Thursday, November 25, 2010

The White Memorial Building

By 1876 a transformation was occurring in the city of Syracuse.  Along the Erie Canal and its main thoroughfare, Salina Street, small Italianate and vernacular storefronts were giving way to large office buildings in more sophisticated Gothic and Greek Revival designs.  Joseph Silsbee's Syracuse Savings Bank, the largest building to be built in the city at the time, was nearing completion and the architect was just awarded a second commission for an equally impressive structure by the White family.      
The White family owned the Syracuse National Bank and the new structure was built by Horace K. and Andrew Dickson White to house the family business and to commemorate the family patriarch, Asa White.  Andrew Dickson White, president of Cornell University, had a keen interest in architecture and with inspiration by John Ruskin and other theoreticians of the day, he and Silsbee planned the grand High Victorian Gothic structure.  

Much like the Syracuse Savings Bank Building, this White Building an excellent example of this style of building.  It was said that the building was modeled after buildings in Manchester, England.  Though it doesn't seem to ape any particular Manchester building, with it's soaring roof lines, Gothic arches and use of varied materials, it is tempting to imagine the young architect in Manchester viewing the works of fellow Unitarian, Thomas Worthington and other proponents of the "new" style. 
The White Memorial Building is constructed of an iron frame with iron beams supporting clay tile and concrete floors.  The exterior of the structure is clad primarily in a red brick from New Jersey.  Ohio sandstone, Onondaga limestone, white and black brick provided contrast and detail.  The white brick, from Milwaukee, was a novelty at the time and the White Memorial Building was the first structure in Syracuse where it was used.  All of the exterior masonry work is set in a black mortar which adds to the rich texture and appearance of the masonry surface.

The ornament on the structure is varied.  Abstract references to classical architecture are seen in support columns.  Foliate motifs on the building have a more Medieval appearance and are carved into banding and accent stones.  Whimsical creatures bearing resemblance to lions and birds of pray whimsically add to the macabre nature of the style. 
The exterior is further ornamented with varied brick work and English tile accents above the storefronts and below the cornice at the top floor.  The building was constructed by mason John Moore, who was a Silsbee client himself.  He also constructed the Syracuse Savings Bank building.  Though the White Building is more modest in size and budget, the richness of material and detail seemed to be an attempt by the architect and builder to match the complexity and beauty of that earlier structure. 
Though the building is in excellent shape and still has a commanding presence in Syracuse's downtown landscape, the appearance of the building has changed over time.  The building has been enlarged, with an additional story added where there was once only a series of roof dormers.  The roof itself has also been changed.  Though the unique iron cresting still exists, the variegated slate roof has been removed and no longer has the rich polychrome patterning.

The context of the structure has also changed.  When constructed, the building had a prominent location, facing Vanderbilt Square, the location of one of Syracuse's main train stations.  Trains would travel east down what is now Washington Street and would stop in front of the building.

The building entry, with it's elaborate decoration and memorial plaque once faced busy Vanderbilt Square and set the tone for the overall structure.  By the time of it's completion in 1877, Silsbee was well established as a prominent New York architect.  Much credit for this distinction can be given to the consistency of quality work that the White Memorial Building exemplifies.  The White Memorial Building can also be credited with giving Silsbee his start in Chicago.  Local lore has it that upon existing a train at Vanderbilt Square and seeing this structure, a prominent Chicago businessman demanded that he know who the architect was.  After visiting Silsbee in his office at the Syracuse Savings Bank Building, a few blocks away, he was promptly hired for work in the growing metropolis in the Midwest.

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