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Decades of architectural, personal histories dress up East Avenue

Rochester Business Journal
March 29, 2013

Millionaire's row? Any decent-size U.S. city has one of those.
 
But an Avenue of Presidents? That name has been used to describe Rochester's East Avenue.
 
Local historian Don Hall calls the avenue "one of the best-preserved gateway streets in America," referring to the particularly opulent thoroughfares that lead into the center of many cities, like Euclid Avenue in Cleveland or Delaware Avenue in Buffalo. All told, he says, some 100 mansions were built on East Avenue between 1840 and about 1925; roughly half of them are still standing.
 
Among those 100 owners were the elite of Rochester: George Eastman, of course, but also Henry Strong, first president of Eastman Kodak Co.; Hiram Sibley, the president of Western Union and, before Eastman, the city's wealthiest man; and Schuyler Colfax, vice president under Ulysses S. Grant. King Henry of Prussia danced in the third-floor ballroom of one mansion, while Eastman invited 1,200 people to a New Year's party at his home.
 
Not only would subsequent generations grow up in these homes, but a handful of new mansions were built as wedding presents for residents' children. These could be across the street or even closer.
 
"Many of these plots were so big that the parents would actually build a house on the grounds," says Cynthia Howk, architectural research coordinator for the Landmark Society of Western New York Inc.
 
These days, only a handful of the remaining mansions are single-family homes, says Meredith Keller. Her expertise on this topic stems both from her job, as executive director of the Rochester Historical Society, and from having lived in an East Avenue mansion for 25 years. Her husband, Peter Holloran, was born and raised there.
 
"It's a glorious house," Keller says of the home, which now has three units. "And if somebody wanted to, they could return it to its original state. But they'd need a boatload of money to do it."
 
In the years before the Civil War, Rochester's moneyed set spent their fortunes in the more congested Corn Hill area, then known as the Third Ward.
 
"Early on, Rochester's wealthier people had big homes, but they were on small plots of land," Howk says. "The lawn mower hadn't been invented yet, and because the wave of immigration hadn't reached here, manual labor was very expensive."
 
It was not until 1805, when Oliver Culver was given the task of building a new road two rods wide-33 feet-that the farmland and Indian trails east of downtown Rochester began to be tamed. The University of Rochester's move to nearby

University Avenue in 1861 spurred development in the area, and when Sibley built a house there six years later, Howk says, "that really marked the beginning of East Avenue."
 
With some 85 years of architectural history on display, the amount of stylistic diversity along the avenue is dramatic, from Queen Anne to Jacobean to Greek Revival.
 
"That's the wonderful thing about East Avenue," Hall says. "It's a 'one each of everything' kind of street. It's like a living encyclopedia right in front of you."
 
Hall estimates that seven architects are responsible for 40 of those mansions; among them were Claude Bragdon, Harvey Ellis and the father-and-son team of Andrew Jackson Warner and J. Foster Warner.
 
It was the younger Warner who, in consultation with the storied firm McKim, Mead & White, designed Eastman's home, complete with elevator and 21 telephones. The best-known architect represented in the East Avenue Preservation District is Frank Lloyd Wright, but his Boynton House can be found on East Boulevard, just a few doors off East Avenue.
 
Roughly half of the original buildings remain standing, although many have been carved into apartments; the rest have given way primarily to larger apartment buildings and churches. Four of the mansions were taken down to accommodate Asbury First United Methodist Church. Hall's former workplace-the Strasenburgh Planetarium, where he served as director-was built on the grounds of the home of Edward Bausch, whose father co-founded Bausch & Lomb Inc.
 
Keller points out that some addresses were more susceptible to the ravages of history than others.
 
"The urban legend is that they were taxed by their street frontage," she says. "So if you look down East Avenue, it's mostly the corner houses that are gone."
 
Public disenchantment with these demolitions came to a head in 1967, when a house dating to 1876 gave way to the Strathallan hotel.
 
"The demolition of Thompson mansion prompted the residents to say, 'This can never happen again,'" Hall says.
 
Within a few years, the city's first preservation district was formed, and the area bounded by Park and University avenues and Alexander and Probert streets is now protected.
 
The protection was needed in part because East Avenue had its share of rough patches. The introduction of the income tax in 1913 had slowed construction for a time, up to a dozen mansions were abandoned during the Great Depression, and Keller says her husband remembers a time "when the street wasn't doing as well, in the 1960s and 1970s, with drug houses and the like."
 
But the last few decades have seen the avenue flourish, and the city would love to see this trend continue. Howk says tax credits of up to 20 percent are available for restoring historic properties, which could encourage people looking to buy the sliced-up mansions and convert them back into single-family homes.
 
The prospect of owning one's own East Avenue mansion is a heady but daunting one. In 2008, the Historical Society sold Woodside, the mansion that had been its headquarters, for conversion back into a residence, and Keller says of the new owners, "if they put less than $1 million into renovating it, I'd be surprised." (See story on page 20.)
 
Even in its heyday as the Avenue of Presidents, however, East Avenue occasionally made room for those who were not plutocrats. Alice Whitney and her husband, Kodak executive Charles Hutchison, built the mansion next to George Eastman's. Whitney was Eastman's personal secretary at the time.

Eric Grode is a Rochester-area freelance writer.3/29/13 (c) 2013 Rochester Business Journal. To obtain permission to reprint this article, call 585-546-8303 or email service@rbj.net.


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