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Tower once a hub of corporate, legal bustle

Newly reimagined as a mixed-use blend of luxury apartments, high-end offices and retail space, the Metropolitan has been for most of its life home to banks, law firms and corporations.

Completed in 1973 as the headquarters of Lincoln First Bank and then known as Lincoln First Tower, the 26-story structure was designed by architect John Graham, the designer of Seattle’s 605-foot-tall Space Needle.

The 398-foot-tall local tower, with its distinctive flaring base and soaring white vertical fins, was conceived as a cornerstone of an upgrade that would create Clinton Square, a hoped for downtown focal point at the Main Street and Clinton Avenue intersection.

The 14-story building adjacent to the tower called the Clinton Square Building and the seven-story Seneca Building across Clinton Avenue from the tower were later built with the idea of furthering the Clinton Square concept. Yet the designation never gelled as a marker for the area in the way Four Corners has for the intersection of Main and State streets.

Connected to the Metropolitan by a street level passage, the Clinton Square Building today remains a high-end office structure. With the recent demolition of Midtown Plaza, the Seneca Building was gutted and rebuilt as a three-story office structure. It is now Windstream Corp.’s Rochester headquarters.  

After Lincoln First and Chase Manhattan Bank merged in 1996, the tower was renamed Chase Tower. For the next decade and a half, it kept that name and remained a high-rise office tower. But time and circumstances eventually took their toll. 

Tenants in the tower’s heyday as prime commercial space included the Gannett Co. Inc., which had yet to relocate its headquarters to McLean, Va. 

Until 1993, when it completed its own headquarters building nearby, Bausch & Lomb Inc. situated its executive suites and boardroom on the tower’s upper floors.  Merrill Lynch & Co. had its Rochester offices there as well. Other tenants included Manning & Napier Advisors Inc. and Boylan Code LLP.  

Carolyn Nussbaum, managing partner of Nixon Peabody LLP’s Rochester office, was a young attorney with the firm in the years when it occupied the tower’s 11th, 13th, 20th and 21st floors.

“Gannett’s offices were right above our top floor,” she recalls. “They had a beautiful Wendell Castle staircase. I don’t think a lot of people knew about it, but (former Gannett CEO) Al Neuharth had an apartment there.” 

Chase Tower was a social hub for the legal and business communities when Underberg & Kessler LLP partner Paul Nunes joined the firm in the 1990s, he recalled. 

Resembling a sort of underground town square, the building’s lower level concourse was chock-a-block with shops, including a cafe and a barbershop. On the tower’s first floor, tenants and passers-through would perch on sofas and chairs scattered around a large, plaza-like space to watch television.

“This was a big TV, before flat screens. People would watch the news of the day,” Nunes recalled. 

The city’s downtown Skyway, a system of tunnels and inter-building bridges running from Midtown Plaza to the Radisson Rochester Riverside hotel a few blocks to the west, ran through the tower’s concourse, bringing a steady stream of pedestrian traffic.  

Nussbaum fondly recalled a concourse eatery, the Red Lion, as a particularly popular “happening kind of place.”  

The restaurant was special, concurred Nunes, who recalls the Red Lion as “a really cool bar and restaurant where it was not uncommon to find lawyers of all kind gathering to talk about goings on.”  

“One thing I truly miss,” said Nussbaum, whose firm relocated to the Clinton Square Building in 1992, “was the greeting card shop. It was really convenient if you needed a card at the last minute. There’s nothing like that now.”

Marble woes

In the tower’s heyday all was not perfect, however. 

Now clad in aluminum, the tower’s soaring fins originally were faced with white Carrara marble. 

Problems with the marble panels surfaced fairly early. Reduced in thickness during the $28 million project’s design phase, the panels absorbed more moisture than they should have and began to crumble and buckle. 

None fell to the street. Still, the possibility that a two-by-three-foot, 200-pound marble slab could come crashing down on a passerby or vehicle was unsettling.

“Embarrassed officials of the Lincoln First Bank have begun stripping the buckling Italian marble panels from the 26 stories of their 9-year-old headquarters and replacing them with plywood in an $18 million salvage effort,” the New York Times reported in 1982.

Sidewalks around the tower were blocked off for several years while the marble panels were taken down piece by piece to be temporarily replaced with specially painted plywood while the aluminum panels that now face the tower were fabricated. 

“It’s very disappointing and disturbing that these defects have occurred,” bank spokesman James Sykes told the New York Times.

“You could hear the wind whistling through the plywood, and water got into the insulation,” Nussbaum recalled. 

Lincoln First would aggressively pursue legal claims against the contractor, John W. Cowper & Co. of Buffalo, as well as Graham’s Seattle architectural firm, John Graham & Co., Sykes told the New York Times.

Litigation began in 1978, when it was foreshadowed with a notice to begin arbitration, and lasted for the better part of a decade, said Nussbaum.

Nixon Peabody’s then managing partner and now chairman emeritus, Harry Trueheart IV, captained the bank’s litigation team.

For a time in the mid-80s the case took a detour from arbitration to state Supreme Court over objections raised by the defendants. A Fourth Department Appellate Division ruling sent it back to arbitration, where the parties eventually worked out a confidential settlement whose terms are still under wraps.

“Harry still has a piece of the marble on his desk,” Nussbaum said.

Tenant departures

An exodus of top-tier tenants began in the early 1980s with Gannett’s decamping. 

The move, driven by Neuharth’s determination to reorient the company from a collection of regional publications to a nationally focused firm centered on USA Today, had nothing directly to do with any real or perceived shortcomings of the tower. But it still left a hole. 

A steady stream of departures by the tower’s top-tier corporate and legal tenants followed for a variety of reasons. 

Nixon Peabody’s move to the Clinton Square Building in the early ’90s was primarily motivated by a need for different space configurations, not by dissatisfaction with the tower’s amenities, Nussbaum said.

Bausch & Lomb in the early ’90s left for its new Bausch & Lomb World Headquarters building, which sits just south of the Clinton Square Building. The eye-care company’s then chairman and CEO, Daniel Gill, saw the move to the luxurious new headquarters not as a repudiation of Chase Tower but as an affirmation of Rochester’s flagging downtown.    

Underberg & Kessler, which moved to the Bausch & Lomb building in 2004, might have stayed at the tower but could not negotiate a lease with the building’s then owner, E.J. Del Monte Corp., Nunes said. 

Still, he added, with the rise of information technology, the space needs of businesses and law firms have evolved considerably since 1973. Law firms, for example, search and keep records, file cases and largely communicate electronically.  

Nussbaum concurred. Space that firms such as Nixon used to maintain for law libraries is no longer needed, she noted. Her firm’s move to the Clinton Square Building was in part driven by a need for more space. A decade and a half later, it needs less.

Most firms need less space, Nunes said. JP Morgan Chase, which continues to occupy three floors of the Metropolitan, used to take up more of the building.  

While she can wax nostalgic over the tower’s salad days as prime commercial space, Nussbaum sees its preservation as the Metropolitan as a fitting development. 

“It’s still a very beautiful building. The views from the upper floors are magnificent, really unmatched, especially from the north side,” she said. “You can see Lake Ontario.”

2/24/2017 (c) 2017 Rochester Business Journal. To obtain permission to reprint this article, call 585-546-8303 or email rbj@rbj.net.

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