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Original tower was jewel of national wonder

For decades, the Clock of the Nations, Christmas monorail and other attractions drew throngs of shoppers and visitors to Midtown Plaza. Demolition of the plaza—excluding the tower and Seneca Building—began after its closing in July 2008.

In 1962, when local department store magnates Gilbert McCurdy Sr. and Maurice Forman cut the ribbon to open a sparkling new Midtown Plaza, the building now known as Tower280 at Midtown was the jewel in the development’s crown.

Presciently conceived by McCurdy and Forman as a bulwark against the encroachment of suburban malls then yet to be built, the plaza was a wonder. It was the second enclosed mall built in the United States and the first in a city’s downtown. The opening was nationally televised on the Huntley-Brinkley Report’s nightly news program on NBC. Thousands attended.

After the mall opened, gawkers came merely to marvel at the fountains, palm trees, benches, prototype food court and one-of-a-kind Clock of the Nations. Shoppers came too, thronging the flagship stores of McCurdy & Co. and B. Forman Co. and other shops.  

McCurdy and Forman in secret had hatched a plan to build the plaza, dispatching a local attorney to quietly acquire parcels spanning several downtown blocks that would become the plaza’s footprint. Their own stores and other existing structures would be connected to form the mall’s outer walls.

Rising 17 stories above the plaza on the south side, Midtown Tower was the development’s only freestanding new structure. It held offices, a hotel and a restaurant in 260,000 square feet of space.

The plaza’s interior courtyard and the tower were designed by Victor Gruen of the Manhattan firm Victor Gruen & Associates Planning and Design. A celebrated architect then at the height of his influence, Gruen had designed the first U.S. enclosed mall. He meant Midtown to be not just a collection of stores but a model urban town square, a commons where residents could meet and gather.

During the plaza’s construction, Angelo Chiarella, a young Gruen & Associates architect, headed the New York City firm’s Rochester field office, taking up residence with his wife, Winnie, in an apartment at Park Avenue and Good-man Street. 

Chiarella spent four years on the Midtown project and in that time came to love Rochester, recalled his son, Frank.

When construction of the plaza wrapped up, the Chiarellas moved to Los Angeles for six months but returned to Rochester when Gilbert McCurdy offered Angelo a job as president of Midtown Holdings Corp. From that point until his 2005 retirement, Midtown was Angelo Chiarella’s all-consuming passion.

“He used to say that if Gilbert McCurdy Sr. told him to jump off the top of the tower, he’d do it and ask why when he was halfway down,” Frank Chiarella recalled. “It was hard getting tenants at the start, but he worked hard. He learned commercial real estate.”

Angelo Chiarella himself worked from a tiny windowless office on the tower’s third floor.

“I once asked him why he had such a lousy office when he was in charge of the whole thing. He said that when tenants came to complain, he wanted them to feel at ease,” Frank Chiarella said.

A list of tenants over the years reads like a who’s who of Rochester business: Harter, Secrest & Emery LLP; Hutchins/Young & Rubicam Inc.; Brovitz, Insero & Kasperski & Co.; Pfaudler-Permutit Inc.; and the Wolf Group. When Xerox Corp. moved in, it took nine offices on the 12th floor, later expanding. In time, it built a 30-floor headquarters of its own across Broad Street.

Retired Harter, Secrest partner Kenneth Payment remembers the law firm’s move into former Xerox offices.

“We moved from the Powers Building to the seventh floor,” Payment recalled. “The corner office had been (Xerox founder and CEO) Joe Wilson’s office.”

When attorneys from other firms accustomed to doing business in the Four Corners area—then the hub of the region’s legal and real estate interests—complained about the half-mile trek to the tower for closings, Harter, Secrest for a time arranged a shuttle service, Payment said.

In the early 1960s, Walt Disney flew to Rochester to tour Midtown Plaza. His later development of Disney World, Epcot Theme Park and the Celebration planned community in Florida was influenced by Gruen’s ideas. Shadowed by four associates during the tour, Disney later called Chiarella and offered him a job in Florida.

“He turned it down. He said he’d rather be a big fish in a small pond,” Frank Chiarella recalled.

When it rose and for many years after, Midtown Tower was downtown Rochester’s prime commercial space, recalled Anthony Wilson.

Wilson’s father and uncle, Herbert and Edwin Wilson, were leasing agents who helped put together the Midtown Plaza parcels. For many years, their firm, Herbert E. Wilson & Associates, occupied offices on the tower’s ninth floor.

Mostly devoted to office space, the tower was capped by a hotel and an upscale restaurant.

“The hotel didn’t have a name,” Wilson recalled. “It was just the hotel.”

The restaurant, Top of the Plaza, offered spectacular and then-unparalleled views of the city and the Genesee River.

“You had top national acts book there: Count Basie, the Modern Jazz Quartet and Buddy Rich,” Frank Chiarella recalled.

Local bandleader Gap Mangione played private events at the Top of the Plaza.

“I treasure the jazz greats I heard there: pianist Teddy Wilson, Count Basie, Woody Herman, Stan Kenton, Maynard Ferguson, Buddy Rich and others,” Mangione said.

Midtown Plaza and Midtown Tower stood as the beating heart of a vital Rochester downtown for a quarter century.

“It was our life. I thought of our father as the plaza’s mayor,” recalled Frank Chiarella.

By the 1980s, suburban malls had begun to eclipse Rochester’s downtown. After B. Forman closed in 1994, Anthony Wilson reopened it, but the ill-fated venture closed after two years.

As the plaza declined, so did Midtown Tower. In 1997, California developer Peter Arnold of Arnold Industries Inc. bought the whole complex for $28 million. Facing foreclosure in 2000, he put the plaza into a Chapter 11 bankruptcy that ultimately failed to keep it alive. After a series of owners, the city acquired the property in 2008 for $5.9 million.

That year, the plaza shut its doors for the last time, with most of the property awaiting demolition. Tower 280, reimagined as an upscale, mixed-use residential and commercial center, remains standing, echoing the vision that McCurdy, Forman, Gruen and Angelo Chiarella once had for the city’s downtown.

Special projects editor Sally Parker contributed to this article.

11/18/2016 (c) 2016 Rochester Business Journal. To obtain permission to reprint this article, call 585-546-8303 or email rbj@rbj.net.


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