Bicentennial Snapshot # 41: Northgate Plaza

Today we are talking about Northgate Plaza.

Two-page ad announcing the opening of Northgate Plaza, Greece Press October 29, 1953

On October 29, 1953, “the first major suburban shopping center in Monroe County and one of the largest open-air malls in the eastern United States” opened at 3800 Dewey Avenue. On the site of the Dobson Farm.

Northgate, as the plaza was called because it was “the northern gate of the city” of Rochester, was the brainchild of developer Emil Muller. A Swiss émigré, Muller was a self-made, multi-millionaire known for his “expertise in building shopping plazas.”

Emil Muller developer of Northgate, from his obituary, Democrat & Chronicle, November 28, 1989
Dobson farm on 1902 Map

Muller built Northgate on land he purchased from the Dobson family. On this 1902 map, you can see the Dobsons farmed on both sides of Dewey Avenue. Dewey Avenue at that time was called Barnard’s Crossing and Denise Road was Clinton Avenue.

Muller chose Dewey Avenue for its demographics—it was densely populated and Greece was growing by leaps and bounds. On this Aerial view of the Northgate Plaza, you can see the following Greece Schools from closest being English Village School, then Britton Road School, and Lakeshore School, in the top left is Rochester Gas and Electric Rusell Station Power Plant, and in the top right of the aerial view is the pier and the Genesee River.

Aerial view of Northgate area to the Lake, circa 1960s, from GHS
Original L-shaped layout of Northgate, from GHS

The plaza had 24 stores grouped in an L shape. The more familiar horse-shoe layout would follow in 1956 when it expanded to 30 stores.

Another first for the plaza and Greece, when McCurdy’s opened a store here it was the first time a large downtown department store extended “on-the-spot service to a local suburban area.”

McCurdy’s at Northgate, 1957 from GHS
North end of the plaza, 1957, from GHS

Among the other original stores were Sherwin-Williams Paint Store, Fanny Farmer’s Candy, Scrantom Book & Stationary, Security Trust Bank, Woolworth’s, and not just one but two supermarkets, Star Markets, and Wegmans. To keep customers safe while walking to the stores and to protect them from inclement weather Muller erected an eight-foot-wide marquee that covered the sidewalks. Parking was free. There were 3,000 parking spaces but sometimes that wasn’t enough.

A favorite of children was Gray’s Hobbies which later became Wynken Blynken and Nod.

Wynken Blynken and Nod, 1960, photo by Tom DiBello
Publicity still for Cisco Kid (Duncan Renaldo)
Cisco Kid Ad
Cisco Kid Ad

The three-day grand opening event featured appearances by currently popular tv characters the Cisco Kid and Poncho.

The Cisco Kid is a 1950–1956 half-hour American Western television series starring Duncan Renaldo in the title role, the Cisco Kid, and Leo Carrillo as the jovial sidekick, Pancho. The series was syndicated to individual stations and was popular with children.[1] Cisco and Pancho were technically desperados wanted for unspecified crimes,[2] but were viewed by the poor as Robin Hood figures who assisted the downtrodden when law enforcement officers proved corrupt or unwilling to help.[3] It was also the first television series to be filmed in color,[4] although few viewers saw it in color until the 1960s. The show would run for 6 seasons with 26 episodes per season for a total of 156 episodes you can find episodes of The Cisco Kid on a variety of streaming services. Here is a link to a Google Search that will let you find and watch whichever episode you would like to watch https://g.co/kgs/RQEhd1. In Rochester, Cisco Kid aired on WHEC-TV/WVET-TV channel 10 at 6:30 PM.

Fun Fact Duncan Renaldo and Leo Carrillo did do most not all of the horse riding themselves they were very talented horse riders.

One of the streaming services you can watch the Cisco Kid is Freevee on Amazon Prime

The Cisco Kid. (2022, December 7). In Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Cisco_Kid_(TV_series)

Publicity still for Poncho (Leo Carrillo)
Ad for Miles Shoe Store, Greece Press, October 29, 1953

There were added incentives to draw customers, such as a free handbag from Miles Shoes, but they probably weren’t necessary. 60 to 70 thousand people attended over the three days.

Needless to say, Christmas brought scores of people out to shop in Northgate Plaza.

Northgate Christmas ad Greece Press, December 8, 1955.
Nearly full parking lot at Christmas, 1957

By 1957, there were 30 stores in the plaza including J. C. Penney’s which opened in 1954, and W. T. Grants in 1956. The parking lot was nearly full during the Christmas season. It was quite a distance to walk to your car from McCurdy’s to the front entrance.

W. T. Grants Logo c. 1951-1965
J.C. Penney’s logo 1951–1962
Northgate sign, 1960
Greece woman drives home in wrong car, Times-Union, May 3, 1958

Finding one’s car could be problematic. Such was the case for the mother of our Society’s President, Bill Sauers. And it wasn’t even Christmas.

On May 2, 1958, Mrs. William Sauers drove to Northgate Plaza in the new Chevy Impala that they had owned for only a few days. After finishing her shopping, she returned to her car but had trouble getting the key into the ignition. She complained to her husband that she shouldn’t have had that much trouble with a brand-new car. Well, the police showed up at her house at 11 pm to tell her that she had driven away in someone else’s car, a Chevy Bel Air. The police who had been called by the owner of the Bel Air were able to determine who had taken her car when the only car left in the Northgate parking lot had tags registered to the Sauers and they righted the unintentional car switch.

’58 Bel Air
’58 Impala
Northgate sign 1980s from the Office of the Town Historian

Northgate had a difficult time competing with the new indoor malls that were constructed, particularly Greece Towne Mall and Longridge Mall in the 1970s—and by the time the two malls were combined in 1997 Northgate was in terrible shape. We discuss the Mall at Greece Ridge in BICENTENNIAL SNAPSHOT # 12 – THE RIDGE PART 2

The south end of Northgate Plaza, June 2010
North end of Northgate Plaza, June 2010

There were still businesses on the south and the north ends of the plaza.

Middle of Northgate plaza, June 2010, photo by Travis Beaver

But the middle section that once housed McCurdy’s was crumbling and had to be cordoned off.

Panoramic view of Northgate, 2009, photo by Bill Sauers

Now there were more seagulls in the parking lot than cars.

Tearing down where Big Lots was in Northgate Plaza

Walmart purchased the plaza property in 2007 and after several years of legal wrangling, got the go-ahead to build a Walmart Supercenter and reconstruct the plaza. Some of the issues for the area where the amount of shoplifting that occurred at Wal-Marts, traffic issues that could cause backup on Dewey Ave, English Road, and Denise road, and no Auto Center at this Wal-Mart Location.

The new Northgate sign, 2017, from the Office of the Town Historian

The new Northgate opened on August 12, 2012. and just to the left about no more than 15 feet, you will come across this Historical Marker that was unveiled at the ceremony marking the grand opening a historical marker was erected acknowledging the Haudenosaunee who used to camp on the site, the pioneer Dobson family, and the “first major suburban plaza in Monroe County.”

Historical Marker at Northgate, 2012, photo by Bill Sauer
Northgate Plaza Shopping Center By Marie V Poinan

If you would like to read more about the history behind Northgate Plaza, the Society’s publication, Northgate Plaza Shopping Center, compiled by Marie Poinan, is available in the Museum’s gift shop.

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