A Sphinx in Skaneateles

Sphinx 1890

“The face is of most gigantick proportions, and the features, like those of all Egyptian antiquities, hideously ugly.” — Journal of a Tour in the Levant (1820) by William Turner

In 1885, when the directors of the Skaneateles Library Association were looking for a permanent home for the library, a parcel of land known as the Porter lot, across Genesee Street from Legg Hall, became available and was purchased. The following year, local attorney Benoni Lee died and willed the Association his sliver of a lot, located between the Porter lot and State Street, along with the tiny brick office he had built on the land in 1856.

benoni-lee

On October 7, 1886, the Syracuse Standard reported on the planned library, saying, “Its construction will probably be in the hands of Mr. Green of Buffalo, whose work is familiar… in several unusually pretty dwellings, among them the Willetts residence in Skaneateles.” The Willetts home, known as The Boulders, was designed by Edward B. Green, one of Buffalo’s premier architects. Joseph C. Willetts was living in Green’s work and he sat on the Library Association’s board.

While choosing an architect may have been easy, the design was a challenge. The board was divided over Benoni Lee’s office building, occupied by attorney F. Eugene Stone, who had taken over Lee’s law practice after his death, and had leased the office itself for one year. Some board members, including president William Marvin, felt the law office should remain in place and intact, as a living memorial to Benoni Lee. Others, especially Edmund N. Leslie, thought the little Greek Revival building would ruin the library’s design and should be moved.

Those in favor of keeping the building won the vote, and in 1888, Green submitted a design which incorporated it. (The design did not include a doorway into the law office, since Mr. Stone did not want library patrons coming and going while he was trying to work.)

skaneateles-library-smoke

The library was dedicated on February 27, 1890. Melvil Dewey, the creator of the Dewey Decimal System, spoke for one and a half hours to a rapt audience. But the debate over Benoni Lee’s office was not over. Edmund N. Leslie used his history of Skaneateles, published in 1902, to project his objections into the next century. His ten-page screed included unflattering photographs of the building, which he described as a degrading and disgraceful appendage, one he called “The Sphinx.”

In doing so, Leslie was probably not alluding to the Sphinx’s air of mystery. In fact, Leslie may not have been thinking of Egypt’s Sphinx at all. The generic sphinx – a creature with a human head on the body of lion – was a common symbol around the Mediterranean, where many city and temple gates were guarded by sphinxes. The Greeks added wings, so their sphinx was a mash-up of three creatures. When Leslie looked upon what he considered to be an ugly stone mash-up squatting at the entryway to our temple of learning – the Skaneateles Library – a sphinx came to mind.

But in spite of Leslie’s tirades, the little building endured. It was occupied by F.E. Stone until 1933. In his will, he left the Skaneateles Library Association – which he had served as President – a bequest of $10,000 ($179,245 in 2015 dollars) plus all of his books and furniture. Eugene Stone 2Today, Stone’s portrait, by Skaneateles artist Jeannette Scott, hangs on the library’s south wall, next to the entrance door.

The next tenants to occupy the building were G. Roswell Weeks and his brother Melvin – the law firm of Weeks & Weeks – until 1962, and then the Stewart Insurance Agency of Ivan Stewart and his successors.

In 1987, the Library Association reclaimed the space, knocked a hole in the wall for a doorway from the library proper, and the office became the Children’s Room, and a lovely room it is. But one wonders if, somewhere up in the Beyond, E.N. Leslie is still muttering, “It’s a sphinx.”

library

* * *

My thanks to Library Director Nickie Marquis and to Laurie Winship, Director of the Museum at the Creamery. The photo of the Egyptian Sphinx at the beginning of this piece was taken in 1890, the year the library was completed.

And below, one more photo of Benoni Lee’s law office, circa 1870 on a winter’s day, as butcher Henry Harse, whose shop is at the left, prepares to lead a herd of sheep out to his slaughterhouse on the eastern edge of the village.

sphinx 2

And for a sense of completion, Benoni Lee, engraved by Samuel Sartain of Philadelphia for Clayton’s History of Onondaga County, circa 1878:

Lee 350

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