A new app developed by the History Center of Olmsted County gives residents and visitors a chance to tour Rochester's downtown as it once was.

Through stories and pictures, the nifty app offers a glimpse into the historic buildings and architectural gems that once dominated the downtown but no longer exist.

A screen shot from the History Center app.
A screen shot from the History Center app.

It also includes iconic century-old structures that have been renovated and reinvented through the decades.

Even longtime residents are likely to find the app enlightening. The photos and stories that make up the virtual tour were previously squirreled away in the history center's archives. The app, which is available through Apple and Android stores, gives instantaneous access to those resources with fingertip ease.

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The virtual tour focuses on the theaters, department stores, banks, hospitals, hotels and businesses that shaped downtown from the 1870s through the 1950s, and the lives people led back then. Altogether, the app, called PocketSights, features the stories of 20 historic buildings.

The Old Central School, a beloved building, was a five-story structure that included a bell-tower. The school cost $70,000 to build and opened May 25, 1868. Mayo Clinic bought the space and eventually demolished to construct the Mayo Building. (History Center of Olmsted County)
The Old Central School, a beloved building, was a five-story structure that included a bell-tower. The school cost $70,000 to build and opened May 25, 1868. Mayo Clinic bought the space and eventually demolished to construct the Mayo Building. (History Center of Olmsted County)

Most everyone in Rochester has heard of Central School, the downtown school that educated generations of students starting in 1868. But the app offers details only the most ardent history buff would know. The magnificent five-story structure included a bell tower with a 1,500-pound bell and four turrets that jutted skyward.

Like many buildings in Med City, it fell victim to changing times and Mayo Clinic's need for space. It was demolished in 1950 to make way for the Mayo Building.

Then there's Huey's Cigar Store, a redolent South Broadway establishment once situated where the Patterson Dahlberg law business most recently stood. Built in 1858, the store thrived as part of the morning ritual of Rochester denizens. There, people started their day buying the morning paper, fresh doughnuts, and coffee. It is thought to be the oldest structure in town.

Kevin Whaley, collections manager for the History Center of Olmsted County.
Kevin Whaley, collections manager for the History Center of Olmsted County.

Kevin Whaley, the center's collections manager, said the history center had two audiences in mind as it developed the app.

One was longtime residents who might be eager to learn more about the city's history in an "easily digestible form." The other was tourists, patients and visitors who might be looking for something to do.

The stories are not just about buildings, but also about what people valued.

Whaley said it was interesting to discover the degree to which entertainment dominated the downtown. At one point, there were three or four small theaters clustered in a couple-block radius of each other. Usually sitting fewer than a thousand people, the theaters in the 1920s and '30s showcased vaudeville, variety and minstrel shows, opera, and later, black-and-white movies.

As Mayo's reputation grew, drawing people and patients from across the country, hotels became a key part of the city's economy.

The first Kahler Hotel, a converted stately Victorian home located where the Gonda Building entrance on Second Street Southwest is, catered to upper-class patients. And Drs. Will and Charlie Mayo performed surgeries on the third floor.

The Hotel Zumbro, once the city's tallest building, was located between Salute! Wine Bar and Lasker Jewelers in the Peace Plaza. It, too, doubled as a hospital during its history, with 48 guest rooms serving as patient care rooms and an operating suite inside it. It was a favorite of Mayo patients, including Hollywood stars such as Roy Rogers, Marilyn Monroe and Randolph Scott.

A screen shot from the History Center app.
A screen shot from the History Center app.

The app reinforces how much change Rochester has undergone over the decades. Like an archeological dig that reveals one civilization on top of another, the app hints at Rochester's layered history.

Whaley said the center is looking at building out the app to focus on sites where as many as three or four buildings once stood with the last century.

"It's kind of amazing how much the city changes," Whaley said.