Behind its familiar brick facade, Sibley Square is well on its way to a stunning transformation
The task was straightforward but daunting: Turn a largely vacant and neglected, centuryold retail behemoth into a modern and nimble, integrated and profitable, live-work complex. WinnDevelopment’s promised $200 million overhaul of the Sibley building would be one of the city’s largest-ever renovation and restoration projects. After the Sibley’s department store closed in 1990, Monroe Community College was the building’s major tenant for 25 years — and for more than half that time it was looking for a new downtown home. The publicity from that time reflected a building — and a downtown — in decline. At a 2011 press conference, Anne Kress, who was then MCC’s president, said students were complaining about non-students smoking marijuana, blocking doorways and groping female students. In 2016, the faculty’s union complained about noise, water damage, leaks and ceiling collapses. Since that time, the building’s façade has been rejuvenated. Bricks have been given a thorough washing.
Memories of Sibley’s still echo as future dawns
Here’s how you know that Sibley’s six-floor flagship location on East Main Street at North Clinton Avenue was so much more than a department store: When asked on Facebook to describe their most enduring memories of the place, a number of former customers talked about the things they bought — furniture, fabric, a wedding gown, a prom dress — but many more recalled the sensory experiences they had at the beloved retail establishment. They spoke, for instance, about the smell of Sibley’s baked goods. The sight of the toy department’s Magic Corridor with its 12 windows of animatronic figures depicting Christmas scenes. The creaking sound the wood floors made when you walked across them.
The taste of a fancy lunch at Sibley’s Tower Restaurant or of a “frosted malted” served at the snack bar. We actually lost count of the number of people who mentioned the chocolate malted treat, which had the consistency of a Wendy’s Frosty. Phyllis Mosteller Popplewell said it comprised half of her favorite lunch at Sibley’s. The other half was a hot dog. “Unless I was flush, which allowed a club sandwich or else Chicken a la King in the Tower Restaurant,” wrote the Greece native, who worked at Sibley’s downtown during the 1960s and now lives in suburban Chicago. Memories of indulging in that rich, creamy entrée also haven’t left the mind of Mary Simpson of Rochester. Every year on her birthday, school day or not, her grandmother and Aunt Ruthie would take her to Sibley’s to pick out a present and have lunch at the Tower Restaurant. Simpson always had the Chicken a la King. “I don’t remember any of the gifts, just being with my favorite ladies and the Chicken a la King.” Before anyone could imagine a calamity like the coronavirus pandemic, many brick-and-mortar retailers struggling to survive in the digital age decided what they needed to do was offer shoppers something they couldn’t get from the computer’s cold embrace. Sibley’s downtown, closed now for three decades, exemplified that approach.
Taking the bus downtown
Sibley, Lindsay & Curr Co. may have started as a simple dry goods store in 1868 at 73 Main St. But following a devastating fire in 1904 at its second location — the Granite Building, 124 E. Main — it evolved into an elegant destination, offering a wide range of high-quality goods and services at 228 East Main, where it did business for another 85 years. “It was a classy, one-of-a-kind department store that’s sadly no longer seen in today’s world,” wrote Sharon McCarthy, a Florida resident who grew up in Irondequoit during the 1950s and on Saturdays took an RTS bus downtown with her grandmother to shop. A lot of people used public transportation to get to Sibley’s. Laura Taylor Haszlauer wrote that at Christmastime during the ’60s, she and her grandmother took the 10 Dewey bus. Linda LaLumia Decker, a city native who lives in Greece, would catch the bus at the corner of Lake and Glenwood avenues. Mary Mars Latour, who grew up in the South Wedge during the ’60s and ’70s and now calls Raleigh, North Carolina, home, said, “My girlfriends and I would take the city bus downtown whenever we wanted to. We loved Sibley’s.” After they were done shopping, McCarthy and her grandmother would stop at Sibley’s bakery to get a treat to take home to the family. Aromatic offerings included bread, cookies, cakes, pies and pastries. The orange crullers were like a siren song to Laurie Ammering of Rochester. In ’73 and ’74, she worked in Sibley Tower, a 12-story office building at East Main and Franklin streets whose upper floors have been converted to apartments and lofts as part of WinnDevelopment’s Sibley Square project. Sometimes, when Ammering’s colleagues weren’t around, she’d put the phones on hold, take the elevator to the first floor and “run to the bakery department to buy orange crullers, which were mouth-watering.” McCarthy went on to work for the store during the mid-’60s at holiday time.
