Midtown Plaza; Rochester, New York

Midtown Plaza in Rochester, NY

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.

Midtown Plaza Mall photo from RocWiki

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!
Midtown Plaza in Rochester, NY Midtown Plaza in Rochester, NY Midtown Plaza in Rochester, NY

Midtown Plaza in Rochester, NY Midtown Plaza in Rochester, NY Office building across from Midtown Plaza in Rochester, NY

16 Responses to “Midtown Plaza; Rochester, New York”

  1. Crazy! I just now did a post on this very same mall, too, over at my blog! Gee, great minds think alike. ;)

    Anyway, great post here, and your blog is looking real good! Thanks also for the link in this post. (I’ve actually done several entries on this mall now to date, btw)

    [Reply]

  2. [...] As an aside, I feel that Gruen’s work went largely unnoticed during his lifetime.  A native Austrian Jew, he was born in Vienna around the turn of the century and emigrated to the United States as a commercial architect during World War II to avoid persecution from the Nazis.  He arrived in the United States as an architect with no money and spoke no english, but before long his misfortune ended.  He started designing pedestrian shopping areas and other small retail venues, but he was most famous for designing (one of) the first large enclosed suburban malls in America.  It was in Southdale Mall in Edina, Minnesota.  Gruen then went on to design several more large enclosed centers, all with very unique and interesting footprints.  Another one is featured on this site and is also magnificent: Midtown Plaza in Rochester, NY.  It’s actually possible to get lost in some of his malls because of the unique layouts, which make today’s enclosed mall designs pale in comparison.  In Gruen’s designs, different levels don’t line up, there are unique angles and shapes, grand courts with 80 foot ceilings, hallways which weave around and loop back upon each other, and more design features of malls considered nonstandard today.  [...]

  3. I remember walking around this thing when I was going to college in the Rochester area in the early 90′s. One of the big issues with it is that it was once also connected to the other mainline department store in town via the skywalk (Sibleys) that is also no longer in business. Also, there is another mall that is ripe for this site in the Rochester area, Medley Centre (the former Irondequoit Mall) that was built in 1989-90, but is now a mostly empty shell of a mall due to crime and the perception of the mall as a dangerous area.

    [Reply]

  4. It is a sad day indeed for Midtown Plaza. I just moved back into town to hear of the final dagger being placed into this long dead center. It seems that the mall, and all the surrounding buildings, will soon be demolished and the land turned into headquarters for a locally based telcom company’s headquarters.

    http://www.democratandchronicle.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20071021/OPINION02/710210338/1039/OPINION

    While at least the clock of nations and the monorail will run this year (I was in Midtown Plaza yesterday and saw them being set up) this will be the final season, and this landmark will soon be gone. Hopefully a local museum, such as the Strong Museum of Play, will take these landmarks and integrate them into their facilities.

    [Reply]

  5. I have lived in Rochester, NY all of my life and I´ve been a patron of Midtown Plaza for 20 years. It is sad that our city officials are deciding to demolish this wonderful landmark. The rise and fall of both Midtown and Irondequoit Mall (Medley Centre) were also seen through my eyes. In my honest opinion, Medley Centre should be closed for demolition. It is ten times deader than Midtown Plaza and the only tenant in the food court is a hot dog stand (not kidding). FYE left earlier this year and Steve & Barry´s will follow suit. A movie theater may go where the old Bon-Ton store is, but who knows if that will really happen. Target just about killed any chance of Medley Centre´s survival (thanks Adam Bersin). New owner Scott Congel has done nothing with the 18 year old shopping mall and I cannot understand why the doors are still open. Of course, a 17 year tax break does help.

    [Reply]

  6. Hi,

    WXXI Public Broadcasting is planning to pay tribute to all that
    Midtown Plaza was to this community, with a documentary project scheduled to air this winter. If you are interested in sharing your memories please email me at fpuello@wxxi.org.

