Thursday, May 25, 2017

Architect Spotlight: Isaac Perry

by Matthew Shoen
Associate Architectural Historian at Preservation Studios

Isaac Perry from

New York State is dotted with buildings and cities designed brilliant architects. Buffalo owes much of its shape to landscape architect Frederick Law Olmstead, and much of its iconic skyline to H.H. Richardson, Alfred T. Fellheimer, and Frank Lloyd Wright. These nationally known architects are always present in our minds, and tourists coming to Buffalo make sure to visit their buildings. There is however another architect whose works are important not only to Buffalo but to the entire state of New York. That architect will be the subject of our latest blog. Today we'll be profiling Isaac Perry.

Isaac Perry was born in Vermont in 1822, but grew up in Keeseville in the Adirondack Mountains. Perry worked in the mountains with his father Seneca Perry as a carpenter and mason. Perry and his father worked throughout Clinton and Essex Counties for at least a decade, building homes and hotels in the small mountain towns that dotted the landscape. In 1852 Perry left the Adirondacks and moved south, establishing himself in Binghamton where he interned under the architect Thomas R. Jackson, a former protege of Richard Upjohn.

While in Binghamton, Perry got a breakthrough contract when, in 1856, he was selected to design the New York State Inebriate Asylum, the first alcohol treatment center ever built. The Inebriate Asylum occupied Perry until 1866, but the scale of the project made him a highly sought architect in Binghamton where he built a number of religious, commercial, and residential buildings, including the Phelps Mansion a beautiful three-story brick and stone mansion with a steep mansard roof.

The Binghamton Inebriate Asylum from
Perry's success in Binghamton was a decisive factor in his appointment as Commissioner of the New Capitol in Albany, a project to rebuilt New York's Capitol Building into a larger and more grandiose structure. The Capitol Building was constructed under the oversight of three teams of architects, the first led by Thomas Fuller between 1867-1875, the second by Leopold Eidlitz and H.H. Richardson between 1875-1883 and the final team by Isaac Perry between 1883-1899. Perry's creative input saved the project, which was decades behind schedule. While initially tasked with overseeing the work begun by his predecessors, Perry reworked their designs and shaped the capital building into its present form. His most notable contribution, came in the creation of the Eastern Approach, the monumental exterior staircase that leads up to the Capitol Building's entrance.

Monumental scale defines many of Isaac Perry's most memorable projects. While the Capitol Building was being constructed, Perry also built forty armories throughout the state, including the massive Connecticut Street Armory in Buffalo, the Ogdensburg Armory, Niagara Falls Armory, and the Oswego Armory among many others. Perry also worked on the state's asylum system, building the St. Lawrence Asylum in Ogdensburg, and the Matteawan Asylum for Insane Criminals near Fishkill. 

In 1895 New York created the position of State Architect, a position Perry inherited since he'd been the lead architect on every major state building project for the preceding twenty years. Perry retired soon after getting his position however due to his advancing age. He returned to Binghamton where he died in 1904 at the age of 82. 

The monumental works of Isaac Perry, coupled with his position as the State Architect, means that almost every significant community in New York State is tied to Isaac Perry in some way. His architecture, though not stunningly original like his contemporary H.H. Richardson, is extremely beautiful and his perchance for the monumental make visiting his buildings an awesome experience (with an emphasis on the awe). Perry's buildings, particularly in smaller communities, are sources of pride and represent a level of grandeur not often seen due to financial restrictions. With his emphasis on turrets, towers, and beautiful stone arches, Perry captured our collective desire for powerful architecture and brought it to life throughout New York State.

The Administration Building of the Ogdensburg State Hospital from

The Ogdensburg Armory from

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