If Joseph Silsbee was such a good architect and so popular in his day, then why isn't he better known today? This is a question I typically get when I reveal my obsession about Silsbee. The answer is two-fold but simple. First: people don't know his work because the best and vast majority of it is gone. Second: Frank Lloyd Wright. I'll save my diatribe about how people's adoration of America's greatest architect blinds them from seeing and appreciating the vast list of other great American designers for another entry. People's general knowledge of architecture in America is limited but even for people that are architecture "fans", Silsbee is an obscure figure. For this post I'd like to talk about a little known, yet spectacular, home that once stood in Buffalo, N. Y. I believe that if it and more homes like it were still standing, then the appraisal of Silsbee's work might be different.
It is important to note that Silsbee's Buffalo office was open for about 5 years, between 1882 ad 1887 and that he was responsible for over thirty known buildings in that city. A majority of these commissions were homes that dotted the affluent tree-lined streets of North Street, Delaware Avenue and Linwood Avenue. In all, seven known buildings are still standing. The survival rate is not so good but in Buffalo, it is better than other cities where he practiced. Chicago only has a couple dozen of the hundreds of structures he designed there and though a two of his finest office buildings are still standing in Syracuse, his work has fared even worse there.
With little fanfare, after a small fire in 1932, demolition began on the George Howard Residence; an immense home standing at the corner of Elmwood Avenue and Summer Streets in Buffalo. The owner stated that the home had to come down as she did not want to incur the cost of taxes that would be incurred for rehabilitating the structure. Long before the cries of preservationists, many of these great homes came down this way. Where this home stood, a sea of parking now surrounds a small mini-mart building currently used as a pizzeria. The landscapes around the sites of many of these homes is so completely altered that the memory of the homes is erased.
When it was initially constructed, George Rumsey Howard's Mansion received a lot of press. It was widely published in architectural journals and local papers. It is because of this that we can piece together quite a bit about the house. Howard was a local banker. He made his money in his family's leather tanning business and after selling his interests there, moved on to the Erie County Savings Bank. He was the son of an early Buffalo patron and entrepreneur, George R. Howard. The elder Howard had a home on the same block north on Delaware Avenue and had property that extended from Delaware, several blocks west to Richmond Avenue. It was through an agreement with him that Buffalo had its first permanent baseball stadium; on the family property at Richmond.
Construction on the home began in 1887, a year after George R. Howard's death. This also marked the beginning of the partitioning of the Howard property that allowed Summer Street to develop into an affluent residential street. The circumstances of Howard hiring Silsbee are critical and hint at his desirability as an architect. 1887 was the year that Silsbee and his partner, James Marling, severed their partnership. More specifically, it appears that the partnership was severed in March of that year. All building citations for work prior to March note "Silsbee & Marling" as the designing firm. In early March, the firm won a competition for a Tennis Club in the city. By the end of the month, newspaper accounts of the progress of design and construction only mention Marling and subsequent commissions begin to appear in publications with Marling's name alone. Except that in July an announcement in a local building journal notes that Joseph L. Silsbee of Chicago will be the architect of a new home for George Howard.
Howard would have been no stranger to Silsbee or his work. His family was a member of the Silsbee-designed Falconwood Club and Howard was close friends with the tight circle of clients that had previously hired Silsbee and Silsbee & Marling to design their homes. It is possible that Howard wanted Silsbee as his architect as a symbol of status; there may have been some cache to hiring an architect from a larger city and symbolic to have an architect who was responsible for the design of so many affluent homes. It may also be that Howard and Silsbee had a social connection. We may never know the reason why he was chosen but by choosing Silsbee as his architect, it was clear that Howard favored his work over that Marling.
The illustration that appears a year later in the Building Budget (note that the image is reversed to reflect the home's actual appearance, as constructed) depicts, in Silsbee's fluid rendering style, a large home of shingles and brick with a prominent tower, terra cotta ornament, and a profusion of porches and balconies. It stands with a very select group of his homes that can be considered a "mansion". Though more commonly referred to as a "suburban villa" in its day, these were massive custom-designed residences built for a specific client. That said, it is typical Silsbee; a combination of known stylistic elements composed in an artful and picturesque manner. Though they are competent and beautiful structures, subsequent homes by Marling are generally simple and more strictly monumental. Marling's work after he leaves Silsbee fails to include the level of complexity in spatial organization or ornamental program that can be seen in the Howard home. It may be possible that this difference in design style and aesthetics was apparent to discerning clients and was a reason why Silsbee was sought out by Howard instead of his former partner.
