Saturday, September 13, 2014

10 Unbelievable Details that Prove that Silsbee was a Master of the Shingle Style

The last few blogs have been a little heavy in the research department and not so much on the history or cool architectural pics. I figured I would lighten this up a little by taking a cue from the click bait that seems to be prevalent on the net today. Silsbee is often considered the architect that introduced the Shingle Style to the Midwest. Though this is a hard fact to prove, it is undeniable that he was one of the most, if not the most, prolific practitioner of the style. I am not selling anything but hope you enjoy the photos and I would appreciate if you share the post and encourage folks to follow the blog. 

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Researching Buildings for the Catalog, William Dickison's Residence as a Research Example - Part 2

This is part two of a two-part blog. Click here to read part one.

In order to maintain that Silsbee designed the home that was built for Dickison, I also had to examine the physical evidence and see if the building had characteristics that matched other Silsbee-designed structures. The home has undergone two significant rounds of renovations. One occurred in the 1930's, when part of the home was converted into doctor's offices. A second round of renovations occurred in the 1950's that stripped the home of its original exterior clapboard cladding and may of its defining characteristics. Unfortunately, the home's appearance is quite different from what it was originally and a photo of it from the time when the Dickison's lived in it has not been found. 

There is one photo in the Onondaga Historical Association photograph collections of the neighboring home that shows a sliver of the Dickison's home and provides clues as to what it looked like before 1950. It depicts the original clapboard siding, varied shingles in a wave pattern and half-moon windows in the gables. An important missing feature is a paneled decorative banding at the eave that used to be around the entire home. A small part of it is preserved in a bay on the north side of the home. Finally, the photo shows that the home had a band of flared clapboards at the second floor, creating a sort of belt-course around the structure. The current appearance of the home, with it's tall windows and central rectangular bay is very vertical. The banding elements that have been removed would have made the home look much more horizontal. It also seems that at one time a porch existed across the front of the home. This too would have broken up the vertical appearance, accentuating that horizontal appearance. It is this overall lack of horizontality that makes the home seem, at first glance, like it was not designed by Silsbee.  

The Dickison Residence (1884-5). Photo taken in 2014 by Eric Payne.
According to a construction journal of the period, Dickison's home would have been frame and would cost $8,000. This home, of relatively modest size, meets that description. It is a two and a half story Queen Anne style home on a random ashlar foundation. This type of foundation is a defining feature of many of Silsbee's buildings and it was the stone and coursing used in the Oakwood Mortuary Chapel, built by Dickison. I think that when you look at the Dickison home, it is important to keep in mind that it was likely built under strict supervision of the owner. As one would expect, despite renovations, there is a great variety of detail on the home and it would have been a sort of showcase for Dickison's own business. 

The decorative elements tell a very different story than the overall building massing. What elements remain on the building are striking and relate to several Silsbee-designed homes. In particular, the banding that appears just below the half-story attic has strapwork and scrolling that is found on other Silsbee structures. Particularly, it is a motif used in the Dr. Bainbridge Folwell home and office in Buffalo, built a year later. It is also seen in the entry gable decoration at the Bemis Residence in Buffalo, built that same year. 

Gable details, Dickison Residence (1884-5). Photo by Eric Payne.
Decorative frieze at central bay, Dickison Residence (1884-1885). Photo by Eric Payne.
Central bay with frieze at the Dr. Bainbridge Folwell Office and Residence, Buffalo, NY (1885).
Detail of Entry gable, John Bemis Residence, Buffalo, NY (1885).
Another common characteristic that can be seen in work from all of Silsbee's offices is a great attention to detail in the wood trim. Very often, the trim is made up of multple pieces of molding, combined to create a very large composite frame that very crisply outlines the gable, eave, banding, and other decorative elements. In the Dickison home, the gables, eave and frieze are all outlined with a compound banding. When you compare this with the one of the Speculative Homes that Silsbee designed for E. B. Smith in Buffalo and for Andrew McKnally, in Chicago, you can see many similarities.
Gable and frieze at central bay of Dickison Residence (1884-5). Photo by Eric Payne.
Gable detail of Speculative Home for E. B. Smith, Buffalo, NY (1886).
Gable and dormer details from Speculative Row Homes for Andrew McNally, Chicago, IL (1884-5).
Though the home has many defining characteristics, there are some elements on it that are a bit puzzling. As I mentioned earlier, the overall form, as it exists, does not seem typical of what Silsbee might have produced. There is also an interesting bay/oriel at the second floor, on the north side, that has a tower-like appearance at the roof line. This too seems like a foreign element. It is possible that the porch and other details that were removed would have given it a very different appearance, making the small tower seem less random.  I also imagine that if more were known about Silsbee & Hall's other works, of which there were many, these elements wouldn't seem so strange. I think this is part of the difficulty with conducting such research.

Detail of side bay/turret and existing chimney, Dickison Residence (1884-5). Photo by Eric Payne.
Ultimately, given the evidence that we do have, I am confident that this home was designed by Silsbee & Hall and it is an exciting find. There is enough physical evidence relating the home to other Silsbee works and enough documentation to tie Dickison to the home and its construction. It is unfortunate that a majority of the home is not what it was but there are still some distinctive decorative features that have been preserved and are a testament to Dickison’s attention to detail and craftsmanship. The Dickison Residence is an excellent example of a relatively modest home by Silsbee & Hall of this period and historically significant because it was the home of a figure who played a significant role in the construction of many significant Central New York structures. 

