Friday, September 27, 2013

Home For Dwight Bruce

One difficult aspect of researching and writing about Joseph Silsbee's work is finding decent documentation and photographs of buildings. Since so much of his work fell victim to the wrecking ball, newspaper articles and old photographs become the only evidence that give us an idea of what the work looked like and how it was used and critically received. This post is just as much about the search for these images as it is about what these images show us about architecture. 

There are a small hand-full of buildings that I feel are particularly interesting because I believe that they "had it all going on". They were considered cutting-edge in their time and were well-received by  the press during their time of construction. They also included features that were unique when compared with other buildings being constructed at the same time and place. The home that Silsbee designed for Dwight Bruce in 1878 is one of these remarkable structures. 

Sadly, the evidence about the home, while seemingly abundant, falls short of representing what I believe are the home's most remarkable features. It was demolished long ago but I have seen two photographs of the home. The first is from the Detroit Publishing company and can be found on the Library of Congress' website. Finding it was not so easy though. The home is a small part of a larger view of James Street, a "Millionaire's Row" that used to exist in the city of Syracuse. I happened to know what the home looked like and was able to pick it out of a larger street view.       
The photo detail above is a close-up of the home. The photo below is the entire photo. It can be found  at the Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, Detroit Publishing Company Collection. Having the entire street-view at such a great resolution is fantastic. It gives us an idea about how the home was situated, what stood near it and what kinds of details on the street would have framed our view and experience of it. The rustic bridge crossing a small culvert from the sidewalk just east of the home is one such feature. The quality of the scans are also good because it allows one to zoom into the home and see the clapboards and shingle-work, carving in the gable, stone-work at the foundation, and other details that are otherwise lost.       
The second photo of the home is from a Master's thesis at Syracuse University. It was written by Donald Pulfer and is probably the most comprehensive writing on Silsbee that has been compiled to date. In his thesis, Pulfer has an image from the Harley McKee Collection at Syracuse University. This image provides a more direct view of the home, most likely taken in the late 1960's. It provides information and details that are concealed in the Detroit Publishing image. These include the arched window in the east dormer, overall roof outline, and articulation of the east side of the home. 

A problem with this photo is that it was taken so far after the initial construction that it also captures a "modern" paint-job, re-configured windows on the second floor, and reconfigured main porch. This final item is critical as the "new" porch has a flared roof that gives it a somewhat exotic expression. In his thesis writing, Pulfer even picks up on this detail, relating it to Silsbee's interest in the exotic, in particular Japanese culture and architecture. While this passion of Silsbee's may be true, the original porch was actually round, as is pictured in the Detroit Publishing photo. Alas, it had no such exotic inspiration.   
Even though we have two decent photographs of the home, neither depict two of the home's most distinctive features. One element that gained quite a bit of press was a two-story open porch and pergola that extended along the back of the home. One newspaper account went as far as to call it Mr. Bruce's "hanging gardens". This feature created a large outdoor room with a commanding view of the Onondaga Valley to the south. It was also designed with specific relation to several of the interior rooms so that views were captured from the interior, through this feature, framing dramatic views to the Valley.

Another unique feature of the home was that much of the furniture was designed specifically for it. A complete dining room set as well as built-ins and mantels would have all been executed to Silsbee's designs. This is an elusive part of Silsbee's practice and little evidence exists of his interior designs. There is mention of it in relation to several of his Syracuse homes and he must have been considered very talented as it precipitated his move to Chicago; where he oversaw the interiors of Potter Palmer's mansion.  
As Silsbee designed for very prominent businessmen, much information can be found about his patrons. For this home, there is an abundant amount of information about the client, Dwight Bruce. Bruce was a well-respected businessman who had an interest in history. Bruce edited a newspaper, the Syracuse Journal, and was the author of the Memorial History of Syracuse. Understanding the man of the house only presents part of the picture of Silsbee's clientele. We know, through correspondence, that many of the wives of businessmen made decisions regarding the furniture and decoration. Though we can make some assumptions about age and religion, there is usually scant information about the women of the household. Unfortunately, we don't have any specific information about why Bruce commissioned such a home and what influences he and his wife may have had on its conception.

I am always looking for new images of homes and am always excited when I come across new ones. It is even more rare when design drawings surface. If you ever come across any photos or drawings, I'd love to hear from you.     

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