Reflections on a recent preservation debate

One definition of a “Cataract” is a waterfall, especially one over a precipice. Rochester’s historic High Falls district has a close relationship with a nearby cataract. It is, perhaps another, more common definition of “cataract” that more accurately describes the rhetoric surrounding the fate of a historic building located at 13 Cataract Street near High Falls– “ a clouding of the lens of the eye that obstructs vision.” Obstructed vision. This is precisely what happened over the past several months.

The Landmark Society was one part of a much broader coalition working to save this building. The Landmark Society’s efforts could be categorized as a hybrid vision, firmly supporting the Genesee Brewery’s efforts to open a museum and brew pub, but also looking for viable solutions that would preserve a historic building and save the brewery considerable money in the process. It was an effort that respected confidentiality and worked with brewery officials.

Some characterizations about The Landmark Society’s involvement and effort should be clarified:

“Preservationists wanted to stop the Genesee Brewery’s attempts to open a brew pub.”
The Landmark Society never opposed plans to open a brew pub. We supported plans. We offered assistance to aid the project’s construction and to promote the brew pub. We sought to only enhance the brewery’s project, in close collaboration with brewery officials.

“Preservationists demanded public funding to save the building.”
We focused solely on finding a private use with private developers using private funds. We only asked that the brewery consider assisting with the expenses associated with environmental abatement—a cost that had to be paid prior to demolition. This was a brewery expense—regardless of preservation or demolition. This would have helped make a private development more viable, but it would have also saved the brewery the expense of demolition—a substantial overall savings. However, when the brewery stated this was not in their interest and when the City of Rochester reported no available funding, we moved forward to find a solution that was completely funded with private dollars. Most of our efforts looked to private investment that did not include funding from Genesee Brewery.

“The Landmark Society had the authority to provide protection by providing ‘Landmark Status’.”
We have no legal authority to “landmark” any building. We did, however, support allowing the Rochester Preservation Board to provide input – a very logical approach for a designated building of historic value. The Preservation Board weighed all required criteria in a most responsible manner.

“Preservationists wanted to save 13 Cataract regardless of the cost or project feasibility.”
The Landmark Society’s testimony at public hearings clearly stated our very reasonable approach—an approach that never changed. We asked for time to find a viable, private reuse that saved the building, saved the brewery demolition money and created more investment. We readily admitted the project was challenging.

“Preservationists were trying to stop ‘progress’ and development.”
Simply not the case. Just the opposite. It has been clearly proven that adaptive use of vacant historic resources creates jobs, increases the local tax base and revitalizes neighborhoods. The reuse of historic buildings is progress defined. Many communities across the nation rely on this fact to greatly assist in economic development and increase the quality of life. Multiple examples abound in Rochester and Western New York. In reality, The Landmark Society called for a much larger development to complement the brewery’s plans. We worked directly with City officials, brewery officials and local professionals in
developing alternatives to demolition, oftentimes chasing a moving target. We were able to directly assist in assembling a development proposal that relied on partnerships. Several local, professional, proven, and skilled individuals worked with us to develop a solid and accurate proposal. This effort included a highly-experienced development company, a talented preservation architect, design leaders and a construction management professional. In the end, we were not able to present a fully-funded, immediate, guaranteed, private development that was agreeable to all stakeholders. Do we wish more stakeholders would have embraced our plan? Of course we do. However, we respect the decision of the Brewery to demolish the building. Even though we are disappointed to lose a historic resource, we appreciate and respect the process, which worked just as it is designed to work.

We do not vilify the Genesee Brewery. We value them as a significant part of our heritage and our community’s future. We appreciate their continued investment. While we may not completely agree with all aspects of their project, this in no way negates our respect for the company and its value. The brewery cooperated with us to allow access to the building whenever we asked. Ultimately, and quite bluntly, we were simply not able to present a plan that pleased everyone. The process decided the issue. If Genesee Brewery should require our assistance in a future preservation need, we stand ready to lend a hand.

I am honored to be part of an organization that is dedicated to take such great strides in working to make our corner of New York a more prosperous and liveable region by saving our unique heritage. It is a talented and professional organization. It is has a long, impressive and extensive track record. We are celebrating seventy-five years of saving our heritage and are engaged in numerous projects that are making immediate and positive impacts. While perpetual success is impossible, we will continue to demonstrate dedicated resolve, with the betterment of our entire region at heart. And when we do so, we have no reason to apologize, but every reason to be proud and increasingly supportive of such a worthy and important cause.

posted by Wayne Goodman, Executive Director

From Eyesore to Opportunity: Rochester’s Cataract Brewhouse

Transforming Buildings & Neighborhoods

Recent discussions about the fate of the 120 year-old brewhouse at 13 Cataract Street got us thinking. Those in favor of demolishing the building say it’s an eyesore, beyond repair, and a haven for crime. With peeling paint, missing windows, and holes in the roof, certainly the iconic building has seen better days. And yes, crime does occur around the building; that is not an issue to be taken lightly. But will demolishing the building solve this problem?

