Sunday, March 13, 2016

Judge Thomas Drummond's Home: When Historic Structures Reach the End of Their Usefulness


I've witnessed the loss of quite a few Silsbee structures in my lifetime. Some, like the ones pictured below, had been so altered and become so dilapidated that it was hard to imagine how they could ever be re-used. There are also about a dozen structures, like the Oakwood Mortuary Chapel, that are in grave danger because they sit in a state of ruin and disuse. I guess it shouldn't surprise me when a community turns its back on a landmark-worthy structure and allows its demolition but it does.    
Between 1990 and 2010, these were three of the Silsbee-designed structures demolished in the city of Chicago. From left to right: The Kirkland School (1891), one of the Piper Row Homes (1887), and a House for John Cochran at Edgewater (1890).
A home that will soon be added to the list of Silsbee structures demolished in my lifetime is the Thomas Drummond House in Wheaton, Illinois. Airhart Construction has been given approval by the City to demolish the home and make way for a new town home development. I've written about the Drummond house before but since its demise is imminent, I felt it was important to visit the home again for a final look.

View of the Thomas Drummong House from West Street.
I've watched the home deteriorate over the past 15 years. It has sat there with little to no maintenance or care so it isn't surprising that some people think its condition is beyond repair. The way it has been treated seems to be a common strategy for people that own old homes like this, holding on to them and then cashing them in for the value of land alone. This seems to be what Wheaton has had in its plan as I've also watched as this neighborhood has transformed to a street of modest yet nicely-designed single-family homes to a series of block-long town home developments.

Most of Silsbee's shingle style homes have details that are borrowed from classical architecture. This is a view of the Paladian window in the front gable of the Thomas Drummond House.
News for the home's demolition broke last October and the process of its fate has woven its way through the local Zoning Board and City Council. Preservationists didn't take much notice. What I always found interesting about the home was that it is precisely the kind of home that Silsbee's most famous employees, George Maher and Frank Lloyd Wright, would have worked on in that office. So few of these exist in the Chicago area that one would think that architecture buffs would find some interest in the loss. The folks at Prairie Mod seemed to take notice but otherwise, it didn't seem like much of a loss.    

View of the Drummond House from the alley to the north.
Discussion of the property by City officials has remained focused on the new development and there is no record of people in community raising concerns about the loss of historical resources. In addition to its unique position in architectural history, the structure was home to one of Wheaton's most prominent citizens. He had an interesting political and judicial history that seems worth of remembering.   

View of the Drummond House from the south with a view of the double-gable roof and open porch beneath.
The home is not a grand mansion. It was meant as a retirement home for the judge. Though it is not elaborate, it is designed by a master and the home has many elements that became typical of his work: carefully detailed and well crafted exterior, long open veranda across the front and recessed porches in the second story. 

View of the end of the veranda, facing the south.
View of shingle detailing.
Are there elements of the home that can teach us anything about the architect or the homeowner's history? Is there a tangible loss to this neighborhood and to the City of Wheaton?  Is there a cost to what we perceive as "economic development" that is actually working against communities with the "demolish and develop" mindset?  Do we demolish so many of the unique historical aspects of the places where we live that there ends up being nothing special or attractive about those places?

View of the Drummond House from the southeast.
I feel that so little is widely known or appreciated about this home, its architect, or the man that built it, that it is hard to say what we are losing in terms of historic resources. I guess I have some photos to continue to sort all of this out. Unfortunately, we will lose the interior detailing, grand staircase, and fireplaces, so a great part of the home's history will simply be lost forever.

Friday, February 12, 2016

Upcoming Lecture and Tour about Silsbee in the 1890's and his work in Polo, Illinois


Join me on March 3rd in Oak Park for a lecture on Silsbee's work after the World's Columbian Exposition, with a special focus on what he did in Polo, Illinois. It is a common belief that Silsbee's production slowed after the 1880's and that it diminished in quality. What I will be presenting will show nothing but the contrary. Silsbee maintained an active profession, executing beautifully designed and well-crafted projects throughout the 1890's. Most of the research and many of the images I will be presenting are unique and have never been presented before. If you have an interest in the World's Fair, Pittsburgh, Polo and residential architecture in America in the 1890's, this should be worth checking out.

For more information about the lecture series, CLICK HERE.

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Ellis Hall, Chautauqua Architect

The Chautauqua Institution has received quite a bit of press these days because they are contemplating the demolition of a structure at the very heart of their community, the Amphitheater. Built in 1893, the Chautauqua Amphitheater has served as meeting place, concert venue and educational center for the community. Much attention has been given to the social history of the structure but very little attention has been given to the architectural heritage of Chautauqua and its early prolific architect, Ellis G. Hall. Given his relation to J. L. Silsbee, I thought it would be worthwhile to do a little digging about Hall and his work in this unique community.   

Ellis Hall's design for the Chautauqua Amphitheater. From Hand Book of the Chautauqua Assembly (1893).
Born in 1850, Ellis Gray Hall was a Massachusetts native. He got his start in the architecture profession early. There are no records that he was formally educated but by the age of 18, he was working in the Boston firm of John A. Mitchell. In 1870, he was working for a firm in the same building as the prestigious firm, Ware & Van Brunt. This is likely where he met Joseph Silsbee. Silsbee was a student at MIT and was working in Ware's office. Several years later, Hall moved to Syracuse 1874 and began working for Silsbee's firm.  

