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The palimpsest neighborhood

Historic Grove Place is an oasis of art and architecture

In flux. Unchanging. Grove Place is the oldest continually occupied neighborhood in downtown Rochester. A lively, multipurpose neighborhood, it is unlike any other in the area—a mélange of entertainment, bohemia, bodegas, the Jazz Festival, cafés, fine dining, bars, Fringe Festival, Eastman School of Music, and Eastman Theatre. 

The Grove Place Historic District is made up of short, anomalous, rectangular-shaped blocks full of trees and shade, situated between the busy main streets of University Avenue (on the north) and Main Street (on the south). Selden Street forms the east-west axis with Gibbs Street and runs vertically on the west with Windsor Street on the east. Straight to the north, the district is confined by large, empty lots, as the high-rise Eastman School of Music dormitory and YMCA buildings to the south offer a natural buffer from the end-to-end commercial and institutional Main Street area and prominently distinguishes the entrance to the district—without, however, seeming to be part of any of them. There is no encroachment. 

The Grove is a place of stunning beauty, glimpsed from its broad intersection of Main Street. Architectural motifs thoughtfully woven into the aesthetic structures make up what feels like a master plan. The styles include Italianate (18 Grove Place), Gothic-Tudor Revival (12–152 Gibbs Street), Queen Anne (51–59 Windsor Street and 158 Gibbs Street).                                

These architectural designs are a place for inspiring individual creativity. They do, in their own way, strike a desired balance between a coherent look and the correct form of eclecticism, which brings a real authenticity often missing in most neighborhoods today.

It is, however, the Gothic-Tudor Revival row houses at 128–152 Gibbs Street that are the historic anchor of the Grove, which are now owned by partners Mark Siwiec and Duffy Palmer. Siwiec explains that they have poured $800,000 into restoration of the townhomes. “Both the houses and the neighborhood have a sense of history—a sense of romance,” he says. “When making renovations, we don’t want to cut corners. We want to honor the beauty and the grandeur of the structure and recognize that it lies in the heart of Grove Place.What we’re doing is going to resonate both with our tenants and the community for a long time to come. When you live in something special, your life feels special. That’s a spectacular feeling. Your house or apartment isn’t someplace you live—it’s the setting in the narrative of your life.”

The buildings were constructed in the middle and late nineteenth century. Most are two- and three-story residential structures, giving the Grove a cozy neighborhood atmosphere. The building materials include cut stone, pressed brick, decorative woodwork, stained glass, and slate shingles. The layers of various opacities are intended to convey a fluid sense of time and place. These architectural motifs reflect a lifestyle.

And yet, it can be a place where beauty and decay meet, and at any moment, a palimpsest—or, evolution—of every image, virtuous and depraved, helping to define the city of Rochester. Still, Grove Place creates the impression that Gibbs Street is somehow cosmically misaligned, with music students, young professionals, and the wealthy. It is an ineluctable street, permanently detached from any neighborhood surrounding it, almost searching existentially for a reason to exist. It’s as if Gibbs Street remains content to itself. 


The history

One cannot write about Grove Place without touching upon its rich history. It is significant both architecturally and historically as an enclave of extensive, integral small-scale nineteenth-century residences. They were constructed and occupied for more than 100 years by a multifaceted extended family, the Seldens and the Wards. 

These two prominent families settled in the area in the 1840s. They were connected through marriage and numerous family branches, all living in the buildings erected in the original area known as “the Grove.” 

It was the distinction of these two families that made the Grove a pivotal point for both society and business in the city of Rochester during the nineteenth century. It was not limited to commerce. It was a place that stimulated creative minds and sparked a surge of invention and innovation. George Selden was one of the early contributors to the automobile industry. He developed the internal combustion engine, patented in 1870. The Seldens were prominent in law (one was Susan B. Anthony’s attorney). Levi Ward, an important real estate agent and banker, flourished in the world of business and politics, and Ward’s Natural Science, a nationally known source for educational materials, was established there. 


The public art of Grove Place

The art found in Grove Place is nothing like a soldier on horseback but instead site specific. It’s not just how one views the neighborhood, but the world; it is a sense of who we are. 

The Elders look over a brick wall on Selden Street, and can be seen from my bay window. Created by Brockport artist Bill Stewart, they are ten-foot tall clay creatures. These pieces are futuristic, embryonic, and primitive. It’s as if they are asking us what humankind’s connection is to the surrounding world—of our feelings toward this world. 

Gentle Woman, created by Leonard Urso, is hung on a brick wall at Selden Street house. Designed in raised copper, it has a serpentine shape, though its name is feminine. 

Scattered about the neighborhood are a few of Paul Knoblauch’s “Fun Art Benches,” where one can sit and enjoy the neighborhood’s beauty and art. Among them are Josephine Baker, at Gibbs and University, and Bette Midler, on Gibbs.

The public art of the Grove reflects and reveals Rochester and adds meaning to our city.

A palimpsest is a page that has been written on and erased over and over, so that traces of the former text are always visible. The pillars of the neighborhood, those Gothic-Tudor Revival row houses, embody the twenty-first century in a fragmented neighborhood of beauty in which there is no hierarchy. They are the palimpsest of the neighborhood—the early designs and styles evident among the modernity of Grove Place. The impact of the past and present is self-evident.  


Mick Spillane is a writer and book editor and the owner of Turn of Phrase Editorial Services. 

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