Thomas W. Silloway: Allston-Brighton’s Master Builder

This article first appeared in the Allston-Brighton Tab on February 23, 1999 and several years later in my book Allston-Brighton in Transition: From Cattle Town to Streetcar Suburb (2007). I offer it again here, with slight modifications, and additional illustrations, as the first in a series of articles on aspects of American architectural history. WPM

1. Thomas W. Silloway in his 50s

Prolific architect, author, and Universalist minister Thomas W. Silloway

Thomas W. Silloway (1828-1910), a resident of Union Square, Allston, may well hold the record as the architect of the greatest number of churches in the country. When he died at his 15 North Beacon Street home on May 17, 1910, at age 81, the Boston Transcript credited him with having designed over 400 religious edifices all over the eastern part of the United States, from Maine to South Carolina to Minnesota.

Nor was Silloway’s output limited to churches. This incredibly prolific architect also designed schools, academies, colleges, libraries, asylums, town halls, and many private residences during a career that spanned some sixty years. His best known structure is a landmark government building: the handsome State Capitol in Montpelier, Vermont. Other buildings by Silloway of particular note include the Goddard Seminary at Barre, Vermont and Butchel College in Akron, Ohio.

What makes Silloway’s architectural output especially surprising is the dual track career he pursued, for in addition to designing buildings, he was also a Universalist preacher. It was in the capacity of a minister, that he first appeared on the Brighton scene in 1863, as pastor of the Universalist Church at 541 Cambridge Street (the building that would later house the Brighthelmstone Club and, in more recent times served as the Allston Knights of Columbus Hall).  Silloway designed this distinctive edifice in 18612. The remodeled Allston Universalist Church.

The Brighton Universalist Church over which Silloway presided as minister for several years in the 1860s, but a building that Silloway also designed. It is seen here as it appeared in the late 19th century, following its conversion into a women’s club.

Thomas William Silloway was born in Newburyport Massachusetts on August 7, 1828, the eldest son of Thomas Silloway, Sr., a coppersmith who maintained a business on Elbow Lane, and of Susan (Stone) Silloway. He was educated in the public schools of his birthplace, at Brown High, and the local Latin School.

Silloway’s youth was marked by much indecisiveness. As a young boy, he worked as a clerk in a West India goods store. Then in 1845, at age sixteen, his father apprenticed him to Robert Gunnison, a housewright, to learn the trade of carpentry. Silloway was probably unhappy with Gunnison, for he soon abandoned his apprenticeship and opened a West India Dry Goods store of his own, but this too proved but a temporary arrangement. In a day when young men were expected to make an early commitment to a trade or occupation, this indecisiveness must have generated a certain amount of family tension.

An additional source of tension stemmed from young Silloway’s 1844 decision to abandon the religion in which his parents had raised him (Methodism) for Universalism, a creed that rejected the doctrine of original sin and held that all men were destined for salvation. Not only did Silloway reject his parent’s Methodist faith, but he “ardently engaged in the promulgation of the doctrines of [Universalism].”

In 1847, at age twenty, the young man left his parent’s home and moved to Boston to study architecture under eminent architect Ammi B Young, the man who in 1838 had designed Boston’s handsome Customs House. Here Siloway finally found his nitch. Pursuing a full course of studies under Young’s capable tutelage, by 1851 the talented Silloway began practicing architecture on his own account in Boston.

3. Ammi B. Young

Prominent Boston architect Ammi B. Young (1798-1874), the architect under whom Silloway apprenticed in the 1840s.

Silloway was a highly successful architect from the start. His earliest commissions included two important structures in Milford, Massachusetts, the Pearl Street Universalist Church and a handsome new Greek Revival Town Hall, both completed in the 1851-52 period. A contemporary writer described the latter structure as “built in the pure Roman style,” large enough to accomodate eleven hundred people standing, and costing a substantial $20,000.

Milford, MA Town Hall

Silloway’s Milford, Massachusetts Town Hall

In 1857, when he was only 29 years old, Silloway received the most important commission of his career. He was hired to design a new capitol building for the state of Vermont. The original 1836 Vermont State House, the work of his mentor, Ammi B. Young, had been gutted by fire in January 1857. Since Young was then serving as the principal architect of the national capitol, he was unavailable to supervise the Vermont project, and thus recommended his former pupil for the assignment.

4. The Vermont State House

The Vermont State House, originally the work of Ammi B. Young, which Silloway restored and augmented following its destruction by fire in 1857.

