Sunday, August 3, 2014

There are going to be loose ends - Part 2

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

Attempting to attribute the design of a structure to an architect with no building citation from its time of construction can be a difficult endeavor. Even with substantial corroborating evidence, there is always a hint of doubt. An excellent example of ongoing research where I have been trying to identify the architect of a home is the William Flinn Residence. 
William Flinn Residence, Pittsburgh, PA, ca 1896. Image from Utica Heater Company advertisement published in Architectural Forum, November, 1921.
While compiling research on Silsbee's work in the Pittsburgh parks, I came across an image of a home of one of the men involved in park construction, William Flinn. I had seen the home before but the previous image I had didn't capture my interest the way that this one, in an advertisement for an upstate New York heater company, did.

Flinn was an interesting character. He was a senator and a contractor and along with Christopher Magee, he was a political boss in Pittsburgh. Magee was the cousin of the Director of Public Works, Edward Bigelow and eventual benefactor of the Pittsburgh Zoo. Flinn made donations to that same venture. Both Flinn and Magee also held ownership of all the streetcars in Pittsburgh. In 1896, at the same time the zoo was being planned, Flinn built a palatial Classical Revival home for his family at the entry to Highland Park.
View of entry to Highland Park from the Detroit Publishing Company Collection held by the Library of Congress. The Flinn home can be seen to the right of the large entry gateway to the park.
Flinn's choice of location for his home may seem like an aesthetically fortunate one; situating his grand estate adjacent to a beautiful park setting. It was also a shrewd business move. Flinn had amassed a large amount of land along Highland Avenue. Beginning in 1895, Pittsburgh undertook an unprecedented expenditure of funds to improve its two major parks, Schenley Park and Highland Park. Chicago architect, J. L. Silsbee, was hired to provide a master plan including new bridges, entrance gateways, refectories, boathouse, observatory and a zoo. Highland Park was chosen to have the parks most popular attraction, the Highland Park Zoo. The primary means for residents to reach the park was by the street cars and by the main thoroughfare approaching the park, Highland Avenue. As such, a large amount of money for public improvements was spent on this street and on the park entrance. Flinn took advantage of this opportunity. Is it also possible that Flinn was so impressed with Silsbee's proposed architecture for the parks that he hired him to design a home near one of the main park entrances?
William Flinn's Residence (upper left) compared with other Silsbee-designed structures including the West Virginia Building at the World's Columbian Exposition (upper right), the William Hammond Residence (lower left) and the John Fyffe Residence (lower right).
Physical evidence that Silsbee was involved with the design for Flinn seems very strong, particularly when compared with other Silsbee structures designed in the same Classical Revival style. The planning of Flinn's home with a strict symmetry and extensive verandas bears a remarkable resemblance to the West Virginia Building that Silsbee designed four years earlier for the World's Columbian Exposition. This same planning method was used on a more modest scale in Silsbee's plan for John Fyffe's home, built that same year. The corner pilasters on the Flinn home mimic those on the West Virginia Building and on the William Hammond Residence.
Image of Residence of William Flinn from the American Contractor, March 7, 1908, A. M. Sillsby, architect.
One piece of evidence that confuses my search for an architect of Flinn's home is the first image I ever saw of it. Years ago, friend and historian Martin Wachadlo forwarded me an image from the American Contractor. Always on the lookout for interesting research finds, Martin came across an image of a home by an architect named "A. M. Sillsby" of Chicago. I had it in a file and didn't think much of it until I came across new images of Flinn's home year's later. I decided to dig a bit more and discovered a problem: there never was an A. M. Sillsby of Chicago. Actually, subsequent research fails to find an A. M. Sillsby, architect in any city. The only architect with a similar name in Chicago is J. L. Silsbee. Is this a bad misspelling or is there an "A. M. Sillsby" out there that has not been discovered?

A final coincidence that seems to point back to Joseph Silsbee as architect for Flinn's home is a commission that Silsbee receives in 1905. That year he is hired by Flinn's brother in law, George Darr, to design a home at Belle Haven, an exclusive residential section along the Long Island Sound, in Greenwich, Connecticut. Darr's home, a large Georgian estate, was nothing like Flinn's but given the time of its construction and its location, this isn't a surprise.
George Darr Residnece, Greenwich, Connecticut (1905), J. L. Silsbee, architect.
From the numerous newspaper articles that have come to light, it is clear that Silsbee did much more work in the city of Pittsburgh than a zoo building. His earliest works were unrealized proposals for Phipp's Conservatory in 1892 and he continued a relationship with key individuals in that city up to his work on the Pittsburgh zoo, completed in 1898. Given this fact and the circumstances surrounding the interpersonal connections between Silsbee clients and Flinn, it is highly plausible that he was involved with the design of Flinn's home.

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



tim said...

Thanks for sorting out the link. Thank you also for posting a link to my site on Shadyside Presbyterian Church.

Chris said...

You're welcome. That's a wonderful site!