|Sibley, Lindsay & Curr Co. building|
on Main Street, built 1905.
|At 1.1 million square feet of space,|
Sibley's was the largest department store
building between New York and Chicago.
|The massive bulk of the Sibley building in|
downtown Rochester is well conveyed by
this aerial view. The upper six floors of the
Sibley Tower were leased as small
|1926 Sibley Tower addition to the store.|
|"Sibley's - Upstate New York's|
Store of the Century"
• Photo Reflex Studio • Wilcox Travel Agency
Their diminutive, 4,000 square foot store, like many others across the country, was christened The Boston Store, on account of the retail methods it employed, but eventually became known by the partners' names, Sibley, Lindsay & Curr Co. Success, on account of the store's policies, which included the one-price system, refunds, and other emerging trends, was immediate and lasting. Within a year, in 1869, the original store at 73 E. Main Street, and known as the Marble Block, had to be doubled in size. The upper floors housed a wholesale division, supervised by Curr, while the retail section, under Sibley and Lindsay's leadership, became known for its aggressive merchandising, and tight financial control as much as much as it did for its pleasant and scrupulously clean shopping atmosphere, which was in contrast to the typical retailer's warehouse-like accommodations in those early days.
In spite of unqualified success, Sibley, Lindsay & Curr Co.'s early years were not entirely without their difficulties, however. John Curr, who suffered from lung trouble, left western New York for Colorado in 1875, and though his name remained above the door, he sold his portion of the business to the other partners upon his departure. Rufus Sibley, who was known as a rather austere figure, worked tirelessly at his business, so much so that his wife eventually had a breakdown and died at an early age. By contrast, the more jovial Mr. Lindsay, who directed the store's merchandising, was a more jovial character, who was valued for his energy, experience, and ability to freely offer valuable advice to co-worker and customer alike.
Yet, it seemed that the store's foundation was such that prosperity and growth took it from strength to strength. In 1880, the adjacent Osborne House hotel building was acquired and used to expand the store's physical plant. A new, seven-story Romanesque-style structure was built in 1890 to house Sibley's wholesale division, extending the store back from Main Street, all the way to Mortimer Street.
Three years later, a new face was given the store by the construction and opening of the new thirteen-story "Granite Building" at the corner of Main and St. Paul streets, replacing the old Osborne House structure. When opening day arrived, on October 23, 1893, Sibley's management was so confident that their new building would serve their needs for many years to come, that they leased the upper floors as offices. The inaugural announcement proclaimed Sibley's "The Largest Department House Between New York and Chicago," with over 195,000 square feet of selling space.
The business was incorporated in 1897, and other Scottish- and English-born partners were taken into partnership, partly to fill the void left by Curr, and partly due to the increased need for good management for the dynamic business. Thomas B. Johnston (1849-1915) came to the United States in the year of Sibley's founding, from the Orkney Islands, and his son Louis Johnston (1881-1963) ran the company from 1930 to 1945. As an aside, Louis Johnston was married to Cora Scovil, the astute businesswoman who perfected the modern mannequin, and wrote Clara Scovil's Ladies' Book, a style-setting guide for women, in 1940.
Andrew Townson (1856-1920) was a financial wizard who managed Sibley's growth through property acquisition and management, and Thomas B. Ryder (1857-1942) who worked for Sibley's for an astonishing period of 72 years!
When it became clear that Sibley's seriously underestimated its space needs by the turn of the century, the store quietly acquired properties further east on Main Street for future expansion, and eventually controlled the whole block bounded by Main, Clinton, North and Mortimer streets. Before too many plans could be made for these lots, disaster, in the form of a faulty 5-cent fuse, struck in the bitterly-cold early-morning hours of February 26, 1904.
It was said that the Sibley Fire of 1904, started by the aforementioned fuse, and fueled by yard after yard of drapery fabric and other dry goods merchandise, was the most spotted (a night watchman saw the sparks that started it) and most-quickly reported conflagration, by so many people, to such little avail. Fire brigades responded, but the fire spread, dropping burning embers on adjoining roofs. From then on, if the fire was not such a tragedy, it might have been seen as a comedy of errors.
Water that was poured on the structures ultimately froze in the streets and made access treacherous. A horse, pulling a fire engine, kicked open a manhole and got its leg caught; an assistant fire chief slipped on ice and was knocked unconscious; help came all the way from Syracuse, but their equipment was incompatible with that of Rochester's fire brigade, forcing makeshift action to pump water directly out of the Genesee River.
One by one, buildings on the block tumbled down until eventually the fire reached the "fireproof" Granite Building, and Sibley's physical plant succumbed to the blaze. It was only due to the skill and heroism of the fire crews on hand that day that there were no casualties, and the fire was declared "out" within 40 hours of its initial spark. Sibley's lost $1.2 million worth of stock, but though its safe crashed six floors into the store's flooded basement, $40,000.00 was salvaged. Interestingly enough, J. Foster Warner, the architect who was drawing plans for a new Sibley store, lost all of his work for that project and many others due to the fact that his offices were located on the eleventh floor of the Granite Building.
