Around 1812 this area was called Rochesterville; population three hundred. Today it is known as Corn Hill, Rochester’s oldest residential neighborhood.
According to Cynthia Howk, Architectural Research Coordinator for the Landmark Society, there is no “one” definitive answer to this interesting “name” question but three possible suggestions have been offered over the years:
- Early Native American inhabitants may have grown corn crops on this area elevated above the Genesee River, which possibly created the name “Corn Hill.” To those traveling northward on the river, a “hill of corn” would have been visible on the left banks of the Genesee.
- The name Corn Hill might have come into use after our early Rochesterville forefathers settled this largely undeveloped area. They built their residences here and maintained agricultural plots, which would have included crops of corn on these elevated banks. Following the completion of the Erie Canal, travelers on the Canal and on the Genesee River could have seen “hills of corn” as they navigated these waterways.
- The earliest actual appearance of the term was probably the one word, “CORNHILL,” on an early “Third Ward” city land tract. Cornhill had been a fashionable section of London, England at this time and since Rochester was a new, small, just-developing town, the name may have been used in an attempt to give some prestige or glamour to this neighborhood. Clearly there was historic prestige in the name given to this land tract, which would later become known as Rochester’s “Ruffled Shirt Ward” or “Silk Stocking District.” This English influence could have been the source of our name.
No matter what we call it, this neighborhood is an authentically unique slice of American architectural and cultural history. Not only does it have magnificent buildings of various styles, it also has remarkable history, lore, and personalities who have called it home. Here are just a few that I have discovered over the past couple of years.
CORN HILL WAS HOME TO SON HOUSE FOR OVER TWENTY YEARS
Corn Hill was home to Son House for over two decades. Need I say anymore?
Eddie James “Son” House, Jr. (March 21, 1902– October 19, 1988) was an American blues singer and guitarist, noted for his highly emotional style of singing and slide guitar playing.
After years of hostility to secular music, as a preacher and for a few years also as a church pastor, he turned to blues performance at the age of 25. He quickly developed a unique style by applying the rhythmic drive, vocal power and emotional intensity of his preaching to the newly learned idiom. In a short career interrupted by a spell in Parchman Farm penitentiary, he developed to the point that Charley Patton, the foremost blues artist of the Mississippi Delta region, invited him to share engagements and to accompany him to a 1930 recording session.
Issued at the start of the Great Depression, the records did not sell and did not lead to national recognition. Locally, House remained popular, and in the 1930s, together with Patton’s associate Willie Brown, he was the leading musician of Coahoma County. There he was a formative influence on Robert Johnson and Muddy Waters. In 1941 and 1942, House and the members of his band were recorded by Alan Lomax and John W. Work for the Library of Congress and Fisk University. The following year, he left the Delta for Rochester, and gave up music.
In 1964, a group of young record collectors discovered House, whom they knew of from his records issued by Paramount and by the Library of Congress. With their encouragement, he relearned his repertoire and established a career as an entertainer, performing for young, mostly white audiences in coffeehouses, at folk festivals and on concert tours during the American folk music revival, billed as a “folk blues” singer. He recorded several albums, and some informally taped concerts have also been issued as albums. House died in 1988.
CORN HILL IS VICTORIAN ARCHITECTURE
It is one of the earliest urban restoration success stories in the country. Corn Hill’s spectacular Victorian houses were brought back from the brink of extinction during the 1960s by a committed group of concerned neighbors and other citizens. What has been saved is remarkable.
The neighborhood’s second rejuvenation in the 1980’s resulted in extensive new townhome development. By all accounts, the Corn Hill landing project has been a major success. Speaking as a resident of the nearby Plymouth Exchange neighborhood, I have walked to Corn Hill landing on numerous occasions for incredible views of the river, good dinner and wine. It is lovely.
One person who I knew nothing about until I explored Corn Hill on foot, is the legendary Rochester artist Ralph Avery. His paintings were mainly of the Corn Hill area. He resided at the Daughters of the American Revolution house on Livingston Park, and his studio was located at 60 North Fitzhugh Street in Rochester.
The Ralph Avery Mall pays tribute to Avery’s illustrations and paintings. As I found online, a close friend of Avery’s, Mrs. Vera Fogg, described the painter when she said, “He saw beauty in the city all the time.”
In addition to appearing in the Saturday Evening Post, Avery’s artwork appeared on the cover of Readers Digest fourteen times.
“The Statue of Mercury, ” is one of his most well-known works, and hands down Rochester’s most iconic emblem in its skyline. Avery’s estate gave the Memorial Art Gallery over 450 pieces of his collection, including sketches and tracings from photographs.
The streets of Corn Hill were familiar to Nathaniel Rochester, Susan B. Anthony, Harriet Tubman, Ralph Avery, among many others.
The Rochester Orphan Asylum began in 1837 with just 9 orphans in residence. The 1850 census shows that there are about 75 children living at the orphanage.
There was a horrible fire at the Asylum on 8 Jan. 1901. Twenty-eight children and three employees died in the fire and few other children were injured.