If we demolished every “eyesore” in Rochester, would we have solved all the City’s problems? Or might we end up tossing the proverbial baby out with the bath water? Over the next few weeks, we’ll be highlighting some of these former “eyesores” to show that almost any building can be rehabilitated, to demonstrate how this rehab can, in turn, transform a neighborhood, and to remind us all of opportunities that were almost lost.

Cataract Brewing Company Building
13 Cataract Street

Here’s the “eyesore” as it stands today:

The Cataract Brewing Company Building on Cataract Street. From Eyesore to Opportunity: a snapshot of adaptive reuse in Rochester N.Y.

This digital rendering, created by RochesterSubway, illustrates the potential “opportunity” that could be lost if the Cataract building is demolished:

The Cataract Brewing Company Building on Cataract Street. From Eyesore to Opportunity: a snapshot of adaptive reuse in Rochester N.Y.

Adam C. Wagner, often referred to as A. C. Wagner, was the architect and designer of more than 50 American breweries during his lifetime. Most significantly for the Rochester community, in 1890 he designed this impressive brewhouse for the Standard Brewing Company. Eventually the building would be named after one of only five Rochester breweries to survive Prohibition—the now defunct Cataract Brewing Company. At the time of this writing only two other A.C. Wagner brewhouses are still standing—Weisbrod & Hess Brewery in Philadelphia and Steigmaier Brewery in Wilkes-Barre, PA. The Cataract Brewhouse represents one of the last remaining pre-prohibition era brewing facilities in Rochester. Its future is now in question as the current property owner plans to demolish it for additional parking.

Download the PDF

Tonight (Wednesday, April 4) at 8 PM at City Hall, a joint hearing of the City’s Preservation Board and Planning Commission will consider the application for landmark designation of 13 Cataract St.

Want to see more “eyesores” that have been turned into economic opportunities and assets for our neighborhoods and city? Visit our Success Stories page to see the full list.

13 Cataract Street


In late November 2011, North American Breweries submitted plans to the City of Rochester for review to demolish two vacant former brewery buildings at 13 Cataract Street, on the Brewery’s campus.

The two buildings consist of a two-story brick structure, constructed in the 1930s and a larger, more visually prominent, 4-5 story painted brick Romanesque Revival style building constructed in 1889.

The demolition of the two buildings is proposed as part of a $2.6 million project to create a visitors center, museum, microbewery, and tasting room in another historic building adjacent to the Pont de Rennes bridge at 25 Cataract St. As part of this plan, 13 Cataract St. would be replaced with additional parking and green space.

The Facts

13 Cataract St. is eligible for listing in the National Register of Historic Places. The buildings are also listed by the City of Rochester as “Designated Buildings of Historic Value.” What does this mean? Section 120-65B of the City’s Zoning Code prohibits the demolition of designated buildings of historic value thus the applicant must obtain an area variance from the Zoning Board of Appeals.

Both buildings are historically and architecturally significant. The larger, 19th century building was designed by a prominent, nationally recognized architect, AC Wagner of Philadelphia.

Both buildings have also been vacant for a number of years. The larger building is in need of significant rehabilitation, however, it is not beyond repair.

Our Position

The Landmark Society believes that the buildings at 13 Cataract St. deserve strong efforts to preserve them. As National Register eligible buildings, as physical manifestations of Rochester’s brewing history, as potential magnets to bring visitors across the bridge from High Falls, and as potential catalysts for redevelopment and investment in the neighborhood, both are significant. The larger building, in particular, is unique and irreplaceable.

While stabilizing and/or rehabilitating 13 Cataract will require significant investment, North American Breweries will likely spend more money demolishing the structures than they would stabilizing them. The Landmark Society believes that the brewery has put too tight a timetable on this project without sufficiently exploring alternatives.

Such alternatives might include:

  • Pursue developers with incentives in hand such as gap financing, tax abatements, and a more flexible or phased timeline.
  • While the brewery is open to retaining the buildings if a developer comes forward with financing and a plan, the timetable they have put forward is again too tight. A phased approach–with stabilization and facade improvements occurring prior to the opening of the visitors center–represents a more realistic strategy.
  • Stabilize the larger building, redevelop the smaller building and use the cash flow from the latter to fund rehabilitation of the former.
  • Donate the buildings to a non-profit organization. This is a common scenario and is a win-win for the brewery, allowing them to take a tax deduction on the value of the donated property and avoid the high costs of demolition.
  • Donate a portion of the funds that would be used for demolition to a non-profit organization to help fund stabilization. Again, this is a common scenario that benefits all parties, including the brewery, those who want to see the building saved, and the general public.

The Landmark Society and other interested organizations such as the Rochester Regional Community Design Center need more time to explore these options.

What can you do?

Sign the Petition

Attend the Hearing

For additional information, see some of the local press coverage and links below: – A new website devoted entirely to 13 Cataract St. The site is a treasure trove of historical documents, articles, and images.

Democrat & Chronicle

City Newspaper