Midtown Plaza

The Rise and Fall of Rochester's Midtown Plaza Shopping Center

September 26, 2023

An Icon Emerges: Rochester Midtown Plaza

The 1950s was a pivotal decade in the world of construction and engineering.   It witnessed a substantial leap in the innovative application of reinforced concrete, steel, and glass, which resulted in huge undertakings of impressive architectural and engineering wonders all over the world.  In the very heart of Rochester, New York, the construction of the Midtown Plaza was announced with great fanfare in January 1958. 

At the time, strip plazas were all the rage and scattered across numerous locations. Nevertheless, there were looming questions regarding the viability of strip plazas in Downtown Rochester. Consequently, Austrian architect Victor Gruen envisioned Midtown Plaza as an indoor shopping center that would see urban space redefined and revolutionized.  Dedicated on April 10, 1962, Rochester made history as Midtown Plaza became the first indoor shopping mall in a downtown area in the United States.

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A Golden Age for Rochester

Midtown Plaza

Carrying the title of the first downtown indoor mall is a pretty great triumph for a medium-sized city in New York State. The inspiration behind such a ground-breaking concept was the opportunity to provide the residents of Rochester with a pedestrian-friendly town square while also bringing a breath of fresh air into otherwise drab and uninspiring buildings. 

Now, residents of Rochester and the wider New York area had a reason to travel to midtown, check out the latest items the countless stores had to offer, and grab a bite to eat at a nearby restaurant. On top of that, the mall boasted an attention-grabbing clock right in the heart of the building. The Clock of Nations was truly the embodiment of the project and what it had set out to achieve: a place that welcomed everyone.

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A Restaurant, Headquarters, and Office Space: Midtown Redevelopment Done Right

Midtown Plaza

Midtown Plaza was truly an example of forward-thinking. Indoor shopping malls were quickly becoming the way forward, and Rochester was riding that wave. Let’s explore the reasons why Midtown Plaza not only thrived but saved downtown from urban decay.

Underground parking garage-The mall was built atop a 2000-car underground parking garage. This innovative approach to parking addressed the growing concern of downtown congestion and provided shoppers with convenient access to the mall.

Mixed-use development: The plaza was not solely a shopping center but also included an 18-story office space and restaurants. "Top Of The Plaza," the upscale restaurant within Midtown Plaza, became a sought-after venue for a variety of events, including receptions, business gatherings, and special occasion dinners. 

Moreover, Top Of The Plaza contributed to the cultural vibrancy of the area. It became a popular hub for musical performances, featuring renowned jazz artists such as Count Basie, Buddy Rich, and Gap Mangione, among others. These performances not only enriched the dining experience but also helped establish Midtown Plaza as a cultural and entertainment destination within the city.

Anchor Tenants: The inclusion of major anchor tenants like McCurdy's, Lincoln Rochester Bank (now Chase Bank), the United States Postal Service, and Wegmans drew in large crowds and generated consistent foot traffic, benefiting the smaller shops within the mall.

Race Riots and the Civil Rights Era

The 1960s brought its challenges to the U.S., and Rochester, NY, was no exception. As a result of many African-American citizens migrating north in an attempt to secure better rights and lives for themselves, the population exploded. 

Despite the seemingly better opportunities, the African-American population was still subject to racism and discrimination. Soaring unemployment, public harassment, and widespread segregation led to an explosive situation waiting to happen.

Things finally reached a fever pitch when, on July 24, 1964, an attempted arrest at a block party erupted in riots, which quickly turned violent. Five deaths, Nine hundred injuries, and a fatal helicopter crash shook the city. More than 200 stores were also robbed. This tragic event marked a dark time in Rochester's history.

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Building Back Better

The race riots of the 1960s left its mark on Rochester. City officials and members from the Urban Land Institute decided that this would be the last time such awful events could take place, and the plan was put into action to redevelop Rochester in a huge project that would see things put right. 

The area of the city destroyed by the riots was acquired and demolished, creating space for construction. The government's commitment to building homes and stores and revitalizing the area was crucial to the success of the project.

Local Legends

The riots of the 1960s may have left its mark on the city, yet it marked a continuation of a long-standing tradition of social activism and the staunch protection of civil rights for which Rochester had started to gain a reputation. Susan B. Anthony and Frederick Douglass are two figures in American history who left their mark on the city in the face of widespread violence, aggression, and discrimination.

Susan B. Anthony spent years spurring the battle for women's rights and was a major figure in the women's suffrage movement. Even from a young age, Susan B. Anthony showed her commitment to the greater good. At 17, she collected anti-slavery petitions and became the New York state agent for the American Anti-Slavery Society in 1856. Susan B. Anthony was even arrested in 1872 for voting, something permissible only to men at the time.

Frederick Douglass, a former enslaved African American, was a renowned abolitionist and became one of Rochester's brightest citizens. Being born with a gift for words and striking strong notes with crowds, Frederick Douglass soon became known much further than Rochester.

With such great figures, Rochester's inhabitants were able to draw from the lessons and legacies left by Anthony and Douglass. This proved essential, particularly in the face of the shocking events that rocked both Rochester and the United States.

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Changing Times and the End of an Era

As with every great building, Midtown Plaza, despite being an icon and integral part of Rochester's history, eventually faced the changing of times. The 1980s marked the rise of suburban malls. Additionally, car ownership was through the roof, and Midtown Plaza found itself struggling to compete as shoppers were more willing to take the half-hour drive to other malls. Moreover, suburban dwellings were popping up all over the place, which left a very strong impact on the center of Rochester, New York.

Once a symbol of progression and the future, Midtown Plaza soon became a shadow of its former self, with its midtown tower looming over the center. As the years went by, what would have once attracted customers and businesses alike, especially with its welcoming plaza, now turned them away. 

Convenience prevailed, and the flow of customers quickly turned to dust, causing even more businesses to pack up shop, and head out of Rochester. And, of course, it goes without saying that as more and more businesses left, so did any need for customers to venture into the now almost abandoned mall. The party had come to an end, and the cobwebs were starting to form on the mall's unique clock tower, which now stood eerily silent.

In 2008, Midtown Plaza closed its doors, and the trail-blazing chapter of Rochester's history came to a sudden stop. What was once a much-loved shopping destination and a place to gather and spend weekends with friends and families, relaxing on the plaza now stood as a reminder of a bygone era and a hole in the landscape.

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Redevelopment Project to Make Rochester Proud

Rochester Midtown Plaza T-Shirt

Although a painful moment in the history of Rochester, the closure of Midtown Plaza marked a brand-new era for Rochester to redevelop itself and show the nation how it can take advantage of the situation and transform for the better despite every setback. This was the perfect opportunity to introduce a new lease of life into the much-loved city. 

Rochester Midtown Plaza T-Shirt

Demolition works made ground on the building in 2010, and Rochester said goodbye to a dear friend. Given the rich history of Rochester, it was decided that instead of merely letting these pivotal events fade into obscurity, they would stand as lessons for future generations.  Plans were revealed to transform the former site of Midtown Plaza into a cultural hub where Rochester citizens could meet and transform this central space with music and art. Finally, Rochester and its midtown would feel the heart of its community beat again.

So, there you have it—the fascinating history of a much-loved mall. Midtown Plaza may seem like any other building to the untrained eye. However, every plaza, airport, garage, or other seemingly "boring" place could have had a lifetime of history walk past its doors. Who knows what's lying behind the stores and their facades in a midtown community?

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