In downtown Rochester, New York, shoppers were growing weary of the perils that came with downtown shopping, such as dealing with traffic and endlessly searching for parking spot. Not to mention the city’s aging commercial district was beginning to look a little run down. Couple these problems with the wave of trendy new shopping centers that were beginning to pop up in nearly every suburb and it wasn’t before long that customers, along with their dollars were beginning to leave the city. This left urban business owners and local civic leaders with the big question of how can they keep people shopping downtown?
In 1956, the presidents of two local department stores (Gilbert McCurdy of McCurdy’s Department Store and Maurice Forman of the B. Forman Company) got together and decided it was time for a private initiative to revitalize downtown Rochester. Their initial plan was to buy up land adjacent from their stores to add additional downtown parking. They hoped the additional parking along with major renovations to each of their stores would begin to restore their fleeting customer base.
The team brought in world renown architect and design Victor Gruen to lead the project. Gruen and his associates came and performed a long-term evaluation of not just the site, but the whole southeastern core of the city. Gruen’s conclusion was that to compete with the rise of suburban centers, downtown Rochester would need much more would than just a parking garage. The city needed a complete revitalization to it’s core, and this started with constructing a massive new urban center that would feature a mix of office space and commercial business. Now he just needed to convince not just McCurdy and Forman, but also city government that his 20 million dollar project of Midtown Plaza would be a boom to the city by generating new tax dollars and by increasing the value of neighboring real estate.
McCurdy and Forman bought in, city government also quickly jumped onboard and decided to help out by agreeing to build a nine million dollar, three level parking garage with the capacity for nearly 2,000 cars directly beneath the project.
Midtown Plaza would be anchored on the northern side by two well-established and newly remodeled department stores along with the 500 room Manger Hotel. At the opposite side the plaza is the new Midtown Plaza Tower, Rochester’s tallest building at the time. The first fourteen floors of the tower house over 250,000 square feet of office space with the top four floors of the tower occupied by the upscale Top of the Tower Hotel and Restaurant where patrons could take in the cityscapes while dining from above.
At the heart of the plaza lies the Midtown Plaza Mall. A completely enclosed and climate controlled shopping center and gathering place for the community. The stores in the mall were hand selected and carefully screened to attract a more sophisticated clientele than most suburban shopping centers. There were, for example, more high-quality clothing stores and no five-and-dimes.
In addition to the variety of stores, the court of the mall would also feature a sidewalk café, a lighted fountain, and of course the Clock of the Nations. This sculpted timepiece was specially designed to be contemporary version of the centuries old animated clocks of Europe and would be the only one of its kind in the entire nation. Originally drawn on the back of an envelope by Gere Kavanaugh, a member of the Gruen and Associates staff. The concept was then passed along to sculptor Dale Clark to bring to life the vision that was to become the focal point of the mall.
Clark was a former Lockheed engineer turned sculptor, who at the time was living on a sailboat in Long Beach, California. He and a team of twelve craftsmen built the mechanical sculpture on a barge adjoining to his sailboat. They completely built the clock from the ground up by experimentation, with Clark even fabricating much of the internal machinery himself. Despite all this work, Clark and his team managed to complete the sculpture in just over three months. The parts were then shipped to Rochester and reassembled just in time for Midtown Plaza’s formal dedication.
The center would open in 1962 and The Clock of the Nations was an immediate hit. Crowds came in amazement to view the 28 foot tall timepiece that had a dozen revolving stages, each with its own costumed dolls, scenery, and music that represented different nations. There is a nation for each hour. Ireland at 1, Puerto Rico at 2, Scotland at 3, Japan at 4, Thailand at 5, Poland at 6, Italy at 7, Canada at 8, Germany at 9, Israel at 10, Nigeria at 11, and the United States at 12. On each hour and half hour one of the stages would open and the costumed dolls would dance to that countries music. Each 12 hours at midday and at midnight all 12 stages open and all of the dolls would dance to an American march tune.
The wonderous clock certainly wasn’t without its fair share of problems though, there were times when the wrong music would play, the puppets wouldn’t dance, or the whole thing would just stop working. And the big problem though was that nobody really knew how to fix it. Each repair to the clock would require the maintenance staff to use the same level of experimentation that Clark used in it’s design.
Over time other attractions came to the Midtown Plaza Mall. In 1968 a working children’s monorail was installed and operated every year for Christmas. The mid 70s saw a genuine 25 foot tall totem pole constructed by two Native American craftsmen to celebrate the centers fifteen year anniversary. But throughout that time it was the mighty Clock of the Nations that remained the focal point of the mall with locals often using it as a meeting spot.
Even with it’s many features, the mall like so many other centers, fell out of fashion. During the mall’s final years of operation it’s once prestigious directory of stores was reduced down to a Peeble’s, Foot Locker, Radio Shack, and a dollar store.
In October 2007 it was announced that the Midtown Plaza would be demolished to make way for the brand new PAETEC headquarters. A year later the mall would close its doors for the last time.
But what would become of the monorail? The totem pole? The clock? These were such a huge part of the lives of nearly everyone who had grown up in Rochester.
One man, Louis Perticone wanted to save them all. His plan was to rebuild the entire center square of the Midtown Plaza Mall in his warehouse/art gallery known as Artisanworks. He wanted the space to be used similarly to a banquet hall, where parties, meetings, and weddings could be held. Though an amazing idea, his plan lacked the finances and space required for such a project.
A couple of the monorail cars eventually found their way to the New York Museum of Transportation where they are on display but will sadly never run again due to modern electrical codes. The totem pole was donated to the Seneca Park Zoo.
The clock was transported to Rochester Airport which would be its temporary home while the clock underwent a massive $100,000 electrical and mechanical repair project. It’s final home was to be Golisano Children’s Hospital where it could go back on public display but the hospital changed their minds and decided they didn’t want it. The airport had its own renovations project and they didn’t really want it either. So it was placed in storage where it remains to this day, sadly tucked away and out of the public view.
Louis Perticone’s ARTISANworks – Louis is still trying to obtain The Clock of the Nations to display at his gallery. Hopefully someday his vision comes true.
Tom the Backroads Traveler Blog – Blog with some wonderful pictures of The Clock of the Nations on display at Rochester Airport.
New York Museum of Transportation – Visit the Midtown Mall monorail cars on display.