In the 19th century, most north country residents had never seen a tall “skyscraper” building. The few that had were likely to have seen it in New York City, where the first skyscraper reached seven stories in 1870 with the Equitable Life Building, considered by many to be the first skyscraper.
For residents in Watertown, plans would soon be in place for a building of their own to brag about.
By the end of the 1800s, New York City would boast the World Building at a towering 20 stories. A quote offering a definition of skyscraper buildings out of Chicago in 1891 stated: “It must be every inch a proud and soaring thing, rising in sheer exaltation that from bottom to top it is a unit without a dissenting line.”
Hours away, the building that would become “Watertown’s first skyscraper” had its roots in the dry goods business of Norris Winslow. It was taken over in 1892 by Florentine D. Roth, who moved to the area from Pennsylvania during a time of economic boom in Watertown.
In 1903, construction of the Rothstock skyscraper began.
The building was designed by David Keiff, a prominent architect in Watertown who also designed several other buildings in the area, including the Jefferson County Surrogates Courthouse and Herald Building.
Building was constructed in sections — first the rear, then the front. The store moved in as soon as possible, before all construction was completed. Building was completed December 1904 as “the only steel frame business block today north of the main line of the New York Central,” reports of the time said.
The floors were arranged with the bottom level as stores for shopping.
Levels three to five served as apartments for both workers of the stores and the general public with 42 furnished rooms, all installed with electric lights and gas, hot and cold water and call bells. Many of them also had a private bath and toilet connected.
Floors six and seven were offices, and the eighth floor was a restaurant/banquet hall, as well as more offices. The first dinner was held in February 1905, with 300 people in attendance.
The menu included cream of tomato soup with croutons, blue points on half shell, boiled salmon with hollandaise sauce, young turkey with oyster dressing, baked macaroni and cheese, Waldorf salad with mayonnaise dressing, pumpkin pie, English plum pudding with Brandy sauce.
From the eighth-floor dining room, it was said in the Watertown Daily Times that “the view of the Black River valley ... is most beautiful and cannot be equaled upon any other eminence in the city.” Diners could see up and down the river as well as to the Rutland hills, Lake Ontario and the skyline of St. Lawrence county.
The name of the Rothstock changed frequently throughout its history. The Frank A. Empsall Co. purchased the business in 1907 and built the addition in the rear facing what is now the J.B. Wise place.
The building changed hands a few more times, and in 1938, the hotel portion of the building was renamed to Brighton, as a tribute to Frank Brighton Clark, the longtime operator of Empsalls, who died the year before. The residences in the building are still called the Brighton Apartments today.
There were discussions to demolish the building in the 1970s and ‘80s during Urban Renewal, which saw the destruction of many historic downtown Watertown buildings. And in fact, when the Woodruff Hotel was demolished in 1976, a crane fell over backwards and damaged part of the Empalls building.
As one of the oldest business buildings in the north country today, Watertown’s first skyscraper continues to serve the community.
The Empsall building underwent extensive renovation this year by Neighbors of Watertown, and in June, it was announced that the Children’s Home of Jefferson County will move its primary care and behavioral health clinic, as well as administrative offices early next year.
These days, a skyscraper less than 40 floors is merely considered a tall building. The highest skyscraper in the world is in Dubai and reaches 2,722 feet tall. Designed by the same architect firm, the One World Trade Center in NYC is the tallest in the U.S. and reaches 1,776 feet tall.
However, while Watertown’s first little skyscraper is now dwarfed even in its own community by the Dulles State Office Building and more, it still stands tall in the top 10 of the city’s highest reaching buildings, with quite a history to boast about, too.
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