Silloway did an extraordinary job in Montpelier. The great architect Stanford White later described the 1858 Vermont Capitol as the finest example of Greek Revival architecture in the country. But to the manifest annoyance of those charged with overseeing the project’s finances, the determined young man insisted that only the very best (and most expensive) materials be used in his reconstruction project. This emphasis on quality resulted in his being fired from the supervising architect’s post just as the project was brought to conclusion. In 1862, however, perhaps by way of compensation, the University of Vermont conferred an honorary M.A. on Silloway in recognition of his significant contributions to the architecture of that state.

In 1862, Silloway entered upon his second career, that of a Universalist minister. Over the next five years he served churches in Kingston, New Hampshire, in Boston’s North End (the First Universalist Church of Boston at the corner of Hanover and North Bennett Streets), and, finally, in the town of Brighton, a church over which he officiated from 1863 to 1867, relinquishing the post only when the increasing number of architectural commissions became so burdensome as to preclude his properly attending to his pastoral duties. In the last year of his Brighton pastorate, this master builder executed no fewer than twenty-five commissions, which included twelve new churches, seven remodeled churches, four residences, and two schools. Another factor that may have prompted his retirement from the ministry was his bachelor status. Silloway never married, and a pastor without a wife is always at a distinct disadvantage.

After relinquishing his pulpit, the busy architect lived for a time at 71 Green Street in Boston’s West End, in the same building where he maintained his architectural office.

But Allston-Brighton had not seen the last of its distinguished minister/ architect. About 1870, Silloway moved back and built the unique Italianate/ Queen Anne style house at 40 Gordon Street in Allston, which has been converted in recent years into a San Francisco style painted lady.

5. 40 Gordon Street, Allston, MA

Silloway’s handsome Italianate-Queen Anne style home at 40 Gordon Street, Allston

Silloway also involved himself in public affairs. In 1870 he spoke before a committee of the Massachusetts legislature urging adoption of the so-called Six Mile Bill, which would have incorporated Brighton, Brookline, and West Roxbury into the City of Boston. As an architect/ builder, he was distressed by the low quality of the public services that the Town of Brighton was then providing its residents, especially in the areas of street repair, sewerage, and lighting, and believed that absorption by Boston would lead to improvements that would foster desirable residential development.

Silloway was a man of broad interests who published several books. His writings ranged from architecture, to theology, to sacred music, to travel. One of his best known works was Cathedral Towns of England, Ireland, and Scotland, which he wrote in collaboration with Lee L. Powers. Silloway was also deeply interested in history. He was an active member of the New England Historical Genealogical Society from 1864 to the end of his life.

6. Silloway's The Cathedral Towns

The cover of a recent edition of Silloway’s The Cathedral Town’s of England, Ireland, and Scotland.

In the late 1870s, Silloway sold his Gordon Street residence and moved back to the West End. In 1886, when an earthquake did major damage to Charleston, S.C., he received another key commission—the job of supervising the restoration of six of that city’s churches. Then, in 1890, he moved back to Allston, to 15 North Beacon Street (a house that was demolished many years ago), where he resided during the final twenty years of his life.

7. Silloway, Unitarian Church, Charleston, S.C., The oldest Unitarian Church in the South

Charleston’s First Unitarian Church was extensively damaged in a devastating 1886 earthquake, one of six Charleston churches remodeled by Silloway in the aftermath of that disaster.

For the benefit of readers who might wish to view some of the Silloway-designed structures in the Boston area, I offer this additional listing: The Church of the Unity at 91 West Newton Street in the South End (1859); The First Universalist Church in Arlington (1860); The Fourth Baptist Church in South Boston (1864); The Second Methodist Church in East Boston (1865); Dean Academy in Franklin (1867); The North Congregational Church in Newburyport (1867); The South Abington Congregationalist Church (1867); The Milton Congregationalist Church (1867); The Rockport Town Hall (1869); The Winthrop Street Methodist Church in Roxbury Highlands (1869); The Cambridge Soldier’s Monument (1869); The North Congregationalist Church in Lynn (1869); The Pilgrim Congregationalist Church in Cambridgeport (1871); The Attleboro Town Hall (1871); The Medfield Town Hall (1872); The Wood Memorial Church in Cambridge (1883); and The Zion Evangelical Lutheran Church in the South End (1900).

Goddard Seminary Barre, VT

Silloway’s Goddard Seminary in Barre, Vermont, one of his most impressive works. This four year preparatory high school was founded in 1863 by the Universalists.

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