Joseph Lyman Silsbee & Associates in Buffalo, NY
Joseph Lyman Silsbee
Photo courtesy of Christopher Payne
Click on photo for larger size
On this page:
- Silsbee - the early years
- Silsbee & Marling in Buffalo
- Silsbee & Kent in Chicago
- Dog on a High Pitched Roof: The Question of Silsbee in Buffalo, by Austin M. Fox
- Buildings by Joseph Lyman Silsbee listed on the National Register of Historic Places
- Christopher Payne, Searching for Silsbee (online June 2015)
The early years
Joseph Lyman Silsbee (1848-1913), was a significant American architect who worked in Syracuse, Buffalo, and Chicago. He is frequently mentioned as the first employer of Frank Lloyd Wright.
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 year its architectural school was founded, 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, probably drawing some inspiration from the work of the prominent architects then working there, possibly including Norman Shaw who was developing what would become known as the Queen Anne style. Shaw's work was known from a book of sketches he published in 1858, and, especially, pen and ink drawings from 1874 in periodicals which were widely distributed in England and in America.
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. He designed in the city two fine, textbook examples of commercial Victorian Gothic, the huge Syracuse Savings Bank and the White Memorial Building both still majestic landmarks of downtown Syracuse.
The Syracuse Savings Bank was his first major commission, and on the strength of it, he married Anna Sedgwick, daughter of a prominent local banker. The success of these buildings brought him commissions for five residences in Syracuse, 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, for example, in Ballston Spa, Albany, and Peekskill (in the latter place for Henry Ward Beecher).
4 Syracuse buildings:
Click on illustrations for larger size -- and for more informationSilsbee & Marling in Buffalo
In 1882 Silsbee opened an office in Buffalo with Buffalonian James H. Marling (1857-1895). Marling, a native of Canada, had worked for several years in Silsbee's Syracuse office. He was in Buffalo by 1882, most likely to supervise the construction of Silsbee's buildings here. At least two other Syracuse employees, Frank Fuller and Fred R. Hirsh, eventually relocated to work for Silsbee in Buffalo. (Silsbee continued his office and residence in Syracuse.)
All of the commissions that Silsbee had in Buffalo -- 21 houses, plus some commercial buildings -- were the result of the contacts he made when he designed the clubhouse for the Gentlemen's Driving Club in Hamlin Park (photo) and the Falconwood clubhouse in Grand Island which burned down in the summer of 1882. Both buildings are demolished.
The Gentlemen's Driving Club is similar in appearance to Falconwood. It was the social club adjacent to the Hamlin Driving Park (which by 1903 was subdivided into residential streets and lots, becoming the Hamlin Park neighborhood). Members used the park for leisurely and competitive horse and carriage driving.
The Gentlemen's Driving Club commission was for horse owner and enthusiast Cicero Hamlin. The Hamlins ran the American Glucose Company and were members of the Falconwood Club in 1883. Silsbee and Marling designed homes for
- Harry Hamlin at 1014 Delaware,
- Cicero Hamlin, Harry's father, in 1886
- and did initial plans for Cicero's brother, William in 1887. The firm of Marling & Burdett eventually completed William's home
Silsbee's first two house commissions in Buffalo were the 1881 Noyes/Naylon House at 291 North St. and the Bemis House at 267 North Street next door. The cost for each house was $25,000.
Noye was a wealthy businessman and well-respected member of the Falconwood Club, a summer retreat for a group of affluent Buffalo families. Work on the house was done from the office in Syracuse.
The surviving Silsbee homes in Buffalo are the largest known concentration of his domestic work, and are a distinguished group of Queen Anne and Shingle Style homes.
It is important to note that Silsbee's Buffalo office was open for about 5 years, between 1882 and 1887 and that he was responsible for over thirty known buildings in that city. A majority of these commissions were homes that dotted the affluent tree-lined streets of North Street, Delaware Avenue and Linwood Avenue. In all, seven known buildings are still standing.
The survival rate is not so good but in Buffalo, it is better than other cities where he practiced. Chicago only has a couple dozen of the hundreds of structures he designed there and though a two of his finest office buildings are still standing in Syracuse, his work has fared even worse there.
- Christopher Payne, Searching for Silsbee (June 2011)
Noyes (later Henry Naylon) House,
Bainbridge Folwell Home and Office
John Bemis House
390 Linwood Ave.
Home for E. B. Smith
Fowler House, 412 Linwood Ave.
Irving Place. 1886
Detail: 63 Irving Place
Charles Germain House
William Taylor House
420 Linwood Ave.
429 Linwood Ave.
C. D. Arnold House, 123 Bidwell Parkway
White Building: Silsbee & Marling office
Edward Austin Kent was a Buffalonian who was a partner of Silsbee in Chicago
Frank Lloyd Wright worked for Silsbee in Chicago.
Silsbee & Kent in Chicago
In 1886 Silsbee settled in Chicago, and became a popular residential architect there. He brought with him a more polished and graceful residential style than had existed there.
In Chicago, he formed a partnership with Edward A. Kent. Kent, who had Buffalo connections, later practiced in Buffalo and designed
- the Unitarian Church at Elmwood and West Ferry,
- the Chemical 5 Firehouse on Cleveland Avenue, and
- the Douglas Cornell house on Delaware near Virginia.
Tragically, Kent went down at sea in 1912 on the Titanic.
Between 1884 and 1887 Silsbee and the architects in his three practices designed 75 or more buildings, most of them residences. Seven of his buildings are listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Silsbee's Chicago office in the 1887-1889 had a number of young architects who were later to become outstanding architects, especially residential architects: Frank Lloyd Wright, George Grant Elmslie, George Maher, and Irving Gill. Each of these men went from Silsbee's to Adler and Sullivan's office, perhaps following Wright who was the first to make the change.
Although by 1897 Silsbee's prominence had begun to wane, he continued to practice in Chicago almost until the time of his death in 1913. His work divides into periods -- all with a kind of textbook accuracy. -- when he was designing in
He 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.
Silsbee enjoyed an extremely successful career. He executed over 350 known designs throughout the country, and had a vigorous practice until his death in 1913.
Certainly one of his accomplishments was his influence on the early work of Frank Lloyd Wright:
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"
- "The Buffalo Architectural Legacy of J. L. Silsbee," by Christopher Payne, in Western New Heritage, Winter 2002, pp. 8-20
- "Dog on a High-Pitched Roof: The Question of Silsbee in Buffalo," by Austin M. Fox, in Buffalo Spree, Spring 1986
- Summer 1999 Preservation Coalition tour of Linwood Avenue. Tim Tielman, tour guide.
- October 2000 Graycliff Conservancy tour of four Silsbee houses
- "Buffalo Architecture: A Guide." Cambridge: MIT Press, 1981
- Classic Buffalo: A Heritage of Distinguished Architecture
- Christopher Payne and Martin Wachadlo, consultants
- Church of the Good Shepherd The initial plans were drafted by Silsbee and Marling, but later reworked by Marling and his new partner, Herbert C. Burdett.
- Buildings by Joseph Lyman Silsbee listed on the National Register of Historic Places