Friday, October 31, 2014

A Silsbee-themed Tour of the Macabre

There are a lot of macabre aspects to doing architectural research. Sometimes it is because of the location of a structure, sometimes it is the structure’s appearance and sometimes it is the stories associated with a structure. Here is a virtual “tour” of the “spookiest” sites I’ve discovered while doing my research.

1. Lynch Monument

The Lynch monument was commissioned by Patrick Lynch to mark his family’s burial plot on a high point in St. Agnes Cemetery in Syracuse, NY. I think that this site is sublime for a couple of reasons. Its location, in a cemetery on a pine-wooded hill, on the edge of the city, gives it a physically dark character. There is something particularly moving about the finely carved “resignation” figure at the top of the monument. Part angel and part goddess, it seems to have descended from another world to welcome people to their final resting place. 

2.  Ostrander Ranch


In a remote part of west Texas, Syracuse businessman, Welton Ostrander, had Silsbee design him a large ranch home in the early 1880’s. It is still standing, used as a corporate retreat and hunting lodge. Ostrander left the home abruptly and his cattle business failed shortly after the home was constructed. Without a clear explanation for why Ostrander left the home, locals filled in the blanks with their own sinister fabrications of what might have happened.     

3.  May Memorial Chapel

In the middle of Rosehill Cemetery, in Chicago, is a beautiful chapel that Silsbee designed for his friend, Horatio May. May became ill and died while on a trip to Germany and the chapel is his final resting place. Besides its location, there are two features of the building that seem particularly creepy. First are the carved faces of angels that seem to peer down at chapel visitors. They give the impression that the architecture has a life of its own. There is also a large mound behind the structure. It contains a vacant crypt, a receiving vault, to store bodies during the cold months, when the ground was too frozen to dig. 

4.  White Memorial Building

Many of Silsbee’s structures are adorned with fantastical animals. The White Memorial Building, in Syracuse, NY is adorned with more of them that any other known Silsbee structure. From winged creatures that grasp the building with their talons to gargoyles and dragons on the walls and cornices to small scale-covered aquatic creatures at the base, almost every part of the building has a small supernatural inhabitant.          

5. Samuel Slade Residence

One January, after a night of dinner and celebrations at a nearby home, a group of men and women decided to go sledding down the ravine in Highland Park, Illinois. After several trips down the hill, the men in the party decided to do a trip alone. The toboggan veered into a curb and thrown into a deep ravine. One of the men, Martin Kehoe, was gravely injured, with a fractured skull. He was brought up the hill to the Slade residence but was never revived. Some say that on cold snowy evenings, when the wind is blowing just right, you can hear the howls and cries of “help” rise up from the Ravine.   

6. Leavenworth Mausoleum

On a rise in Dedication Valley, in Syracuse’s Oakwood Cemetery is one of Oakwood’s most beautiful monuments; the Mausoleum of Elias Leavenworth. As if the location and building type weren’t macabre enough, Leavenworth’s final resting place became the site of a tragedy during its construction. In early 1881, a derrick collapsed while placing stone for the monument. Little Falls resident, Richard Farrell was under the derrick at the time and his skull was crushed during the accident.

7. Hammond Residence

Distraught over troubles with the finances of his business, the National Bank of Illinois, William Hammond woke very early one January morning. Dressed in only an undershirt, coat and trousers, he descended the stairs to his home, put on a pair of over-shoes and left the home. While walking toward Lake Michigan, less than a block away, he tore up memoranda and other bank business letters pertaining to a deal with his creditors, Farson, Leach & Co., leaving a trail along the Evanston beach. After pacing up and down the beach for several minutes, he entered the lake, never to return. A friend and lawyer had testified that Hammond had become deranged in the days leading up to his suicide, likely driven mad by the collapse of his bank.  

8. Barber Residence

Banking seemed to be a dangerous profession at the turn of the century. Bryant Barber was the owner of the private Barber Brothers Bank in Polo, Illinois. Like Hammond, Barber’s bank received notice of a shortage of $300,000.00. On an early November morning, Barber instructed his driver to a bridge over the Rock River, near Grand Detour, Illinois. Halfway across the bridge, he instructed the driver to stop. Barber got out of his vehicle, went to the walkway and jumped off of the bridge. Bryant’s body was ever recovered. Odd sightings of Bryant soon followed, as people claimed to see him going about a “new life” in a new town. As soon as a report would surface, Barber would disappear. The owners of the Barber Residence keep a scrapbook of Bryant Barber sightings and have included many items of conjecture about Bryant’s life after he jumped into the Rock River.

9. John Bemis Residence

There have been no reports of ghosts at this home. This may be due to the fact that, like the White Memorial Building, it is guarded by several mythical creatures. On the peaks of each gable of the home are perched several large cats. These same wild cats are also carved within the balusters of the home. Though not haunted, the home has a formidable appearance and looks like something out of a Gothic novel.  

