbow clothing store.

Inside the Sibley building. [PHOTO: RochesterSubway.com]

Inside the Sibley building. [PHOTO: RochesterSubway.com]
We take a peek inside a set of double doors off the atrium. This is the southwest (Main and Clinton) corner of the building. It’s being used temporarily as an arts studio for city kids.

Inside the Sibley building. [PHOTO: RochesterSubway.com]
This space will eventually be occupied by a restaurant and/or cafe.

Hallway to Sibley building loading docks. [PHOTO: RochesterSubway.com]
Now we head to the back of the building down several zig-zaggy hallways to the loading docks.

Sibley building loading docks. [PHOTO: RochesterSubway.com]
Shipments of goods from all over the world would be received at these giant loading bay doors.

Sibley building, shipping & receiving. [PHOTO: RochesterSubway.com]
Boxes of goods and other items would be sent down these shafts to the basement levels to be distributed and displayed throughout the building.

Sibley building, shipping & receiving. [PHOTO: RochesterSubway.com]
This is where the baked goods were once made, down this ramp. But we didn’t get a chance to go down there.

Sibley building, shipping & receiving. [PHOTO: RochesterSubway.com]
Instead we head up these stairs, where the shipping & receiving manager hung out. In its heyday, Sibley’s delivery room shipped nearly 10,000 packages daily.

Sibley building, shipping & receiving. [PHOTO: RochesterSubway.com]
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!

Sibley building loading docks. [PHOTO: RochesterSubway.com]

Sibley building loading docks. [PHOTO: RochesterSubway.com]

Sibley building freight elevator. [PHOTO: RochesterSubway.com]
Now we’re going to jump onto a freight elevator and rumble on up to the sixth floor.

Sibley building freight elevator. [PHOTO: RochesterSubway.com]
These elevators are old-school!

The Tower Restaurant kitchen at Sibley's department store. [PHOTO: RochesterSubway.com]
We step off the elevator on level six, into a huge empty space which used to be the Tea Room/Tower Restaurant kitchen.

The Tower Restaurant kitchen at Sibley's department store. [PHOTO: RochesterSubway.com]
The floors are covered wall to wall with white tile (or what was once white).

The Tower Restaurant kitchen at Sibley's department store. [PHOTO: RochesterSubway.com]
This place could use some elbow grease.

The Tower Restaurant kitchen at Sibley's department store. [PHOTO: RochesterSubway.com]
These two service doors were for wait staff.

The Tower Restaurant at Sibley's department store. [PHOTO: RochesterSubway.com]
The doors lead into this fancy restaurant known as The Tower Restaurant (I’ve also heard it referred to as the “Pompeian Room”). It served nearly 130,000 meals a year.

The Tower Restaurant at Sibley's department store. [PHOTO: RochesterSubway.com]
It was renovated sometime during the late 70’s or early 80’s. A dance floor and fairly dated gold paneling was installed.

The Tower Restaurant at Sibley's department store. [PHOTO: RochesterSubway.com]
This grand buffet was designed and built specifically for this room. It’s shown in the original 1904 architectural floorplans.

The Tower Restaurant at Sibley's department store. [PHOTO: RochesterSubway.com]

The Tower Restaurant at Sibley's department store. [PHOTO: RochesterSubway.com]
A little side room used to store extra furniture was once a private dining room.

The Tower Restaurant at Sibley's department store. [PHOTO: RochesterSubway.com]
Another side room off the main dining room, again for private functions.

The Tower Restaurant at Sibley's department store. [PHOTO: RochesterSubway.com]
The ceiling covering has lost its desire to hang on. So far the chandelier is still hanging tough.

The Tower Restaurant at Sibley's department store. [PHOTO: RochesterSubway.com]
This door takes us outside onto the roof.

On the roof just outside The Tower Restaurant at Sibley's department store. [PHOTO: RochesterSubway.com]
WinnCompanies plans to make this into a green roof deck for future tenants.

On the roof just outside The Tower Restaurant at Sibley's department store. [PHOTO: RochesterSubway.com]
They also plan to restore the clock tower. And there’s the glass atrium to the left.

On the roof just outside The Tower Restaurant at Sibley's department store. [PHOTO: RochesterSubway.com]

On the roof just outside The Tower Restaurant at Sibley's department store. [PHOTO: RochesterSubway.com]
Nice views from here, but they’re even better from the top of the 12-story tower. We’ll see those later on. Let’s go back inside.

The Tower Restaurant at Sibley's department store. [PHOTO: RochesterSubway.com]
It’s so dark in here sometimes I forget to look down and notice the nice floors. This is outside the ladies’ powder room…

The Tower Restaurant at Sibley's department store. [PHOTO: RochesterSubway.com]
The ladies’ powder room.

The Tower Restaurant at Sibley's department store. [PHOTO: RochesterSubway.com]
And this door leads to the ladies’ bathroom. Shall we?