Thomas Emory's summer home, "Boyden", on Cazenovia Lake. Silsbee & Hall architects (1884), demolished.
Hall's employment and eventual partnership with Silsbee played a strong roll in the development of Hall's architectural interests. The work he did for Silsbee was varied as Silsbee's office was overseeing works of every type and size. Ultimately, the specialty was in the design of single family homes in the Queen Anne and Shingle Styles. An excellent example of this type of work is the home that the firm executed for a Syracuse doctor, Thomas Emory, in 1884. 

After the firm dissolved its partnership in Syracuse and Silsbee moved to Chicago, in 1885, Hall seemed to seamlessly carry on the practice. During those early years, he worked on churches, hotels, commercial buildings and, of course, homes. One of his most prominent extant works in the city is the central tower to Horatio Nelson White's Hall of Languages, a centerpiece to the Syracuse University campus.   

Hall of Languages at Syracuse University. Structure by architect Horatio Nelson White (1873) and central tower by architect Ellis G. Hall (1887), standing.
Ellis Hall's association with Chautauqua began when he helped form the Good Will Congregational Church in Syracuse. He and his wife, Susan, lived in a home of his design that was very close by. He worked with church superintendent, Dr. William A. Duncan, to create Sunday School and Church plans for a beautiful brick structure located on Syracuse's West Side. Duncan was an avid proponent of Sunday School programs and education in churches in general and helped form several such programs in New York. In 1883, Duncan became the superintendent for the Chautauqua Institute, a previously established center for adult education on Chautauqua Lake in Western New York.  

Good Will Congregational Church, Syracuse, Ellis G. Hall, architect (1885), demolished. Image from thetintypeshop.com 
The first known substantial structure that Hall designed for Chautauqua was the "University Building", also known as the "Moorish Barn". This whimsical structure was a large school to permanently house Chautauqua classes. The Moorish Revival style seems unique but it would have been a style that Hall was well accustomed to producing after years of practice with Silsbee

Chautauqua University Building ("Moorish Barn"), Ellis G. Hall, architect (1887), demolished. Image from the Chautauqua Institution Archives. 
His work on a large commercial building, The Arcade, is a more refined shingle and clapboard clad structure. Coupled with the University Building, it shows that Hall was Duncan's preferred architect for work at Chautauqua. In a place that had previously been populated by small cottages and scattered tents and gazebos, it also shows that there was an intention to make the community a more permanent and substantial institution with refined and varied architectural designs.
Chautauqua Arcade Building, Ellis G. Hall, architect (1890), standingFrom Hand Book of the Chautauqua Assembly (1893).
Hall's Alumni Building, with its wide veranda at the ground floor and open porch in the central tower also illustrate the importance of openness and air in the designs. Like structures that preceded it, these features took advantage of the lakeside setting of the community. More importantly, they helped the community to develop a particular visual character.  

Chautauqua Literary and Science Circle (CLSC) Alumni Building, Ellis G. Hall architect (1892) standing. From The Story of Chautauqua (1921).
 One of the more whimsical designs was for a Power House (which later became the Men's Club). The intent was to create a structure that looked like an English castle on the lakefront.

Chautauqua Power House, Ellis G. Hall, architect (1894) demolishedImage from the Chautauqua Institution Archives. 
In addition to structures that were specifically commissioned by Duncan, Hall was also hired to design structures for some of the individual church organizations that had a permanent presence at Chautauqua. Two very different structures were created for the Methodist Episcopal and Presbyterian Headquarters. The Methodist Episcopal Headquarters were designed to look like a series of different clapboard-clad structures, connected by a wide veranda. The veranda is supported by beautifully detailed Corinthian columns. The Presbyterian Headquarters was at first designed as a stone Romanesque structure. At the time, it would have been the most permanent-looking and substantial structure at Chautauqua. For some reason, the design changed and the resulting structure is a brick Classical Revival structure. It too has a wide veranda across the front but it retains the original design intent of being more symmetrical and solid-looking than other structures in the community.

Chautauqua Methodist Episcopal Headquarters. Ellis G. Hall, architect (1888) standing. from The Story of Chautauqua (1921).
The extent of Hall's work at Chautauqua is not known and only a fraction of what is known is represented here. What we can tell by existing photographs is that the work had great variety and that it set the tone for future substantial architect-designed structures. The fact that many of these structures are still standing and are in use is a testament to the community and to the original architect.
Chautauqua Presbyterian Headquarters, Ellis G. Hall, architect (1893) standing. from The Story of Chautauqua (1921).
As is the case with most architects of this period, there are no office records and little information about their lives and work. Throughout Hall's career, he moved from Syracuse to Massachusetts to Jamestown, NY and back to Syracuse. It is not clear why but he moved to California after the turn of the century. He eventually moved to San Diego and in the early 1900's was working for his former famous employee, Irving Gill. Years later, he was working for an architect in Oakland, California that specialized in bungalows and Arts & Crafts style homes. Though several of his buildings still survive in Syracuse and Jamestown, his most significant extant legacy is in the work he did at Chautauqua.