Now that summer is here and people are deep into projects around the yard, it’s a good time to look back at the dominant Rochester-area home-and-garden store of yesteryear.
Chase-Pitkin was owned by Wegmans Food Markets for years, but the company’s roots stretch to just after the Civil War. The local business sponsored a popular springtime home-improvement show for more than a decade, first at the War Memorial and then at the Riverside Convention Center.
Chase-Pitkin grew to a mostly regional chain of 14 stores and withstood competitors like Hechinger’s, Grossman’s and Builders Square but finally succumbed to the overwhelming challenge from industry giants Home Depot and Lowe’s.
The Chase-Pitkin story begins in 1868, when Lewis and Ethan Chase moved to Rochester from Maine and established the Chase Brothers Nursery Company. A decade later, William Pitkin married into the family and joined the business; he later served as company president.
The nursery in Mendon and Honeoye Falls was nationally known as Rochester evolved from “the flour city” to “the flower city.” The business included a packing house and store near Highland Park and another shop on East Avenue. Around 1940, the name was changed to Chase-Pitkin.
Ownership the of the company eventually changed hands and the business began to evolve to its latter-day familiarity, as outlined in a 2002 story in the Mendon-Honeoye Falls-Lima Sentinel.“The last vestige of the Chase Brothers operations disappeared in 1956 when the garden store on East Avenue was purchased by Bilt-Rite Wood Products, a manufacturer of millwork and wood products,” John G. Sheret wrote in the article. “Renamed Bilt-Rite Chase-Pitkin, their store on East Highland Drive was expanded in 1959 to include other lines of merchandise in order to accommodate growing customer needs. It became one of the first full-line home centers in western New York.”
Wegmans Food Markets opened its own first home center in 1973, next to its Lyell Avenue supermarket. The following year, Wegmans purchased Bilt-Rite Chase-Pitkin’s two existing stores on East Highland Drive and on Pittsford-Palmyra Road. All the stores – including by then a second Wegmans center in Pittsford – were renamed Chase-Pitkin.
Board chairman Robert Wegman said at the time that the move would “introduce knowledgeable customer assistance capacity to our home products division, which has largely been a self-service operation.”
The small chain began steadily expanding. Chase Pitkins opened in Ridgemont Plaza in Greece, Eastway Plaza in Penfield and elsewhere. Chase-Pitkin began sponsoring its annual home show in 1979 at the Community War Memorial.
Held in the spring, the shows attracted thousands of people and grew to include more than 200 vendors, dozens of clinics and speakers like “Doc” and Katy Abraham of local gardening fame, Bob Vila of the PBS series This Old House, and Homer Formby, known for his eponymous wood-refurbishing products.
The ninth Chase-Pitkin store opened in 1979 in Country Club Plaza in Perinton. At 65,000-square feet, it was nearly twice the size of the company’s other home centers and about the same size as the newest Wegmans supermarkets.
The Perinton store included kitchen and bath center areas, a fireplace shop and more to go along with the more typical home and garden offerings.
Fire heavily damaged the Ridgemont store in 1980. More than 100 firefighters battled the after-hours multi-alarm blaze, which a fire official described as “like a lumber yard.” The store was rebuilt and expanded later that year.
By 1985, Chase-Pitkin began dropping prices, boosting advertising and adding services in anticipation of competition from Hechinger Co., which was about to open its first Rochester-area stores. The Landover, Md.-based company with 51 stores at the time had, in fact, served as Chase-Pitkin’s role model and advisor for years, as John Campbell wrote in a 1985 Democrat and Chronicle story.
“Once upon a time, Chase-Pitkin Home Centers learned the ropes about hardware stores from an older and wiser Hechinger Co.,” Campbell wrote. “When Chase-Pitkin was struggling to cut losses and find an identification, it was Hechinger that started coaching Chase-Pitkin officials…trade-show participants called it the ‘Hechinger of the North’…Today, however, the mentor has become the rival for the affections of the hardware customer.”
Another competitor, Massachusetts-based Grossman’s, opened the largest store in its 166-store chain in 1986 on West Henrietta Road. Builder’s Square, a subsidiary of Michigan-based K-Mart, and 84 Lumber also were involved in the local foray.
Chase-Pitkin survived those merchandising battles and continued to grow, adding new stores in Newark, Wayne County and Brockport. Next, though, came the biggest one-two punch yet, a combination that knocked out Chase-Pitkin.Home Depot entered the Rochester market in 1996 and that changed everything. The Atlanta-based company – which now has more than 2,000 stores – rapidly expanded here and was simply too big to contend with. With the North Carolina-based Lowe’s also moving into the area, Chase-Pitkin announced it was calling it quits.
Frank Bilovsky wrote of the announcement in a 2005 Democrat and Chronicle story. He quoted Chase-Pitkin’s president saying, “In 1996, there were 10 Chase-Pitkin stores and there were two Hechinger stores and one Builder’s Square stores. The combination of those (competing) stores was a little under 250,000 square feet. Now in the Rochester market there are…seven Home Depots and four Lowe’s and more Lowe’s planned…the total square footage of those 11 stores would be in the vicinity of 1.5 million square feet.”
“Eventually,” Bilovsky wrote, “the buying power of the behemoths did in the local chain.”
Wegmans refocused its efforts on its grocery business and offered severance pay or jobs in the grocery stores to the nearly 400 full-time and 1,200-plus part-time Chase-Pitkin employees.
And the once-dominant local home center chain was gone forever.
Whatever Happened to …? is a feature about Rochester’s haunts of yesteryear and is based on our archives.
Morrell is a Rochester-based freelance writer.
Editor's note: This story was originally published in April 2016.
This article originally appeared on Rochester Democrat and Chronicle: Chase-Pitkin was once the dominant Rochester home-and-garden store