Where there’s smoke
So did Michael Tarricone, who now lives in Leonia, New Jersey. In late 1964, the year he graduated from Penfield High School, he was a part-time employee in Sibley’s display department. “It was a fun job and it gave me an opportunity to stretch my creative skills,” he explained in a Facebook post. That year, on the Saturday two weeks before Christmas, Toyland, the store’s toy department, was packed with adults and children. While taking inventory, Tarricone got an urgent call from Toyland’s manager. The animatronic Santa Claus in the Magic Corridor’s window 6 had malfunctioned and was smoking. “The figures were operated by a series of small motors, pulleys, gears and rubber belts and push rods all hidden under the floor,” Tarricone recalled. One of the motors and several of the push rods jammed, causing Santa to smolder. By the time Tarricone got there, a large group of kids had gathered near the window, and they were screaming, “Santa's on fire! Santa’s on fire!” Tarricone quickly opened a trap door leading to the display’s workings and was able to free the stuck motor and push rods. But, “When I released the push rods, Santa immediately shot upright and his head came flying off his body. Now the kids are really screaming loud. ‘Santa’s head! Santa’s head!’ Parents are trying to get the kids to move, but that’s not happening, and I’m stuck under the display because all the kids are.
Blocking the trap door and I can’t crawl out.” Tarricone finally did escape and replaced Santa’s head, “and all was quiet in window 6.” Susie Bensoussan of Rochester, who shopped at Sibley’s from the late ’50s through the early ’70s, remembers other smoky scenes inside the store, but they were sanctioned. The Democrat and Chronicle once described the expansive ladies lounge at Sibley’s as a well-appointed, furnished space that gave female shoppers“a place to take a breather.” It also offered them somewhere to smoke. Bensoussan would often see women unwinding there with cigarettes. It was still a thing in 1982, when the newspaper reported on the lounge being redecorated with overstuffed sofas, potted palms, modern prints and a wood dresser. The ladies restroom, meanwhile, had its own attendant. “A totally different experience than running into Target,” Bensoussan said. Because people didn’t make hurried trips to Sibley’s. Like workers on a smoke break, they lingered. “You could stay on the main floor for hours, trying on cosmetics, looking at handbags, belts, scarves,” said former Sibley’s customer Suzen Greene, who now lives in Florida. Or getting spritzed with fragrances. “The employees were always helpful, especially at the perfume counter,” wrote Judy Freitag, a Rochester native also now living in Florida who began shopping at Sibley’s in the mid-’60s. “They would spray you with 10 different kinds if you wanted and never seemed to get upset if you didn’t buy any.”
Right here in Rochester
Other people spoke of time spent perusing the retailer’s stranger culinary offerings. Sibley’s had a food center that sold everything from canned tuna and Kraft mayonnaise to prepared entrées including fried fresh haddock and such tinned items as beef stroganoff and Swedish meatballs in gravy. Rochester native Jeff Wilkin, who now lives in Albany, was partial to the potato salad his mom would pick up at Sibley’s during the 1960s. Then there was the stuff classified as gourmet. As a 12-year-old in 1969, Linda La- Lumia Decker, who spoke of getting to Sibley’s on the Lake-and-Glenwood bus, said: “I was fascinated by the gourmet food section. There were the most amazing foods. Mostly in cans, as I remember. They had bear meat, lion meat, chocolate-covered grasshoppers.” Jim Trowbridge, a Gates resident who grew up in Rochester, remembers the canned lion meat, too (which another commenter insisted was packed in a sherry sauce), and chocolate-covered insects. “Really odd stuff,” Trowbridge said. “I bought caviar there for the first time.” He also got his first credit card from Sibley’s. He used it to buy a stereo there in 1977. But years ahead of retailers issuing plastic, Sibley’s offered its own aluminum “Charga-Plates.”
