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Rebuilding an iconic treasure could create lasting value

High above the city on a ridge within Highland Park, there once stood an iconic architectural gem known as the Children’s Pavilion.

This structure disappeared from the park so long ago that most Rochesterians have no idea it even existed in the first place. Recently, circumstances have combined to make its reconstruction—on its original site—a real possibility. Led by the Highland Park Conservancy and the South East Area Coalition, plans have been advanced that detail how this can be done and the investment it would require. This effort has gained support from the city of Rochester, Monroe County, the Landmark Society of Western New York Inc., Highland Park Neighbors and the Rochester Garden Club, to name a few.

Based on a concept by premier landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted, this three-tiered, 62-foot diameter round structure was the focal point of Rochester’s most prominent park. For more than 70 years, until its removal in 1963, children and their parents flocked to the top of the park to enjoy views of the surrounding landscape, the city and the regions beyond.

The Children’s Pavilion was situated on a 200-foot diameter terrace on the highest point within the park. From its uppermost deck, the view went past the city skyline to the north—all the way to Lake Ontario. To the west and south, there were sweeping views to the Genesee River valley and the Bristol hills. A city landmark, the Children’s Pavilion was a magnet for community engagement. It represented a link to Rochester’s storied past and a gift to the children of the day.

The idea that this missing piece of architecture could be brought back was compelling enough to draw a $500,000 lead gift. The donation is now in the custody of the Highland Park Conservancy awaiting the additional funds required to fully move the project forward. In 2002, the South East Area Coalition retained Bero Architecture PLLC to create schematic plans describing how the pavilion would be reconstructed. Based on these design drawings, the Pike Cos. has estimated the project cost at around $3 million. The hope is that additional donors may be inspired by the potential value this key monument might bring to our community.

I asked Tim O’Connell, president of the Highland Park Conservancy, what compelled this generous gift.

“We received a call from the family of someone who had passed away. They wished to honor Joseph Vaeth, a business mentor to the deceased, who in his youth had valued Highland Park as his playground,” O’Connell says. “They wanted to do something significant of lasting value and we could think of no other singular project that would have so great an impact on enhancing the park as the return of the Children’s Pavilion.”

Highland Park is one of the region’s true treasures. In 1890, Park Commissioner George Elliott asked Olmstead to design the pavilion, which was funded by George Ellwanger and Patrick Barry. Both Elliott and Olmstead had lost children to cholera and intended for the pavilion to serve as a shelter for sick children visiting the park. 

Olmsted’s original design had the pavilion serve as a visual focal point for the area as well as a venue for community events. Its structural condition declined in the 1950s, leading to its eventual removal. The plans for the pavilion’s reconstruction include changes in the assembly details and materials that will increase its longevity and reduce maintenance expense.

Katie Comeau, architectural historian at Bero Architecture and an Olmsted expert, shared some correspondence between Elliott (the driving force behind the pavilion) and Olmsted. Olmsted described his rationale for the round design in his correspondence with Elliott:

“As the outlook from the floors of the building will be attractive all around, the building should be so planned that the advantages of outlook would be equally good all around,” Olmstead wrote. “Next, as, to enjoy the outlook, people would want to make a complete circuit of the building, it should be so planned that they could do this with facility.”

This dictated a design with “its required staircases and rooms at the center with a clear, broad promenade deck running around them, upon which visitors could circulate freely for the enjoyment of the panorama,” he said.

JoAnn Beck, senior landscape architect at the city of Rochester, sums up Olmsted’s national significance and design talent: “He was an artist who used the elements of water, landform, plants and time to compose living works of art of enormous scale and longevity for people, singly and en masse, to view, move through and use. He created art to use every day. And like all the greatest leaps of human imagination in philosophy, science and the arts, his work forever changed the way we see the world.“

Highland Park is more than a venue for the Lilac Festival. It is emblematic of the city, its unique nature and place in the world. In many ways, Rochester’s Highland Park is the region’s crowning jewel, and the Children’s Pavilion provided its architectural focus.

Rebuilding the Children’s Pavilion would be a remarkable undertaking of lasting value and a monument to the simple joy of being outdoors in a magnificent scenic landscape.

Jim Durfee is vice president and design principal at Bergmann Associates. An architect and past president of American Institute of Architects-Rochester, he can be reached at (585) 232-5135 or at jdurfee@bergmannpc.com.

9/11/15 (c) 2015 Rochester Business Journal. To obtain permission to reprint this article, call 585-546-8303 or email rbj@rbj.net.

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