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
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
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
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
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
Sources: "The Early Work of Joseph Lyman Silsbee," Syracuse
University thesis by Donald Robert Pulfer; and "Syracuse Landmarks," by
Edition: Final; Page: H1
Copyright, 2002, The Herald Company