10. Oakwood Mortuary Chapel

Like the May Chapel, the Oakwood Mortuary Chapel has a spooky setting and design. This stone structure, built in 1879, has many Gothic features and is decorated with a dragon and carved spider webs. It was the location of many memorial services and also has a vacant receiving vault. Many spirits probably haunt this place but only one is known to have actually died at the chapel. One day, when a caretaker was preparing the crematorium for use, he was overcome by noxious fumes. His body was found later that day, at the foot of the stair to the crematorium. The chapel and crematorium are no longer in use and sit vacant in picturesque Oakwood.          



Friday, October 10, 2014

There is No Reason to Restore the Oakwood Mortuary Chapel

I digress from my typical blog subject matter to discuss…

In a recent online “discussion”, a small number of folks, including myself, briefly pondered the notion of restoring the Oakwood Mortuary Chapel. It is a subject that seems to generate a lot of passion from folks that appreciate old buildings. The chapel has been defunct and has survived an assault of neglect and vandalism. These conditions might force most buildings to be demolished. This hasn’t been the case for the chapel and a small group of preservationists, the Historic Oakwood Cemetery Preservation Association (HOCPA) organized around the idea of preserving the cemetery, has worked with the owners to maintain the chapel. Unfortunately, for years, little has been done to make it anything more than a preserved ruin.
Oakwood Mortuary Chapel, Oakwood Cemetery, Syracuse, N. Y. from Picturesque Oakwood (1894).
The chapel is part of a large historic non-sectarian rural cemetery, Oakwood Cemetery, in the city of Syracuse. Like the chapel, much of the cemetery is in various states of ruin and dis-repair. Given its historic nature and size, it requires an immense amount of maintenance. Over the years, there seems to have been a battle of wills and of resources to maintain and preserve the cemetery and its monuments. Newspaper accounts show that the current owner has had its fiscal practices in regards to facilities upkeep questioned. This, coupled with the fact that the cemetery has already rejected state funds for building upkeep, seems to reflect a less than enthusiastic restoration position on the part of the owner.
View of rear of chapel from atop the underground receiving vault. Photo by Eric Payne.
Every group or municipality that advocates for historic preservation has compiled and publicizes some sort of list that aims to educate people about why they should preserve buildings. They typically focus on cultural vibrancy, the environment, impossible-to-replicate craftsmanship, neighborhood continuity, and a number of economic principles. There are some older buildings that are of a particularly type, size, location, and intrinsic artistic value that make the argument for preserving them very easy. Then there is the Oakwood Mortuary Chapel.

Unlike most structures, there is no obvious “reason” to preserve the chapel. A mixed use structure originally housing a crematorium, receiving vault, and chapel, it has outlived its use. Modern funerary practices typically performs these functions away from cemetery grounds. Given how unique the structure is and its relatively remote location, its re-use scenarios are limited, at best. A visitors center, filming and photography venue, or exhibit space are hardly going to generate an income that would make a compelling argument for restoration.  

So why would anyone preserve a structure like this? I think the answer finds its roots in some of the reactions that I saw the other day in the online conversation. People seem to have a general attraction to this building. It is a very compelling piece of architecture in a very rare, almost exotic, landscape setting. It is also unique because relatively few structures of this type were ever built. Since the designer of the structure was a very talented one, it is also imbued with a plethora of artistic design touches that are lacking in modern structures. I think that is at this level that the building appeals to people and may be the reason for its salvation.

