Open a map of Rochester and you'll spot certain names over and over. Strong. Eastman. Sibley. Who were these people, and what are their names doing all over downtown?
They're entrepreneurs and philanthropists, kooks and pioneers. Maybe not nationally lionized like Susan B. Anthony, but still local heroes. Need an introduction? Allow us.
Col. Nathaniel Rochester
In 1803, Col. Nathaniel Rochester and two business partners purchased 100 acres along the Genesee River's Upper Falls. Rochester, a Southern businessman, liked to dabble in land speculation, and he thought the land seemed perfect for a future port town. Naming the area Rochesterville, Rochester started surveying and plotting out his tract in 1811 - good timing, as the area soon saw an influx of settlers during the War of 1812.
Rochester moved his family to the area in 1812, where he quickly became active in local politics and business. In 1817, he helped convince the state government to direct the new Erie Canal through Rochesterville (renamed to Rochester that year); the Canal's presence drove the town's flour industry, turning Rochester into America's first true boomtown. He also helped create Monroe County, serving as its first county clerk and first representative for the State Assembly. He even acted as the first president of the Athenaeum (later part of the Rochester Institute of Technology).
Rochester remained active in the city's civic affairs until his death in 1831. His grave, sitting on a hill in Mt. Hope Cemetery, overlooks downtown; a Latin inscription on it reads, "If you would seek his monument, look about you."
Eastman's name can be found on the Eastman Theater at Gibbs and E. Main, the University of Rochester's Eastman School of Music and Dental Center, Durand-Eastman Park off Lake Ontario, the George Eastman House International Museum of Photography and Film, Eastman-Kodak...the list goes on.
If Colonel Rochester gave the city its name, George Eastman gave it an identity as the Image Capital of the World. The founder of Kodak and inventor of motion-picture film is still one of Rochester's most beloved figures, remembered for his innovation, business sense and philanthropy - and for making photography mainstream.
In the 1870s, cameras were clunky and expensive, and relied on awkward glass plates for exposures. But in 1884, Eastman - a high-school dropout and owner of a small photography shop - invented the roll of film. The innovation eliminated the need for plates, thus allowing for smaller, easier-to-use cameras.
Renaming his business Eastman-Kodak, Eastman soon began selling the plate-less Kodak Camera in 1888. (Why Kodak? Because Eastman liked the sound of it; "Kodak" is a made-up word.) With its slogan "You press the button, we do the rest," the Kodak Camera was an international hit.
But Eastman's greatest success was the Brownie Camera. Originally selling in 1900 for just $1, the Brownie opened the world of photography to the masses - and made Eastman one of the richest men in the country.
Eastman was no miser. The active philanthropist donated more than $100 million to several educational, medical, and art institutions, many of which still bear his name today. He was also an avid hunter and art collector.
Eastman ended his life in 1932, after being diagnosed with an incurable spinal disease. But his influence on the city continues; even with all its recent layoffs, Kodak is still one of the largest employers in Rochester.
The Strong Family
The Strong Memorial Hospital, Strong Auditorium, and Strong National Museum of Play all take their names from this notable local family. Lifelong entrepreneur Col. Henry Strong first got rich off manufacturing buggy whips; he and his partner E.F. Woodbury operated the nation's largest buggy whip factory here in town. But he cemented that prosperity with a savvy investment in a little start-up, Eastman-Kodak. An old family friend of Eastman's, Strong invested heavily in Kodak and even served as the company's first president. In return, Kodak made him filthy rich.
Strong also acted as president for the U.S. Voting Machine Company and the Rochester Button Company. A philanthropist, he donated funds to help build a Rochester YMCA and the Strong Memorial Hospital.
Strong's daughter-in-law, Margaret Woodbury Strong, is best remembered for her magpie-like tendencies. Margaret was an obsessive hoarder of all things kitsch; over her lifetime, she collected thousands of pieces of Victoriana, including dolls, dollhouses, bookplates, toys, miniatures - even bathtubs. At one point, she owned more than 22,000 Victorian-era dolls.
When Margaret died, her family's Kodak stock - then worth $80 million - paid for the Strong Museum, dedicated to displaying her collectibles. Starting in the mid-90's, the museum adopted a more kid-friendly appeal; in fact, it's now known as the Strong National Museum of Play.
Inspiration for the Hiram Sibley Building - not to be confused with the Sibley Building, which housed the now-defunct department store Sibley's until 1989; and the University of Rochester's Sibley Hall Library and Music Library. Sibleyville, now part of Mendon, was also named in his honor.
Had Eastman not come along, Hiram Sibley would probably still be the most famous businessman in Rochester history. As the founder of the Western Union Telegraph Company, Sibley was the richest Rochesterian ever (again, until George).
Sibley also orchestrated the purchase of Alaska, as part of an elaborate plan to expand Western Union's telegraph service to Europe. He convinced the cash-strapped Russian czar to sell the territory to the United States, getting his good friend, Sec. of State William Seward, to foot the costs. However, the purchase (later known as "Seward's Folly") came too late for Sibley; before Western Union could finish laying its telegraph lines, the Atlantic Cable was up and running.
An historical footnote: In 1913, Sibley's only daughter, Emily Watson, founded the Memorial Art Gallery in honor of her son, an architect who died in his 20s.
Daniel W. Powers
As Rochester's most successful private banker of the mid-19th century, Daniel Powers had money and ego to spare. Both are embodied in the eccentric, schizophrenic Powers Building at Four Corners.
Powers first broke ground for his office complex in 1865, on the site of the cabin of the first Rochester settler, Hamlet Scrantom. The building, touted as "fire-proof," housed Powers' bank, soon attracting other businesses and tenants.
From the get go, Powers obsessed over making his building the tallest and most impressive on the block. Whenever a neighbor constructed a building taller than his, he immediately added on to his own creation to cover the difference. In 1868, Powers expanded the building and added a sloping, McDonalds-esque roof, called a mansard roof. He added a two-story tower in 1872. In 1881, he built a second mansard roof, followed by another in 1888-89 and a five-story tower in 1890. By the time Powers died, his office building looked like something out of "Ghostbusters."
Due to its prime location, the Powers Building continues to be a hub for businesses (and tourists). It also offers a few historical footnotes: the Powers Building was the first in Upstate New York to include a passenger elevator, gas illumination, electricity - even marble floors.
One of Rochesterville's first settlers, Abelard Reynolds was a saddle-maker, a tavern owner, even the town's first postmaster. But he made a lasting name for himself in 1828, when he built the Reynolds Arcade, Rochester's first major commercial building.
At the time, skeptics doubted the wisdom of constructing a four-story office building in a town with 8,000 people. But the Reynolds Arcade would play a crucial part in more than 100 years of Rochester history.
Western Union and Bausch & Lomb had their flagship offices in the Arcade. Statesman Daniel Webster gave fiery speeches from its balcony. It was in the Arcade that George Selden first devised his automobile engine and Thomas Edison fine-tuned his quadruplex telegraphic system. Even Jack the Ripper may have worked here; Dr. Francis Tumblety, a suspect for the serial killer's real identity, operated a medical business in the Arcade's rear.
In 1932, the city razed the original Reynolds Arcade as a fire hazard. But in its place was built a 10-story art deco office building, also named Reynolds Arcade in the former building's honor. It still stands there today.