Wednesday, August 11, 2010

The Syracuse Savings Bank Building

When Silsbee won the competition for a new bank building in Syracuse, New York he was residing in the city for about a year.  It was early 1875 and he had completed work on several large public commissions under architect Horatio Nelson White and was at work on several small commissions of his own.  He was teaching in the Architecture Department at Syracuse University and was also making his mark with charities and in the city's social circles but he had yet to earn any major commissions on his own.  Not only was this Silsbee's first major commission but it was perhaps the largest construction project being undertaken in Upstate New York aside from the New York State capitol.  With great surprise, the design for this significant work was handed to a young architect instead of one of the established firms from New York, Rochester, Boston and Syracuse also competing for the project.  Even before it was completed, in 1877, publicity surrounding the structure put Silsbee at the forefront of architecture and design in Upstate New York and his office was filled with commissions both large and small.    
The Syracuse Savings Bank Building is Silsbee's best known design.  It has been featured in numerous publications about architectural history and stands in a highly visible and often photographed location in the center of the city of Syracuse.  Immediately after it was constructed, it became a local tourist attraction with it's steam-powered elevator and breathtaking observation area in the tower.  It was designed to be a conspicuous symbol for banking in the growing city and according to contemporary newspaper accounts, it lived up to all expectations.  It has transcended its initial use and is a well known physical landmark and point of reference.  It is an icon for the city of Syracuse and with its location on the primary civic square, it has served as a backdrop for innumerable historic gatherings and public events.    
The Syracuse Savings Bank an excellent example of the High Victorian Gothic style, composed of pointed arches, foliate ornament and other Venetian Gothic inspired elements accent a polychromed stone facade.  The coloring on the building is unique in its lightness with a main body of warm cream-colored Ohio sandstone and red New Jersey sandstone accents.  The structure is massive and takes up an entire city block.  Small steep-roofed pavillions at each corner help to anchor it and give it breadth on the front, at Clinton Square.  It is topped with a single tower that was designed as a cohesive part of the main building block below.  Silsbee's own office was located in two rooms at the base of the tower, on the fifth floor.    
The ornament on the building is organic in nature.  The High Victorian Style was still new to America but it was the style of choice in England and was made popular there by theoretician John Ruskin.  Antecedents of the overall building composition with a soaring tower over the main structure of the building can be seen in lantern towers placed over church transepts in Medieval cathedrals.  With it's dominant central tower and polychromy, it is also difficult not to draw comparisons between the Syracuse Savings Bank and Harvard's Memorial Hall.  Silsbee would have been living in Boston at the time of the Memorial Hall's construction and was likely also working for it's architect, William Robert Ware.      
The decorative program of the interior included a significant amount of marble wainscot, tile floors, and elaborate woodwork continuing Gothic, foliate and fanciful aquatic motifs.  Unfortunately the richly decorated interiors were all updated in 1929.  The exterior has been altered as well.  Though it still retains it's overall appearance, a significant amount of detail has been removed.  The stone base was re-cut, eliminating the rock-faced appearance.  Much of the main entry was altered with the removal of exterior light posts, steps, and carving, eliminating much of the human scale.  Elaborate ironwork and weather vanes are also gone as is the polychromed copper roof and carved copper crestings.  Original photos depicting the changes can be found at Syracuse Then and Now.  Regardless of these changes, the building has stood the test of time and continues to inspire those that see it.   

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