Saturday, June 26, 2010

Competition Design for the Milwaukee Club

Some of an architect's best plans remain in that state, a mere depiction of ink on paper or linen.  In 1883, Joseph Silsbee's Chicago office, Silsbee & Kent, was invited to submit a design for a competition for the commission of a new clubhouse for the Milwaukee Club.  Other architects that were invited included pioneering Chicago architects Burnham & Root and future Milwaukee City Hall designer and talented architect Henry C. Koch but it was club member Edward Townsend Mix that would win the competition.  With such a talented pool of architects and being a relative unknown in the Midwest, it seemed that it would be an uphill battle for Silsbee to win such a commission.

A consolation to not winning the competition was the exposure that the competition gave to Silsbee.  An image of the firm's highly refined Queen Anne design appeared in the national journal, American Architect and Building News.  The depiction shows a building complete with details and motifs that are found on the Queen Anne residences that Silsbee designed yet executed at an urban scale.  As in other works, it also shows Silsbee's continued fascination with architectural design trends that were spreading from England, particularly by the work of architect Richard Norman Shaw.  Silsbee may have seen Shaw's work firsthand while traveling in Europe but it also would have been familiar as it was widely published at the time.  

Silsbee & Kent's building would have been constructed with a first story of Connecticut brownstone and upper stories made with red pressed brick.  The bays were to be clad in wood and the roof tile.  The interiors would have been a richly decorated array of billiards, banquet and reading rooms organized around a large central stair hall.  A large entry porch, roof decks and decorative iron balcony introduced exterior spaces adjacent to almost all of the interior gathering rooms.  
Photograph of Milwaukee Club, Edward Townsend Mix, Architect.  Photo by James Steakley

Evidence of each of the competition entries does not exist but it is likely that they were all designed in the Queen Anne idiom.  Silsbee's entry shares some of the features of the completed building including the central entry and details like the bay window and side balcony.  This similarity may be due to a set program given by the client or it could be that desirable elements from other entries were incorporated into the final design.  What separates Silsbee's work from the winning design is the overall variety of windows and other architectural elements and the level of refinement and attention of detail given to those elements and their incorporation into a cohesive design.  Had it been built, it may have opened a new chapter on Silsbee's career in a new city and would stand as a testament to Silsbee's remarkable talent as a designer.                

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