Saturday, August 2, 2014

There are going to be loose ends - Part 1

The goal of compiling a "complete" list of works for an architect that closed his final office just over a hundred years ago and left no papers behind is a lofty one. The chore of completing such a task is compounded, in the case of my work with J. L. Silsbee, by the fact that he had three offices in three different cities. 

Since no office records exist, identifying works is done through hours of research of newspapers, architectural journals, and other published sources from the time when Silsbee was practicing. For my purposes, I typically pair that research with physical evidence of the building. This can be done in person if the building is standing or by relying on photographic evidence if the building is demolished. Typically, if the building appears to have been designed by Silsbee because of its physical characteristics and I am able to find a citation in an archival resource, I can, with some authority, record the building as being designed by him.

Much of my work was built upon similar work previously done by Donald Pulfer, Martin Wachadlo and Susan Karr Sorrell who cataloged much of Silsbee's work from the Syracuse, Buffalo and Chicago offices respectively. With the development of the internet came advances in archival research and availability of resources. As such, a massive amount of additional information has come to light since previous lists of SIlsbee's work was done.

Still, there are many gaps in the research and pieces of partial information that leads to a certain level of incompleteness in the research. Often times I have a building citation but can't find enough information to locate the building. Other times, I locate a building in a citation and find that it looks nothing like a work that Silsbee might have designed. On the other side of the coin, I've come across many buildings that appear to have been designed by Silsbee and there is substantial circumstantial evidence that points to his authorship but I can't be certain that he designed it because there is no contemporary written source. These sort of research gaps have caused me to critically examine previously published materials on the subject. If they are occurring with my work, then they likely occurred with previous studies. One case where a work might be called into question is the  "Edward Butler Home".
"Edward Butler Home" (ca 1886), Linwood Avenue, Buffalo, NY. Architect Unknown
"The Edward Butler Home" was published as such in the remarkable 1981 guide book, Buffalo Architecture: A Guide. The guide also lists Silsbee & Marling as the architects. There is one problem with this assertion. Despite a massive amount of research that has been done about the homes on this beautiful street, no citation has been found that can link Silsbee or Marling to its design. It seems that the home was attributed, largely based on physical evidence. This argument of authorship is best laid out in Austin Fox's essay on the subject from the Buffalo Spree from 1986. My friend and Buffalo historian, Martin Wachadlo was the first to question Fox's assertions. Though Fox presents some persuasive evidence, the lack of a building citation causes me to side with Martin. There are several citations for this site that seem to point not only to a different architect but also a different initial owner of the structure. Upon closer inspection of the home, it also seems to be lacking many plan and layout features that would have been present in Silsbee's work during this period. With the lack of these identifying features, coupled with the lack of connections with any possible client or owner, I would likely not include this home in the final catalog I prepare.

A more complicated situation exists when I've actual discovered a citation but then the physical evidence doesn't completely back it up. This is the case with the Offices for Jacob Amos & Sons. Several years ago, while browsing online newspapers, I found a citation that Silsbee was designing offices for the mill establishment in Syracuse.
Citation noting the new Jacob Amos & Sons' Offices from the Syracuse Standard, March 6, 1883.
Silsbee's involvement in the project makes complete sense. He designed the company's warehouse building a block away a few years earlier. He also designed the home of company head, Charles Amos. He had a long-standing relationship with Charles and the company so it seemed to be a logical choice as architect for the offices. What is great is that the office building still stands on the edge of downtown Syracuse and when you compare the appearance with the building citation, it seems to match up.
Jacob Amos & Sons Company Offices, Syracuse NY, 1885 attributed to J. L. Silsbee, architect. 
There are two minor problems though. The first one is that the building is not overtly Silsbee-like. It is an attractive building and it has many features that I would typically attribute to Silsbee but it doesn't have any single defining feature or motif that I would assert that only Silsbee would use. The second problem is a bit more glaring. The building has a date on it that doesn't work neatly into Silsbee's history in Syracuse. 
Stone tablet in the gable of the Jacob Amos & Sons Company Offices noting the construction date, "1885".
By 1884, Joseph Silsbee and his family had permanently moved from Syracuse to Chicago and in 1885, he dissolved his partnership in Syracuse with architect Ellis G. Hall. The construction of the office building for Jacob Amos & Sons occurred after Silsbee left the city of Syracuse. 
Citation noting that the Amos Offices were in the process of construction from the Syracuse Standard, July 17, 1885.
This fact alone doesn't prove that Silsbee did not design the present structure. Actually, the designs could have easily been completed in 1883, when the first citation was published and construction put off until 1885, with Ellis Hall or another local architect overseeing construction to Silsbee's plans. It also was constructed by John Moore, the same contractor that completed several other Silsbee structures and a Silsbee client himself. In this case, I will probably include the building in the final catalog but it is not without reservation due to the gap in design and construction dates.

This is Part One of a Two-part blog. Click HERE to read Part Two. 




tim said...

How do I get to Part Two?

Chris said...

I've updated the link on the word "HERE", hopefully it works now. Sorry.