561 Franklin Street

ADDRESS: 561 Franklin Street | STYLE: Italian villa
EXTERIOR: Brick | BUILT: c. 1851-3 | ARCHITECT: unknown
ORIGINAL OWNERS: Orrin B. Titus

The brick mansion at 561 Franklin Street is a unique Allentown example of a cross-gable bracketed Italian villa,one of only a handful found in all of Buffalo today. Constructed between 1851 and 1853, the mansions design was inspired by the irregularly massed Farmhouses found in Campagna, Italy. The style was popularized by early Victorian author and architectural tastemaker Andrew Jackson Downing, who praised the Italian villa’s capability to awaken “emotions of the beautiful or “picturesque“ and express “the elegant culture and variety of accomplishment of the retired citizen of the world.” Downing believed the Italian villa’s asymmetrical style would appeal to those who relished “the higher beauties of the art growing out of variety.” Downing cautioned that an Italian villa should be limited to a person of “wealth sufficient to build and maintain it with some taste and elegance… and requiring the care of at least three servants.”

Sited on one of the most desirable and expansive lots in Buffalo at the time, 561 Franklin would have been considered a suburban retreat when built. During the mid-nineteenth century, Buffalo’s aptly-named northern boundary of North Street, along with Delaware Avenue, were populated by Buffalo’s elite who resided in mansions surrounded by manicured pleasure grounds. Originally, 561 Franklin Street’s grounds extended from Franklin Street to North Pearl Street. where its stables were located. Its private grounds also included a large, manicured greensward north of the house (the area now known as Sisti Park).

Constructed in brick with a cut-limestone Foundation, the 7,000 square-foot mansion’s most prominent architectural feature is its central gable. Its shallow-pitched roofextends far beyond its exterior walls, forming deep eaves accentuated by heavy scroll brackets. A pair of round-arched windows is located in the gable, with three arched windows on the second floor. On the first floor, the mansion’s main entrance is also arched and contains wood-paneled double doors concealing a second set of doors behind a vestibule. A bay window to the right of the entrance with modillions and paneled pilasters is likely a later addition to the structure, and replaced two original arched windows. A recessed wing extends to the north of the house. There was likely a sweeping verandah uniting the wing to the central gable. Four windows are installed in the front elevation of the wing: two round-arched windows on the second story and two segmental-arched windows on the first story. Another gable is found on the mansion’s south side. forming a cross-gable. Craftsmanship abounds in small details; even the chimneys are ornamental: twin recessed round arches mimicking the front gable windows are found at the top of chimneys and proclaim the Victorian bricklayer’s art. To the north and rear of the wing is found the villa’s most pronounced and distinguishing architectural feature: a four-story square-shaped tower (or campanile) that unifies the various design elements of the mansion. Downing felt the tower was critical to the success of the Italian villa design and said it conveyed power, elevation, boldness, and dignity.

The opulent mansion was owned by several prominent Buffalo families during its estate period from the mid-1850s through the late 1880s. The home was built by dry goods merchant Orrin B. Titus who lived there with his wife Susan, their three children (and only two servants) from 1854 until 1862. From 1862 until 1873, the mansion was owned by its most well-known occupant, Col. William C. Young (1799-1893). Young lived there with his wife Catherine and their three grown children (they too had just two servants). Young was a famous civil engineer, a graduate of West Point Military Academy, and a surveyor for the Erie Canal. In the 1830s, Young began his lifelong work as an engineering pioneer of railroad technology, and introduced the use of railroad cross-ties.

From 1873 until 1884, the mansion was owned and occupied by its third family: Charles S. Clarke, his wife Delia and their grown daughter (and two servants). Clarke was the principal of his firm, Clarke, Holland and Co., a leader in Buffalo’s wood planing business. In 1884, 561 Franklin was sold to Herman H. Grau, an owner of Phoenix Brewery, located nearby at the southwest corner of Washington and Virginia Streets.

During the late 1880s, significant changes occurred to the footprint of the mansions grounds. In 1885, Linwood Avenue housing developer Edward B. Smith purchased the northern portions of the mansion’s grounds. In 1888, a curve at the corner of Franklin and North Streets was carved from the grounds and paved with asphalt to create a direct link between Franklin Street and Linwood Avenue. The grounds’ remaining portion was converted to a public park and placed under the charge of Buffalo’s Park Commission for beautification.

Grau only lived in the mansion for a few years and when he placed the mansion for sale in 1887, it was advertised as “one of the finest residences in the city.” The house was purchased in 1888 by attorney Lewis Stockton and his wife Eloise. The Stocktons lived in the mansion for three decades with their four children and four servants. In 1888 the Stocktons further divided the grounds, splitting the lot between Franklin and North Pearl Streets. The North Pearl section of the lot was sold to brothers George B. and Edward M. Bassett. In 1889, the Bassets demolished the mansions stables and built five brick rowhouses at 174-182 North Pearl, designed by architect Frederick W. Fisher.

During the Great Depression, 561 Franklin was converted to apartments, like many large dwellings in Allentown. Even so, the mansion remained significant enough to be featured in the exhibit Buffalo Architecture 1816-1940 at the Albright Art Gallery in ]anuary 1940, curated by the preeminent twentieth-century architectural historian and professor Henry-Russell Hitchcock, ]r. He proclaimed the mansion had aged well, and its style was “more satisfying to us to-day than the heavier, more formal and ornamental Renaissance and Gothic types.”

In 1980, 561 Franklin was purchased by ]ohn and Helen Dempsey and since that time, has been used as offices for their law firm, Dempsey & Dempsey. The firm specializes in personal injury, medical malpractice, and real property law. Despite having had many owners and being used as an office for over three decades, the mansion’s interior is remarkably intact. Upon entering through the double entrance doors, the visitor is greeted by a large entry hall featuring an elliptical staircase with ornate newel post. Flanking the hall are two formal drawing rooms with ornate cornice moldings, now used for Mr. and Mrs. Dempsey’s offices. Beyond the hallway, a modern atrium provides a welcoming and sunlight-filled waiting room for clients. The second floor originally housed bedrooms and is now used for additional offices. The tower room is accessible from the second floor and still provides specular views of the surrounding Allentown community, nearly 160 years after its initial construction.

In 1981 the park that was once part of the mansion’s grounds was named for artist and Allentown urban pioneer Tony Sisti. In 1933 the classically trained artist and former boxer opened his studio at 469 Franklin, and helped to establish the Allentown neighborhood as a bohemian arts community during the 1950s. In 1958, Sisti participated in the inaugural annual Allentown Art Festival, cementing the neighborhoods reputation as Buffalo’s version of Greenwich Village. In 2010 Sisti Park was returned to its original footprint when it was the private gardens of 561 Franklin, eradicating the 1888 Franklin Street widening effort.

While Allentown is today a vibrant urban neighborhood, 561 Franklin Street remains a steadfast reminder of its days as Downing-inspired estate retreat. While inspired by farmhouses in Italy, its form as realized is uniquely American, an expression of the best that Buffalo could produce during the mid-nineteenth century. The accomplishments of its builders and those who have contributed to its preservation over the past 160 years continue to inspire today.