On the edge of downtown, there exists a building whose heavy bones are more than a century old. Many recognize it as the old Words Players Theatre, but those with an inkling of its rich history call it the Conley-Maass building. Its brick walls and maple floorboards resonate with history tying into Rochester’s deepest roots as a city of innovation and creativity.
Because the Conley-Maass building wears a poker face with its relatively unremarkable façade, the questions of its past remain unasked by most. Today, we’re allowing these ancient timbers to do a little talking. Their tale begins at the turn of the twentieth century.
Wool Trousers and Conley Cameras (1900-1909)
In June of 1899, a businessman named Henry K. Terry rolled onto the Rochester scene, and recognized opportunity when he saw it. Namely that opportunity was the town’s woolen mill, which at the time was making blankets for St. Marys Hospital. Terry bought the mill with plans to build a new clothing factory. Supporters rallied around Terry’s idea, and by December of 1899, Rochester Woolen Manufacturing Company was incorporated.
In May of 1900, it was announced that the clothing factory would be built at 14 College Street (which later became Fourth Street Southwest) by contractor Martin Heffron for $7,898. Heffron was something of a contractor superstar in Rochester, having built the Heaney block, the original section of St. Marys in 1888, and the iconic Chateau Theater.
Heffron’s design for the clothing factory was a two-story space with a basement, steam heat, and electric lights, a skylight on the second floor, and numerous windows. The first floor was for shipping and receiving of wool (primarily from local sheep), and the second floor was reserved for pattern layout, cutting, and sewing of itchy-yet-warm wool trousers.
The factory opened on August 6, 1900, and for a while, the business went gangbusters. The mill was turning out 1,800 yards of fabric on a weekly basis—enough for the factory to make 1,440 pairs of pants. Throughout 1901, “Rochester Made-at-the-Mill Trousers” were advertised in the regional press, and the company was promoting six grades of trousers “made from Minnesota wool, by Minnesota labor, with Minnesota capital.”
But then, the Rochester Woolen Manufacturing Company went bankrupt. Clothing factory equipment was liquidated, and thousands of sheep (and a few humans) were out of a job.
Enter the next entrepreneur
In June of 1904, eight train cars filled with camera-making equipment chugged into Rochester from Spring Valley, Minn. Those cars were unloaded into the former clothing factory by brothers Kerry and Fred Conley, of Conley Camera Company. At the time, photography was the very cusp of innovation and technology, and Rochester, New York, was considered the cradle of the camera industry—it was the home of Eastman Kodak Cameras, after all. Here’s where Sears, Roebuck, and Co. had a little fun with city names.
When Sears, Roebuck had trouble negotiating prices with Eastman-Kodak for placing cameras in its mail-order catalog, a different camera company came into focus: Conley Cameras. To better market Conley’s handcrafted mahogany, cherry, and nickel-plated cameras to the masses, Sears, Roebuck encouraged the Conley brothers to leave Spring Valley and move to Rochester—a nearby city whose name carried a lot of clout at the time. They’d count on customers confusing central Minnesota for New York. Brilliant.
Arguably Rochester’s first “high-tech” company, Conley Cameras hit the ground running. The first floor of the building was used to manufacture camera parts and fabricate wooden camera bodies, while upstairs on the second floor, workers ground lenses, plated metal parts, and assembled the finished product. Within six months, the company had grown from 18 to 60 employees and had tripled its output to almost 2,000 cameras per month. The business boom attracted skilled workers from camera businesses out east, and Conley Camera employees’ reported salaries were enviable—up to $2,000 per month.
Within three years of moving to Rochester, Conley Camera employed between 135 and 165 people and was producing 28,000 cameras, 80,000 plate holders, and thousands of other accessories each year. In addition to supplying the Sears, Roebuck catalog with cameras, Conley Camera supplied the burgeoning Mayo Clinic with cameras for documenting medical specimens. Eventually, Conley started producing specialty cameras for use in medical research and surgery. Meanwhile, business continued to grow, and Conley Camera Company was forced to move to a bigger facility at 501 First Avenue, putting the 14 College Street building up for sale again.
Toilets, Tunnels, and Aseptic Surgical Techniques (1910-1955)
Maass and McAndrews Company was a plumbing and mechanical contracting company in Rochester that started in 1900 with a two-wheeled cart. From this humble beginning came a business closely linked to the Mayo Clinic.
Ernest Maass had a 25-year history working for the Mayo family and at St. Marys Hospital, where he installed a foot-activated mechanism made by a local blacksmith for the hospital’s operating-room faucets, as well as metal viewing stands for use by surgical observers. When Maass decided to go into business with fellow St. Marys worker Richard McAndrew, Dr. Mayo offered to finance it. A certain building was newly vacated and conveniently located.
Shortly after purchasing the old Conley Camera factory, Maass and McAndrew decided the building needed a facelift. They hired Garfield Schwartz to construct a new entryway—one that would include separate doors for the east and west sides of the first floor. There would be large plate glass windows and beautiful transom windows with a recessed doorway.
