The Crooked Lake Review

Winter 2004

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What Made Sibley's Great


Donovan A. Shilling

It was a banner year for the Sibley, Lindsay & Curr Company. It was 1926. Also that year trolley fare was eight cents, Strong Memorial Hospital opened, Rochester received its first air mail and it was the year that Rochester's premier department store boasted that "in proportion to the size of the city in which it is located (325,000), it is unquestionably the largest store in the country." What made it so large was completion of a six-story addition to its Mercantile Building expanding that wing of Sibley's to twelve stories. Later that addition would be known as the Sibley Tower Building.

Sibley's, Rochester, N.Y.

Sibley's was justly proud of its enlarged store that now stood taller and was larger than any dry goods store between Macy's in New York City and Marshall Field's in Chicago. Its street frontage was 992 feet almost a fifth of a mile. It consisted of 271 feet on Clinton Avenue, 195 feet on North Street and 210 feet on Franklin Street. Within the store the interior also under-went a renovation with improved lighting, a modern elevator system, a new terrazzo main floor and the latest store fixtures and display cases, many of walnut and mahogany.

For those citizens who enjoyed downtown window shopping the expansion was a delight. The store's huge, twelve-foot plate glass windows were filled with a kaleidoscope of ever-changing merchandise displays. A walk around the store's outer circumference, observing the newest fashions and discovering the latest miscellaneous merchandise was always entertaining and often educational. A legion of local window dressers must have worked overtime at their tasks. Sibley's ground floor windows equaled, and perhaps outnumbered similar windows located in any other dry goods store in the nation.

A particularly interesting feature of the great store was its "tube room." Located in the basement, a cadre, comprised of dozens of women, sat at banks of pneumatic tubes tied to every department throughout the store. In all, Sibley's had thirty-four miles of such tubing, the largest pneumatic tube system in the world. The two-inch-wide metal tubes carried felt-ended, five inch brass canisters to the tube room. Store clerks placed the canisters in the mouth of a tube, closed a flap, and the customer's purchase transaction was neatly whisked from the clerk to the basement for processing. Then, with a pleasing whoosh, the change and receipt was shot back to the clerk. It was a process that never failed to fascinate all young children and more than a few adults as well.

There were other assets that made Sibley's unique. Perhaps the most notable was its two splendid clocks. One was seen in the distinctive tower located over the main entrance to the huge emporium. For years the clock tower was used as a logo by the firm on its delivery trucks, shopping bags, boxes and stationery. The tower's bell that struck the hours weighs a hefty thirty-five hundred pounds, one of the largest in the city.

The other clock, a huge copper-clad, four-faced affair hung in the store's main corridor on the first floor by the escalators. To a small child the clock's six-foot-square size appeared to be enormous. The grand time piece was a central meeting point for shoppers and a place where Mom told you to go if you ever got lost from her sight in the store's vast maze of counters, corridors and crannies. The store even capitalized on the clock's public popularity. "Meet me under the clock in Sibley's" was a slogan often heard from the 1940s through the 1960s.

A side-bar to the tale of the great shopping emporium is the legend of Michael P. Filon, and how his name appears on the front of Sibley's just above the fifth floor level under the clock tower. Shortly after the disastrous downtown fire in 1904, the Sibley management purchased its new site at the corner of North Clinton and East Main Streets. All the real estate was purchased save for a block of land the Filon family refused to sell. The parcel fronted on East Main Street and harkened back to the time when Mr. Filon, President of the Bay Railroad, Mayor of Rochester in 1862-1863 and President of East side Savings Bank, acquired the property. The Filon section was both strategic and necessary to complete the new construction.

After considerable negotiation, a lease was finally hammered out and construction begun. However, the "Filon section" of the store was kept a "separate entity" with its own utilities and stairway and elevator space allowed for if needed. In the late 1940s, Louise Kelly, granddaughter of Michael Filon, passed away leaving her estate to R. I. T. It was not until then that Sibley's purchased that part of its store lot. The Michael Filon plaque, permanently attached to his "Filon Block," on the "Filon Tower," can be spotted if one takes a moment to locate it.

Sibleys installed four new Otis elevators in November, 1942. Small kids were fascinated by the highly polished, fossil-filled marble that flanked the elevator entrance doors. What took their parents' attention however, were the three splendid, panoramic plaster panels above the elevator bank. The huge panels each depict a stage in Rochester's vibrant growth. The first, entitled "Birth of the Genesee Milltown 1789-1825," shows the High Falls, flour mills, a log cabin and an early settler with his ox team. The second, "The Flour City 1840-1860," represents the growth of retail business, elegant homes and the massive aqueduct on which the Erie Canal spanned the Genesee River. The final panel, "The Skyline of Our Modern City," displays its many industrial and towering office buildings and spacious stores. An eagle, with wings outspread, stands above the buildings, perched and ready to soar into a bright new future. In 1942 the panels seemed both appropriate and comforting to citizens living in a nation at war.

Other great memories of Sibley's include: the big, revolving entrance doors, the city's first escalators, the cosmetic, appliance and craft demonstrations by the first floor escalator, the food and kitchen-device demonstrations on the fourth floor, toy land with its wondrous tunnel featuring Christmas or story book scenes complete with animated figures or elves, the huge balloons used in the Santa Claus Parade down Main Street, dinner with Santa, the Salvation Army bell-ringers at the store's entrances each Christmas season, the Scholastic Arts Award Exhibition on the fourth floor, the sprightly seasonal decorations that wreathed the giant first floor pillars, the third floor fabric and craft department where grey-haired ladies, with years of expertise, would show you how to knit and crochet, the fashion-show models in the sixth floor auditorium, the delicatessen in the grocery department, the book department and the 2-cents a day lending library, the Sibley Tower Restaurant and the express elevator to the sixth floor one took to get there, the large fleet of dark green delivery trucks that even brought groceries to your home, the main level coffee shop on Franklin Street, the wonderful china and crystal department, shopping for "bargains" in the basement, the delicious bake goods especially the almond paste Christmas cookies and chocolate cake from the grocery department and those super sandwiches they'd prepare for you long before they were available elsewhere, and those oh, so smooth and delectable frosted malteds. We'll treasure those special memories forever, because they truly made Sibley's great.

2004, Donovan A. Shilling
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