RIT’s decisive moment

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Students gather in Veterans Court to hear RIT president Mark Ellingson announce the decision to build a campus in Henrietta. (RIT Archive Collections)

On a sunny day in the fall of 1961, nearly 1,000 Rochester Institute of Technology students gathered in Veterans Court on the school’s downtown campus. Some had put their art skills to use with signs reading “Look out, U of R,” “’Bye, concrete” and “Why not?”

They had left classrooms and dorm rooms to come listen to an announcement by President Mark Ellingson: The institute would soon begin building a new campus on farmland in suburban Henrietta.

The contrast to current conditions was stark: Veterans Memorial Court, the heart of RIT’s campus in the southwestern corner of downtown, was a concrete plaza with a concrete sculpture “lovingly called the concrete bagel,” recalls Gene DePrez, a 1962 graduate and longtime RIT staff member.

“That is probably one of the clearest memories I have. It was very, very exciting to hear the news, although we all loved the downtown campus and the historic parts of the Third Ward,” he says.

The Reporter, the student newspaper, lauded the decision in an editorial: “The action the board has so courageously taken is unparalleled in its significance to RIT and the community it serves, and will be applauded by untold generations of students.”

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the move. What began as a decision of necessity became an opportunity to realize a more modern, progressive vision for the institute. At the same time, leaving downtown meant loosening cherished ties; over the years the university has found ways to bridge the distance and to remain relevant to city concerns.

City roots

From the late 1800s until 1968, RIT and its predecessor, Mechanics Institute, operated on Plymouth, Broad, Main, Spring and other streets in the Third Ward, known today as Corn Hill. Like many urban campuses, RIT was woven into the fabric of the city alongside businesses and private homes, some dating to the early 1800s. A stroll in the vicinity today reveals little evidence of campus life. But echoes remain: The Bevier Building, designed by Claude Bragdon and built in 1910 for art classes, contains stylish apartments. It sits at the corner of South Washington and Spring streets. The Clark Building, at South Washington and Broad streets, is occupied by the Rochester City School District. 50 West Main houses county offices and is called CityPlace. Ritter-Clark Gymnasium and Ice Arena, built in 1955, is the Paul Louis Arena at the Skating Institute of Rochester, on the Corn Hill side of I-490.

RIT in the city (slideshow)

Anyone who takes the I-490 exit toward Broad Street and Plymouth Avenue into downtown is driving down streets that remain from the old campus.

“When we were in the downtown campus, it was really great to be really so close to the center of the city,” recalls Roger Remington, who attended RIT in the 1950s. “You could walk to the bank, you could walk to the stores on Main Street. There were all these downtown amenities, and they were really great in those days.”

Remington graduated in 1957 and returned to join the faculty in 1963. He has been there ever since. He is the Vignelli Distinguished Professor of Design and directs the Vignelli Center for Design Studies.

“It was unbelievable how small and how intimate RIT was in the mid-1950s,” he says. “The Civic Center wasn’t there, and there were a lot of bars and places students would go. The campus was much more intact in those days. But the main thing was that it was small. Everybody really tried to make campus life out of what we had. There was a line in the yearbook at that time, something to the effect that there’s no ivy, but there’s neon.”

Still, as at most colleges, headline acts and speakers filled the bleachers in the gymnasium—jazz singer Sarah Vaughn and psychedelic drug proponent Timothy (“tune in, turn on, drop out”) Leary among them. RIT fielded sports teams, had sororities and fraternities, and held dances in the new Midtown Plaza a few blocks away. But from the beginning, the institute was a different kind of school—less library and lecture, more pragmatic and hands-on. A fair number of students were older, many veterans and already employed at one of the Fortune 100 companies that had headquarters here, such as Kodak, Bausch & Lomb and Haloid, later Xerox. In fact, Mechanics Institute was founded to do just that. It began on the top floor of Rochester Free Academy, the city high school. The first class, held Nov. 23, 1885, was mechanical drawing.

By the 1950s, RIT had earned a national reputation as a leader in printing education. DePrez edited the student newspaper, which was printed on one of the first color offset paper printers, a giant press that took up a city block in the basement of the Clark Building. It was cutting-edge equipment donated by the manufacturer to test its product. Color offset printing was so new that only one other commercial newspaper in the country was being printed with it then.

