Sunday, January 2, 2011

Home for Charles L. Amos

In keeping with the theme I started last week, I wanted to talk about a home that is more modest than the Howard Residence and show how these smaller homes present a particular problem of research all their own.

It is relatively easy to find archival information for the larger mansions that Silsbee or his contemporaries designed.  These homes hosted many large social gatherings that were covered in all of the society columns.  The finest of these homes were also often featured in architectural journals.  The average cost of these larger homes was between $25,000 and $50,000 in their day.  To place that in comparison, an average working-class home could be constructed for several hundred dollars.  These small homes were built with little or no press and even significant homes that cost under $10,000 were built with very little fanfare.  Many of these lesser works eluded previous Silsbee researchers and would be practically impossible to uncover without the use of modern newspaper archives and other online tools.  Since many of them were also demolished, they remain the most elusive part of almost any 19th Century architect’s catalog.

By 1879, J. L. Silsbee was a highly regarded architect in Syracuse’s.  He had already designed the largest business blocks in the city and he had two of the largest homes in the city under contract.   In July of that year, local newspapers were lauding his numerous “novel” and “modern” structures that were under construction and each new structure seemed to be a breath of fresh air on the Syracuse landscape.  It was in this climate and time that Silsbee was asked to design a home for mill owner Charles Amos. 

Jacob Amos Sr. emigrated from Germany and eventually found work as a salt boiler in Syracuse.  In 1863, he purchased several stores on Water Street in that city and started a flour mill known as the Empire State Mills and later Jacob Amos and Sons.  He had two sons.  One, Jacob Jr., was born in 1854 and later worked in the Baldwinsville locale of the family business.  He would eventually become a mayor of the City Syracuse.  The other was Charles.  He was born in 1848 and eventually worked directly with his father at Syracuse mills.  The Amos family hired Joseph Silsbee to design a warehouse and dry goods store for the company, 1878.  That building still stands today. 

Many guidebooks and local lore attribute the awarding of that commission by Jacob Jr. but it is likely that Jacob Sr. or even more likely that Charles was responsible for hiring Silsbee.  Though it is enticing to include a former Syracuse mayor in connection with the Amos Block story, Jacob Jr. would have been the youngest member of the family company and was likely busy with family business in Baldwinsville. Charles Amos was in charge of the Empire Mills in Syracuse and he and Joseph Silsbee were the same age.  Furthermore, reports in society columns in the mid 1870’s place them in the same social circles and in at least two instances they were working together at charitable events.     

Though the Amos family was wealthy and one of the leading industrial families in Syracuse, the home that Charles commissioned was relatively inexpensive.  He was a junior member of the company and much of the wealth was still held by the family patron.  Charles spent approximately $5,000 on his West Genesee Street home but it seemed to be spent wisely.  When compared to typical homes in the city, it was still quite large.  Accounts note that Charles was building a “fine modern dwelling” and go on to state that it will be “following the new American idea, to build solid and strong.”

The home is no longer standing and no photographs of it exist.  The only image of the home that I have been able to find is a rudimentary sketch made in 1887.  The descriptions of the home given in contemporary accounts during its construction are also brief but they do give us some insight into why Silsbee’s architecture was so popular.  The structure was made of brick and had molded brick trim and ornament.  Brick work on the structure was completed by local mason, Patrick Naylon.  It was two stories tall with a third story beneath a steep roof.  This feature was considered “modern” and would have been seen as a striking architectural departure when compared with the Greek Temple and Italianate Villa forms that had dominated the residential landscape for so long.  The dramatic pointed roof of the Amos home was clad in slate and was considered “quite fashionable”.  The street front of the home had a two-story bay topped with a recessed arched balcony, a common Silsbee motif that opened from the third floor attic space.

The shape of the roof was also seen as a significant functional improvement in home construction and the article about Charles Amos’ home provides some insight into its design and use.  Many of these homes required large open entertaining spaces and the area beneath the roof, uninterrupted by room partitions, was the perfect place for large numbers of guests.  When not used as such, they provided ample storage space or apartments for domestic workers.  Furthermore, in the snowy Syracuse climate, it alleviated the problem of accumulating snow and ice that the shallow roofs of earlier homes seemed to have.  In warmer months, it also served to insulate the lower floors of the home, holding and venting out the warm air that accumulated there.  Earlier homes, with shallow roofs close to the habitable spaces, would transmit that heat directly into the home making them warm and stuffy.

We know very little of the interior of the home but we do know that it was wainscoted throughout in oiled Georgia Pine and each room had hardwood floors.  From the sketch of the home, we can also tell that there was an ample staircase that was well lit by a large two-story window that faced west.  The home likely had many interesting features and details but because of the nature of the commission and the evidence that we have about it, these elements will likely remain a mystery.  The home was completed and occupied in early 1880.  Unfortunately, Charles did not enjoy the home very long as he died there after a long illness in 1887.

It is hard to determine the number of these smaller, less expensive, commissions because I don’t believe we will ever locate them all.  It is likely that they comprised a majority of the practice of architects like Silsbee.  When studying architecture, it is tempting to only examine the larger, more elaborate, masterworks.  While doing so, it is also important to remember that lesser known structures often contain as much thoughtfulness and innovation as the prominent ones.


Caitlin said...


Can you tell me the exact location of the home that was built for Charles Amos on W. Genesse Street? I'm conducting survey work along Genesse for a graduate course and am curious to see whether this home was in the area which my survey covers.

Chris said...

Hi Caitlin, I am not positive of the location but I believe it was on the first or second block west of the West Street Connector; the modern 500 or 600 block. There is another home he did in this area and I'll gladly coordinate research with you if you want. Feel free to e-mail me: topherpay at

Debbie said...

Hello: I live in Jacob Amos's "summer cottage" (4600+ sq. ft.) in Baldwinsville. The house was built in 1895 and was designed by a Boston architect named H.M. Stephenson. I am always searching for information about Jacob and the house (which I love.) Would you have any information about my house or this architect? Thanks.

Chris said...


Sorry but I don't know anything about Stephenson. I do have some articles about work for Jacob at Baldwinsville though. I will try and locate them for you. Drop me a personal e-mail at: topherpay at and I will send what I have.