Birge-Horton House - Table of Contents
Henry and Fanny King Birge - Katherine Pratt Horton
Katherine Pratt Horton Chapter, DAR House
477 Delaware Avenue, Buffalo, NY
By Martin Wachadlo
An excerpt from the National Register Nomination
(National Register - Basic Criteria: Erie; Results)
The Birge-Horton House at 477 Delaware Avenue is architecturally significant under National Register Criterion C as an outstanding and largely intact example of a Georgian Revival row house, one of a group of important row houses that are unique in Buffalo.
This house was designed in 1895 by Green & Wicks, the preeminent architectural office in Buffalo from the 1890s through the early twentieth century; this firm had an established reputation for high quality design, and their work was frequently featured in various national architectural periodicals of the day.
On both the interior and exterior, the Birge-Horton House retains a high level of historic integrity of design, materials, workmanship, setting and association.
This house was built for Henry M. Birge (died 1904) and his wife, the former Fanny King (died 1930) whom he married in 1878. Henry was the second son of Martin H. Birge (1806-1900), who came to Buffalo during the 1830s and opened a dry goods store. His focus eventually shifted to selling wallpaper, and finally to manufacturing it. Martin Birge took in Henry and his brother George as partners in the 1870s (after both had graduated from Harvard), the firm becoming M. H. Birge & Sons, and they built a new plant at Niagara and Maryland Streets on Buffalo's lower west side.
The company grew to become one of the largest wallpaper concerns in the nation, internationally known for quality, and eventually opened offices in Europe. The firm became a branch of the National Wall Paper Co. in 1890, with the brothers becoming managers at the Buffalo plant, but returned to Birge family control in 1900. (M. H. Birge & Sons prospered through most of the twentieth century, under the control of George and his descendants, but eventually fell victim to changing fashion. The firm moved out of the plant at 390 Niagara Street in 1976, which was subsequently demolished, and went out of business in 1982.)
In the spring of 1895, Henry Birge commissioned a row house from Green & Wicks, perhaps the most prominent architectural office in the city at the time. By 1895 Green & Wicks had become the architects of choice for the Birge family: they had remodeled the Birge Building on Main Street in 1894; in 1895 they were remodeling George's summer home at Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont., and were designing an entirely newspaper factory for the Birge firm at Niagara and Maryland Streets, to replace the one destroyed by fire the year before.
The site chosen was in The Midway (originally called the Midway Plaisance) on Delaware Avenue, Buffalo's most prestigious residential street. The Midway was a group of thirteen luxury row houses unique to Buffalo (now reduced to twelve; the comer house at 469 Delaware Avenue was demolished in the 1970s for a parking lot). (The name was derived from its being midway between Niagara Square, the center of the city, and Delaware Park, Buffalo's largest park.)
There was never a great need for row houses in Buffalo, where even a family of moderate means could afford a detached dwelling in the city; but as the wealthy of the major east coast cities lived in such houses (out of necessity), it seemed like an idea worth trying to the elite of Buffalo. Such a development was already under consideration by early 1888, when the Buffalo Architectural Sketch Club held a competition for row house design.
The former Cornell Lead Works, on the east side of Delaware Avenue north of Virginia Street, was demolished c. 1890, and in 1892 construction began on what would later be called "the most urbane streetscape in the city." Though each house was of different design, all would present the appearance of a unified composition through similarities in height, width, and compatibility of materials. This goal was achieved through the common consent of the clients and their architects, who included George Cary, Marling & Johnson, Lansing & Beierl, and Green & Wicks.
By early 1895, only one lot in the Midway was still vacant, and this was the lot purchased from Kate Sweet by Fanny Birge on April 25, 1895. (Most sources give Henry as the client, but a cost list of 1896 states that the client was Fanny....) Green & Wicks soon had plans underway, and a permit (#5581) was filed with the Bureau of Building on July 16, 1895. The prominent local builders E. M. Hager & Son had charge of erecting the four-story, brick and stone Georgian Revival house, which was built at a cost of just under $20,000, exclusive of furnishings.
Henry and Fanny had moved into the completed house by the spring of 1896. (Not to be outdone, brother George soon commissioned his own freestanding Georgian Revival house on Symphony Circle, designed by the prominent Boston architects Little & Brown.)
The Birges did not long enjoy their new house. Poor health forced Henry to retire from his position at the Birge plant in 1900; Henry and Fanny then left Buffalo, possibly for New York City, and soon divorced (they had no children). His health did not improve, and Henry died at Canandaigua, N.Y., in 1904. He left the bulk of his estate to Fanny, who never returned to live in Buffalo; she lived in New York City for several years and then spent the rest of her life in Toronto.
