Bittersweet memories and the preservation of art


Midtown Plaza. The mere mention of those two words in this city tend to generate an immediate outpouring of opinion. This isn’t an op-ed piece on whether or not I think it should or shouldn’t be torn down. This is about memories and preserving what we can….and there are some pretty spiffy photos down below too for you to enjoy.

As with most native Rochesterians, I have many memories of Midtown. This past Sunday, all these memories and more came flooding back as I stood in the cavernous courtyard of a near-empty Midtown Plaza. The fountains were dry and the escalators still. The flags of the nations still adorned the mezzanine level , displaying their colors for no one. The monorail cars sat abandoned on their tracks, no more full of the squeals of delight from the children riders. The only evidence of the grand clock was a shaded imprint on the tile floor of where it once stood.

Flashback: sweet recollections of holding my grandmother’s delicate gloved hand as we made our way through the splendor of B. Forman’s…having our traditional nosh at the lunch counter (where I could get a milkshake if I liked) … strolling through the grandeur of Midtown Plaza to the glorious Clock of Nations, where I saw the world come to life through dance and costume from lands I one day hoped to see firsthand.

I was there last Sunday to photograph the removal of a massive ceramic mural (see slideshow of photos below). The mural – displayed on the mezzanine level since shortly after the plaza opened – is made up of over 200 individually mounted ceramic pieces. It’s one of those public art works that may have gone unnoticed, located above the eye level of the crowds that once frequented the mall. In fact, from my viewpoint as a child I thought it was wood, fashioned like the driftwood sculptures I used to make from of findings at Lake Ontario.

To remove the mural was no small feat. A dedicated group of volunteers took turns on a huge lift, helping to steady each piece so could Peter Monacelli could wield a giant electrical saw (I’m sure it has a better name than “giant electrical saw” but whatever) and cut through the metal posts mounting each to the wall. Each piece was carefully handed down to another group who vacuumed up years of accumulated dust bunnies and then marked the back of piece to keep them in order.

The pieces will be stored at Rochester Contemporary Arts Center (RoCo) until a permanent home can be found where the mural can be reinstalled in its original form. (How sweet is that action? Three cheers for RoCo!)

I snapped a few photos of the mural removal, and then my attention was diverted by the many architectural wonders of Midtown. Just think – it was the FIRST INDOOR MALL in the nation! Not many things can brag about being the first. Camera in hand, I went exploring. Even better, I gave my son a camera too. I wanted to see Midtown through his eyes.

The unique angles, reflective surfaces and skylights made for some definite fun. We snapped away. The lighting was wonky – sun streamed through the ceiling slats, creating shadows not very well handled with the little point-and-shoot cameras we were armed with, however we captured some semi-decent shots.

My son asked if we could come back sometime with my professional equipment and take some “really cool photos of all the cool stuff in the mall.” No, we can’t, kiddo. I’m sorry. It’s going to be torn down. A new building will be here in a few years. He was horrified….“but this is history, Mom.”

I explained about the steady decline of Midtown, about suburbs and malls, white flight and the impact on downtown. I also explained about the importance of revitalizing the area where Midtown stands, and the jobs it will create, the influx of all things positive for a downtown that desperately needs a shot in the arm.

His response was something pretty insightful … about how that’s all good stuff but doesn’t his generation deserve to know the history of it all?

As we left, he thanked me sincerely for taking him to see it – more than just the normal grunt of acknowledgment for a teenager. I asked him his thoughts. His answer? “Because it was a part of your history that I got to see now, Mom. When things go away, we always have our memories, and now I have a memory of Midtown too…”

Kind of sums it all up, doesn’t it? Glad to see progress, revitalization and jobs; sad to see it destroyed. Either way, the magic and vision will live on in the memories, and we have some new ones made just this weekend.

Here’s a slideshow of the process of dismantling the mural:

And here’s a slideshow of scenes of an empty Midtown Plaza:

(All photos copyrighted, so if you want to use any of these photos, please send me an email.)

Posted by Laura Keeney Zavala, Director of Marketing



Bittersweet memories and the preservation of art