When Silsbee was hired for a house design, it was apparent that two key programmatic issues were at play. On one hand, the home was to have a substantial yet commodious appearance. Secondly, it had to be built for the purposes of entertaining and impressing guests. In its day, the style of the Howard home would likely have been readily recognizable as Silsbee's but more importantly, it was seen as fashionable and novel. Silsbee built his reputation in Syracuse by breaking from the Greek Revival and Italianate norm, introducing the Queen Anne style to that City. Years later, he does the same, making his mark in Chicago with the Shingle Style at his Edgwater development. This home, with it's combination of Queen Anne, Shingle Style and Romanesque forms, can be seen as an attempt to capture the latest craze in design aesthetics, an affinity for the work of well-known architect, H. H. Richardson, while providing enough non-Richardson elements to make it unique.
The interior arrangement of the home is also organized with these ideas in mind. Guests were typically received from the Porte-cochere through a small Vestibule and into an immense open Hall. Like many of Silsbee's homes, the Hall is the center of the home with a series of entertaining spaces that seem to radiate from it. All of the rooms were connected to the main hall with a series of generous openings that could be closed off with pocket doors to create more intimate gathering areas. The Howard Home had a large fireplace with an inglenook arrangement at the base of a three-story staircase. The staircase was open three stories. At the second story, a massive triple-window topped with a Palladian window, that can be seen on the outside west-side of the building, bathed the staircase in natural light. Another dormer at the third floor provided additional light to the staircase at that level. As entertaining took place on all floors of the home, the staircase was a central design feature likely composed of elaborate carving. Though no information exists about the interior decoration of the home, it is very likely that it contained an array of mosaic and tile, wood carving, and art glass to further showcase the wealth and fashionable taste of the owner. It took approximately two years to complete construction and the interior was without a doubt remarkable.
A further note on why Silsbee's homes were different and perhaps more fashionable or pleasing than those by his contemporaries can also be seen by comparing the Howard home to a home of the same general style and composition that was built a year later in Syracuse, N.Y. Architect Charles Colton's Charles Saul Residence was located on James Street in Syracuse. It is slightly smaller than Howard's but the program, location, and social standing of the owner were all similar. It is also a good comparison because Colton, the designer of Syracuse's City Hall, was very gifted and likely the best architect the city had since Silsbee. The homes have many obvious similarities that can't be explained. We assume, because of local newspaper accounts, that Howard's was designed first. It is certain that Colton and Silsbee knew one another and each other's work. Whether or not they would have borrowed design ideas from each other can't be established. It may even be possible that there was yet a third home that was the template for both of these.
Both homes have a two-story bay that terminates in a tower. Both towers are punctuated by a dormer that interrupts the roof line and both have a sort of clear story that wraps the floor directly below the eaves at the top of the tower. The Porte-cochere and entry arrangement are similar as is the corner turret and open porch arrangement on the opposite side of the building from the porte-cochere. The resemblance is striking but there are also some stark differences. In a slightly smaller building on a site with varied topography, Colton seems to favor the verticality that the composition allows for. The building elements are arranged as a series of stacked components that break down into smaller components on upper floors as towers and dormers at that level seem to pierce the sky. In the level topography of the Buffalo site, Silsbee seems to favor a more broad or "grounded" horizontal composition. The tower is unbroken by banding, is more robust and acts as an anchoring element. The porches and balconies seem to extend the building and its interior spaces horizontally instead of vertically. With the elimination of a lot of exterior details like balustrades, multiple roof and gable-heights and odd-shaped windows, the Howard home also seems to have an overall "cleaner" look. I believe that this overall refined character would have been one consideration that gave Silsbee's work broad appeal in the 1880's.
It is no secret that Silsbee, with his strong family ties and reputation, continued to earn commissions in Syracuse, N. Y. long after he established a new home in Chicago. It is lesser known that a similar legacy can be seen in Buffalo. The Howard home was not the last home that he designed in that city after the break from partnership with Marling. He did at least one more known work several years later. Though he never lived in that city, it is apparent that he enjoyed a broad reputation for his fine work and was regularly sought out by clients there. Sadly, since many of these homes are gone and scant evidence exists about them, Silsbee rarely comes to mind when architects of this period are considered for their broad national appeal and influence.