It was the December 1902 issue of The Craftsman magazine that featured an article entitled “A Visit to the House of Mr. Stickley,” written by Samuel Howe.
The writer was one of the first people to visit the home of Gustav Stickley after Stickley had redesigned and renovated the home following a fire on Christmas Eve 1901. Howe wrote: “When I enter, I note a rich grandeur in the passion for size, scale and sense of bigness.” While struck by the openness of the home, Howe added, “How soothing-wistful-simple is this house.” He also wrote, “The soul of the workman is manifest in his work.”
Now, 114 years later, I recently shared the same good fortune as Samuel Howe, by having the opportunity to visit the Gustav Stickley House on Columbus Avenue, Syracuse. I could not agree more with Howe’s description and thoughts on this historic home, regarded as the first home in America with a Craftsman design interior.
What makes it possible for me to share Howe’s impressions is that the main level of the house remains essentially the same as when Stickley designed the home and lived there with his family.
For me, visiting the home of this leader of the American Arts and Crafts Movement, this visionary in furniture and home design, was truly awe-inspiring.
The house is the embodiment of everything Gustav Stickley believed a home should be. Stickley is quoted as saying: “The word that is best loved in the language of every nation is home, for when a man’s home is born out of his heart and developed through his labor and perfected through his sense of beauty, it is the very cornerstone of his life.” (I, of course, assume that this thought applied to women as well!)
I had the opportunity to visit the Gustav Stickley House after joining in the effort to restore and preserve the home, volunteering as the writer for this blog. A few weeks ago, while chatting with David Rudd at his Dalton’s American Decorative Arts store, I asked when I might have the chance to visit the house. To my surprise, David said the store would be closing in a few minutes and that we could then head right over to the house.
A sense of excitement and anticipation came over me. As a long-time Arts and Crafts Period enthusiast, I am particularly drawn to the designs of Gustav Stickley. I was thrilled when minutes later I was standing in front of the house of the man whose work I have so deeply admired and respected.
When we arrived at the house, we stood out front as David pointed out some of the architectural elements that Stickley had added to the house during renovation after the 1901 fire. As I gazed at the large, welcoming Craftsman style front door that I knew Stickley had designed and walked through time and time again, I actually felt honored knowing I was about to enter his home.
As we walked through the first level, I was absolutely amazed that I was seeing with my own eyes Gustav Stickley’s exact design that was featured in the illustrations that accompanied the 1902 article in The Craftsman magazine.
It was all there: the spacious open floor plan that was so crucial to Stickley’s interior designs to encourage interaction among family and friends; the large foyer, living room,
the front room with a large sturdy brick fireplace and built-in bookcases, the dining room, and the adjacent intimate Inglenook with another large scale brick fireplace, the chestnut paneling and flooring throughout; the tremendous and numerous ceiling beams; the large landing leading to the door that conceals the inconspicuous stairway to the upper floors; the huge windows with benches beneath; and the trim work with its bold and clean lines.
In describing this main level of the house, I can again harken back to the words written by Samuel Howe in 1902. His observations would be as accurate today as they were at that time when construction on Stickley’s redesign had just been completed. For instance, Howe wrote about the uniqueness of the floors that “instead of being laid with narrow boards have broad chestnut of varying widths and lengths, frankly showing nails.”
Another element that Howe pointed out are the large brick fireplaces, one in the front room and the other in the Inglenook. Apparently at the time, there were some people who thought the fireside would soon fall out of favor. Most certainly not Gustav Stickley. The scale and heftiness of the fireplaces serve as a testament to his belief that the hearth would remain the heart of the home as a welcoming gathering place for family and friends.
Another feature of the home that stood out to me were the many large windows with generously sized built-in benches beneath them. Stickley believed in allowing bountiful natural light into a home.
I immediately pictured children sitting on the window seats reading or playing with their toys by these expansive windows. Howe made a similar comment: “as we passed from one window to another, we know… what great secrets can the children tell as they hide behind the cushions in the long deep seat beside them.”
I do admit I have a couple of favorite places of the first floor. I found myself very drawn to the Inglenook, an alcove off of the dining room with a large brick fireplace at its end wall and large windows with a window seat to the right side. Again, the Inglenook looks exactly the same as it did in Stickley’s original design except for the absence of a bench that was located across from the window seat. Still, it is easy to picture his family and friends gathering in this cozy, warm spot during cold Syracuse winters.
Another place in the house that made me smile was the large landing leading to the doorway to the stairway to the upper floors. I immediately remembered meeting Gustav Stickley’s great-grandson, Skip Nitchie, at the Garden Party fundraiser this past summer, when he shared the story of how children in the family used the landing as a stage to put on performances. And indeed the landing makes the perfect place for that!
We continued on to the second floor, which over the years – along with the third floor – had been converted into apartments by previous owners after Stickley’s daughter sold the house. Yet, some very special elements of Stickley’s design remain. As you reach the top of the stairs to the second floor, directly in front of you is a row of three doorways that once lead to bedrooms, with one original door and original trim intact. These doors were also illustrated in the 1902 article in The Craftsman magazine and look exactly the same. Also remaining on the second floor are two fireplaces with their surrounds in original Grueby green tile.
While some of the tile work is damaged, most of it remains intact. Its original beauty is obvious and will surely return during renovation of the home.
And that is true of this entire house – it’s original splendor will be revived through the dedicated work of the members of the Gustav Stickley House Foundation.
Though first written in 1901 about the house, Samuel Howe’s words echo into 2016 with an appropriate description of the foundation’s efforts to save this historical landmark:
“It contains evidence of serious thought and honest intent.”