After the Birges departed, they rented the house at 477 Delaware Avenue to a succession of locally prominent tenants.
Peter A. Porter, renter
From about 1901 to 1903 the house was rented to Peter A. Porter (1853-1925) and his family. Porter was a successful businessman and politician who divided his time between Buffalo and Niagara Falls, N.Y., his birthplace. During the late 1880s he introduced the legislation at Albany that facilitated the development of the Niagara Falls power project. Porter's family was among the earliest settlers of Western New York, arriving in 1795, and was of great distinction militarily: His father died at Cold Harbor during the Civil War, his grandfather was a hero of the War of 1812, and his great grandfather fought in numerous battles during the Revolution.
Mrs. Frances M. Wolcott, Lyman M. Bass, renters
During 1904 and 1905 the house was occupied by Mrs. Frances M. Wolcott (1851-1933) and her son Lyman M. Bass, a prominent local lawyer. She was the daughter of Elizia Metcalf, whose 1882 house (demolished) was the first Buffalo commission of McKim, Mead & White. Frances was first married to Lyman K. Bass (died 1889), a local congressman whose law firm included Grover Cleveland. Her second husband was Edward 0. Wolcott, U. S. senator from Colorado, a business associate of her first husband.
She returned to Buffalo around 1900, sans senator, and appears to have left the city for good around 1906. [Mrs. Wolcott rented the Cornell House - across the street from the Birge House.]
Frances Wolcott was prominent in social and cultural circles in the major cities of America and Europe during most of her life. Her summer home, "Hillcrest," near Geneseo (where she resided concurrently with 477 Delaware Avenue), "was the center of a group of leaders of art and literature,"' as was her later home in New York City. The same was no doubt true of her "big Buffalo house on Delaware Avenue ... on 'The Midway,' where she entertained at dinner parties to which the city's best people came.
Katharine Pratt Horton
In early 1906 Katharine Pratt Horton (1848-1931) took up residence at 477 Delaware Avenue, and unlike the previous tenants, would stay for the rest of her life. After renting the house for about sixteen years, she purchased it from Fanny Birge in 1920, becoming the second of only three owners.
Katharine was the daughter of Pascal P. and Phebe Pratt, one of Buffalo's oldest families. Pratt founded M&T Bank in 1856, today one of the larger banks in the nation, among many other Buffalo businesses. Katharine married prominent local businessman John Miller Horton (died 1902) in 1869; together they lived and traveled for over a decade in Europe, and were received at numerous royal courts. Her elegant and refined tastes, heightened by European experience, contributed to Katharine's great success as a society hostess in Buffalo: "Indeed, it was as a hostess that she shone with greatest charm. Her home on Delaware avenue was reminiscent of the salons of France, with its sumptuous furnishings in the style of the Louis, its faience and its objects of art.
Katharine Pratt Horton was considered "Buffalo's grand old woman" at the time of her death, "for more than 50 years one of the most prominent club women in the city and always active in civic, social and patriotic events. She was a member or leader of countless local and national societies, many of which she helped found; in fact, there seemed to be few organizations favored by society women that she was not a member of. Katharine also served on the Women's Board of Managers at the Pan-American Exposition in 1901, represented her city at the Charleston Exposition of 1902, the St. Louis World's Fair of 1904, and the Panama-Pacific Exposition of 1915, and served as a delegate to the International Peace Arbitration Congress in Europe.
But her greatest passion was the Katharine Pratt Horton Buffalo Chapter of the National Society of the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR). "This organization was the child Katharine Pratt never had, upon it she lavished the devotion of her great and generous heart..." She had been one of the chapter's founders in 1892, and eventually became the regent; under her enthusiastic leadership, it grew into the second-largest DAR chapter in the nation.
So great was her interest in the future of the DAR chapter that Katharine left 477 Delaware Avenue, along with its furnishings, to the chapter at her death, and "established a $20,000 endowment fund for its maintenance as the society's headquarters with the provision the Buffalo chapter be named in her honor.
Katharine Pratt Horton died in "her Palatial Delaware Avenue home" on Aug. 27, 1931, and funeral rites were held in the house. Her will was contested by family members, as she knew it would be. "What do you think of my having willed my house with all its contents to the Buffalo Chapter D. A. R.?," she asked rhetorically in the late 1920s. Her own view was that as her relatives were well provided for, and her father's inheritance carried no restrictions, she could do as she wished. Thus the newly named Katharine Pratt Horton Buffalo Chapter of the DAR became the third and current owner of the Birge House.
