ROCHESTER — Mist rose as Arlyn Gagnon described how her husband, the late sculptor Charles Gagnon, crafted the longtime symbol of Rochester's downtown Peace Plaza: a water fountain encased by 57 interlocking bronze doves symbolizing all 50 U.S. states and seven continents.
The mist was coming from "Wakefield," a new installation from Rochester artist Eric Anderson, surrounding an equally new water pool. The mist is activated only when someone is born or dies at the nearby Mayo Clinic.
The mist, the water pool and Charles Gagnon's now-refurbished Peace Fountain are all part of a renewed Peace Plaza off the east side of 1st Street SW. in Rochester, the results of the first phase of Rochester's and Destination Medical Center's "Heart of the City" project aimed at making the downtown area more of a community space.
"We are really rebuilding our public realm and our public space to make the downtown more accessible and vibrant," said Patrick Seeb, executive director of Destination Medical Center (DMC), after a ceremony last week to celebrate the reconstructed plaza.
The plaza features movable benches as well as artistic installations throughout, such as new sculptures and poetry and words carved in walkways. Still to come: planned lighting wrapping around the plaza, which Mayor Kim Norton said will be completed later this summer.
The project comes as other organizations are gearing up to attract more tourism to Rochester. On Wednesday, DMC officials approved $250,000 to help renovate the Chateau Theater in the plaza as Threshold Arts takes over operating the historic landmark.
DMC and city officials started planning for the $17 million project in 2017, and construction began in March 2020.
The plaza was built in the late 1980s, and it was given its name after Arlyn Gagnon suggested it to Rochester officials around the time the fountain was installed in 1989.
Seeb called the plaza's reconstruction the most visible among DMC projects in recent years, in part because of the disruption to traffic in the downtown area and its effects on nearby businesses.
The project wasn't easy, even before COVID-19. Officials struggled to come together on planned upgrades and at one point considered removing the Peace Fountain.
Norton says she "kicked up a little bit of a fuss" at the time, before she became mayor, to keep the fountain in place. She connected DMC officials with Arlyn Gagnon to explain the story behind the fountain.
As Aryln puts it, the fountain symbolized connecting the community to Rochester's national and international visitors.
"I know it's doing its work," she told people gathered at the ceremony Wednesday. "I know that art is a universal language. And this sculpture speaks to people. Speaks to them of peace."
Norton and other officials debated whether to push forward with construction once the pandemic hit, deciding to move ahead as COVID regulations had already impacted foot traffic in the downtown area.
"Why not do it when nobody's down here rather than waiting like now when the businesses are trying to get back to normal, and disrupt [things] then?" Norton said.
Novalee Tollefson stopped by the plaza last week with her sister to cool down by running through the plaza pool. She said the redesigned plaza seemed more expansive and welcoming.
"It's just a nice environment," Tollefson said.
Emma Miller said that in the past, the plaza seemed a little empty, as though it were missing something.
"And then they make this," she said. "I love seeing the place so lively."