Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Onondaga County Orphan Asylum (not Silsbee)

One important aspect of researching Joseph Silsbee is re-examining the previous studies of his work.  Though earlier studies are somewhat comprehensive, there are a lot of modern tools like online directories, Google books, and digital newspapers that have made research easier and can shed a lot of light on them.  This has allowed me to discover new works, locate photos and geography of previously "unknown" works, or, as in this instance, to find that work that was thought to be Silsbee's was actually a building designed by another architect.  In addition to clearing up the record of what Silsbee did and did not design, this is also an opportunity to reveal something about the professional context that Silsbee was working in by learning a little about one of his successful contemporaries.    
The Onondaga County Orphan Asylum designed
by Archimedes Russell (1883)

In February of 1880, J. L. Silsbee began taking bids on plans for a new facility for the Onondaga County Orphan Asylum.  Silsbee had connections with many of the Asylum Board of Trustees and had designed additions to the home of Asylum board chairman, George Barnes.  We will likely never know the entire story, nor will we ever know what Silsbee's asylum building would have looked like but we can assume that either his plans for multiple structures for the institution were never built or if they were built, they were were located to the back of the lot and are not featured in the many existing photographs of the institution.  

Construction for buildings were debated from 1880 through 1882 as cost and property acquisition seemed to become major obstacles to construction. When the building was finally completed, in 1883, a full description appeared in local papers and Archimedes Russell was credited with the design.   Russell's design is a simple yet beautifully detailed building.  Stylistically, it is in keeping with Silsbee's work of the period.  The large windows, strict symmetry give the home of the Asylum a commanding presence.  The substantial and institutional nature of the building are similar to Silsbee's design for a Boy's School at the New York State Asylum for Idiots, built several years earlier.  Russell's domestic rendition with a framed cantilevered gable over the entry and intricately carved wooden porches are even likely the kind of design features that Silsbee may have introduced to such a structure.  

Why Russell was chosen over Silsbee for these final buildings is still puzzling.  Silsbee's social connection to the board was still intact.  It is possible that the project was opened to competition and Russell promised a less expensive structure.  He certainly had already proven himself as a capable architect and had experience with designing other institutional structures including local schools, churches and dormitories.           

Russell was one of Syracuse's most prolific architects.  It can be easily argued that of any architect that ever practiced there, he had the most significant and long-lasting affect on the city of Syracuse.  His buildings, of every type and size, are scattered throughout the city.  He was born in Massachusetts and apprenticed with Syracuse architect Horatio Nelson White.  His career began during Syracuse's building boom in the late 1860's and continued through to the time of his death in 1915.  Russell was eight years older than Silsbee and did not have the benefit of formal training.  Though his buildings often had a more eclectic and vernacular flavor than some of his more talented contemporaries, his background didn't seem to hamper his practice at all.   He was immensely popular and his designs reflect the styles and tastes popular during the years he practiced.   In addition to hundreds of other structures in the city, he designed such notable landmarks as the Fourth Onondaga County Courthouse, majestic Crouse College, and the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception.  More importantly, his legacy continues as his successor firm, King & King Architects, is the oldest in the country and still in business in the city today.  

My favorite work by Russell is the Crouse Stable (pictured below).  It was demolished years ago but when constructed, it drew a lot of attention.  It was a massive Queen Anne structure that dwarfed the mansion it was built for.  Though labeled a "stable", it was more of a clubhouse than anything else.  In later years it had historical significance as Gustav Stickley rented it for use as office, meeting and exhibition space.         

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