The main floor of the building became a showroom filled with these new-fangled things called toilets. In 1910, it was still the dawn of the plumbing industry, and only a decade away from a time when even 1 percent of American homes would have indoor plumbing. Maass and McAndrew were the only ones serving the plumbing needs to Rochester, and their business did quite well.
Maass and McAndrew had a number of construction contracts awarded by the City of Rochester, Olmsted County, and the Rochester State Hospital. Special projects for the Mayo Clinic included work on the 1914 Clinic, the 1928 Plummer Building, and St. Marys Hospital.
Additionally, Maass contributed greatly to the Mayo’s development of aseptic surgical techniques to keep open wounds from being infected in the operation room. Installing pedal-operated surgical sinks and engineering steam lines, creating elbow-operated sinks for pre-surgical scrub-up, and building sterilizers to serve operating rooms were just a few of the contributions Maass and McAndrew made to the development of what is now standard procedure.
Extant records indicate that Maass and McAndrew routinely developed special items for use by Mayo surgeons and laboratory researchers—including equipment for Dr. Plummer’s x-ray research, much of the equipment required for pathology laboratories, and surgical siphons and metal furniture for the labs and waiting rooms.
The business became a family affair when Ernst Maass’ son Fred came on board. Fred Maass went on to make serious contributions to the development of the Mayo Clinic. For example, he worked with Henry Plummer and Ellerbe Architects to design a district energy system that would serve the power, water, heat, and sterilization needs of existing and future downtown medical and hotel buildings from a central plant. To deliver steam, hot and cold water, telephone service, and electricity throughout the large service area, and to facilitate the flow of pedestrian traffic, the team designed a dual tunnel system beneath the city streets. These tunnel systems are still in use.
Meanwhile, of course, the company went on supplying homeowners with toilets, and making the city a more sanitary, modern place to live.
A Miscellany of Occupants, from the VFW to Children’s Theatre (1935-2014)
Now the Conley-Maass building history arrives at a string of businesses and organizations that came and went from the space without great fanfare. These were the more modest occupants, the ones more inclined to play bingo or produce plays than to modernize regional plumbing.
The following series of businesses moved into and out of the left side of the space: Bob’s Liquor Store (1935-1955), City Loan and Finance (1956-1972), and Troy’s Billiard Supply (1975-1985). On the right side, these businesses passed through: Waters Conley (1957-1958), Salvation Army Thrift Store (1960-1971), and Reichert’s Appliance (1972-1989). Meanwhile, on the second floor of the building, Fraternal Order Eagles moved in (1938-1949). When the Eagles flew the coop, the VFW moved in and stayed until 1959. Moose Lodge followed the VFW in 1968, and stayed until 1981. Then came a flood of kids, costumes, and high energy.
The Rochester Ballet School (1985-1996) occupied the second floor, and the Masque Theatre occupied the entire main floor (2000-2009). Masque Theatre director Sylvia Langworthy founded the theater in 1987 with the philosophy to use strong involvement of students, ages 5 to 18, in every aspect of theater—performing, teaching, writing, and directing. Inside the old Conley-Maass building, the theater offered an open space where kids could be creative, and as many students attested, be themselves. The Masque closed its doors in 2009 when it was unable to raise enough funds to maintain operations.
Shortly after the Masque Theatre left, another youth theater company—Words Players Theatre—moved in. Director Daved Driscoll speaks of the challenges the building created: “We’d say, ‘Every seat is an obstructed seat.’ The three massive wooden pillars running down the length of the performance space was either going to be a problem or a strength.”
The theater company worked with the natural space, moving outside the bounds of a stage with passive spectators. One example of that was a “The Sky is Falling,” a play acted out in the style of Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton, the kids moved around the entire space, engaging with the audience via vaudevillian-style antics and good old-fashioned mime shenanigans.
The Words Players Theatre could not afford to stay in the space and is considering a move to the Twin Cities, where there’s a larger theater scene.
14 Fourth Street Southwest: Today and Tomorrow
The building still stands much as it did in 1900, with a smokestack in the back and a tiled-floor entrance from the Maass and McAndrews renovations of 1910. Its windows are a mix of original, replacements, and brick. The upstairs was remodeled over the years, but still maintains the general integrity of the building.
And as for the building’s next tenants? We’re not sure which businesses they will include, but we do know that the building is on the National Registry of Historic Places, and that it will be completely restored by 9.Square, a local architecture and urban design firm. Its new owners are Hunter and Traci Downs, who, in 2012, moved to Rochester from Hawaii. The couple bought the space in order to restore it and transform it into a hub for innovation and creativity. The 15,000-square-foot building will offer high-tech entrepreneurs a space for collaboration.
The building sold for $450,000, which is 57 times the cost of what it took to build back in 1900. It’s all part of the flow of time and transformation, which, for the Conley-Maass building, has always included innovation, change, and boundary pushing. Thanks to the upcoming restoration, this building and its vibrant history will be around for years to come.