King's Creations

Architect's Persistence Results in Distinctive Structures

David Ramsey, Staff writer

The Hills Building, at 217 Montgomery St., Syracuse, fails to qualify as a skyscraper, but it does serve as a soaring reminder of the legacy of Melvin King (1868-1946), who used stubborn ambition, diligent labor and an imaginative eye to become a superb architect.

King, born in LaFayette, walked into the office of Syracuse architect Archimedes Russell in 1888 and asked whether he could work as an apprentice. King, 5-foot-6, 135 pounds, looked up at the 6-foot-4, 250-pound

Russell and said he would be willing to work for free. He wanted to become an architect and believed Russell could teach him.

He picked a grand instructor. Russell designed Syracuse University's Crouse College and hundreds of other buildings during a long, prolific career.

Russell was pleased to accept King's offer of free labor. Melvin learned about architecture, yes, but also considered the fine points of cleaning out the firm's furnace and strengthened his back by shoveling snow from the sidewalk outside the office.

Russell admired his apprentice's work ethic and decided a promotion was in order.

"Let's see, King, how long have you been here?" Russell asked one day in 1889.

"A little more than a year," King replied, according to brief biography written by his son, Harry.

The free work then ended.

Almost-free work followed.

Russell told King he could expect $10 per week for his 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Saturday workweek. King earned a little less than 17 cents per hour, roughly equivalent to $3.25 an hour today.

The big man and the not-so-big man became a productive team. King's responsibilities gradually increased, and he played a large role in the design of the ornate, palatial Onondaga County Courthouse, which opened in 1906. A firm in New York City examined the courthouse, took a look at King's credentials and offered to make him a junior partner.

Russell refused to watch idly as King departed. He matched the offer, keeping King in Central New York. The Kings have retained Melvin's habit of sticking close to family roots. The King and King firm, a descendent of Russell and King, still designs buildings from its office in Manlius.

King's greatest creations were ahead. Russell's failing health placed greater responsibility on King.

He certainly responded. In 1911, one of King's signature buildings, the First English Lutheran Church, opened at 507 James St., at the edge of downtown. The church combined the dignity and grandeur of a 19th-century church with a fresh, modern aura.

The building revealed King's mature style, boasting clean, straight lines with only a hint of ornamentation and no trace of pretension. The Hills Building, which opened in 1928, and the former Syracuse Boys Club at 430 E. Genesee St., which opened in 1922, are among other surviving examples of King's best work.

The Rev. Craig Herrick, pastor at First English Lutheran, enjoys sitting in the church sanctuary, where the stained-glass windows create a riot of color on a sunny day. "It gives you this sense of ... transcendence," he says.

Herrick says visitors are welcome to take guided tours of the church from 8:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. on weekdays. He also invites visitors to attend Sunday morning services at 8:30 and 10:30, when what he calls "the great space" is filled with the music of a vintage Moller organ.

And it is filled with the handiwork of Melvin King, who went from cleaning furnaces and shoveling sidewalks to creating an enduring legacy of beauty.

2002 The Post-Standard.