Thursday, May 17, 2012

Some Work at the Stickley House - - And Here are my Ideas (and some others) for the Future

Some Work at the Stickley House - And Here are My Ideas (and some others) for the Future
by Samuel D. Gruber

[if in a hurry - skip to the end and read options 3 & 4.]

Syracuse, NY. Gustav Stickley House.  Work on temporary roof protection. Photo: Samuel D. Gruber May 2012.
In early March I wrote and posted photos about the deplorable condition of the Gustav Stickley house on the East Side's Columbus Avenue, thus breaking a long-suffering silence about the fate of this important CNY site. To my mind the house is the single most influential residential building in Syracuse, having helped define and then witness the Craftsman Movement and its magazine.

Syracuse, NY. Stickley House. Photo: S. D. Gruber Feb. 2012
Whether my public complaining and posting of photos had an influence - or whether it is just the Zeitgeist - I do not know.  But I can report that there has been a lot of talk about the house in the last two months, unpublicized site visits and now some much needed - though still short term - attention to the roof.  Anyone who has passed by on Columbus in recent days has seen a lift and men at work, apparently laying new protective sheeting on the roof to better make the structure watertight.  The house was fortunate to have escaped a harsh winter, but still every rain can bring water into those old wood walls fostering interior rot and bringing damp and decay to plaster walls and ceiling and wood and paint finishes.  The damage is not always visible when it happens - it often only appears when things are dried out and plaster crumbles to dust. 

There is still no public word on the future of the house but there has been quiet discussion in Central New York's culture community.  The wheels of planning in our community work slowly, and sometimes stop altogether.  I've heard some alarming proposals - and some really wonderful ideas.  I hope the latter win out, but as always in our region money needs and expediency will compete.  Will CNY take the long view and create a lasting urban and cultural resource we can be proud of, or will we settle for a quick fix and an easy sale to temporarily solve the problem?  I post this entry to keep the pressure on, with the hope of building, or at least encouraging momentum.

I group the options into four main categories - and I hope we can safely forget the first.

1.  Ignore the building, let decay continue and the building go to hell, until it look like every neglected and abandoned house in the city.  Curiously - the Stickley house is now the WORST looking house on this block of Columbus.  Other people are caring for their properties much better than I have seen in nearly years of watching the street.

Syracuse, NY. Stickley House. Photo: S. D. Gruber Feb. 2012

2. Ignore the building (and screw the neighborhood), but strip it's historic artistic interior features for donation or sale.  We know these fixtures would fetch a high process in today's overheated Arts & Crafts market.  There are also all sorts of museums and cultural institutions locally and nationally that are salivating to get these pieces.  While most will declare "we would never never strip an historic buildings," privately they'll go on to say with an implied wink "but if someone else did and we were offered the pieces, or we saw them for sale at auction, of course we would be interested."   So, to my mind, losing the Stickley interior to some other region of the country is a distinct possibility.  After all, a medieval manuscript in the OCPL was sold a bargain price to a collector in the 1990s, the county sold off large segments of the Salt Museum collection,  Liberty Diner went to a museum in Rhode Island, Tiffany windows from South Presbyterian Church were sold to a collector in California and now the fittings, furnishing and windows from Holy Trinity may leave town for New Orleans.  So let's not kid  ourselves - losing Stickley is a distinct possibility!  Of course, if the building is neglected long enough (see option 1), then stripping the building becomes the munificent thing to do.  Once again, demolition by neglect.

Syracuse, NY. Stickley House. Photo: S. D. Gruber Feb. 2012
3. A third option would be to turn back the clock and put the building to work again.  Some not-for-profit or even a private individual should buy the building or (given the cost of restoration) receive it as a gift, and then restore it with the Stickley downstairs intact and open to view on a schedule or by appointment, and perhaps used for meetings and lectures, with the upstairs floors used again as apartments.  Income from apartments could help maintain the building, and perhaps house an on-site caretaker.  A better version of this would be a similar plan, but run by a not-for-profit, and the apartment could serve visiting Arts & Crafts scholars or artists, and also house a caretaker.  Perhaps a working Arts & Crafts library could be installed.  This gets close to what the Arts & Crafts Society wanted to do in the 1990s.  Something along these lines was quietly floated by representatives of the Audi family and Stickley a number of years ago, but all the interested small organizations realized they didn't have the money, means, staff or stamina to carry out such a project.  The heavy hitters - SU, ESF were not interested (then).  SU was just turning its attention downtown to the Warehouse and then to the Near West Side.  ESF was embarking on its expansion plans to the west as well.  OHA and the Everson - the logical history and art institutions with real ties to the Stickley legacy were struggling then (as they always are) to meet their annual budget needs and to maintain their own buildings. OHA was in the midst of a move and expansion to its new building on Montgomery Street (with its facade and windows now beautifully restored!).  The Everson still officially had its multi-million dollar expansion plan on the table.   This, thankfully, seems now to have passed its moment.  Today, however, things are better.  It is conceivable that any of these four institutions (SU, ESF, OHA or the Everson) could implement a version this option.

Syracuse, NY. Stickley Hse.  Temporary roof protection. Photo: S. D. Gruber May 2012
4.  And then there is the best case scenario...this would take option three, but ratchet it up a notch so that the Stickley House would not just survive as working house, but would be turned into a full-service research and exhibition center for Central New York's famous (and continuing) Arts & Crafts Movement.  Under the auspices of OHA and/or the Everson, the house would be restored supported by nationally-gathered tax-deductible donations and tax-credits where appropriate.  The house would have galleries for permanent and temporary exhibitions, office space and still (perhaps) house a top floor caretaker's apartment.  The house would function as a satellite museum with regular hours.  There would be difficulties beyond the money (minimally many millions of dollars for restoration, installation, security, curatorship, etc.).  A zoning change would be needed.  Parking would be required - perhaps including the demolition of at least of the later structures on Columbus.  But still... I can cite the success of many similar projects in this country and abroad. The idea is a idealistic, but also realistic, and should be seriously considered - and championed.

Personally, as an art historian, local historian, collection curator, historic preservationist, cultural heritage consultant and neighborhood resident I could live with either option 3 or 4.
But this is Syracuse.  This time, let's be inspired, let's not settle for second-rate.  Let's do something really great, really noticeable, and something that will be on the map not just for us, but for the entire world.  The Stickley house is a small building - but it can have a big big impact!

Readers....what do you think?  Let me know, let your elected officials know, and let our cultural leaders know.

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