Construction on the chapel started in 1879 and was championed by Elias Leavenworth. Leavenworth was a local lawyer, politician and one time mayor of the City of Syracuse. He lived in a conspicuously designed Greek-revival mansion on fashionable James Street and had civic beautification at the forefront of his personal and public agenda. Throughout his career, he championed the development of public parks throughout the city of Syracuse and personally funded the introduction of plants, sculptures, fountains and other improvements on those public grounds. He was one of the proponents of the establishment of Oakwood cemetery and was personally involved in the design and construction of the mortuary chapel. He also hired the chapel’s architect to design his own mausoleum in the same cemetery.
The Syracuse Savings Bank Tower, where Silsbee had his offices. Photo by C. Payne.
The Oakwood Cemetery Association hired local architect Joseph Lyman Silsbee as its designer. Silsbee had skyrocketed to fame at a young age, designing two of Syracuse’s finest landmarks, the Syracuse SavingsBank and White Memorial Building before the age of 28. The chapel was completed in 1880 and within a few years, Silsbee had achieved national acclaim for his work. His designs were in such high demand that he set up offices in Buffalo and Chicago, moving to Chicago in 1884. He has gone down in the history books because of his association with America’s greatest architect. In 1887, he was the first Chicago architect to give young Frank Lloyd Wright a job. This was due to Silsbee’s design of another chapel, for Wright’s uncle, in Spring GreenWisconsin.  
Silsbee's design for Unity Chapel, Spring Green, Wisconsin (1885).
Given how it was conceived and the people involved with its conception, it is no surprise that the chapel has retained its aesthetic appeal for over one hundred and thirty years. The chapel has exemplary artistic merit, as far as old buildings are concerned. It was designed by a master architect and built by one of Syracuse’s most talented contractors, William Dickison. It is composed of intricately carved and detailed local limestone and accented with imported granite. The decorative motifs are a playful array of classical, exotic and macabre elements. Spider webs and foliate forms grace the exterior and a large dragon in the form of an “O,” for “Oakwood," graces the pediment at the base of the chapel’s seventy foot tall tower. The interior boasts a high degree of carpentry work with ornamental beams, ceiling and trim that echo forms seen on the exterior of the structure. The floor is part wood and partially laid with art-tiles. At one point, the building was also home to an array of beautiful art glass. 
"O" for Oakwood dragon in the pediment of the Oakwood Mortuary Chapel tower.
One also should not ignore that the vacancy and deterioration of the chapel are also part of what make it attractive. We love ruins. From Alcatraz to the Coliseum, many people have an attraction to buildings in a state of decay. There is a sublime character in them that speaks to an inner part of us in a way that many new or restored buildings cannot. They retain an overt sense of use that allows us to viscerally understand and imagine the history of a place. What better way to illustrate this sublime character of ruins than by experiencing an intricately designed mortuary chapel, in a bucolic setting. A primary challenge for the chapel restoration is the building’s condition and coming to terms with it as a high-grade architectural artifact and a romantic structure in a state of ruin.
"Dedication Valley", Oakwood Cemetery in winter (2009). Photo by C. Payne. 
Another challenge facing possible restorers is the technical aspect of rectifying the current condition. Its construction location, built into a hillside, makes it particularly susceptible to moisture infiltration. Years of neglect, leaking roofs and vandalism have also taken their toll on the building. That said, many of the historic features of the structure are still intact including the exterior stone work, vaulted wood ceiling of the porte-cochere, interior wood ceiling and wainscot, glazed brick walls and tile floors. Much of it is in a state of disrepair but none of it seems to be beyond the point of no return.     
Damaged retaining wall and boarded windows at the Oakwood Mortuary Chapel. Photo by Eric Payne.

Syracuse seems to be on the verge of an awakening when it comes to recognizing its built environment as a resource. Seeing itself in an economic challenge to maintain its 156 year old mansion, in 2009, the Corinthian Club turned over ownership of the Barnes-Hiscock Mansion to the George &Rebecca Barnes Foundation. Along with ownership came the primary mission to restore and preserve the landmark structure as a one of a kind events venue and house museum. In the summer of 2012, the Everson Museum and the L. & J. G. Stickley Company announced a partnership that would restore the Gustav Stickley home and embark on a cooperative approach to exhibits and cultural outreach. Both the Barnes-Hiscock Mansion and Stickley home are signs that there are people in the Syracuse that recognize the historic capital inherent in these structures and the willingness to invest in them for long term cultural and economic gain.
Two very different historic interiors: The Stickley Residence (left) and the Barnes-Hiscock Residence (right).
One only needs to look two hours west of Syracuse, in Buffalo, to see how a community has dramatically turned around its image, using its cultural resources as an asset. A rust-belt city with plummeting employment rates, notoriously bad weather, and a Super Bowl record in the 1990’s that did all but solidify its reputation as a “losing city”, Buffalo seemed an unlikely place for any sort of cultural awakening. Regardless of these setbacks, the city has put its best architectural foot forward with restoration of Frank Lloyd Wright’s exemplary Prairie School home, the Darwin D. Martin House along with landmark downtown renovation projects at Louis Sullivan’s Guaranty Building and Louise Bethune’s LaFayette Hotel. It has championed its waterfront and “Silo City”, a wasteland of hulking industrial grain elevators, with performing and visual arts pieces and arts education programming. Two crowning events occurred in 2011, when it hosted the National Preservation conference and in 2013, when it played host to the National Society of Architectural Historians Conference. This week, it announced plans for renovation of its mammoth “Richardson Complex” into a hospitality and heritage tourism center. Buffalo may never be the economic powerhouse that it was at the turn of the century but it is has aggressively staked a claim as a premier architectural and cultural destination and it is a far cry from where it was as short as twenty years ago. 
Image of Oakwood Mortuary Chapel in a manicured Oakwood Cemetery from Art Work of Syracuse (1899).

Syracuse may not have the cultural or economic resources of a city like Buffalo but the kinds of City-University partnerships that are developing the Connective Corridor, the Onondaga Creek Walk and other public amenities coupled with institutional and private development of individual historic structures has the possibility of creating its own tipping point. Restoration of Stickley’s home and the Barnes-Hiscock mansion, with their remarkable craftsmanship and design, give Syracuse the ability to carve out its own nationally significant story when it comes to architectural heritage. The question that remains is whether enough people in Syracuse will get behind these restoration efforts with their own time and/or money so that, as a community, they can embark on a broad approach and begin preserving other sites like the Oakwood Mortuary Chapel. There may not seem to be immediate practical reasons for doing so but there may be a long term one. 

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.