Thursday, December 26, 2013

Home for John R. French

In 1876, Joseph Silsbee was hired by three fellow Syracuse University Professors to design their homes on Syracuse’s University Hill. A newspaper article lauded the construction of these three homes and saw them as evidence of the substantial growth of the University.  One of these homes was for mathematics professor and Dean of the College of Liberal Arts, John R. French. It was located on what is now South Crouse Avenue, directly opposite Marshall Street. It backed up to another of these three homes, that of Dr. Charles Bennett. It appears that all three homes were occupied by the end of 1877 and French’s was the last one to be completed.   
Dr. John R. French (1825-1897)

The French home would have been one of Silsbee’s earliest commissions in the city. No homes by Silsbee from this period are intact and there is relatively little photographic evidence of what they looked like. I hadn’t been able to locate a photograph of the French home but when I found that the location was at the end of the same street that Syracuse’s Good Shepherd Hospital was, I began scouring through images of the hospital in the hopes of finding one that had the house in it. I eventually found one postcard that shows the home. Unfortunately, the structure is obscured by an automobile.
You can’t get a good indication of any details on the home but the overall massing, with a hipped roof that is more than a story tall and at least one squared bay topped with a gable, suggests that it was a substantial structure. It was frame construction and an early example of Silsbee's work in the Queen Anne Style. Perhaps more images will surface in the future.   

Monday, December 9, 2013

Farm House for State Institute for Feeble-minded Children

From 1876 through at least 1883, Joseph Silsbee had a working relationship with the New York State Institute for Feeble-minded Children. He was the institution’s architect, planning several structures and additions and providing consultation on future plans and building maintenance.

The practice of farming by inmates of the institution was carried on almost since its inception. Farms located on the asylum grounds in Syracuse provided inexpensive food for inmates as well as some surplus for sale to locals. Farming activities were also thought to be beneficial for inmates as an educational and reformative act.

In 1881, the Asylum purchased eighty-seven acres of land near Fairmount, approximately four miles from the main Asylum. They intended to create a larger farm, increasing the surplus and creating a revenue stream for the institution.
From the Immigration to the United States digital collection,
Open Collections Program, Harvard University Library

On that property, under Silsbee’s direction, farm buildings were improved and a new farm-house was “plainly and substantially built” for the farm workers. It was built for forty workers and had eating and gathering spaces. It is a simple two-story structure with large central dormer and a symmetrical arrangement. Some of the subsequently built institutional residential school buildings still stand but the lone remainder of the state farm is the original farm house that still stands. 

Sunday, October 6, 2013

Home for Theodore Dissel

Without a doubt, the largest and most elaborate mansion designed by J. L. Silsbee on Syracuse's James Street was the home for Theodore Dissel. 
By the time work started on the home, in 1879, Silsbee had established himself as a gifted home designer with a series of homes in the Queen Anne Style. The Dissel home was viewed as unique in its day because it was his first grand home in this style that was made of brick and used terra cotta, instead of stone, for much of its detailing. It was also huge, rivaling many of the other mansions already constructed on the street. The home is no longer standing but we know enough about it and have enough imagery to piece together what it was like. 

The rooms on the first floor were organized around a large central hall with a two-story staircase lit by windows with art glass. The two primary rooms on this floor were the Library and Dining Room. Both were finished in cherry and had elaborate wood detailing and built-ins. A huge veranda extended around the south and west sides of the home, from which could be seen dramatic views of downtown and the Onondaga Valley. On the northwest corner of the home was a large glass conservatory that had direct access from the dining room, inside the home.  
As it was the most picturesque and lavish street in the city, the Detroit Publishing Company took several photographs of James Street and several are concentrated on what is currently the 800 block. One of these, the the Library of Congress Collection, shows a view looking west, towards downtown and you can see the the W. Snowden Smith Residence and Dissel Residence on the right-hand side. The Smith home was a unique Swiss Chalet style home designed by Cincinnati architects Nash & Plympton in 1890.    
The overall view gives you an idea of the kind of landscape that these homes sat in and the detail of the photographs allows you to see some elements of the architecture that are missed in other photos. Though you don't get a good idea of the overall appearance of the Dissel home, you can see how the brick surface came alive with banding, ornament and brick patterning. One element that I was immediately struck by was the elaborate roof line and unique flower-like elements capping the corners of the roof cresting. 

 Theodore Dissel was in business with clothier, Alonzo Yates. They formed A. C. Yates & Co. in 1877. Yates passed away in 1880 and Dissel formed a partnership with Jacob Martens. He continued his business at the corner of Franklin and Water Streets until his death in 1888. Sadly, he didn't have many years in his opulent mansion.
Dissel was a conspicuous art collector and patron of the arts. He was on the board of the Syracuse Arts Club. His home was home to a large collection of paintings and was host to arts fundraisers and lectures. His home was demolished in 1972. Below is an image of the home from the Harley McKee collection at Syracuse University that appeared in a thesis by Thomas Pulfer from 1980 alongside an image of the site today.