Silverthorne House - Table of Contents

History - Silverthorne House
877 Delaware Avenue, Buffalo, NY
Linwood Preservation District

2007 Junior League Of Buffalo and The Buffalo News Show House

By Jane Hamilton, Junior League Historian

On May 24th, 1906 on the instructions of Asa K. Silverthorne, a lumber merchant, plans were filed by the architectural firm of Esenwein and Johnson with the City of Buffalo for a building permit for both a mansion and a rear structure at 877 Delaware Avenue, to replace an existing structure.
At the turn of the twentieth century Esenwein & Johnson were the second most active architectural practice in Buffalo, New York, after Green & Wicks. The firm had their offices at 775-793 Ellicott Square.
The partnership of Esenwein & Johnson was formed in 1897, August Carl Esenwein and James A Johnson being the senior partners. Esenwein was born on November 7th 1856 at Esenwein-Virnsberg in Wuertemburg, South Germany. He studied at private schools and in 1874 entered the Stuttgart Polytechnic University for five years, also serving a year with the Royal German army. In 1879 he went to Paris, spending two years as a draughtsman in an architect's studio.
In 1880 Esenwein emigrated to America and settled in Buffalo. Initially he found employment as a draughtsman, and then joined the Delaware, Lackawanna and Western Railroad's engineering department. During this time he took a major step in his architectural career by winning first prize for a design for the first Buffalo Music Hall in 1882, which was then constructed under his supervision.
After leaving the railroad company Esenwein worked by himself as an architect until 1897 when he formed a partnership with James Addison Johnson, which continued until his death in 1926. He died at the age of 70 in his home at 167 Oxford Street, which he designed. He was buried in Forest Lawn Cemetery. His wife, the former Katherine L Haberstro, had passed away the previous year, and his son August Carl was his sole survivor.
Esenwein's professional memberships included the Pan-American Board of Architects; the Buffalo Society of Architects and Ancient Landmarks Lodge. Before his partnership with Johnson his designs included Engine No 22; the German-American Brewery and the Alfred Schoellkopf residence. He worked in a variety of architectural styles including Queen Anne, Richardsonian Romanesque, Italian Renaissance and Colonial Revival.
James A Johnson was born near Syracuse, New York and was educated in the US. He learned his skills in several architectural offices, including those of McKim, Mead & White in New York and Richard Morris Hunt. Johnson came to Buffalo in 1892 and practiced with James Marling (1892-1895), designing the Alexander Main Curtiss House at 780 West Ferry Street in Buffalo (now the Ronald McDonald House), and later with William H Boughton (1895-1897), working primarily in the Colonial Revival style.
The partnership of Esenwein & Johnson was formed in 1897, when Johnson was aged 32. Ornamentation was Johnson's specialty -- the motifs featuring electric motors and generators that decorate the Niagara Mohawk Building were his invention. He and William W. Kent of New York designed the inlaid marble floor of the Ellicott Square Building in 1929. Esenwein & Johnson were extremely successful, producing over 1,000 designs, ranging from mantels to multi-building complexes.  Their numerous works included the design of the Temple of Music, the Administration Building and Alt Numberg - all at the Pan American Exposition, where President McKinley was shot in 1901; the AM&A's Department Store Building; the Calumet Building; the Buffalo Museum of Science (1925-1929); the General Electric Tower/Niagara Mohawk Building, a prominent feature of the Buffalo skyline at the corner of Genesee and Washington Streets; Lafayette High School; the Masten Park High School/Fosdick-Masten High School/City Honors School; the Schoellkopf-Vom Berge Manor on Chapin Parkway (the 11th Decoratorsí Show House in 2001); the Century House at 100 Lincoln Parkway (the 13th Decoratorsí Show House in 2005); the Elephant House at the Buffalo Zoo (1912); and the Colonel Ward Pumping Station (1912-1916). [See Online Buildings.]
After the death of Esenwein in 1926 Johnson became advisory architect to the restoration of Old Fort Niagara. Frank B Kelly joined the firm as a partner, and the firm was finally dissolved by Kelly in 1942 after the demise of Johnson, who died in Buffalo General Hospital at the age of 73 and was buried in Oswego.
Early history of Lot 56
The Holland Land company records show Lot 56, Township 11, Range 8 as the plot upon which 877 Delaware was built. The original building was a two and a half story frame house, occupied in 1891 by George S Donaldson of Collingwood & Donaldson, dealers in cut stone. Ten years later John Donaldson, born in Ireland, aged seventy one and retired, resided there with an invalid son William. The premises continued to be occupied by members of the Donaldson family until ownership was assumed by Silverthorne in 1906. At this time the original property was demolished and Esenwein designed a new 8,600 square foot, two and one half story mansion with 8 bedrooms and 8 bathrooms and 7 fireplaces.
 Asa K Silverthorne - first owner of current 877 Delaware Avenue - the Silverthorne Mansion
The mansion at 877 Delaware Avenue was designed and built for Asa K Silverthorne. He was born in Iowa in 1868 and worked on his father's farm until the age of 18 when he moved to Chicago to work for his uncles who owned W E and A W Kelly, a lumber business. He remained with them in Chicago for three years and then moved to Tonawanda in 1890 to open a lumber yard for the Kelly firm. Subsequently, he bought out the Kelly firm and in April 1891 he and his brother organized Silverthorne & Co., and established a large lumber yard on Tonawanda Island. Later he ran the business alone, and eventually his son joined him and became president of the company.
Throughout his stormy business career Asa Silverthorne displayed great courage and tenacity. Through his sheer hard work he learned the lumber business from all angles, having started with his uncles at the bottom and worked his way up through every job. Twice during his business career Silverthorne lost his fortune, but on both occasions he regained his place in the lumber world. He had interest in large lumber companies in the South from where he purchased most of the lumber which he sold at his Tonawanda lumber yard.
On two occasions Silverthorne's business troubles brought him to court. In 1911 he was accused of defrauding the railroad companies. The case never came to trial and indictments were dismissed. In 1920 Silverthorne finished a two year fight against similar indictments which were returned against him, his son Frederick W Silverthorne, and others. The jury in the case disagreed upon the charge of conspiring to defraud the government by over billing shipments of lumber to the railroads when they were under government control ó during World War I and until 1920 railroads were run by the federal government. At that time his trial was the longest in the history of the local federal district court; it took nine weeks to put in the evidence.
The case of Silverthorne Lumber Co., Inc., et al VS. United States, 251 U.S. 385 (1920)  was significant because it helped established the law regarding search and seizure, and has been cited in a number of subsequent Supreme and Circuit Courtsí cases. It established that a corporation had the same right of protection from illegal search and seizure as an individual had.

