Rochester, New York, isn’t the only Rochester in the United States. There is a good story (perhaps not true) of pilgrims debarking at the Rochester airport looking for the Mayo Clinic. Unfortunately, that famous medical center is in Rochester, Minnesota—not an easy cab ride. My Rochester is in New York, about halfway across a very big state. Please don’t come expecting to be close to the latest Broadway shows—Rochester is at least seven hours by car from Manhattan. We’re a little short on skyscrapers, but boy do we have old houses.
I am a card-carrying architectural historian—a real nut who gets high looking at the built environment—and Rochester is my ideal habitat. I look around and see Greek Revivals, Italian Villas, Queen Annes, bungalows, and mid-century modern houses. Rochester’s architecture covers the history of American building since 1800, and most of it is very good. Skeptical? I’ve picked five of my favorite local examples of quintessential 19th- and early 20th-century American styles to prove it.
The Hervey Ely House on Troup Street, an early 19th-century Greek Revival mansion, is a good place to begin. The small Greek temple with balancing side wings is a dead ringer for a design in one of the earliest “how-to” books by Minard Lafever. Carpenters across America relied on books like Lafever’s for fashionable exteriors as well as instructions on constructing spiral staircases. The house sits on a slight rise near the former route of the Erie Canal. That area, now called Corn Hill, was the center of Rochester society before the Civil War.
Moving on chronologically, we head for a successful nursery in the suburbs. As Americans moved to new frontiers, successful growers here developed hardy strains of fruit trees for new farms in Ohio, Illinois, and westward. The figurehead of the leading local nursery, Patrick Barry, built his eye-catching mansion in the Italian Villa style—a huge change from the classic simplicity of the Greeks. No symmetry here: The house bumps out a bay here and a tower there, all underlined with heavily assertive moldings. Specimen trees, part of the original nursery, mark its appropriate setting; the house now belongs to the University of Rochester.
Along the Avenue
As Rochester’s industry prospered, its tycoons moved their houses away from the city center, developing one of America’s grand boulevards, East Avenue. Of the Avenue mansions, a remarkable Queen Anne serves as a quirky example of changing times, with a touch of English half-timbering crossed with American colonial details. Built originally as the home for Alexander Lindsay, one of the partners in a local department store, it now serves as a physician’s office.
One of the handsomest Avenue homes is a textbook example of Richardsonian Romanesque, a semi-medieval house of rock-faced stone with decorative flourishes. The Wilson Soule House, unlike many others on this street, wasn’t built by a self-made man but for the son of one—heir to a patent medicine fortune. (Patent medicine, in those days, contained a high percentage of alcohol. No wonder it sold so well.) Today the house has become the office for an Art Deco/Gothic church that was built next door in the early 20th century.
Another must-see on my lightning tour of Avenue homes is the largest house on East Avenue, the home George Eastman built for his mother after he had made a success of a little photography business called Kodak. It’s very early 20th century and shows the final turn of taste from the complicated forms and multiple allusions of the Victorian era to the revival of styles drawn from America’s Colonial past.
Eastman’s house design began with his Brownie camera, which he used to take pictures of houses he liked. These he handed to his local architect, who proceeded to adapt them for his wealthy client. Although his mother died soon after they moved in, Eastman enjoyed the house for another 30 years. It is now (surprise!) a museum of photography. The house itself has been meticulously restored and refurnished, and a major attached addition contains a vast photographic archive and a couple of theaters.
On the Side Streets
Off of East Avenue, solid side streets hold smaller, less status-seeking residences, which housed the artisans and junior executives that made Rochester’s businesses successful. From this eclectic mix came the area’s recognition by the National Register of Historic Places, as well as protection in the form of an effective city preservation ordinance.
Rochester’s houses demonstrate changes in technology as well as changes in taste. Each one throws in a bit of history, signposts of both the economic and cultural past. Today most of the large mansions, planned for a corps of servants, have metamorphosed into offices, museums, or clubhouses. Few remain private homes. Old-house nuts are more likely to put their sweat equity into the more manageable side-street houses—that’s my thesis, anyway.
Rochester is my home. I’ve shown you five reasons why I love it—my favorite examples today. By tomorrow, I’ll probably have five more. My town is a treasure chest for those who love old houses, like me—and you.
Jean France is an architectural historian, preservation consultant, and former professor at the University of Rochester.