Down on the Corner: Taverns and Transformations in the Bull’s Head Neighborhood

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Bull’s Head Plaza (Googlemaps, 2019)

Bull’s Head Plaza, which has stood on the southeast corner of West Main and Genesee Streets since the early 1950s, will soon undergo a transformation as part of an Urban Renewal plan designed to revitalize one of Rochester’s oldest neighborhoods.

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The Plaza and the surrounding Bull’s Head neighborhood. City of Rochester Map, 2019

The Plaza has been a fixture in the area for over half a century, but the corner on which it stands is no stranger to change, having experienced a number of metamorphoses over the past 200 years, going back to when it housed the very tavern that gave the Bull’s Head neighborhood its name.

According to the 19th century reminiscences of Rochester resident George W. Fisher, “In the early settlement of the country before Rochester was a village, an old wood building stood at the intersection of Genesee Street and Buffalo Road, kept as a country tavern. Suspended from a post on the road side hung the ponderous tavern sign, lettered on both sides ‘Bull’s Head Tavern.’”

Sources vary on the tavern’s establishment date, but it was likely erected sometime between 1808 and 1813, when Buffalo Street (now West Main Street) was a crude, forest-enveloped stage road leading westward to Batavia and points beyond. Genesee Street and  Brown Street, also well traveled thoroughfares at the time, provided passage to developing settlements to the north and south.

The Bull’s Head Tavern thus became a popular stopping point for travelers heading to and from Rochester, and served as the namesake of the nascent neighborhood surrounding the crossroads.

The advantageous location was not lost on Derrick Sibley and Joseph Field, two settlers from New England, who envisioned the hub as a bustling cattle market on Rochester’s outskirts, akin to the Brighton Market just outside of Boston. In 1827, the pair purchased several acres of property at the tavern site and replaced the old wooden frame building with a three-story stone structure.

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A sketch of the stone version of the Bull’s Head Tavern (From: Bull’s Head Economy-Aide, February 6, 1936, Vol. 1, No.2)

Legend has it that a salt-laden spring in the area was reserved for bovines bound for Rochester, and that the quadrupeds were encouraged to drink from it handsomely, thus inflating their weight (and value) by the time they reached the market scales.

Though the enterprise attracted additional settlers to the Bull’s Head neighborhood, the cattle market did not prove successful, and by 1831, Sibley and Field had decided to pursue other ventures (Field went on to become Mayor of Rochester in 1848).

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From: Rochester Republican, May 10, 1831.

The tavern didn’t stay on the market long. In 1832, new proprietor John Masury posted an advertisement painting the Bull’s Head Tavern as an idyllic getaway for Rochester residents and passers through alike. The ad boasted:

“This establishment has lately been fitted up as a pleasant retreat from the noise and bustle of business—about one mile from the center of attraction—on the Buffalo Road. It is hoped that the present occupant will receive encouragement suitable to his exertions.”

The stone building would go on to house a different kind of retreat the following decade, when it was purchased by Dr. Hatfield Halsted.

Halsted, who billed himself as a “Magnetic Physician,” had previously operated a drug store on Buffalo Street for a number of years, where he sold “electric pills” and three different varieties of “Magnetic Ether.” In 1844, Dr. Halsted purchased the tavern property with the intent to transform it into a “Motorpathic Institute and Water Cure,” taking advantage of the nearby sulphur spring and ample supply of rock water.

As Halsted explained in a Rochester Daily Advertiser promotional article from 1846,  “I have become convinced that I can have access to as good, and all things considered, better water at this location, for treating all kinds of disease in the most successful manner, than can be obtained in any other situation.”

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A circa July 1852 advertisement for Halsted’s practice featured in the Rochester Daily Democrat.

Halsted claimed that by combining Hydropathy (water therapy) with his “Magnetic Remedies,” he could help cure a host of ailments including gout, dyspepsia, St. Anthony’s Fire, St. Vitus’ Dance, nervous diseases and “female difficulties.”[1]

The doctor welcomed patients at Halsted Hall until 1854, after which he moved on to a new water cure practice in Northampton, Massachusetts.

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Bull’s Head area circa 1851, featuring Halsted Hall on the southeast corner of Buffalo (now West Main) and Genesee Streets. From: Plan of the City of Rochester, N.Y./surveyed & drawn by Marcus Smith & B. Callan. New York: M. Dripps, 1851.

The building Halsted left behind served as a quasi-medical facility once again in the 1860s, as it housed the overflow of wounded Civil War soldiers seeking care at St. Mary’s Hospital.

Following the war, the edifice was remodeled as St. Mary’s Boys’ Orphan Asylum. In 1871, a new orphanage building was constructed beside the former tavern, which was repurposed as a branch of St. Patrick’s Parochial School.

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St Mary’s Boys’ Orphan Asylum, including the stone tavern structure on the left and the new orphanage building on the right, circa 1875. From: City of Rochester Plat Map, 1875.

The historic tavern building remained at the corner of West Main and Genesee Streets until 1909, when it was torn down to make room for the orphanage’s expansion.

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The expanded St. Mary’s institution, along with St. Patrick’s Orphan Girls’ Asylum, in 1910. From: City of Rochester Plat Map, 1910.

The orphanage met its fate a few decades later, when it too was razed, making way for the much anticipated Bull’s Head Plaza.


-Emily Morry


[1] St. Anthony’s Fire, in addition to being a stellar potential band name, refers to poisoning by ergot, a fungus grown on rye grass. St. Vitus’ Dance, also a decent candidate for a band name, is an antiquated term for Sydenham’s Chorea, a neurological disorder characterized by rapid movements of the limbs and face. “Female Difficulties” (not recommended by this author as a band name), may have referred to any number of gynecological conditions.

Published in: on January 31, 2019 at 9:24 am  Comments (1)