Alan Morrell Special to Rochester Democrat and Chronicle USA TODAY NETWORK
Published 11:00 p.m. UTC Jun 23, 2018
The Red Lion was a downtown restaurant where Rochester’s movers and shakers met to eat, drink and frequently hash out business and political deals.
The business began in one of Rochester’s best-known buildings and later moved – begrudgingly – to a brand-new skyscraper just a half-mile east. The original restaurant was run by a group that included a former boxer who later became a town supervisor in Wayne County.
Squabbles that forced the Red Lion to move filled news accounts for months. Two separate farewell parties were held after the initial closing date was “postponed.”
A suburban version of the restaurant was on Monroe Avenue in Brighton, but this story is about the better-known downtown spot.
Opened in 1968 in the Powers Building
The Red Lion opened in 1968 in the Powers Building at 36. W. Main St., which had been renamed the Executive Office Building. The landmark building was Rochester’s tallest for years and was noted for engineering marvels never before seen here.
By the time the Red Lion debuted, the old hotel where Teddy Roosevelt and others had stayed had been converted to an office building and lost some of its pizazz. The Red Lion quickly changed things, as Bill Beeney noted in a 1968 Democrat and Chronicle column.
“It seems that a touch of the old excitement has returned to the Four Corners with the reopening,” Beeney wrote. “For years, the Powers was a late afternoon rendezvous of professional men in that downtown section.”
The crowds returned. Monroe County Manager Gordon Howe was among the regulars, along with business leaders and Rochester board of education officials. A birthday party for longtime sheriff Al Skinner was held at the Red Lion when he turned 75.
The place was run by a contingent that included Joe Guelli, his sons Frank and Russ, and business partner Jack Finnerty. Frank Guelli was the pugilist, a winning Golden Gloves boxer and a standout on the Syracuse University boxing team. He was already promoting fights locally by 1969, if not sooner.
The Red Lion’s Old English feel included dark-wood paneling, a crystal chandelier and murals of “high-booted, 17th- century chevaliers.” It was a place for Power Lunches that fit right in with the era depicted in the TV show Mad Men.
With its dedicated high-profile clientele, it came as a surprise to many when the Red Lion was forced to close in 1973 to make way for a Chemical Bank branch. The restaurant owners battled the building’s landlord for months. At one point, utilities were turned off and the Red Lion remained open, serving clients by candlelight.
That ended after a few days when the utilities were restored. But the legal battle went on, and the Red Lion closed — initially — in early May 1973. News accounts described the farewell party as a “crowded carnival atmosphere of free drinks and beer tears.”
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“Someone put on a record of Auld Lang Syne and people started kissing at the bar, in the aisles, at the tables,” a Times Union story reported. “They cracked open free champagne in the middle of the evening and later opened up the entire bar for free drinks until all the liquor was gone.”
Democrat and Chronicle columnist Cliff Carpenter labeled the Red Lion a “civilized oasis,” and wrote, “It wasn’t really a restaurant; it was a tranquilizer, a refuge in an abrasive working day, a needed sort of place.”
The Red Lion reopened 10 days later amidst a legal loophole. By the end of May, though, the restaurant closed for good at 36 W. Main, and another party was held.
Within two months, the Red Lion re-emerged in the concourse of the Lincoln First Tower, which had just opened. At 392 feet, the Lincoln Tower — since renamed The Metropolitan — remains one of Rochester’s tallest buildings, as the old Powers Building once was.
The new Red Lion was described as “rustic instead of medieval.” Ads touted the “dark candlelit recesses for the ‘we-want-to-be-alone’ crowd and tables in the mainstream for the ‘we-want-to-see-and-be-seen’ groups.” The place had musical entertainment, a dance floor, a banquet area and shared space in the concourse with businesses like a smoke shop, barber/stylist, beauty salon and jeweler.
The crowds kept coming to this new incarnation, perhaps not as business- and governmental-centric as they once were. Meanwhile, Frank Guelli got more involved in politics and was elected Walworth Town Supervisor in 1979 after two earlier failed attempts.
Guelli, who was listed as president of the corporation that owned the Red Lion, became less active with its operations. The restaurant closed in September 1983 — but as before, came back soon after.
It faded away quietly
A new owner, James Burcham, reopened the “new” Red Lion in the Lincoln First concourse locale in December 1983. The place was remodeled with an Art Deco look with chrome, glass, mirrors and silver-foiled wallpaper. Burcham said he kept the name because of its recognition.
That final version of the Red Lion lasted for years but apparently faded away quietly. The last news references to the place were want ads that ran in 1989.
Alan Morrell is a Rochester-based freelance writer.
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About this feature
“Whatever Happened to? …” is a feature that explores favorite haunts of the past and revisits the headlines of yesteryear.
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