The Spirit of Corn Hill Lives: Photographing Rochester’s Most Historically Diverse Neighborhood

You’ve heard from George Payne on numerous occasions, recently in Warner Castle & the Sunken Garden: Two Public Gems in Highland Park. 

Throughout the year, George has written about and photographed the progress of  the Lower Fall Foundation in making the Lower Falls Park and Gorge a World Heritage Site.

Earlier this summer, in Emerging artists coming of age in Rochester at the Corn Hill Arts Festival, I enjoyed the flavor of Corn Hill’s signature event.

Today, George gives us the whole neighborhood.


The Spirt of Corn Hill Lives: Photographing Rochester’s Most Historically Diverse Neighborhood

According to Cynthia Howk, Architectural Research Coordinator for the Landmark Society, there is no “one” definitive answer to this interesting “name” question but three possible suggestions have been offered over the years:


Photo by George Payne

Early Native American inhabitants may have grown corn crops on this area elevated above the Genesee River, which possibly created the name “Corn Hill.” To those traveling northward on the river, a “hill of corn” would have been visible on the left banks of the Genesee.

  • The name Corn Hill might have come into use after our early Rochesterville forefathers settled this largely undeveloped area. They built their residences here and maintained agricultural plots, which would have included crops of corn on these elevated banks. Following the completion of the Erie Canal, travelers on the Canal and on the Genesee River could have seen “hills of corn” as they navigated these waterways.
  • The earliest actual appearance of the term was probably the one word, “CORNHILL,” on an early “Third Ward” city land tract. Cornhill had been a fashionable section of London, England at this time and since Rochester was a new, small, just-developing town, the name may have been used in an attempt to give some prestige or glamour to this neighborhood. Clearly there was historic prestige in the name given to this land tract, which would later become known as Rochester’s “Ruffled Shirt Ward” or “Silk Stocking District.” This English influence could have been the source of our name.

No matter what we call it, this neighborhood is an authentically unique slice of American architectural and cultural history. Not only does it have magnificent buildings of various styles, it also has remarkable history, lore, and personalities who have called it home. Here are just a few that I have discovered over the past couple of years.



Photo by George Payne

Corn Hill was home to Son House for over two decades. Need I say anymore?

Eddie James “Son” House, Jr. (March 21, 1902– October 19, 1988) was an American blues singer and guitarist, noted for his highly emotional style of singing and slide guitar playing.

After years of hostility to secular music, as a preacher and for a few years also as a church pastor, he turned to blues performance at the age of 25. He quickly developed a unique style by applying the rhythmic drive, vocal power and emotional intensity of his preaching to the newly learned idiom. In a short career interrupted by a spell in Parchman Farm penitentiary, he developed to the point that Charley Patton, the foremost blues artist of the Mississippi Delta region, invited him to share engagements and to accompany him to a 1930 recording session.

Issued at the start of the Great Depression, the records did not sell and did not lead to national recognition. Locally, House remained popular, and in the 1930s, together with Patton’s associate Willie Brown, he was the leading musician of Coahoma County. There he was a formative influence on Robert Johnson and Muddy Waters. In 1941 and 1942, House and the members of his band were recorded by Alan Lomax and John W. Work for the Library of Congress and Fisk University. The following year, he left the Delta for Rochester, and gave up music.

In 1964, a group of young record collectors discovered House, whom they knew of from his records issued by Paramount and by the Library of Congress. With their encouragement, he relearned his repertoire and established a career as an entertainer, performing for young, mostly white audiences in coffeehouses, at folk festivals and on concert tours during the American folk music revival, billed as a “folk blues” singer. He recorded several albums, and some informally taped concerts have also been issued as albums. House died in 1988.

Son House