CORN HILL WAS PART OF THE UNDERGROUND RAILROAD
Clarissa Street is one of Corn Hill’s most historic streets. Originally named Caledonia Avenue by Corn Hill’s early Scottish settlers, in 1844 the southern portion of this street was renamed “Clarissa,” after Clarissa Greig, the daughter of early investor John Greig. Eventually the street was altered to include all of High Street, now the northern section of Clarissa, and by 1930 all of Caledonia Avenue had been renamed Clarissa Street.
As early as 1810, freed black slaves were living in western New York State and Rochester’s first African American neighborhood was located here on High Street (later Clarissa) in the Third Ward of the city.
In 1830 Rev. Thomas James, an escaped slave, founded the Memorial African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church, then located on Favor Street. This church became a center for the Underground Railroad, for Frederick Douglass’s abolitionist newspaper, The North Star, and for the women’s suffrage movement. In 1975 the A.M.E. Zion Church was relocated to its present home on Clarissa Street, and it remains Rochester’s oldest ongoing African American institution.
In 1922 the African American YWCA was founded at 192 Clarissa Street. It later merged with the downtown YWCA and the Clarissa Street structure became the Montgomery Neighborhood Center, which eventually relocated as well.
By the mid-20th century, Clarissa Street had become a main commercial district of the Third Ward. Businesses included the Gibson Hotel, Latimer’s Funeral Home, Ray’s Barbershop, Scotty’s Pool Hall, Smitty’s Birdland, LaRue’s Restaurant, and Vallot’s Tavern. Following the riots of 1964 and the subsequent Urban Renewal program, many of these buildings were either destroyed or torn down.
Once referred to as “Rochester’s Broadway,” Clarissa Street became famous for jazz and for clubs such as the Pythodd Club, the Elk’s Club and Dan’s Restaurant and Grill (later Shep’s Paradise Lounge – now The Clarissa Room). From the 1950’s through the early 1970’s, the clubs drew musicians and vocalists from all over the country including Miles Davis and Sarah Vaughan.
Since 1996, current and former Clarissa Street residents have presented an annual Clarissa Street Reunion, held the 3rd Saturday of August to celebrate the importance and the traditions of this historic Corn Hill street.
CORN HILL IS ONE OF THE MOST ECONOMICALLY AND RACIALLY DIVERSE NEIGHBORHOODS IN AMERICA
The Frederick Douglass Circle and Park pay tribute to the man who published his pioneering North Star abolitionist newspaper out of the Memorial African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Zion Church, a center for the Underground Railroad.
Today, Corn Hill prides itself on its diversity. There are blacks and whites living side by side, which unfortunately is still rare today in downtown Rochester. There is a large LBGQT community, and many different age groups. Without getting sociological, I can attest to the neighborhoods easy blend of races and classes. It truly is a melting pot that resembles the highest aspirations of the city at large.
CORN HILL HAS A CLAUDE BRAGDON
In 1908 Claude Bragdon designed the Bevier Building for the Rochester Athenaeum & Mechanics Institute. This building, located at the corner of Spring and S. Washington Streets, was designed to be used as classroom and lecture space for the arts program at the Athenaeum, the predecessor institution of the Rochester Institute of Technology. This structure, like that of the First Universalist Church, made extensive use of brick and ornamental tile work. This work was a personal favorite of architect Claude Bragdon.
Going back to the early days of the neighborhood City founder Col. Nathaniel Rochester lived in Corn Hill along with the early mill owners and their families. This prosperous population led to nicknames like the “Ruffled Shirt Ward” or the “Silk Stocking District.” Joining “Ruffled Shirt” residents were freed slaves who made High Street, now renamed Clarissa.
Many of the historic buildings in Corn Hill remain today. Notable houses include the Henry Shaw Home (1837), the Campbell-Whittlesey House (1835) and the Hervey Ely House (1837). The Ely House is now home to the Daughters of the American Revolution, Irondequoit Chapter.
CORN HILL WAS HOME TO CHARLES LUNSFORD
Dr. Charles Terrell Lunsford (1891-1985) was born in Macon, Georgia in 1891. He attended Howard University in Washington, D.C. after having moved there when he was 15. He moved to Rochester in the summer of 1921 and opened his own practice. Dr. Lunsford was a pioneer of civil rights for African-Americans. He worked with and sometimes against the YMCA, the Red Cross, the Eastman Kodak Company, and the University of Rochester’s Medical School in order to abolish discriminatory practices.The Rochester School Board renamed School 19 as the Charles T. Lunsford School in 1973. On June 18th, 1978 the Mayor Thomas Ryan declared the day Charles T. Lunsford Day in Rochester. Finally, in 1986, the Rochester City Council renamed Plymouth Park to Charles Lunsford Park.
The oldest historic neighborhood called Corn Hill that touches the southwest corner of downtown Rochester, NY. Previously called the 3rd Ward, it is home to an Historic Preservation District and the famous Corn Hill Festival held in the shadow of its stately old homes. Enjoy your tour.
- All photos taken by George Cassidy Payne