    [Reply]

  7. CHANGE TEXT SIZE:

    Center Stage:Midtown Plaza
    by Curt Hazlett

    It was the end of July in Rochester, N.Y., and the nostalgia was thick as the humid air, as the old Midtown Plaza shopping center closed its doors for the last time. This first modern downtown mall in America, designed by the creator of the indoor mall himself, Victor Gruen, had come to an inglorious end, destined to be torn down to make way for an office tower.

    Midtown Plaza had been part of downtown Rochester life since 1962, and those who had seen it shrivel from a lively gathering spot to a nearly empty shell bemoaned the loss. “What a shame,” one resident wrote to the local newspaper. “Downtown Rochester needs the hometown atmosphere of the days of yore. Those were the days when you could take a bus downtown, meet a friend, shop all day and find most anything you needed. In those days, downtown was the place for everyone to go to fulfill their shopping needs and find some pleasure. Gone, but not forgotten.”

    For many cities those salad days are indeed gone, and developers, politicians and academicians are struggling to find ways to bring them back. But that is hard to do without people. In Rochester the sidewalks empty out after 6 p.m., and the weekends are no better. The suburbs have become the place to be, in part because of Victor Gruen’s invention.

    Gruen was already famous in the early 1960s for his Southdale Center, in Edina, Minn., the world’s first enclosed, climate-controlled shopping center. He was approached by the owners of the B. Forman Co. and McCurdy’s department store chains, who were concerned that the rise of suburban centers (which, ironically, they were helping fuel with their anchor stores) could hurt downtown Rochester.

    Gruen’s solution was a big enclosed mall two blocks from the Genesee River. It would bring people in by means of a combination of strong retail and attractive public spaces. “The plaza should provide Rochester with a focal point,” he said.

    And it did for a long time. People flocked to Midtown Plaza, and many Rochester residents have fond memories of shopping there. They recall gathering by the centerpiece of the mall’s public area, the Clock of All Nations, which was festooned with puppets depicting life in a dozen countries. Poorly maintained, it was removed in the mid-1970s, perhaps foreshadowing what was to come.

    Downtown Rochester eventually began to struggle with a faltering economy and high unemployment rate. Both McCurdy’s and B. Forman closed their Midtown Plaza department stores in 1994, followed a year later by the upscale Wegmans supermarket. In its final years the mall was home to a Peebles department store, a RadioShack, some jewelry stores and a smattering of downscale apparel retailers.

    By 2005 the city, seeing Midtown Plaza as blighted, asked the Urban Land Institute for its opinion. An eight-member panel of the institute came to a blunt conclusion: Gruen’s innovation had outlasted its welcome and needed to go.

    The center was built “just before urban cores started to really accelerate their deterioration as a result of suburbanization,” said Alex J. Rose, chairman of the panel and vice president of development at Continental Development Corp., of El Segundo, Calif.

    “At the time, an enclosed mall in the middle of a central business district was considered a viable model,” Rose said in an interview three years later. “But if you fast forward and see the combined effects of suburbanization and people and businesses leaving the urban core, you can see there were a lot of trends working against that asset. Rochester has been constantly socked in the stomach with job loss.” As for Midtown Plaza, “even if you account for things it might offer as an advantage, you don’t have the demand for it from residents downtown.”

    So on July 25, those who remembered Midtown Plaza’s best days gathered to look at it one more time before its demolition to make room for Rochester’s tallest building, which will house a telecommunications company.

    Gruen, who died in 1980, doubtless would have hated to see this particular day. He believed Midtown Plaza came close to fulfilling his civic vision for what a shopping center should be, not like the suburban behemoths with neither auditoriums nor public art. Those, the outspoken Gruen charged later in his life, had “bastardized” his idea.

    [Reply]

  8. Your statements about Midtown Plaza’s pedigree are based on an erroneous premise. Midtown plaza was far from the first urban mall or the first enclosed mall. It was however, the first fully enclosed urban mall in the US.

    You could park in the garage under the plaza, and shop the entire mall without ever going outside. This was unique for it’s time in urban settings.