Side gable depicting scrolling motif with pineapple, Dickison Residence (1884-5). The pineapple is commonly used to signify welcoming in residential design. Photo by Eric Payne.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Researching Buildings for the Catalog, William Dickison's Residence as a Research Example- Part 1

One part of writing that rarely seems fruitful is the process of reviewing the research of people that wrote about J. L. Silsbee in the past. It is a tedious process and more times than not, I come to the same conclusions that the previous researchers did. There are also times, like my experience this past week, when this work yields something new.

Last week, I began putting together notes and lists of names and buildings that I thought were important include while writing about the artists that Silsbee worked with. I use the word “artist” pretty broadly here but mostly I am referring to furniture makers, art glass designers, sculptors, painters and other people that helped execute the designs. One key figure in this discussion is William Dickison. Silsbee designed a home for Dickison in 1884 and prior to that, used Dickison’s woodworking establishment for much work.  Dickison also used innovative techniques to create interesting wall and ceiling finishes. I haven’t found a tremendous out about Dickison but I know that he was the contractor for the carpentry on the SyracuseSavings Bank. He built the Oakwood Mortuary Chapel and he also built Henry Ward Beecher’s Home and manufactured all of the furnishings and built-ins inside it. Aside from work for Silsbee, Dickison also constructed the spectacular Masonic Home and School at Utica and the Montreal YMCA.
Utica Masonic Home and School (1891), Utica, NY. William Hume, architect, Dickison & Allen contractors. Photo from the Detroit Publishing Company Collection, Library of Congress.
According to previous research, Dickison's home was either demolished or unbuilt. Years ago I tried to research the home’s location but kept coming up empty. I decided to shelve that research for another day. Well, “another day” came last Sunday. I dug out all of my old notes and citation and began using the Internet and to see if I could pinpoint a location for the home. 

I was able to determine three addresses for Dickison 110 (starting 1885), 521 (starting 1889) and 647 (starting ca 1918) W. Onondaga Street in Syracuse. The change in address didn’t seem odd as I know that Syracuse address numbers changed frequently over time.  When I looked at my “new” list, I realized there was a new fact: “647 W. Onondaga”. The previous research didn’t have this address and nor did I. 

My curiosity got the better of me and I went looking for an image of 647 and realized that it is still standing. This is am interesting discovery because few homes from this era, when Silsbee was in a partnership with Ellis Hall. In addition to being the home of a significant figure in the history of construction in Central New York, it is also a rare example of Silsbee's work with Hall.

Image of 647 West Onondaga from Google Street view. 
For me, the home's location adds more interest. Syracuse had three tree-lined boulevards lined with large homes for affluent citizens: James Street, West Genesee Street and West Onondaga Street. Silsbee did several homes on Genesee and James Streets but the Dickison home is the only one that we know of that he designed for West Onondaga.
Homes on the west side of the 700 block of West Onondaga Street, Syracuse from "Art Work of Syracuse" (1899).
Before I got too excited about the discovery, I decided to first double-check and make sure that Dickison’s addresses were all indeed the same home and that he did not hop around from home to home on Onondaga. I began by seeing if any previous studies or websites on Syracuse did any research on this address. I found a note on “Syracuse Then and Now” that made me take two steps back. According to their website, with information from a previous historic structures survey, the home belonged to Francis Hendricks, the man who donated the funds for Hendrick’s Chapel at Syracuse University.

Rather than be deterred, I began researching the address of two neighbors: Willis Holden and Francis Hendricks. Holden’s addresses were 519 and 643 W. Onondaga. This would mean that he was always the neighbor to the north of Dickison. I then checked Hendricks in the directories and his addresses were 111, 520 and 644. This would mean that Hendricks was always the neighbor directly across the street from Dickison and that he never lived at 647. A photo of Hendricks’ home, at 644, is depicted in an Arcadia Press publication of views of Syracuse and it is certainly not the home at 647. I am assuming that whoever did that initial research made an error in assigning the home to Hendricks and that 647 was most certainly the home Dickison lived in from the point that Silsbee designed a home for him in 1884 until he died in 1921.

1924 Atlas and Arial photo showing location of  110/521/645 West Onondaga Street 
For a final determination of the home's location, I wanted to see the atlases and insure that the current 647 aligns with the other addresses, in the past, that Dickison lived at. Pam Priest at the Onondaga Historical Association was kind enough to do some digging for me and the discovery we found on the 1892 atlas was a little alarming. The number “521”, Dickison’s address that year, is shown at the incorrect home. It is mislabeled. When you count the homes in ascending order up the street, the home should be labeled “527”. The home belonging to “C. Dickison” (Catherine Dickison, William’s wife) is un-numbered. It seems that this might explain why there was a gap in the old research and possibly explains why I was frustrated when trying to find the home on the atlases years ago.

At the end of the day, this is still exciting find. There is enough circumstantial evidence to tie Silsbee to credit the design of the home still standing at 647 W. Onondaga but is there enough physical evidence to support Silsbee's involvement? 

This is part one of a two-part blog. Click here to read part two.