The Midtown Plaza in Rochester, New York is one of the best-preserved old shopping malls that I’ve visited. It’s also one of the oldest enclosed downtown shopping malls in the United States.
Perhaps one of the stranger bits of trivia about the Midtown Plaza is that it is often–erroneously–referred to as the nation’s first enclosed shopping mall. It is a fact touted both on the Midtown Plaza website and also by many Rochester locals (while having dinner with some friends-of-a-friend during my stay, I noted I was visiting some area malls and they noted in unison that I had to visit their downtown mall, which was the first one). Regardless of your definition of mall, there were many that came before (Midtown Plaza didn’t even open until 1962!). The strangely contemporary Arcade Mall in downtown Providence, Rhode Island, which opened in 1828, seems to have the most legitimate claim to this title, but even by the standard of *modern* enclosed malls there were plenty built throughout the United States in the 1950s or even late 1940s. And, like Midtown Plaza, it was built in an urban downtown, though it is admittedly less modern (and far smaller).
Even if Midtown Plaza’s pedigree isn’t as sound as Rochesterians would like to think, it is still an amazingly preserved example of the 1960s shopping mall. Despite that Midtown Plaza is the focal point of Rochester’s large downtown–and is even skywalked with the Xerox World Headquarters across the street–it’s somewhat hidden to passersby because several faces of the mall were built right into existing buildings along the street. For example, Peebles has entrances into the mall and on the street, but the face towards the street preserves the original facade from the older building, which is probably of an early 1900s vintage.
The mall itself is a delightfully preserved example of a classic contemporary shopping mall. Designed by architect Victor Gruen, the two-story center was made to look like a European town square. The signature Clock of Nations, a large fixture in the center of the mall, still stands in its original place today. Despite that the mall’s architecture is preserved, it doesn’t seem to be terribly successful as a major retail destination. I disagree with Dead Malls Dot Com’s contention that it is a “rotting piece of retail;” in fact, I find the preserved mid-century architecture to be one of its greatest points of charm. And while it’s faring somewhat poorly, it’s doing no worse than most center city malls of its era, most of which have now failed completely or serve as little more than oversized food courts. Despite that Midtown Plaza has lost its anchor tenants (McCurdy, B. Forman Company, and Wegman’s have all left, and today Peebles remains the mall’s only true anchor) and that it no longer seems to be a major retail destination in the Rochester area, it is still a major part of the backbone of downtown Rochester. Given the mall’s vintage, location, and condition, it should be preserved and aggressively retenanted. Unlike many malls of its era, it has hung on to its original decor and architecture, and with a moderate amount of polish it could be substantially more chic than many of its more ordinary suburban siblings.
All photos on this page except the above image are from my rather hazy set of (say it with me… old camera phone pics!) taken in February 2005. Thankfully, this mall is well-loved; unlike with most malls, even a Google Image Search turns up juicy results! If you’d like a clearer and older photo of what the mall looked like, check out this page, which has an old postcard view (MallsofAmerica style) of the Midtown Plaza mall in its heyday. In addition, there are several sets of photos linked from the Rochester Wiki (see a sample of one of these above this paragraph) that show the mall packed with patrons, and the photos are even of a relatively recent vintage. Also, make sure to check out the floor plans for the mall’s two levels, which are well-hidden on the official website.
EDIT 7/15/06: MallsofAmerica rather serendipitously made a post about the Midtown Plaza on the same day that I made this post. Check it out!