Great designs speak for themselves. Yet certain projects have a much wider and more significant impact, leading to “bigger and better” things. Famous examples from around the country include Camden Yards in Baltimore and the High Line in New York City. Projects like these have their own design integrity, but they also go beyond it to shape and define the character of their regions.
Here in our area, we have a number of parallel examples: designed structures and spaces that stand out as linchpins for our region. Taken together, they form a “Who’s Who” of community quality.
Prior to the 1980s, a number of projects transitioned what we think of as Rochester from its original foundational landmarks into a more modern era. These included buildings like Midtown Plaza and Xerox Tower in the ’60s, and the New City Hall in the ’70s. More recently, additional waves of design have yielded big changes.
Considering factors like visibility, uniqueness, catalyzing influence and community character, here is my Top 10 list of “Big Impact” projects constructed after 1980:
10. UR College Town
For years, the Town House Motor Inn anchored the corner of Elmwood Avenue and Mt. Hope Boulevard. With its recent removal, the suburban layout with large expanses of parking fronting major streets, gave way to a truly urban plan—one that transformed the Mt. Hope corridor, allowing existing businesses to front a new, more vibrant streetscape. It created a new neighborhood and established an eastern “front door” to our region’s largest institution.
9. Village Gate
Gary Stern’s vision of an arts-focused venue initially occupied an assemblage of industrial structures on North Goodman Street. Established in 1981, its unself-conscious urban interior is vast and playful. It has since grown in both occupancy and stature. Over the years, this has been a steadfast anchor in the burgeoning Neighborhood of the Arts, allowing surrounding venues to find their way to success. Today, Village Gate is home to independent shops, a variety of successful restaurants, salons, offices and loft residences—a truly unique environment.
8. Frontier Field
Back in the 1990s, where to locate a new community sports stadium was one of the region’s hottest topics. The decision to locate the stadium just outside the Inner Loop adjacent to Kodak Tower proved to be a winner. Opened in 1996, this design brought Rochester into the present, creating a successful replacement of a treasured community resource. The facility plan incorporated features unique to the site; the rail line visible on the embankment above the outfield fence, the city skyline as a dramatic backdrop and an existing historic structure.
7. Pittsford Community Library
Sometimes it is not outward impact that causes a project to stand out but instead, skillfully fulfilling a community-wide need as well. Constructed in 1997, this public library is a big building in a modestly scaled historically sensitive village; a difficult thing to design successfully, but this one does it. This is an example of a project that provided a central community gathering space for both village and town while managing to “fit in” with its neighbors.
6. Memorial Art Gallery Sculpture Park
Not so long ago, elegant wrought iron fences and gates defined the MAG’s site boundaries. It appeared more like a private precinct than the welcoming community site it is today. The museum’s decision to open up its grounds by creating a fully accessible, creatively landscaped and engaging sculpture park has changed the entire feel of its surroundings.
5. Public Safety Building
Before the 1990s, Rochester’s Civic Center Complex on Exchange Boulevard was regularly ranked as the region’s bleakest public space. The new building, which houses the city’s police and fire administrations, is a strikingly modern design statement. A symbol of then-Mayor Bill Johnson’s desire to express transparent open government, the Public Safety Building managed to cause the remaining utilitarian complex to recede into the background.
4. Eastman Place
This modern building, designed by architect Bob Macon, created both indoor and outdoor public space immediately adjacent to the historic Eastman Theatre. Its concave glass façade created an urban park immediately opposite the richly detailed, sweeping convex façade of the theater. With the more recent Kodak Hall renovations and additions, the “theater district” is an anchoring venue with a multifaceted neighborhood feel—a natural to host community events such as the Xerox Rochester International Jazz Festival.
3. The Strong
Having established itself in an out-of-the-way area of the central city that had yet to develop, the design of the Strong Museum has evolved to be like nothing else in our region. Opened to the public in 1982, it has since expanded twice. This nationally recognized institution has spurred infill growth that has consolidated as a unique part of the city. Recent nearby investments include ESL’s Corporate Headquarters to the west, the restoration of Manhattan Square Park, now Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Park, to the north and the Inner Loop project to the east and south.
When Midtown first opened in 1962, it became the heart of Rochester’s downtown experience. Fifty years later, after the waning of commercial space resulted in its demolition, a new urban district has emerged. In the newly designed public park and urban plan there remain echoes of the past vibrant venue in the street patterns that were Midtown Mall’s pedestrian concourses and in the three structures that remain: Midtown Underground Parking, the Seneca Building (occupied by Windstream) and Tower 280 (the former Midtown Tower). The investment has paid big dividends with unprecedented reinvestment in the existing surrounding buildings.
1. Geva Theatre Center
Before Bausch & Lomb Tower and the Frontier Building arrived on the scene to bolster the Washington Square Park district of the city, there was Geva. After a transformative renovation in 1985, the former Naval Armory and Convention Hall—originally constructed over 100 years earlier—became the home of Rochester’s most recognized community theater. This key project cemented a grouping of quality historic structures that included St. Mary’s and First Universalist churches, as well as paved the way for projects of larger size. The theater now stands as a revitalized sentinel, marking the southern vehicular gateway to the Center City.
Taken together, these projects represent designs that resonate, reshaping the character of our community. It may prove beneficial to keep them in mind as time marches on and more projects with “big impact” potential continue to emerge.
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 email@example.com.
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