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  Columnist: Michael Keene

Image credit: CC 3.0 Zmuidzinas

Hoodoo Corner

Posted on Tuesday, 5 June, 2012 | 0 comments
Columnist: Michael Keene

[!gad]The modern history of Rochester's "Hoodoo Corner," as I came to know it—the intersection of Main and Elm Streets—began in 1958, with a chance luncheon meeting by two leading merchants of the city: Gilbert J. McCurdy and Maurice Forman. Each owned a department store in the area, and largely due to the trend toward suburbanization which was then taking place in Rochester as well as across the United States, with its concomitant reliance on the automobile, found themselves in need of more parking spaces for their customers. The men discussed the issue, which quickly became a broader conversation about revitalizing the entire mid-town area. Thus the seeds were planted for a development which would change the face of Rochester.

A few months later, McCurdy had a heart attack. While he was in the hospital recovering, he happened on a newspaper article about the recently-opened first indoor shopping mall in the United States. He was so intrigued by the write-up that as soon as he was well enough, he went to Edina, Minnesota to see it for himself. Southdale Mall was huge news when it opened: The two-story, 800,000 square foot center contained space for seventy-two stores and two anchors, and boasted 5,200 parking spaces. The mall officially opened on October 8, 1956, and had 40,000 visitors in the first day. It signaled the development of a new kind of retail destination that would spread across the country in the ensuing decades.

The $20 million project was developed by the Dayton Company, which had chosen a remarkable architect for the project. Victor Gruen (1903–1980), who would later become known as the "Mall-Maker," was a Jewish refugee from Hitler's Austria. In the summer of 1938, Gruen heard a knock on his door. Upon opening it, he was immediately arrested by Hitler's police, who confiscated his apartment, his business, and his money. He was thrown into prison like many of the more prosperous Jews living in Vienna at the time. Eventually he was released but saw the "writing on the wall" and left Vienna for America the same week as did Sigmund Freud. Gruen carried with him a vision of community that would have profound (and some might say, paradoxical) consequences in his adopted country. He'd studied at the Technological Institute and Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna—the same institution to which Adolf Hitler was denied entry—and then worked for Peter Behrens before opening his own architectural firm in 1933. He was a committed socialist, an urban planner, and a lover of the city.

He reportedly said upon landing in the United States in 1938: "I have nothing, but I am free." But it's not quite true that he had nothing. Though he spoke no English, had no place to live, and no money, he had an architectural degree and a set of ideas, and a network of contacts and friends that would prove invaluable. He soon began working as a draftsman in New York City. He became acquainted with the likes of George S. Kaufman, Richard Rodgers, Al Jolson, Irving Berlin, and Albert Einstein. Gruen became a U.S. citizen in 1943, by then already well on his way to making a name for himself. He was noticed by the architectural community particularly for his innovative design for a Fifth Avenue leather-goods shop, Lederer's. He incorporated a mini-arcade into the design for the storefront, then an original concept in retail design, and one that would factor into much of his subsequent work. By 1951, he had moved to Los Angeles and founded his own firm, in which he brought together a talented group of architects, engineers, and planners.[i]

As one critic noted in a review of Victor Gruen's book, The Heart of Our Cities, he was "anxious to work towards an ideal city, the perfect man-made environment."[ii] Gruen arguably imported this tendency with him when he emigrated from Vienna, which had undergone a dramatic reconstruction since the late nineteenth century, when the fortifications around the city were demolished. The new city was laid out quite deliberately, in response to larger political and civic ideas about the ways in which residents from different classes should mingle as they moved through an urban area. It became a central organizing principle of Gruen's work as well, and he would bring it to both his urban master plans for cities like Fort Worth, Kalamazoo, and Cincinnati, as well as the mall designs he pioneered in cities like Detroit, Edina, Philadelphia, and Rochester. In all, Gruen was involved in the development of some 200 malls across the U.S.

His first enclosed shopping mall, Southdale, incorporated elements that would become nearly universal in malls across the country: Everything under one roof, with heating and air conditioning, to protect shoppers from the elements; built on two levels, to reduce walking; and with escalators at the ends of aisles, to encourage shoppers to stroll past every store before changing direction. The mall contained a kind of town square in the center, with a restaurant, skylight, and a park-like setting. But Gruen did not envision Southdale as solely a retail destination. The initial master plan, which was never fully realized, was an entire development that included apartments, houses, schools, and parks. The mall itself was designed to be a community gathering place as well as to meet leisure and practical needs. It included space for a post office and a grocery store, and even a small zoo, among other things. Gruen aimed to create an aesthetically pleasing as well as functional space, including artwork, decorative lighting, fountains, and tropical plants and flowers.

The opening of the mall was covered by media nationwide, which is what drew McCurdy's attention to it. And he was impressed enough by the design of Southdale that, after his visit to it, he sought out Gruen and the two began discussing a suitable project for Rochester. Such a project accorded with Gruen's notion of a mall as the centerpiece of a carefully planned downtown, and he signed on.

Then McCurdy took a lesson from another visionary of the period. He soon engaged the services of a real estate attorney, Wallace "Bud" Weiser, and the two, copying Walt Disney's approach to acquiring the property on which he build Disney World—that is, not advertising their intentions, so as not to drive up the cost of the targeted real estate parcels—began quietly buying up the required land. In eighteen months, they had acquired eighteen separate parcels along Elm and Main Streets in Rochester.

McCurdy's plans for the property were soon approved by the Rochester City Council and construction began in 1960. The plans for the shopping center included a fifteen-story hotel, retail space, and a 1,900-space underground parking garage. It was the single largest private investment in retailing in the U.S. at that time. On April 10, 1962, Midtown Plaza was dedicated. Over 7,000 people attended opening-day festivities. National media covered the event, including a story on the Huntley-Brinkley (NBC) nightly national newscast. The opening of Midtown Plaza was hailed locally as a "vision that saved a city" and a "Renaissance on the Genesee." Even Walt Disney himself eventually visited the property.

By the end of his life, Victor Gruen had largely changed his mind about the role of shopping malls in American life, and even disavowed the form he had pioneered. He was quite disillusioned by the sprawling developments that grew up around many of the malls he had built. In 1978, just two years before he died—back in his native Austria, where he had moved in the late 1960s, living in a country house just outside Vienna—he gave a speech in which he railed against American suburban life, of which his malls were an integral part, calling them "avenues of horror, flanked by the greatest collection of vulgarity—billboards, motels, gas stations, shanties, car lots, miscellaneous industrial equipment, hot dog stands, wayside stores—ever collected by mankind."[iii] And Midtown Plaza, by the early 1990s, reflected the ways in which these developments had come together. In the course of the late twentieth century, retailing had become largely a suburban phenomenon, depriving cities of one their main economic engines. Gruen's shopping mall in the heart of Rochester had become a symbol of urban decay: It was now as out of fashion as the family-owned department stores that had previously been located at that intersection. So intrigued as I was by the men who were instrumental in the making of Midtown Plaza and the historical developments that led to its creation, I turned my attention back further in history to better understand the dynamics of the origins of Midtown Plaza and to a legend known as Hoodoo Corner.

**Reprinted by the author Michael Keene from his book, "Folklore and Legends of Rochester.

Article Copyright© Michael Keene - reproduced with permission.

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