Sunday, March 20, 2016

Architect Spotlight: Samuel D.P. Williams

By Matthew Shoen

I’m going to apologize immediately for two things. First, when spotlighting an architect I should probably have a picture of the architect, which I haven’t been able to find. Second for all the research I’ve done on Samuel D. P. Williams I still have no clue what D.P. are initials for. Those apologies aside I thought it would be good to take some time and spotlight an architect from my part of the world and share some pictures of his better creations, buildings which provide an interesting window into life in Upstate New York and St. Lawrence County.

Samuel D.P. Williams was born on May 26th 1866 in Malone, New York and grew to become one of the North Country’s greatest architects. Williams’s projects are well represented on the National Register of Historic Places and reveal him to be an oddball. His buildings veer wildly, encompassing styles such as Classical Revival, on display in the Russell Town Hall, and Arts and Crafts, which he used in the Young Memorial Church in Brier Hill.
The Young Memorial Church from the National Register of Historic Places Nomination Form

The Russell Town Hall. Photo from

The Russell Town Hall should be interesting to anyone from Buffalo as it was endowed by Seymour Knox Sr., though he did not live to see it built. The Town Hall features a large auditorium with beautifully rendered paintings and screens on the stage which really epitomize the town halls of so many communities in St. Lawrence County. Prior to cars, towns like Russell had to be self-sufficient nodes and buildings like the Russell Town Hall needed to be multi-purposed . Entertainment in the form of theatre troupes came to the population centers and needed large dedicated spaces to perform. Even if those performances were infrequent they were important to morale, especially in the icy winter months. In Lisbon we had a similar arrangement with the town hall containing a large auditorium with beautiful wood paneled walls. As a pre-schooler I was taught in the Lisbon Town Hall. We used the auditorium for running around and Halloween parades. 

Samuel Williams didn't only build civic and religious buildings, in fact he built quite a few residences the most notable being this house on Cherry Island in the St. Lawrence River.
Ingleside from the National Register of Historic Places Nomination Form 
This is Ingleside, a summerhouse built by Samuel Williams for a wealthy merchant from New York City around 1900. This massive complex is a great example of the early 20th century summer home explosion which is best characterized by the building of Boldt Castle on Heart Island and Singer Castle on Dark Island. These massive retreats for the super elite of the day shaped the history of the Thousand Islands. Whole communities continue to revolve around the summer tourist season even to the point that in Alexandria Bay a church was erected to take care of the influx of new people starting after Memorial Day. Appropriately the church built was called the Church of St. Lawrence.

The final building I wanted to highlight is very close to my heart.  In 1917 Samuel Williams received the contract to design the Hepburn Library in my hometown. As a little background, in 1912 a wealthy banker named A. Barton Hepburn from the Town of Colton began endowing libraries in St. Lawrence County, building them in towns which had once been part of his jurisdiction as the Superintendent of Schools. Six of the libraries were designed by the architect E.K. Rossiter the seventh library in Lisbon was Williams's project. 

The Lisbon Hepburn Library
True to form, Samuel Williams ignored the designs of Rossiter's other libraries and made his own creation in Lisbon. Rossiter's libraries have similar Colonial Revival influenced facades, red brick exteriors and large exterior staircases, things which Williams utterly eschewed in favor of this strange mash of Tudor and Romanesque all tied together with gold brick, which, to my knowledge, is almost completely unique to the county. Seriously, I have never seen another gold brick building in St. Lawrence County! 

I think that's what I like about Samuel D.P. Williams. He's a local man whose buildings have their own style and feel. He was effectively a chameleon changing out his designs to best suit the client he worked for. Further, he is one of the few local architects to earn esteem and success in the North Country. With buildings like Boldt Castle contracted out to prestigious firms, and much of the local building stock consisting of timber homes erected by their occupants, Samuel Williams and his firm stood a little bit out to sea. Still, the firm succeeded and erected  many of the most recognizable buildings in St. Lawrence County, permanently tying Williams and the County together and providing me an excuse to provide a few quick snapshots of life in the North Country as depicted through the architecture of Samuel D. P. Williams.

No comments: