Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Rebecca and George Barnes Residence Additions and Alterations

There are two irreplaceable treasures of American interior design in Syracuse, New York. Arguably, the most important is the interior of Gustav Stickley’s own home on Westcott Street. On the exterior, it is an unassuming Queen Anne Home but the interior is likely the first American Arts & Crafts interior and was a veritable laboratory of wood treatments and finishes for Stickley. In my opinion, the second treasure is the dining room designed for George and Rebecca Barnes by Joseph Lyman Silsbee.

J. L. Silsbee did two rounds of renovations on Barnes’ James Street home, now known as the Barnes-Hiscock Mansion. The first work at the home by Silsbee was in 1878, when he was hired to renovate a room for use as a study and to complete exterior modifications including a piazza and porte-cochere. Once completed, the porte-cochere was considered by one art critic as the finest piece of ironwork in the city. An image of this remarkable structure can be seen in the photo here. The exterior additions are gone but the study still exists though the rich woodwork has been completely painted over, concealing much of the fine detail.
In 1882, Silsbee was hired once more by the Barnes family to renovate a dining room. The room is an exercise in total design and Silsbee was responsible for the design of wall treatments, light fixtures and built-in and stand-alone furniture pieces. He also oversaw the work of artisans on the project, including the talented art glass designer Donald MacDonald. MacDonald’s windows depict exterior scenes with an array of birds and flowers in panes of glass that frame a window that once had a commanding view of the Barnes’ extravagant gardens.

From its inlaid broken-tile floor to its beamed ceiling room, the room is a feast for the eyes with an eclectic mix of classically derived elements as well as original foliate and animal motifs.  These elements came together in the interiors of many of Silsbee’s Queen Anne homes and he soon became a popular designer as the fashion swept through England and America at the end of the 19th century.  The style incorporates elements that were a popular part of the Aesthetic Movement, the English Arts & Crafts Movement, as well as the Renaissance Revival.
The work on the Study and Dining Rooms at the Barnes Residence signals a coming of age of American design as sophisticated interior design styles were no longer relegated to larger eastern seaboard cities like New York and Boston and shared fashionable tastes spread across the country. By the time the Barnes dining room was completed, Silsbee was hired for work on individual homes for affluent Americans in New York State and Illinois. More importantly, though often overlooked, he was hired to update just as many older homes with similar renovations. On James Street alone, he was hired for four similar projects, none of which exist today. A pinnacle of this trend was reached by Silsbee when he was hired to design the interiors of the home of Chicago hotel magnate, Potter Palmer in 1884. Though on a grander scale, the main rooms of the Potter home were of the same style and appearance as the Barnes projects.  A collection of photographs in the Art Institute of Chicago, with no credit to the designer, are the only evidence we have of Silsbee's genius exhibited at Palmer's "Castle".

After Rebecca and George died, the home was occupied by their daughter, Mary Elizabeth and her husband Frank Hiscock. The Hiscocks renovated the home once more in the 1890’s and the exterior was updated from it’s original Italianate design to a commanding brick Classical Revival structure.

Few examples of lavish residential interiors by any architect of this period exist in Syracuse. Any extant interior work by Silsbee is even more rare and of those that do exist, none are as remarkable as the Barnes Dining Room. The Barnes-Hiscock Mansion is currently occupied by the Corinthian Club of Syracuse and restoration efforts are overseen by the Barnes Foundation.