Thursday, March 3, 2011

Home for John Wilkinson

While undertaking this research, I am continually surprised and intrigued by the connections between the various places where works are found.  Sometimes the connections are so clear and obvious that it is hard not to imagine a larger pattern or history at work.

In 1887, J. L. Silsbee designed a home for Chicago banker, inventor, Unitarian, and generally outspoken citizen, John Wilkinson.  A native of Syracuse, N. Y., wilkinson was the son of Syracuse’s first  lawyer, John Wilkinson Sr.  The elder Wilkinson is considered a founding father of the upstate New York city and gave it it’s name in the 1820’s.

Silsbee’s social and professional connections to the Wilkinson family are varied.  He designed additions to a Syracuse mansion for Wilkinson’s sister, Rebecca, and her husband, George Barnes.  Silsbee was also a close friend with Joseph Kirkland, another Central New York native and inlaw to the younger John Wilkinson.  Silsbee designed the Kirkland School in Chicago in 1890.  The Kirklands, Wilkinsons, and Silsbees, along with Silsbee’s inlaws, the Sedgwicks and Gannetts were all influential and active Unitarians and had close personal and social ties.
In addition to its architectural significance, due to the social standing of the Wilkinsons, the home also has important local historical significance.  It was the site of the first meeting of the Chicago Unitarian Club in 1888 and the site of many subsequent social and organizational meetings for Unitarians.  Wilkinson’s wife, Laura Ware Wilkinson, was an active author and was very influential in the home economics movement in America.  Perhaps not coincidentally, the Kirkland School taught young women many of the same household economics principles that Laura Wilkinson wrote about.
The Wilkinson home is a very simple structure and was constructed for a modest $7,000.00 by contractor John Mountain.  The overall form of the home is a typical Chicago row home with a prominent front bay and entry to one side but Mountain’s expertise in carving and arranging stonework is showcased in the carefully detailed granite fa├žade.  Mountain seemed to be Silsbee's contractor of choice when it came to these stone structures.  A year later, he also built the remarkable Henry Stone residence, just a few blocks away.  The richness of the granite and this level of craftsmanship, with curved window heads, intricately detailed finials and trim, and random ashlar stone sets the design of this home apart from its neighbors.             

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