The store's partners reportedly considered taking the insurance money and exiting the business after the fire, but, being successful and fully-engaged merchants, they immediately got to work ordering new stock and operated from makeshift quarters on their new property. Surprisingly, the granite building, though completely burnt-out, stood just as strongly as before, thirteen stories above the corner of Main and St. Paul streets. It was refitted and still serves as an office building as of today.
Sibley's itself took up residence in one-half of the buildings on their future site, allowing the rest to be demolished in order to construct a new home for the store. When the first part of the austere, five-story Chicago-style structure was completed, the store moved from the cramped and haphazard buildings it had occupied to the west. Accordingly, these structures were pulled down and the handsome Sibley Block, with its landmark clock tower, was completed, filling the whole block.
When even this modern, new building, far ahead of its time, was outgrown, an angular piece of property along North Street was bought in order to accommodate a six-story addition to Sibley, Lindsay & Curr Co. that was completed in 1911, and known as "The Mercantile Building." A twelve story building and six-story addition to the Mercantile building was called "The Sibley Tower" and completed by 1926. This part of the store housed Sibley's well-regarded Tower Restaurant, and carried on the long-held tradition at the store of housing leased medical and professional offices on its upper floors. By this time, Sibley, Lindsay & Curr Co. could boast of 1.1 million square feet of space in its flagship building. Unlike many other department stores, Sibley's maintained a grocery operation downtown, called the Sibley Food and Gourmet Center. The store's bakery was among the most popular in the city.
By the 1920s, much of the store's original management had retired or passed on. Rufus Sibley had retired in 1911, and Alexander Lindsay followed him three years later. Curiously, the two, though they worked well as managers of this outstanding and large institution, had never been close friends and seldom interacted. A final dispute over the hiring of family members marred the last years of their collaboration, and led to a terminal break between the two. Yet the carefully-considered management style that gave the store a "British" atmosphere and emphasized old-world values continued on through the leadership of Jesse Lindsay (1876-1950) and John R. Sibley (1890-1965), offspring of the founders.
During the depression era, this management consulted with business professor Malcolm McNair of Harvard, who helped the country shed businesses it had acquired in Minneapolis, Minnesota; Kansas City, Missouri; Erie, Pennsylvania; and nearby Niagara Falls, as well as its foundering wholesale division, as well as successfully revising its capital structure to meet the challenges of the World War II and post-war eras. Thomas B. Ryder's son Charles Crouch took the helm in 1941, and led the store (including a major remodeling) until his death by a sudden heart-attack in 1949, when he was succeeded by long-time employee E. Willard Dennis. Much of the success of the Sibley, Lindsay & Curr Co. can be seen as due to the effective management upon which it drew.
In 1954 Sibley's drew leadership from outside by hiring Emil G. Krogh, a Norwegian-born executive previously with Frederick & Nelson and Marshall Field & Company. It was under Krogh that Sibley's embarked on a 4-store suburban expansion plan in 1955, and the 1957 merger of Sibley's into the Associated Dry Goods Co.
Sibley's celebrated its centennial anniversary in style, with a remodeled store and an ad campaign that reminded customers that Sibley's. being the largest department store in New York, outside of New York City, as "Upstate New York's Store of the Century." Time-honored Sibley traditions came into the spotlight as the store basked in the light of 100 years of achievement.
Elsewhere the 1960s, Sibley's expanded in the Rochester market by opening a large mall branch in Greece, New York, and again at Eastview Mall in Victor, New York in 1971. Outside of Syracuse, Sibley's opened its largest store outside of downtown in the retail center of Syracuse in 1969. The store, which had been forecast in the mid-1960s, ran into development obstacles, but was eventually joined by a branch in Fayetteville outside of Syracuse.
The decline of downtown Rochester reached a point in the 1980s that caused Sibley's to contract by leasing its fifth floor to outside tenants, not long after it opened a very glitzy 1980s branch at the large Marketplace Mall in Henrieeta, that made its popular, longstanding, and oft-expanded Southtown store redundant.
Before long, Sibley's and ADG's Wm. Hengerer Co. stores in the Bufffalo era were combined, and in 1986, May Department Stores acquired Associated Dry Goods, Sibley's parent firm. When a new store opened in the large and ultimately unsuccessful Irondequoit Mall in the 1990s, replacing several of Sibley's earliest branches, it carried the name of Kaufmann's, the May Co.'s Pittsburgh division.
By the time all of the former Sibley stores were renamed, the business retained no connection with the Rochester community save for its history. The downtown store closed in January of 1990, before the Pittsburgh name was added to its branches. By the time these few stores were disposed of, or renamed to Macy's, hardly anything but a once-famous building downtown remained of the famous and well-regarded "Store of the Century."