Olyphant, Pennsylvania, erstwhile home to the Lackawanna Coal Company, is a small borough in the Anthracite Valley not far north of Scranton. It lies on the east, or southern, bank of the Lackawanna River, which drains the northern half of the valley.
Olyphant possesses charming old architecture, some of it from the time when the borough, founded in 1877, was still named Queen City. The main drag through town is West Lacka Avenue, which crosses the Lackawanna River into Blakely. I cannot account for why the original ‘Lackawanna’ Avenue was shortened to the clunky ‘Lacka’, but there it is.
Kindness itself would admit that the quaint borough has fallen upon hard times, which is a great shame. Here I’m memorializing the Williamson Building standing at the bustling intersection of West Lacka and Delaware Avenues (figure 1).
The entrance at 102 Delaware Avenue (figure 2) reveals the building’s roots in the Gothic revival, yet the ornamental brackets seen in the figure framing the doorway look to a sort of etiolated Sullivanesque and Prairie style. Kipple in the form of utility pipes and ducts and paint that defaces the pleasant limestone fabric of the façade betray its fallen state. The font over the entrance is jaunty, however.
The builder, John Williamson, was a native of Olyphant. Let’s see what the Scranton Tribune had to say about him when the building was still in the planning phase on 15 April 1916 (page 24):
OLYPHANT IS PROUD OF WILLIAMSON BUILDING
The Williamson building that is being erected at Lackawanna and Delaware streets in Olyphant, is to be a distinctive addition to the architecture of that thriving Mid-Valley borough. The structure is owned by John Williamson, formerly of Olyphant, but now the leading wholesale grocer and a prominent banker in Wilkes-Barre. Because of his boyhood being spent in Olyphant Mr. Williamson has decided to invest a substantial sum in a modern business block there.
The plans for the building were prepared by Architects Hancock and Koch. The ground dimensions are 130 feet by 70 feet. The building is of stone, fireproof construction, three stories and has five stores on the first floor, fourteen offices on the second, and three apartments on the third floor. It is located on one of the busiest corners in the borough.
The building is not the best kept in Olyphant, but it is arrestingly interesting once you realize that Williamson, or his architects, wanted to make something of a Palazzo Spada out of it by placing two classicizing busts, one male (figure 3) and one female (figure 4), in the attic of the façade.
The male bust, set in an oval frame, appears to be togate, and is seen in left profile. One might think it Roman, but a mustache without a beard as here is not classical: this must be Williamson. The cutting is crisp but stylized into geometric masses: the style is on the way from naturalistic carving of the turn of the twentieth century to the streamlined forms of art deco. See, too, that he is set in effectively a large keystone which is also a flat arch, a nod, perhaps, to Pennsylvania.
The female bust (so to speak) on the right side of the facade facing Delaware Avenue is frontal and, though partaking in the streamlined style of the male bust, is in a neoclassical style. The face is idealized to a young form in contrast to the male bust’s middle-aged one. The modeling of the face and the hairstyle are both classicizing ‘goddess-style’. The costume, too, is classicizing and she wears a laurel-leaf fillet, tied with a ribbon, on her head. Centered over the forehead, as though the fillet were a diadem, is a five-pointed star. One might think that Mrs. Williamson (if such there was) is commemorated, but the style and attributes of the bust point to an abstract allegorical figure. Classicizing Liberties had been common for twenty years and more in public art (such as coinage) by the time the building was completed in 1920; yet given the building’s construction between 1916 and 1920, it would be easy to interpret the figure in the bust as a Victory, reflecting the successful outcome of the First World War in November 1918.