What happened was that an indictment on a single specific charge having been brought against Asa Silverthorne and his son, Frederick, they were both arrested at their homes early in the morning of February 25, 1919 and were detained in custody for a number of hours. During their detention representatives of the Department of Justice and the United States Marshal went to the Silverthornes' company offices and without any authority seized books, papers and documents that they found there. As soon as they could, the Silverthornes applied to the District Court to have returned all the material which had been taken unlawfully. The District Attorney opposed this. Photographs and copies of relevant papers were made and a new indictment was framed based on the contents of the material which had been sized unlawfully. The District Court ordered a return of the original material but impounded the photographs and copies.

The Silverthornes were then served with subpoenas to produce the originals, which they refused to do, so the Court then ordered that the subpoenas be complied with even though the Court found that the original seizure of the material was indeed in violation of the Silverthornes' rights under the Fourth Amendment of the Constitution.

For refusing to obey this order the District Court fined the Silverthorne Lumber Company for contempt of court and ordered that Frederick W Silverthorne be imprisoned. The Government, whilst acknowledging and condemning the illegal seizure, saw fit to use the knowledge so gained to proceed against the Silverthornes: in effect, the protection afforded by the Constitution referred merely to the physical possession of the material and not to the knowledge so acquired which it intended to use to the detriment of the Silverthornes.
The case was argued on December 12, 1919 and decided in the Silverthorne' favor on January 26th 1920. It is said during what must have been an extremely stressful time that Asa Silverthorne maintained his innocence of all charges against him, and displayed great courage, maintaining a composure which won him many friends. 

The following year, on February 9, 1921, he died suddenly in his office on Tonawanda Island at 4 o'clock in the afternoon. As usual in the morning he had driven to his office from his Buffalo home - by then he was residing at 91 Linwood Avenue, also in the City of Buffalo, having presumably been obliged to sell 877 Delaware Avenue when his fortunes waned. He suffered what he thought was an attack of indigestion, but recovered, and went to lunch. During the afternoon he was in great pain and shortly before 4 o'clock a Dr. Robert F. Reagen was called. Jokingly, Silverthorne told him he should have been there before and that he was now all right Dr. Reagen suggested he should examine him, and while he was taking Silverthorne's pulse the patient's head dropped and he died instantly.