“We had full-color pages, photography that nobody else in the country had,” DePrez says. “Even Gannett at best had spot color. RIT at that time was the leading printing school in the nation, if not the world.”

With strong connections to industry forged over decades, RIT was well-positioned to offer practical experience at a time when demand for technically skilled workers was at an all-time high. After World War II, RIT enrollment exploded, doubling from 4,376 in 1950 to 8,546 in 1960, with no signs of stopping. By the end of the 1950s facilities were strained and, in some cases, inadequate, RIT archivist Becky Simmons says. Ellingson and trustees welcomed the growth as a sign that RIT had tapped into a community need. They started to question a decision in the early ’50s to expand in place by buying up nearby buildings and lots.

An undated list of reasons to move and reasons to stay distills the issue into 18 key concerns.

RIT occupied about 13 acres downtown. It owned an additional 18 acres south of Broad Street. But this wouldn’t be nearly enough room to grow, and at $30,000 an acre, adding space in the city would be expensive. The estimated cost of expanding downtown was $32.45 million. Quietly, the board of trustees turned to options in the suburbs. RIT could build on about 120 acres it owned in Pittsford between Fairport Road and Linden Avenue. It could build between Rochester and Buffalo, perhaps in Batavia. It could stay downtown and renovate the former Graflex Building on Clarissa Street.

An undated list of reasons to move and reasons to stay, on display in RIT Archives’ 50th anniversary exhibition in Wallace Library, distills the issue into 18 key concerns. A chief reason for staying downtown was the investment RIT had made in its city buildings and the “tremendous cost of building an entirely new campus.” RIT would need approximately $60 million to build the new school, according to Dane Gordon’s history of RIT.

Other reasons for staying in the city recognized the school’s meaningful ties to businesses and the convenience of being downtown where many were headquartered. The board also thought RIT could play a favorable role in redeveloping the Third Ward, in which it resided. The neighborhood had fallen into decline. The city sought to revive it with urban renewal funds and saw RIT as a stabilizing anchor in the effort.

But at the same time, city officials were torn. As an educational institution, RIT was exempt from property taxes. If the institute continued to acquire buildings and lots previously on the tax rolls, city coffers would suffer.

In the spring of 1959, a new factor came into play. The state Department of Public Works informed the school that a planned highway—today’s I-490—linking the Inner Loop to the New York State Thruway would almost certainly mean knocking down RIT’s Eastman Building on Plymouth Avenue. The squeeze was on.

Fueling a nationwide expansion into the suburbs and countryside, President Dwight Eisenhower and Congress had passed the Federal Aid Highway Act of 1956, literally paving the way for 41,000 miles of new express highways and 5,000 miles of urban freeways across the country. Under the legislation, states could pay only 10 percent—and in some cases 5 percent—of costs to build new highways and arterials that would link cities and towns. Most eagerly signed up.

President Mark Ellingson, right, views the Henrietta campus model with Arthur Stern, chairman of RIT’s board of trustees. (RIT Archive Collections)

RIT and the city fought the planned route vigorously. The Eastman Building was a block long, built in 1900 for administration and classrooms. The state modified its plans to spare that structure, but it still would eliminate 11 other campus buildings. And in the end the highway would cut right through the middle of campus anyway. Proposals by the city to use urban renewal funds for the Third Ward to relocate the campus didn’t move fast enough. With enrollment rising, Ellingson and the board, save for a couple of holdouts, agreed the school must move.

As RIT officials debated what to do next, they received a welcome nudge. In early 1961, Grace Watson, a former student, donated $3.27 million ($27 million today) to the institute. She was not on the administration’s radar, and her gift came as a major surprise. It was the largest check the institute had ever received. Suddenly, the financial challenge of building a new campus seemed within reach.

Board president James Gleason urged officials to think big: “Don’t get 100 acres. Buy enough land for the next 100 years.”

The new campus

Farmland along Jefferson Road in Henrietta became RIT’s new home in 1968. (RIT Archive Collections)

And so, with the help of Evening School graduate and builder Emil Muller, RIT found room to spread out: 1,300 acres of farmland along Jefferson Road in Henrietta. Using the funds from Watson and a substantial donation from Muller, RIT paid about $1,000 an acre.

