A Needle in a Haystack

We relish the research of old buildings.  The ornament, style, and character aside, we love them for the stories they can tell.  In our present age where so much of the built environment is impermanent and cheap, I greatly appreciate the lasting grace and rich narrative that accompanies these resilient structures.  

Over the years, in the pursuit of information pertaining to these tarnished jewels among us, I have logged a lot of hours at the History Center of Olmsted County.  The archives pertaining to downtown Rochester and its varied businesses, buildings, and residents are well preserved and remarkably accessible.

Projects of ours such as Grand Rounds Brewpub (Union Block), Limb Lab (Riverside), and CMD Historic Rehabilitation (Conley-Maass) made us intimately aware of the many previous lives of these historic buildings.  But there have been other projects we were never awarded (below an image of the Palace Block more well known as the Paine Furniture Building) that had us scouring through street images and phone books for names, addresses, and clues.  

Indeed, it is the process of searching through archives, tracing over letters, and pouring over photographs that is nearly as much fun.  

Here is an example: there is a story, not told to many people, of how we were able to find more detail for the rear facade of the CMD Historic Rehabilitation.  After exhausting the resources for files relating to the principal property, we researched the building that used to be located immediately south (Schuster Brewery), hoping that in one of the wide angle shots, a portion of our building may show up.  As luck would have it, some amateur photographer solved our mystery and the below image became the most accurate depiction of the rear facade ever discovered.  

Schuster Brewery with rear facade of Conley-Maass on the far right

That process, researching and investigating, is sometimes straightforward.  You can look up buildings by address, or by significant businesses who operated inside them.  The History Center also has lots of street scenes that depict various areas of downtown Rochester during different time periods.  

But recently, we were asked to determine the year a building was built and if it had a specific name.  The building at 326-328 South Broadway is owned by a wonderful couple, Michael Belknap and Gillian Duncan.  In addition to being tremendous stewards of their beautiful building (they live upstairs and have completely renovated it) they also appreciate art and design in many forms.  

 326-328 South Broadway front facade

326-328 South Broadway front facade

 Rear facade showcasing the CUDE Award winning cantilevered deck and trash enclosure

Rear facade showcasing the CUDE Award winning cantilevered deck and trash enclosure

Our initial attempts at research were not successful in determining if there was an original name for the building, nor the year it was constructed.  But we pieced together a few strands of information:

  • Based on insurance maps (these were kept updated every few years to document both the size of buildings and lots as well as the uses within each building) I was able to trace back the building to at least 1884.  So in 1884, the building shows up on the insurance map, which means that it was built on or before 1884.  That is the earliest insurance map, so I could not determine a date for construction.
  • The use in 1884, appears to be a saloon.  The entire floor plan (from the north edge of the building to the south edge, with the columns marching down the middle) was that use.  It went by a name "Billas" saloon.  It is unclear if that is shorthand for the word "billiards" or if that was the last name of the proprietor.
  • It was still a saloon in 1904 according to insurance maps.
  • Later on, around 1917, it was a grocer and another shop tenant with a few residences upstairs.  So sometime in between the main floor was divided up to create separate tenants.
  • In 1931 the both halves were again part of one business, "Great Atlantic & Pacific Tea Company."  
  • There are some pretty oblique street views that include the building around this time period.  That entire block, on both sides of the street, was gorgeous with architecture that was very consistent.  But what I noticed was that there was not a name plate or a cornerstone date on the facade.  So I don't think it was ever referred to as a specific building or "block." 
 Outline showing buildings that are still standing today on the 300 Block of South Broadway

Outline showing buildings that are still standing today on the 300 Block of South Broadway

Undeterred, the next place to look was in the original deed to the property.  Most deeds will not explicitly state when a building was built, but often there are large purchases or mortgages that would indicate the erection of some structure.  In this case, the deed of the property indicated a mortgage taken out in 1877 (September 28th) for the owner who was "about to erect a building."  PAY DIRT!!

That information was then corroborated by information found at the History Center showing that the owner (Henry Schuster of Schuster Brewery fame) was building this exact structure in October 1877.  Likely finished the next year (1878). 

THUS: The building was built in 1877-1878 by Henry Schuster. It is referred to as the Schuster New Block in the newspaper.  "Block" being the name given to new buildings at the time.  Below is the proverbial "needle" published in the Post-Bulletin on October 26, 1877.  

The path toward success is rarely linear, but we were able to determine the historical significance of this building eventually.  Who is Henry Schuster?  Arguably one of the most influential businessmen in Rochester's commerce history.  