The store also introduced Rochester to escalators. Three thousand people showed up for the unveiling, and rides, in 1936, according to a Democrat and Chronicle story from that time. Ray Kirstein, a child of the ’60s and a Rochester native who now lives in Leipzig, Germany, described the moving stairway — originally involving 1,500 feet of rubber handrails, 1,992 wheels and 3,920 feet of copper tubing — as looking like something from “a scene of a movie I wanted to see.” Darlene Heinrich, who frequented Sibley’s downtown during the ’40s and ’50s and now lives in Tallahassee, Florida, preferred the elevators. “Waiting in front of the beautiful doors, stepping in, telling the operator our desired floor, watching him rotate a brass handle and close the door and hearing him announce the departments on the upcoming floor all made me feel special,” she wrote. Susan Augello-Vaisey, who shopped at the store during the ’60s when she lived in Irondequoit, remembers the sight and sound of the elevator gates opening and closing and how each car had a “little round seat” for the attendants. Pauline Lizzio Mitelli, whose memories of Sibley’s date back to her ’50sera childhood, specifically recalled taking the elevator to the fourth floor: “When the doors opened, you saw a big sign. I think it was an arch that said ‘TOYS!’ How exciting! It was a child’s dream. At Christmas we always went to see Santa and walked through the Christmas tunnel,” she said, referring to the Magic Corridor.
Just like magic
Besides partaking of frosted malteds, that is what people seem to remember most about Sibley’s: their holiday experiences in Toyland. “No other store had or has the magic Sibley’s did,” wrote MJ Spry-Wilcox, who was born in Rochester and now lives in Batavia. “Christmastime was so special.” “I will always remember the Christmas tunnel,” said Kathy Bonn-Braman, who grew up in the city. During the early 1950s, “My grandfather took me, my sister and brother every Christmas.” Lee Lora, whose family arrived in Rochester from Cuba in ’56 when she was 6, remembers the excitement of going to Sibley’s during the holiday season, “and specifically the toy department. I could not believe the abundance of toys displayed.”
The little things
Another holiday-season feature remembered fondly was a tiny boutique just for children called the Piggy Bank Shop. Kids shopped on their own for gifts priced from 50 cents to $3. “No parents allowed!” read a Sibley’s ad from 1963. “You had to be able to walk inside the little door without stooping in order to ‘qualify,’” recalled Cindy Bleier of Rochester. “One year, Mom got bath beads, Dad got a paperweight, and my uncle got soap-on-a-rope.” Wrote Mary Radtke Rabideau Cinanni Cinanni, “I probably spent $1 or $2 in there and was so excited to buy tiny gifts for my mom, dad and sister.” Morgan Jaymes, whose family lived in Irondequoit, relocated to California when his father was transferred by Kodak, and moved back to Rochester in 1969 when Jaymes was 16, worked at the Piggy Bank Shop. Actually, it was his first job, and he said part of the reason he got it was because he was small for his age and could fit through the store’s diminutive doorway. “Most of the kids could not count, so I would help them choose their gifts,” wrote Jaymes, who now lives in Los Angeles. “They were so excited to do it all themselves and leave with secret gifts.”
At the end of the day, people who had arrived at Sibley’s together and split up during their visits would reconnect beneath the store’s most iconic feature: an enormous copperclad clock hanging from the first-floor ceiling. It also was where children were told to go if they got separated from their parents. “It was the place to meet up,” said Judy Dernbach, who grew up in Rochester during the 1950s and ’60s and now lives in Knoxville, Tennessee. In fact, by the mid-’50s, the practice of gathering under the four-faced fixture had become “an old family tradition,” read a Sibley’s ad also featuring the slogan, “Meet you under the clock at Sibley’s.” At the new Mercantile on Main food hall inside Sibley Square, the historic timepiece, restored by WinnDevelopment, is suspended by cables and hovers over a long table painted with the words “Meet me under the clock.” Members of a newer generation are poised to do that in the reimagined, mixed-use space, while those from a previous one cherish their memories. “There’s no place left that could even hold a candle to Sibley, Lindsay & Curr,” said Bensoussan, who experienced the store during its mid-century glory days. “Good, good times.” Jim Byrnes, employed at Sibley’s as a high schooler in 1965, even said, “I’d go back to work there.”