The Tower Restaurant at Sibley's department store. [PHOTO: RochesterSubway.com]
Nice color scheme. The sign on the back wall reads:

“Every effort is made to keep this lavoratory as clean as possible for you. We will appreciate your cooperation in helping us maintain its cleanliness.
Thank You”

The Tower Restaurant at Sibley's department store. [PHOTO: RochesterSubway.com]

The Tower Restaurant at Sibley's department store. [PHOTO: RochesterSubway.com]
And this is the men’s lounge. I don’t have any photos of the men’s bathroom. It was a rather small space for my lens and not as interesting as the ladies’ room.

The Tower Restaurant at Sibley's department store. [PHOTO: RochesterSubway.com]
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…

The Tower Restaurant at Sibley's department store. [PHOTO: RochesterSubway.com]
“Pleasant Valley of the Genesee”

The Tower Restaurant at Sibley's department store. [PHOTO: RochesterSubway.com]
“On the Great Trail”

Mural in the Tower Restaurant at Sibley's department store. [PHOTO: RochesterSubway.com]
“Upper Falls” …and there is a fourth one buried just behind the temporary wall on the right. I couldn’t squeeze my camera in there.

The Tower Restaurant at Sibley's department store. [PHOTO: RochesterSubway.com]
Alrighty. Let’s go back downstairs. Our host wants to show us the basements. But not on this elevator.

Sibley's department store basement. [PHOTO: RochesterSubway.com]
We take the freight elevator to the upper basement. There is sub-basement beneath here we’ll see later.

Sibley's department store basement. [PHOTO: RochesterSubway.com]
It’s a maze of dark hallways.

Sibley's department store basement. [PHOTO: RochesterSubway.com]
And storage cages.

Boilers in the Sibley's department store basement. [PHOTO: RochesterSubway.com]
The building is heated with steam and toasty warm down here. These are two enormous boilers. The pipes down are clanging away like mad. Take a listen…

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

Sibley's department store basement. [PHOTO: RochesterSubway.com]
There’s a ton of great junk down here. I could have spent days digging through it all but the group is moving fast. I start to fall behind.

Sibley's department store basement. Pneumatic tube system. [PHOTO: RochesterSubway.com]
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!

Sibley's department store basement. [PHOTO: RochesterSubway.com]
Some kind of dark mystery room I don’t want to venture into.

Sibley's department store basement. [PHOTO: RochesterSubway.com]
Piles of old wooden doors.

Sibley's department store basement. [PHOTO: RochesterSubway.com]
This reminds me of my first apartment. I don’t get too comfy though. This place is starting to freak me out.

Sibley's basement. [PHOTO: RochesterSubway.com]
We make our way past several elevator bays that open up into a wide open space.

Sibley's basement. [PHOTO: RochesterSubway.com]
This area used to be where all the “bargain basement” deals were. Sort of the Sibley’s version of Filene’s Basement, though Sibley’s version probably came first.

Sibley's department store, 1940. [PHOTO: Rochester Public Library]
I’m not certain, but I imagine this old photo from 1940 might be somewhere down here in the Bargain Basement.

Sibley's basement. [PHOTO: RochesterSubway.com]
Stairs. But we’re not going up just yet.

This looks like it could have been a cafeteria – for employees maybe? Could also have been the phone-order department. [PHOTO: RochesterSubway.com]
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.

To the SUB-basement! [PHOTO: RochesterSubway.com]
Ok, now let’s go even deeper. To the SUB-basement!

Sibley sub-basement. [PHOTO: RochesterSubway.com]
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.

Sibley sub-basement. [PHOTO: RochesterSubway.com]
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.

Sibley sub-basement. [PHOTO: RochesterSubway.com]
Every wall and column has writing on it.

I notice a classic rock theme to much of the graffiti down here. [PHOTO: RochesterSubway.com]
I notice a classic rock theme to much of the graffiti down here.

Supermang. [PHOTO: RochesterSubway.com]

This area was for wrapping and packing. [PHOTO: RochesterSubway.com]
Remember the chutes from the loading docks upstairs? I think we may have found the bottom of one. This area was for wrapping and packing. How do I know? Because the threatening sign says so…

I wonder what else went on down here besides wrapping & packing? [PHOTO: RochesterSubway.com]
I wonder what else went on down here besides wrapping & packing? Some good times, I’m sure.

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.

Sibley Tower lobby. [PHOTO: RochesterSubway.com]
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?

The 11th floor of Sibley Tower. [PHOTO: RochesterSubway.com]
The tour now takes us up to the 11th floor. The elevator lets out into one long hallway with tons of these glowing doors. I have this incredible urge to open up each one to see what’s behind them.

We take a walk to the temporary WinnCompanies office. [PHOTO: RochesterSubway.com]
We take a walk to the temporary WinnCompanies office.

Great views of midtown from here. [PHOTO: RochesterSubway.com]
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 1910). They are printed on silk. [PHOTO: RochesterSubway.com]
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.

