Imposing Structures

Part 1:

Archimedes Russell was one of Syracuse's most prolific architects

October 20, 2002

David Ramsey Staff writer

It was his final morning walk. Archimedes Russell stepped into Sidney Schultz's small grocery store on the morning of April 13, 1915, and announced he was weary. Russell, a human mountain at 6-foot-4 and nearly 300 pounds, placed his imposing frame on a chair.

Then he slumped over, dead six weeks short of his 65th birthday.

He died on the eastern fringe of downtown Syracuse, surrounded by his creations.

We know little about Russell. He was a member of Fourth Presbyterian Church. He was born in 1840 in Andover, Mass. He lived from 1889 until his death at 617 E. Genesee St., a house that was demolished to make way for Interstate 81.

His handiwork defined him and still defines him. He left nearly 700 buildings scattered across Central New York, including the monumental Crouse College, which commands the Syracuse University hill, and the simple and elegant Pulaski National Bank.

Evamaria Hardin, an architectural historian, spent three years studying Russell's life and work. She found virtually nothing that explains the man, his personality, his fears, his desires, his hopes.

"I didn't find much," says Hardin, author of "Archimedes Russell, Upstate Architect." "He's not very easy to get to know. I don't know anything about his personal life."

She laughs.

"Maybe he didn't have one because he was too busy building."

A person could stay busy for a long time just looking at his remaining buildings.

There's the Dey Brothers building on Salina Street in downtown Syracuse, the mansion he designed for beer tycoon George Zett on Danforth Street on Syracuse's North Side, the majestic Saint Peter's Church in Rome. The list stretches endlessly.

The best place to begin to consider Russell is Crouse College. Upon completion in 1889, the building dominated the SU campus and ruled over all of Syracuse from its perch. Now, 113 years later, it remains a fantastic, formidable creation.

John Crouse, worth more than $10 million in 19th century dollars, told SU administrators he wanted to construct the finest college building in the country. He first asked to limit costs to $150,000, then suggested $200,000.

Then he pulled away all restraints. Just make it the best, he said, no matter the cost.

Russell followed Crouse's instruction. He constructed a massive, muscular building of sturdy red stone that seems ready to stand for the ages.

Yet he brought a gentle flair to his creation. Crouse College is certainly large and imposing, but it retains a rare grace and charm for a building of its size.

"Right down to the smallest details it has been crafted and shaped," says SU architecture professor Bruce Abbey. "Each little moment of the building has its own unique quality to it."

Russell didn't spare expense. The final price tag of the building, according to Hardin's estimate, was nearly $500,000. Today, apartments in Manhattan go for several times that amount. In 1889, a half-million dollars ranked as a staggering amount of money. The palatial Syracuse Savings Bank, opened in 1875, cost half as much.

SU is continuing an extensive renovation of Crouse College, and because of those efforts it remains possible to experience the building in all its glory.

The auditorium, now called Setnor, features intricate stained- glass windows and offers a colorful, overwhelming array of Victorian charms. On sunny afternoons, the room is filled with a multitude of bright colors.

Russell's audacious creation failed to thrill architectural writer Montgomery Schuyler, who criticized Russell for his "random aggregation of unstudied form and features." Schuyler has a point. Crouse College roars into the sky as a celebration of architectural anarchy.

This was no accident. Hardin reminds viewers to remember the building's purpose. Crouse College rose to display the extent of Crouse's wealth. Russell did not pursue a subtle point. He sought to show off his talents and Crouse's cash.

Hardin says the building serves those efforts "perfectly."

She has a point. Crouse College fails as a demonstration of architectural discipline as it twists and turns and heads this way and that. Russell dares the viewer to look away from his giant, chaotic castle on the hill, and even now, more than a century after its completion, it remains exceedingly difficult to best Russell at his dare.

The building was, and is, irresistible to the eye.

Part 2:

A Practical Architect:
Archimedes Russell was willing to build whatever his clients wanted

November 10, 2002

By David Ramsey, Staff writer

Archimedes Russell (1840-1915) roamed freely through the realm of architecture.

He crafted Victorian buildings, Second Empire buildings, Beaux-Arts buildings, Romanesque buildings, Queen Anne buildings, Colonial buildings. He was, no doubt, adept at adapting.

Russell's contemporaries - Henry Hobson Richardson, Frank Furness, Louis Sullivan - created their own style and clung to it. Richardson buildings are easy to spot in the Boston area because all look strikingly similar in an artfully distinct way. The same is true for Furness in Philadelphia and for Sullivan in Chicago. All three men still are studied and embraced by architectural devotees around the world.

Russell offers no such consistent style. He adapted to the needs of his clients, which explains why he was hired to craft nearly 700 buildings in Central New York during his long career. This also explains why there is no distinctive Russell look. He was the chameleon architect.

"A very practical man," says Evamaria Hardin, who wrote "Archimedes Russell, Upstate Architect."

The words are not offered as a compliment. Hardin spent three years researching Russell's career, and his immense work ethic, his astounding ability to make building after building rise from the earth, impressed her.

He had a peaceful approach to building. Sullivan had a habit of storming out of rooms at the suggestion of even the slightest change to his designs, according to his biographer Robert Twombly. To Sullivan, his plans resembled a great painting, and any alteration polluted the work of a genius.

Russell had no such hang-ups, no such visions. He wanted what his client wanted.

This disappoints Hardin. Russell lacked artistic courage, she says. He lacked originality.

In her Syracuse University master's thesis, Hardin writes of Russell's "free adaptations of the ideas of leading architects" and observes he followed others rather than walking a fresh path.

"He followed fashion rather than trying to break new ground," she wrote in 1979.

Her view, 23 years later, remains unaltered.

"He wanted to make money," Hardin says. "He did whatever his clients wanted. He was not an inventive man. He was just building. He was not a great architect in that he had his own ideas."

Hardin is told she stopped just short of calling Russell an architectural plagiarist in her writings.

She laughs.

"He does plagiarize," she says. "He takes bits and pieces of this and that and then puts it together."

We know little about this adaptive man, Hardin says. He left scant record of his life and his dreams. He did leave a vast collection of buildings across Central New York. He was prolific, not original. He was competent in the best sense of the word, not visionary.

Russell opened his own office in 1868, when Syracuse ranked as one of the bustling cities in the United States. Hardin estimates 850 buildings were constructed in the city that year.

He purchased a newspaper advertisement to announce his new start.

"Mr. Russell possesses rare accomplishment and an extended experience which strongly recommends him to the patronage of those who intend to build," he wrote.

He was, at the birth of his career, proclaiming his philosophy. He would reach out to those with the desire and the cash to create buildings. He wanted, most of all, to please his clients.

His many buildings still serve as a testament to his success.

2002 The Post-Standard.