Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Beyond the Box, Resurrection and Efficient Living in Camillus

Camillus, NY. St. Luke's Episcopal Church (1957). Photo: Samuel D. Gruber 2014)

Camillus, NY. Wilcox Octagon House (1856). Photo: Samuel D. Gruber 2014)
Beyond the Box, Resurrection and Efficient Living in Camillus
by Samuel D. Gruber

Usually driving down a strip in Central New York in the inner or outer suburbs, and along some of the old entrance routes to Syracuse, one drives by rows of boxes.   Closest to the city center are a few decorated Art Deco boxes and some small post-World War II brick retail and service stores simple and functional in their design.  On older streets (like James Street in Syracuse), are more delicate, often see-through modernist boxes, where they replaced mansions torn down in the 1960s and 70s., and to these we can add some fast food outlets that still draw on post-war modernism for inspiration.  Lastly, and so common now, are the rows of big bulky boxes with nothing to look at all to catch the eye - so uninteresting in their design inside or out - that their bigness and boxiness has given them their name of "big box stores".

Well, I had a pleasant break from this the other day heading to Camillus, when I drove by in quick succession two striking buildings that seem to have escaped from the box - and delight in offering alternate geometry.  The sanctuary of St. Luke's Episcopal Church at 5402 West Genesee St., designed by Crenshaw & Folley  and built in 1957, has a tall thin profile with steeply slanting sides, like someone cut it a like a piece of pie from a larger building.  The architecture seemed perfectly appropriate for the adjacent sign proclaiming "Allealuia, Christ is Risen," for indeed this building with its tall cross inscribed on the window wall facing the street seems to have arisen itself, sprung up for Easter beside the busy road.  Inside, the narrow sanctuary space soars, but the wood lined space is warmly intimate.  The is one of the most expressive modern religious buildings in the Syracuse area.  And for those who know my interest in plastics in architecture, there is the added fact that St. Luke's interior wood is Rilco laminated wood from the Weyerhaeuser Co., bonded with "structural glues stronger than wood itself" (plastics).

Camillus, NY. St. Luke's Episcopal Church (1957). Photo: Samuel D. Gruber 2014)

Just down the road is the Wilcox Octagon House of Camillus, built in 1956, and one of the best preserved buildings of this type in Central New York.  In my mind the two buildings seemed instantly related, because the octagon, since Early Christian times, carried the meaning of resurrection, too.   In Early Christian baptistry design seven sides stood for the days of the week, and the eight side represented the Day of  Resurrection and Eternal Life, when the soul was reborn through Christian baptism.  Now, the builder's of the Octagon House almost certainly did not have this in mind - they were following the building precepts of Orson Squire Fowler in his influential book A Home for All; or, the gravel Wall and Octagon Mode of Building of 1853, in which he made the case for the octagon as the healthiest house form.

Camillus, NY. Wilcox Octagon House (1856). Photo: Samuel D. Gruber 2014)

Camillus, NY. Wilcox Octagon House (1856), National Register plaque. Photo: Samuel D. Gruber 2014)

 Camillus, NY. Wilcox Octagon House.  First floor plan from Wilcox House website: http://www.octagonhouseofcamillus.org/

Fowler promoted the octagon house as cheaper to build, and with more  living space and natural light.  He maintained that because of the geometry it was easier to heat, and that it remained cooler in the summer.  Fowler believed that a circle is the most efficient shape, but would be difficult to build and awkward to furnish, so an octagon was a sensible approximation.  The octagon house is remarkable, however, not just for its design, but because it referred to an entire philosophy of living quite different from the societal norm represented by the dominant Greek Revival and Italianate houses of the period. To a certain extent, builders of the  octagon houses accepted a less formal domestic arrangement, and this often mirrored their other social and political views.

Another octagon house is the Henry E. Pierce house on Bear Street, near Washington Square, in Syracuse. 

Other Octagon houses in New York include these:

The Armour-Stiner Octagon House

The Rich-Twinn Octagon House

Further reading:

Church construction with rilco laminated wood (Weyerhaeuser Co. 1961)

[includes photo and caption of St. Luke's Episcopal Church, Camillus]

Fowler, Orson S., The Octagon House, (New York: Dover Publications, Inc., first edition 1848 (1853 edition reprinted in 1973)


  1. I've always been fascinated by that church in Camillus. Thanks for the write-up!

    Jason Nolan
    Dewitt, NY

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  3. There's a typo when you switch to discussing the Wilcox Octagon House. It says "built in 1956" in the paragraph although it's labeled correctly under the picture as 1856.