Sadly, Henry Schuster died a few years later (of consumption), but this small portion of his legacy--and the much more minor architectural structure--exists today and has now been unearthed to tell it's story.  


Time to DREAM together!

As previously referenced by DMC and the media, the team* working on the public space design for the Heart of the City in Rochester released our DISCOVER report and presented to the DMCC Board and City Council.   The report was the culmination of that phase of work, aimed at truly understanding the context and constraints that surround the Heart of the City geography.  Armed with that knowledge, we are now continuing on to the DREAM phase where conceptual ideas are formed and community involvement is critical.  

With that, we invite you to "DREAM with us" as we workshop solutions that will enhance the many assets of this place we call home and improve upon the experience of visiting the Heart of the City.  Join us THURSDAY, MARCH 09, 2017 at the Rochester Art Center.

The intent of this first, large-scale, broad community workshop, is to engage in meaningful discussion about what we learned during the DISCOVER phase and how it translates into design of the Heart of the City public space.  We are hoping to stimulate your creative side and garner feedback on what would create an authentic and iconic design that resonates with the larger community.  

* Design Team:

Grove Apartments

Anticipated (and occurring) population growth in Rochester's core neighborhoods means that we need to develop new solutions for land use and housing.  Among the trends happening across the country, are changing zoning regulations and policies directed at sensitive, neighborhood-scale, infill redevelopment.  

Here in Rochester, we have yet to adopt any of these innovative strategies, and thus we are left with a process designed to handle growth at the periphery; not the core.  But more and more, people are desiring to live in well-connected, existing urban neighborhoods for myriad reasons.  Therefore, how can we promote and encourage increased density that is contextual and respectful of its place?

While overarching issues of "carrots" and "sticks" will be left for another day, we feel that design plays an integral role in shaping successful redevelopment projects.  This one, Grove Apartments, provides an example for such a case.  It recently received Preliminary Plan approval from the Planning & Zoning Commission as well as City Council by unanimous votes.  

How did we get there?  Here is how.  

Northrop Neighborhood Context

Northrop Neighborhood (just north of the railroad tracks along Civic Center Drive and west of Broadway) is one of Rochester's oldest neighborhoods.  Goose Egg Park and Northrop School were cherished parts of generations past when Elton Hills Drive was so much farmland.  This neighborhood is close to public transit, walkable to Mayo Clinic, well-connected to the trail system that runs along Cascade Creek, and in recent years boasts the Cooke Park Design District.  

And now hopefully, Northrop Neighborhood can be known as a beautiful place worthy of investment.  There certainly are opportunities if you know where to look.  There are major arterial roads running through the neighborhood that still contain single family homes.  These roads have all but removed the marketability of many homes through widening and increased traffic speeds.  So the next phase of neighborhood development is to repurpose or redevelop.

The below property on the corner of 4th Avenue NW and 10th Street NW has been in a steady state of decline for nearly a decade.  The new owner purchased the site for redevelopment because it is along a major urban arterial, has corner exposure, has alley access, and an unusually wide lot dimension that makes it more conducive to different building shapes.

9.SQUARE began by studying the adjacent homes for architectural cues and context.  We quickly realized that this new multi-family building would have to look and feel like a bunch of smaller massed pieces to form the whole.  

A large apartment "complex" was far too massive and didn't fit the neighborhood.  The image on the right (below) was a concept to mirror two "L" shaped buildings and subvert the western building down the sloping ridge to the flood plain.

We further developed this concept to continue to break down the scale and mass.  We ultimately rejected the below design of multiple entries in favor of more distinct, walk-up entries for the units along 4th Avenue.

The central courtyard around which the architecture surrounds became a unique feature to resolve all of the elevations differences and also create a welcoming and accessible place for the residents.

 Still Too Massive Along 4th Avenue NW

Still Too Massive Along 4th Avenue NW

Further on in the design process, we pushed to lower the east end building even further so it was less dominant on the 4th Avenue frontage.  This required a more creative set of steps to access the units found inside the courtyard.

We also got great feedback from the neighborhood during the design process which dovetailed with our own analysis but also stimulated us to think creatively about a few of the design components.

 Better Scale for Walk-Ups

Better Scale for Walk-Ups

Cascading Steps To Central Courtyard

We are proud of the evolution of this design to respond to unique site constraints, development needs, city regulations, and neighborhood concerns.  When the ink finally dried on the Preliminary Plan for the development, there was a consensus that we did achieve a walkable, neighborhood-scale multi-family building that would set the tone for future development interest.

Parking Lot Screened from Sidewalk