Silverthorne was survived by his wife Mattie F. and one daughter, a Mrs. Margaret Richards of Cleveland, his one son Frederick W Silverthorne of Buffalo, and also one sister and four brothers.
Subsequent Ownership - the Wickwires

On May 17th 1920 ownership of the Silverthorne Mansion is recorded as passing from Mattie F. Silverthorne to Emma V. Wickwire, and thence to her husband Theodore H. Wickwire on June 14th, 1920.
Theodore Wickwire was born on a farm east of Cortland, New York, on March 29, 1851, one of five children. As a young man, Theodore and his brother, Chester, were proprietors of a small hardware store on Main Street in Cortland. It was here in 1873 that Theodore and Chester conceived the idea of making wire cloth, and began their steel and wire manufacturing career.  Some old looms were tendered them in payment of a debt. Using their ingenuity and mechanical skills the young brothers converted the looms for use in the manufacture of a wire cloth. Soon after the Wickwires gave up their hardware store and devoted their time exclusively to the steel and wire business. The brothers invented many of the mechanical devices that refined the manufacture of steel and wire materials.
Theodore married Emma V Woodmancy on June 12th, 1878. He and Emma had three sons, Theodore H. Jr., Jere R. and Ward A., and a daughter Harriet A. Wickwire.
In 1906 the brothers established a blast furnace at Buffalo to supply materials for the plant. From this the Wickwire Steel Company and the Wickwire-Spencer companies evolved. Theodore Wickwire moved to Buffalo at that time and became president of the Wickwire Steel Company. At the time this was one of the most completely equipped wire plants in the world, and Wickwire stands among the leaders of Buffalo's greatest industries.
Although Wickwire moved to Buffalo he retained many active interests in Cortland, which included being a local member of the board of trustees of the Presbyterian Church, a member of the local board of the Cortland State Normal school, and vice president of the Second National Bank. In 1896 he was a presidential elector in the Republican Party.

He maintained a home in Cortland at 55 Tompkins Street as well as the house at 877 Delaware Avenue, and also had a property at Olympia Island in Florida for twenty years where he customarily spent the winters.
In August 1926 Wickwire was taken to Buffalo General Hospital. A few days later an operation was performed, but complications resulted in his death soon after at 10 am on Sunday, 31 August, at the age of 75 years. His body was taken to his Cortland residence, where his funeral took place two days later, followed by burial in the Cortland rural cemetery. Although the value of the 877 Delaware Avenue property was not published at the time of his death, in his will of December 6, 1921 he left his entire estate in trust for his wife, with the income to be paid quarterly, and with the estate to be divided equally among their children upon Emma Wickwire's death. Later the newspaper reported that he left a taxable estate of $610,122.
Subsequent Ownership and Use
In 1927 the property at 877 Delaware Avenue was sold to John N Pistell, a Buffalo stockbroker, who was also a widower, for $65,000.  A Trustee's Deed of April 1930 named Clarence K. Pistell and M&T Trust Company of Buffalo as trustees of the premises, which it appears were by then divided into smaller rented apartments with Clarence K. Pistell also residing in the property. However, John Pistell went bankrupt, and in 1935 the mansion was taken over by the City of Buffalo on tax liens.
In June 1944 Mr. Lawrence Kelling, an occupant of the property, acquired 877 Delaware Avenue from the City of Buffalo for a consideration of $16,000. The Common Council approved the sale by an 8 to 7 vote, following a heated debate over the merits of Kelling's offer of a down payment of $3,000, with the balance to be paid in five years, compared with a cash offer of $15,000 from the Irish Club, Inc., holding corporation of the Knights of Equity, a fraternal organization. Councilman William J Hickman argued successfully that it would be discriminatory to reject Kelling's offer as he had already spent large sums of money on improving the property. By now the mansion contained a number of rented apartments and rooms, and around this time the former stable at the rear of the property was converted into a four-car garage with two apartments on the second floor. Kelling operated it as an apartment and rooming house until March 1954, when he sold it to Walter G. Thom of Ebenezer for more than $40,000. Four years later it passed to Louis Wertheimer, and a few years after that Robert Boasberg acquired an undivided half interest in the property.
For the next several decades the grand mansion had a somewhat checkered history under a variety of individual and corporate owners, being used both residentially and as offices.

In May 2006 the house was purchased by the current owners who are in the process of restoring this magnificent mansion to its original purpose as a residence.

Special thanks to Junior League Of Women Show House Chair Julie Warman for her assistance

Photos and their arrangement © 2007 Chuck LaChiusa
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