Green & Wicks
The architectural firm of Green & Wicks was perhaps the most significant ever to practice in Buffalo. The office was the leading firm in the city when the Birge House was commissioned, as a contemporary account attests: "Buffalo has many good architects, most of them young and well trained in the latest developments of their great art; but to no single firm is so much of prominent Buffalo work attributable as to Green & Wicks. Both members of that firm are young and full of energy, but with many years of experience in large work, and that they have indelibly impressed their mark upon the Buffalo of today."'
Edward B. Green (1855-1950) and William S. Wicks (1854-1919) were natives of Central New York. Both attended the architectural program at Cornell University during the 1870s, where Green graduated in 1878; Wicks completed his final two years at MIT, graduating in 1877. (They were among the few men to have a formal architectural education during this period, as most American architects received their training solely in established offices.) Both men worked for William H. Miller in Ithaca around 1880, and the partnership of Green & Wicks was formed in Auburn, N.Y., in 1881-1882. The young firm immediately began receiving a significant amount of work in Buffalo, and moved to that city during 1884-1885. Green & Wicks then began executing a stream of prominent buildings:
- the First Presbyterian Church (1889-1891) (National Register - Basic Criteria: Erie; Results)
- Market Arcade (1892) (National Register - Basic Criteria: Erie; Results)
- Dun Building (1893-1894)
- Twentieth Century Club (1895-1896)
- Buffalo Savings Bank (1898-1900) in Buffalo,
- the University Block (1897) in Syracuse, and
- the Albright Memorial Library (1891-1892) in Scranton, Pa.,
are some of the more significant early examples to survive; all were contemporaries of the Birge-Horton House.
Later work included the Marine Bank Building in Buffalo, the State Agricultural College in Ithaca (National Register), and the State Fair Buildings at Syracuse (National Register), all c. 1910-1913, and numerous residential commissions.
The firm was dissolved in 1917, and Wicks died two years later; Green continued to practice, first with his sons, then with other partners, almost until his death in 1950. As James, Meadows & Howard, Green's firm ultimately lasted until 1974.
The earliest work of Green & Wicks was Queen Anne in style; this was later supplemented by the Richardsonian Romanesque and Shingle styles. Around 1890 these picturesque styles began to give way to models of classical derivation, the predominant expression of the American Renaissance then beginning to bloom across the nation. Green & Wicks produced some transitional designs during this period, most notably three houses on The Midway, 487-489 and 499 Delaware Avenue (1892-1893). Although they utilized buff Roman brick and classical details, these residences are more Queen Anne or medieval in character than classical.
By the time the Birge House was commissioned, Green & Wicks were working almost exclusively in the classical mode, producing designs that aspired to a direct connection with an idealized past sought by the new American aristocracy. In fact, their firm's work closely paralleled that of the great New York architects McKim, Mead & White, principal progenitors of the American Renaissance. Green would have been well aware of their work, having been a member of the Architectural League of New York since 1887; the New York firm was also producing two Georgian Revival houses in Buffalo at the time, the Robert K. Root House (1894-1896, demolished) and the Charles H. Williams House (1895-1896), both on Delaware Avenue only two blocks away from The Midway.
In fact, the Birge House seems to have been directly inspired by two early McKim, Mead & White essays in the Georgian Revival - the Amory-Olney Double House (1890-1892) in Boston and the H. A. C. Taylor Double House (1892-1896) in New York, that city's first Georgian Revival house.
Green & Wicks reduced those six-bay designs to three bays and incorporated many of the features. On the prototypes the stone lunettes above the windows on the piano nobile featured alternating designs of swags and wreaths; on the Birge House each of the lunettes featured both swags and wreaths. Green & Wicks also made more use of the stone splayed lintels.
Perhaps the greatest exterior difference was at the base. The McKim, Mead & White designs featured solid stone ground floor exteriors, which Green & Wicks translated as brick with stone quoins. Another departure was the pronounced semicircular porch on the Birge House, a feature Green & Wicks had already used on a Colonial Revival Edmund B. Hayes House (1890-1891; demolished) at 147 North Street.
The Birge-Horton House retains a remarkably high level of integrity in detail, setting materials, workmanship, feeling and association, reflecting the aspirations of its late nineteenth century architectural firm and its occupants. As one of Buffalo's most distinguished examples of Georgian Revival domestic architecture, the Birge-Horton House is one of the most important local historic landmarks.