Drawing on Banks

Silsbee's Artful Chaos Anchors Clinton Square

August 25, 2002

David Ramsey, Staff writer

Joseph Lyman Silsbee (1848-1913) seemed an unlikely candidate to design the most ambitious structure in Syracuse. He was only 26 years old, a virtual unknown who had never independently designed a building. Yet when judges examined, in the early days of 1875, his submission for the new Syracuse Savings Bank, they saw a massive yet graceful, dreamy yet functional design. They admired, as most everyone did, Silsbee's tremendous touch with a pencil.

Two decades later, Silsbee gave a brash architect named Frank Lloyd Wright his first job. Wright, destined to become America's greatest architect, learned much about his craft from Silsbee.

"My God, how that man can draw," Wright wrote in his autobiography.  Silsbee's conceptions of buildings were "magnificent," and his pencil strokes resembled "corn in the field waving in the breeze." Wright saved nearly all his praise for himself, but he broke his rule for Silsbee. "I adored him," Wright said.

So did judges in Syracuse.

It happened so fast. Bank officials, in a rush for an impressive structure to hold all the bank's cash, announced Feb. 25, 1875, they would use Silsbee's designs to construct a building at James and Salina streets. Construction began May 4, and 13 months later, June 7, 1876, the new Syracuse Savings Bank opened on the edge of the Erie Canal.

The building inspired a stir. A little more than 127 years ago, throngs of women and men stood in Clinton Square, looking up, way up, at Silsbee's 170-foot creation.

At the time, it ranked as Syracuse's tallest building, and visitors flocked to the building's elevator - the first for passengers in Syracuse - for a ride to the top. "More can be seen from this point than can be seen by walking or riding about town for a week," a reporter wrote.

Yet this big building also featured intricate, arresting details. Silsbee used a simple color scheme, combining tan limestone from Berlin, Ohio, with chocolate brown sandstone from Bellevue, N.J. Simplicity ended there.

A long gaze reveals flowers, leaves, grapes and an occasional gargoyle. Silsbee created the rare large structure that grows more interesting and daring as it soars. Four giant spikes rise from the corners of the roof, and the tower seems to reach for the heavens.

The building's charm, then and now, rests in its resistance to capture by the eye, which never quite gains control of the structure. This is a building that veers in every direction at once and still works as Silsbee's expression of artful chaos.

"It is certainly not a boring building," says Syracuse architectural historian Evamaria Hardin, author of "Syracuse Landmarks." "And it's certainly not understated."

It ranked as an instant hit. A critic for the Syracuse Journal toured the building the week it opened and pronounced Silsbee's creation a smashing success.

"The great variety... is in striking contrast to the dull uniformity so generally observed in large public buildings," he wrote, using words that have gained truth over the decades.

Later, sniping began. Architecture critic Henry Russell Hitchcock described Silsbee's work in Syracuse as "confused" and "in no sense exceptional."

Dennis Connors of the Onondaga Historical Association has examined 20th-century critiques of the building and found architects who described the Syracuse Savings Bank as a "hulking, old Victorian thing."

Truth can be found in the critics' words. Yes, the building is confusing, which only heightens its allure. The bank is a whimsical building, not a logical one, and roars in a zany, nervy way straight into the sky, reflecting young man Silsbee's need to seize the attention and admiration of his audience.

Yes, the building is a hulk, and it certainly is Victorian, with all the overstatement, high drama and over-the-top ornamentation required of the style. Silsbee veered away from a careful, subdued approach to create an outlandish, celebratory building.

"The guy on the street has always admired the building," Connors says with obvious affection. The reason for this admiration, he says, is obvious. "It's a great building."

On April 13, 1877, less than a year after the completion of Syracuse Savings Bank, Silsbee's red-and-tan White Memorial Building opened at Salina and Washington streets. It, too, is crammed with detail and drama, but the young man's ferocious style has been tamed, if only a bit.

He never again soared quite so freely. During the final decades of his career, Silsbee concentrated on building homes for the wealthy.

His Syracuse homes were lost to fire and wrecking balls, but four examples of his home design can be found on Linwood Avenue near downtown Buffalo, and several Silsbee homes remain in Chicago, where he moved in 1884. These homes were impressive, yet sensible. The nervy audacity that dominated the Syracuse Savings Bank faded in his final years.

Silsbee was a quiet, modest man. The son of a prosperous Unitarian minister, he grew up in Salem, Mass., and graduated from Harvard and MIT. At Harvard, he cruised through school, more interested in long walks in the country and fast boat rides down the Charles River than in books.

Yet, he excelled with a pencil in his hand. While engaged in conversation, Silsbee often doodled, creating buildings, faces, landscapes and animals. He could quickly and powerfully transport his vision for a building from mind to paper. This was his transcendent talent, one that helped lead to his creation of Syracuse Savings Bank.

The young man had no good reason to believe he could claim Syracuse's greatest architectural commission of the 19th century. He had no good reason other than his talent, his nerve and his clear vision for the future of the corner at James and Salina.

His greatest creation still thrives, still enchants. Today, it remains common to see Syracuse visitors to Clinton Square staring at the tan-and-brown, thoroughly Victorian creation of Joseph Lyman Silsbee.

"It still dominates the square," Hardin says. "It's so full of colors, details and textures."

It is a full destination, packed with a young man's hopes and gifts.

Sources: "The Early Work of Joseph Lyman Silsbee," Syracuse University thesis by Donald Robert Pulfer; and "Syracuse Landmarks," by Evamaria Hardin.

Section: CNY; Edition: Final; Page: H1

Copyright, 2002, The Herald Company