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Rochester's history is being told in a new downtown park

Rundel Library.jpg
Max Schulte
/
WXXI News
The Rundel Memorial Library's north terrace along Broad Street and the Genesee River has been opened after repairs to the structural framework supporting the terrace, and work adding art, seating, plantings and more to the street-level space.

At first glance, Rundel Memorial Library's newly redone and reopened north terrace appears simply to be an inviting spot to sit and read, eat lunch or just relax.

Look closer, though, and what emerges is a history lesson, telling the story of Rochester and its ties to the Genesee River.

Intricate carvings on the signature, circular “Gateway” art installation at the corner of Broad Street and South Avenue depict a water wheel, harken back to Rochester's days as a mill town. There also is a microscope and the first box camera, reflecting the city’s golden age of innovation and invention.

Head toward the new river overlook, and you pass benches carved as millstones, and an interactive water table, imprinted with an early map of the city.

Every piece has a purpose.

rundel library 6.jpg
Max Schulte
/
WXXI News
The Rundel Memorial Library's north terrace along Broad Street and the Genesee River has been opened after repairs to the structural framework supporting the terrace, and work adding art, seating, plantings and more to the street-level space.

“We've been watching people walking through the space sort of figuring out how to engage with that water table,” said library director Patricia Uttaro, “and then be like, ‘Oh my gosh, look at this. It's so cool.’”

There is excitement about the project — one of the first riverfront improvement projects to be completed and opened to the public. There also is relief, as the fencing and barricades that have been around the main downtown library for the better part of a decade are gone.

The north terrace in particular was deemed structurally unsafe, and blocked off from the public in 2017.

The library and what surrounds it are built on steel and concrete pylons above the old Erie Canal bed and the Johnson and Seymour raceway that powered flour mills centuries ago. These are some of the oldest foundations in county, said Rich Perrin, the city’s environmental services commissioner whose department oversaw the construction.

The terrace project and related work represents $9.8 million of a total $13.7 million invested in library structural repairs and improvements dating back to 2008.

Rundel Library 4.jpg
Max Schulte
/
WXXI News
The Rundel Memorial Library's north terrace along Broad Street and the Genesee River has been opened after repairs to the structural framework supporting the terrace, and work adding art, seating, plantings and more to the street-level space.

"There's a lot that went into not just rebuilding something,” Perrin said, “but looking at what is the historical what is the cultural context of what we're going to build.”

A call for artists drew dozens of responses from around the world, with the project ultimately awarded to Denver artist Andy Dufford and Chevo Studios. Dufford then immersed himself in the space, and worked with people like deputy city historian Michelle Finn to distill what shaped Rochester into sculpture.

The signature art piece -- what people have taken to calling the oculus -- presents two sides of the city’s past. Look toward the river, Finn said, and the etchings reflect Rochester’s earliest history. Look toward the city, the carvings are about the innovations and inventions that shaped it.

“There’s all sorts of Easter eggs hidden in the sculpture,” she said.

And at night, the sculpture and a portion of the terrace sidewalk light up.

Rundel Library 2.jpg
Max Schulte
/
WXXI News
The Rundel Memorial Library's north terrace along Broad Street and the Genesee River has been opened after repairs to the structural framework supporting the terrace, and work adding art, seating, plantings and more to the street-level space. The library and terraces were constructed in the 1930s over the Johnson & Seymour Raceway and the old Erie Canal bed and Rochester Subway and are supported by a steel and concrete framing system.

“Which is, I think, a good nod to the optics industry in Rochester right now,” Uttaro said.

“And now it's more of a gateway,” Finn added, “that you can walk through and sort of metaphorically travel to the past.”

Already there are plans to use the terrace as classroom space and employ smartphone technology to provide a historical tour guide of sorts to visitors. The riverfront amphitheater is seen as a spot for live music and other performances. There’s even early interest to use the venue for weddings.

Elsewhere along the riverfront, work continues.

rundel library 5.jpg
Max Schulte
/
WXXI News
The Rundel Memorial Library's north terrace along Broad Street and the Genesee River has been opened after repairs to the structural framework supporting the terrace, and work adding art, seating, plantings and more to the street-level space.

Blue Cross Arena is to be expanded, adding a riverfront restaurant space, among other things.

A cantilevered walkway and riverwalk near Dinosaur Bar-B-Que has been completed, as has a redone terrace at the Joseph A. Floreano Rochester Riverside Convention Center. The west riverfront near Ford and Exchange recently was redone. The street work on East Main and on State Street are part of this.

And work between Main and Andrews streets, also on the river’s west bank, is remaking Charles Carroll Plaza.

As for what will be done when?

“Project schedules are really being adjusted daily,” Perrin said. “It's one of the things that we're dealing with a very volatile and volatile environment with respect to both labor and materials."

The centerpiece of all this riverway work is a still-developing plan to tear the Broad Street bridge off the old Erie Canal aqueduct and turn that space into a destination spot over the river. That would affect the terrace, but Uttaro said the terrace’s design allows it to be easily adapted, to overlook the reimagined aqueduct as well.

Rundel Library 3.jpg
Max Schulte
/
WXXI News
The Rundel Memorial Library's north terrace along Broad Street and the Genesee River has been opened after repairs to the structural framework supporting the terrace, and work adding art, seating, plantings and more to the street-level space.

Brian Sharp is WXXI's business and development reporter. He has been covering Rochester since 2005, working most of that time as an investigative reporter with the Democrat and Chronicle. His journalism career spans nearly three decades.
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