On Nov. 22, 1961, the trustees announced that RIT was moving to Henrietta. “Ellingson called the move ‘the most significant single act in the 132-year history of the Institute,’” Simmons says. Having adequate space to expand was a big driver, but something much bigger was in play: the vision to create a modern, forward-looking campus that looked nothing like Rochester had ever seen.

“This was really quite a feat for a Rochester organization. RIT went out on a limb to become very progressive in its approach to the campus architecture,” Remington recalls. “It’s not the halls of ivy, not like the traditional university environment. It’s very progressive and modern. It was a real leap for an institution in Rochester to do something like this.”

By the end of 1964, a fundraising campaign had brought in approximately $15 million. The remainder of funds came from New York State Dormitory Authority bonds.
Construction had begun that year, and the new campus was dedicated in October 1968. Five internationally prominent architecture firms designed a very modern campus in the Brutalist style. It won design awards and captured the mid-century modern aesthetic perfectly.

“The original RIT campus is really an important architectural story. … It’s been so long that people forget, and there have been so many more buildings built that do not reflect that original style,” Remington says.

The transition to Henrietta wasn’t easy. Remington, who joined the faculty before the move, says teaching at the new campus was a challenge in the first few years. Faculty were used to rooms with specific functions at the old campus. Everything had its place, and systems were smooth. All bets were off at the new campus, with classrooms and equipment not always aligning as needed, and it took a while before administrative policies caught up.

RIT’s academic programs and campus grew exponentially after the move. The large new campus afforded more options. RIT was chosen as the home campus for the National Technical Institute for the Deaf, established by the federal government in 1963. It opened five years later. Over the next five decades, RIT became known for strengths in engineering, photography, art and design, and a wide range of technology programs.

Bridge building

But some might not remember another way in which RIT’s influence grew after the move. It started with Paul Miller, hired as RIT’s president in 1969. He was a sociologist and community-oriented educator with Midwestern roots. Five years before he was hired, Rochester had made national headlines for civil unrest. The city had been slower than its upstate counterparts to address decaying neighborhoods and urgent quality-of-life issues. Frustration came to a boiling point in 1964 with violent uprisings that brought in the National Guard.

Miller, who later wrote an autobiography titled “Bridging Campus and Community,” set about bringing people together to work on solutions. “He was very conscious of the fact that we had turned our back on the city,” Remington recalls. “His natural inclination was to build bridges back to the city.”

Miller enlisted support from area colleges and recruited Kodak executive Ted Curtis to become vice president for public affairs. They brought in DePrez to direct communications at RIT, and together Curtis and DePrez organized policy conferences to plan Rochester’s future with experts from the Brookings Institute. RIT’s old downtown neighbors attended: Fortune 100 company presidents, nonprofit and minority group leaders, and government officials.

Local leaders then participated in dozens of issue task forces over 26 weeks to develop community priorities and recommendations. A few years later, the Futures Invention Community Forum provided a similar opportunity for a broader base of grassroots citizen leaders, DePrez says.

The conferences were part of the Urbanarium. Originally a program of the Rochester Museum & Science Center, it became an urban study group at RIT and later morphed into a downtown nonprofit, led by DePrez, that tapped experts at other area colleges, the Center for Governmental Research, WXXI, the Rochester Public Library and RMSC. At the center, local residents could work on building their communities with help from faculty and students with public affairs expertise.

The goal of the Urbanarium was to move progress through existing organizations.

“It’s hard to measure or even imagine what impact the Urbanarium work had on future policy and community development because its work was so integrated into the operations of existing agencies and organizations,” DePrez says. “It served more as a catalyst to these efforts—an integrator, and supporter of collaboration.”

DePrez remembers a politically charged time.

“There were always the political issues between Rochester and Monroe County. … It was a very political place. In fact, many of the speakers coming in would say Rochester was one of the most politically active places anywhere. City managers would change every other year. It was a tough place to work to get anything done.”

