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.