    Regardless, this mall was opened when I was 10. I eventually worked there for ht McCurdy & Co. department store as a part time employee at 16. Later I worked there full time for several years until I moved to one of the McCurdy branch store about 1975.

    I loved Midtown plaza and surrounding downtown area. Especially during Rochester’s short summers. As a kid I fondly recall the Midtown monorail and train ride, set up for Christmas, the beautiful clock and nice parking garage.

    Too bad Midtown never reached it’s 50th birthday. It’s memories will survive in those of us who remember it’s glory days!

    [Reply]

  9. Midtown is now but a memory…..

    It officially closed to the public in June 2008.

    It has sat empty for over a year.

    It is slated for asbestos removal to begin in September 2009, followed by demolition of the mall buildings. The fate of the attached Midtown Office Tower is still , which contained office space, and the Top of the Plaza Hotel, Restaurant, and Banquet Center is still up in the air…

    [Reply]

  10. Being from Rochester I too have very fond memories of this mall. My mother worked for McCurdy’s and i was there quite often in my youth. I remember the fountain being my favorite part. And your right the mall is very much loved. It was a living example of what malls used to be and were intended to be as gathering places for the community. The very last Christmas of Midtown being open thousands of people came from the suburbs to say goodbye despite the mall hardly having any stores. Proof that the mall was much more than a just shopping destination but also Rochester’s City square.

    If your interested in some great photo’s check out the Midtown Rising Redevelopments Facebook page. They have some amazing pictures of the Mall in its heyday. plus pictures of it now as it is being torn to bits. Haunting and sad but cool to look at!

    [Reply]

  11. Does anyone remember a small vending machine near the Clock of All Nations that was there in the 1960s, that made small wax replicas of the clock? I was a little kid but I think I remember it. My family does not.

    [Reply]

    Charles Honan Reply:

    @Lived in Brighton 1964-67,
    I lived in rochester from 1953, when I was born, until 1970 when I left for the Army. I now live in Killeen Texas and yes I remember the wax vending machine you are talking about.
    Do you remember the restaurant called, I think, the airport restaurant? It was located on the second floor landing overlooking the mall.

    [Reply]

    Louie Ricciuto Reply:

    The name of that restaurant was the Jet Terrace. I worked at Chase Bank which was in the Seneca Building that was adjacent to Midtown Plaze. It is so sad to drive by or see pictures of what it now looks like, so sad. Anyway I just wanted to tell you the name of that restaurant in the Mall. Have a good one!
    Louie

    [Reply]

    Emilia Reply:

    @Charles Honan, I actually found this website during a google search for photos of the MTP after I read a blog post about those very wax vending machines you refer to. Guess what? A guy still has a working machine, and makes new casts from original molds, and the Clock of Nations is among the ones he has made. Also included are some great photos of the Plaza in it’s heyday, so if you want a trip down memory lane, check out Moldville (dot com) and click Club-a-rama 1.0 to see The Clock of Nations!

    I lived in Rochester in the early 90′s, and even as a child I remember thinking how sad and desolate the mall was back then. I vaguely remember noting that one of the biggest stores present to be a dollar store. Sad to say. Fun memories, though, include the Christmas monorail ride, but I can’t seem to find any photos of the ride as I remembered it, with a tunnel and the North Wind’s face blowing wind off the front of each car. Am I the only one who remembers that?

    [Reply]

  12. Suburban malls killed Midtown, as well as the department stores that were the jewels of Main and Clinton area. There is nothing left of downtown but corporate headquarters buildings and yet another one will occupy the Midtown Plaza site. There is no life in the beloved downtown of Rochester but workers who fill the corporate structures and are gone back to the suburbs by 5PM. I don’t know the answer. Urban Renewal shares a big part of the blame as well. Parking lots now occupy sites where majestic old movie theaters once stood. At least Buffalo has saved one of its grand theaters.

    [Reply]

  13. Midtown Plaza is now Demolished.. see: http://www.cityofrochester.gov/article.aspx?id=8589944373

    [Reply]

Leave a Reply


6 × = eighteen