From these windows you can see out to Lake Ontario on a clear day. [PHOTO: RochesterSubway.com]
From these windows you can see out to Lake Ontario…

From these windows you can see out to Lake Ontario on a clear day. [PHOTO: RochesterSubway.com]
…I mean, if it were a clear day.

Here's the view looking down Main Street and East Ave. [PHOTO: RochesterSubway.com]
Here’s the view looking down Main Street East (on the left) and East Ave. (on the right). Holiday lights are being hung on the Liberty Pole today.

I love these doors. Each one has a teeny mail slot. [PHOTO: RochesterSubway.com]
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.

My very first full time job was working for an internet service provider called EZnet, here in the late 1990's. [PHOTO: RochesterSubway.com]
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.

Dentistry by Dr. Robert I. Morris. Closed Thursday Afternoons. [PHOTO: RochesterSubway.com]
Alright, here’s a slightly more interesting door. Dentistry by Dr. Robert I. Morris. Closed Thursday Afternoons. This guy had some serious work ethic.

Dr. Morris hasn't been here in years. This place is frozen in time. [PHOTO: RochesterSubway.com]
Looks like Dr. Morris hasn’t been here in years. This place is frozen in time. There’s a series of three or four really cramped patient rooms.

Let's see those pearly whites. [PHOTO: RochesterSubway.com]
Let’s see those pearly whites. “CHEESE!”

Gas masks. [PHOTO: RochesterSubway.com]
Gas masks. But the chair is missing from this room.

A Capmaster and a Toothmaster. All kinds of paper files are still in here too.  [PHOTO: RochesterSubway.com]
I wonder what these were used for? A Capmaster and a Toothmaster. Somewhere around here are the Keymaster and Gatekeeper.

Kodak dental film dispenser. [PHOTO: RochesterSubway.com]
Kodak was everywhere!

Now we jump on yet another elevator to head up to the 12th floor.

Another cool lobby. [PHOTO: RochesterSubway.com]
For some reason the elevator took us down to the 1st floor before taking us up. But we got to see another cool lobby.

12th floor. [PHOTO: RochesterSubway.com]
Alright, here we are on 12.

12th floor. [PHOTO: RochesterSubway.com]
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.

Nice view of the clock tower and Main Street West. [PHOTO: RochesterSubway.com]
Nice view of the clock tower and Main Street West. While we’re up here let’s venture up to the roof…

While we're up here let's venture up to the roof... [PHOTO: RochesterSubway.com]

While we're up here let's venture up to the roof... [PHOTO: RochesterSubway.com]

Here's a view of the old central post office. [PHOTO: RochesterSubway.com]
Here’s a view of the old central post office.

This giant metal structure once held a Sibley's department store sign. [PHOTO: RochesterSubway.com]
This giant metal structure once held a Sibley’s department store sign.

That’s the Temple Building and the Liberty Pole peeking up above the roofline.

That's the Midtown webcam. [PHOTO: RochesterSubway.com]
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.

In the center of the tower is a big open space so that interior offices can have a little daylight. [PHOTO: RochesterSubway.com]
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.

Have you ever wondered what's inside there? Let's check it out... [PHOTO: RochesterSubway.com]
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…

On the first level we have all the elevator mechanicals. [PHOTO: RochesterSubway.com]
On the first level we have all the elevator mechanicals.

On the first level we have all the elevator mechanicals. [PHOTO: RochesterSubway.com]

Going up one more level. This would technically be the 14th floor. [PHOTO: RochesterSubway.com]
Going up one more level. This would technically be the 14th floor.

Giant water tanks on top of Sibley's tower. [PHOTO: RochesterSubway.com]
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.

Giant water tanks on top of Sibley's tower. [PHOTO: RochesterSubway.com]
These photos don’t even come close to conveying their true size.

Giant water tanks on top of Sibley's tower. [PHOTO: RochesterSubway.com]
They kind of look like giant atomic bombs.

Giant water tanks on top of Sibley's tower. [PHOTO: RochesterSubway.com]

Mural billboard on the back of the Sibley's tower. [PHOTO: RochesterSubway.com]
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 external link or their website external link

Related Video:

Related Story:

Drunken Hijinks and Homicide in Rochester’s Sibley Building

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This entry was posted on Monday, November 18th, 2013 at 7:50 am and is filed under Rochester Destinations, Rochester History, Rochester Images, Urban Development, Urban Exploration. 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.

102 Responses to “Deep Inside Rochester’s Big Old Sibley Building”

  1. Ken Backus says:

    Article brought back great memories, I worked in wrapping and packing in the the mid 50s.My father Ed, delivered for Sibleys with a horse and wagon, and spent almost 50 years with Sibleys.

  2. Joan says:

    Dr. Morris was my dentist from childhood until I moved from Rochester in my twenties. He was a wonderful dentist. He didn’t believe in pulling teeth. Oh, he did offer gas for those afraid of needles.

    Best dentist I ever had.


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