Joseph Lyman Silsbee

Joseph Lyman Silsbee was a significant American architect who worked in Syracuse, Buffalo and Chicago. Born in 1848 in Salem, Massachusetts, Silsbee later graduated from Exeter and from Harvard. He followed H. H. Richardson at Harvard by about ten years, and H. H. Richardson's Romanesque style was to become a major influence in his early career.

Just out of college Silsbee studied architecture at M.I.T. in 1870 -- the first year of the newly established architectural school, the first such school in the country.

In the course of the next few years Silsbee first worked for an architectural firm in Boston and then traveled in Europe sketching architecture. Not long after returning from Europe, in 1874 -- at age 26 -- Silsbee moved to Syracuse where he practiced architecture and was appointed professor of architecture at the new College of Fine Arts at Syracuse University.

In Syracuse he  designed two fine examples of commercial Victorian Gothic, the Syracuse Savings Bank and the White Memorial Building. The Syracuse Savings Bank was his first major commission; soon thereafter he married Anna Sedgewick of the prominent Sedgewick family.

The success of the two Syracuse buildings brought Silsbee commissions for five local residences, and he was offered the deanship of the new School of Architecture at Cornell, which he declined. Subsequently, he designed dwellings elsewhere in New York State, including Ballston Spa and Albany. In Peekskill he designed a home for for the famous abolitionist and orator Henry Ward Beecher -- brother to Harriet Beecher Stowe, the author of "Uncle Tom's Cabin."

In 1882 Silsbee opened a second office in Buffalo with James H. Marling (1857-1895) who also had worked in Silsbee's Syracuse office before coming to Buffalo. In 1886 Silsbee settled in Chicago and became a popular residential architect there, forming a partnership with Edward A. Kent. Tragically, Kent went down with the Titanic in 1912.

Between 1884 and 1887 Silsbee and the architects in his three practices designed 75 or more buildings, most of them residences. Silsbee's Chicago office in 1887 to1889 had a number of young architects who were later to become outstanding in their own right, especially residential architects: Frank Lloyd Wright, George Grant Elmslie, George Maher, and Irving Gill. Each of these men went from Silsbee's office to Adler and Sullivan's office, perhaps following Wright who was the first to make this change.

By 1897 Silsbee's prominence had begun to wane but he continued to practice in Chicago almost until the time of his death in 1913.

Silsbee's work divides into several periods, divided by the style of his designs: Gothic Revival, Richardsonian Romanesque, Queen Anne, Shingle, and Colonial Revival. All of these styles were executed with a kind of textbook accuracy. Silsbee is also noted for having designed the Moving Sidewalk for the Chicago World's Fair of 1893, the forerunner of the moving platforms and escalators of today.

One of Silsbee's accomplishments was certainly his influence on the early work of Frank Lloyd Wright. Wright says of Silsbee in his autobiography:

Silsbee could draw with amazing ease. He drew with soft, deep black lead-pencil strokes and he would make remarkable free-hand sketches of that type of dwelling peculiarly his own at the time. His superior talent in design had made him respected in Chicago. His work was a picturesque combination of gable turret and hip with broad porches quietly domestic and gracefully picturesque. A contrast to the awkward stupidities and brutalities of the period elsewhere (F. L. Wright, "An Autobiography").


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