Still, he points to initiatives that began or were nurtured by participants in the Urbanarium: intergovernmental collaboration, leading to city-county shared services, starting with police laboratory work; Project Rise, addressing youth unemployment; Rediscover the River, annual programming that became River Romance and now, Roc the Riverway; Rails to Trails, converting abandoned rail beds to recreational trails in Monroe County; and the Main Street program, helping towns and villages cooperate to support their core communities.

Another effort, the Rochester Idea, a kind of community design charrette on wheels, encouraged outside-the-box thinking long before the term took hold. Planners and architects drove a van to local communities gathering ideas for improving the region. Out of that program came ideas that led to the Pont de Rennes pedestrian bridge at High Falls and pedestrian access to the old Erie Canal and subway in the Broad Street Aqueduct, now receiving serious attention. Over 300 suggestions, fleshed out by technical experts and illustrated by design students, were exhibited at Xerox Exhibition Center in May 1975.

The Urbanarium operated for 12 years, closing in the early 1980s. DePrez remembers growing funding pressures and the promise of other long-established organizations to carry on the mission. DePrez no longer lives in Rochester but keeps current from afar. He speculates that facets of the Urbanarium’s mission live on in the Greater Rochester Chamber of Commerce, Finger Lakes Regional Economic Development Council, the Community Design Center, and others.

In 1997, RIT sold the last of its city buildings, 50 West Main. Longtime arts faculty urged school officials to continue a downtown presence to keep it relevant to life in the city. So, RIT in 1999 opened Gallery R on Park Avenue to showcase work by faculty and students. After it moved to a new space in the Neighborhood of the Arts, it became a regular stop for First Friday visitors.

While Gallery R has had its fans, John Aasp, gallery director for the College of Art and Design, and Robin Cass, interim dean of the college, agreed RIT could use a more prominent city presence that reflects the preeminent university it is becoming.

Now the university is returning to the heart of downtown with RIT City Art Space, a new first-floor gallery and community event space in Sibley Square that opens onto Liberty Pole Plaza. Replacing Gallery R, the location opens Dec. 7 with a show of work by faculty members Willie Osterman and Leonard Urso.

RIT City Art Space is student-run and was designed for multiple purposes so the community can use it for programs and events for all ages. (Interior design students helped envision it.)

“I feel like it’s a re-established foothold (downtown),” Cass says. The location, across Franklin Street from RIT’s Center for Urban Entrepreneurship in the old Rochester Savings Bank, sets up both locations for cross-programming and expands RIT’s presence in the city.

Remington is excited about the new gallery and programming opportunities downtown. He sees parallels to Miller’s efforts in the 1970s.

“There was a lot of administrative support on the part of RIT to reach out and reconnect with the city we had left behind,” he recalls. “I had a lot of connections downtown and worked with a number of people who felt the same way.”

New RIT president David Munson is keen on continuing that reconnection, working to stitch RIT more closely into downtown. The university’s theme this year is community engagement and outreach. At a retreat held downtown earlier in the year, faculty and staff heard from local organizations to spark connections. At least one collaboration came out of it, Cass says: RIT’s art education master’s in teaching program is working with the Joseph Avenue Arts and Culture Alliance.

Aasp believes the gallery and Urban Entrepreneurship program are the seeds for bigger plans to bring RIT back downtown.

“We hope we’re just the beginning,” he says.

6 thoughts on “RIT’s decisive moment

  1. Article brings back memories of living in the 3rd Ward when I arrived in Rochester after grad school in 1962. I was an administrative intern in City Hall. Area filled with students, as was my apartment building on Fitzhugh Street. Made friends of RIT students and now, 56 years on, still correspond with half-dozen of them. Know little of Rochester Idea, but by 1980 the Platt Street bridge was abandoned. It was a continuing wonder that the Upper (High) Falls could not be well viewed by residents and tourists. In a conversation with Recreation Commissioner Jeff Swain, we agreed that if he could get a grant from NY State, I’d recommend an equal amount to redo the bridge; he did, City Council agreed and we named it after our oldest sister city. I was city manager from 1980 – 1985.

      • …and that was a great article on RIT. Remember how the move affected the neighborhood, but with all the construction and the Inner Loop not much could be done. RIT is much greater an institution than it could have been staying at the old site.

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