Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Researching Buildings for the Catalog, William Dickison's Residence as a Research Example- Part 1

One part of writing that rarely seems fruitful, in revealing previously undocumented projects, is the process of reviewing the research of people that wrote about J. L. Silsbee in the past. It is a tedious process and more times than not, I come to the same conclusions that the previous researchers did. There are also times, like my experience this past week, when this work yields something new.

Last week, I began putting together notes and lists of names and buildings that I thought were important to include while writing about the artists that Silsbee worked with. I use the word “artist” pretty broadly here but mostly I am referring to a variety of artisans: furniture makers, art glass designers, sculptors, painters and other people that helped execute the designs. One key artisan is William Dickison. Silsbee designed a home for Dickison in 1884. Prior to that, Silsbee used Dickison’s woodworking establishment for several projects.  Dickison was also known to have pioneered innovative techniques to create interesting wall and ceiling finishes. I haven’t found a tremendous out about Dickison but I know that he was the contractor for carpentry on the SyracuseSavings Bank. He built the Oakwood Mortuary Chapel and he also built Henry Ward Beecher’s Home and manufactured all of the furnishings and built-ins inside it. Aside from work for Silsbee, Dickison also constructed the spectacular Masonic Home and School at Utica and the Montreal YMCA.
Utica Masonic Home and School (1891), Utica, NY. William Hume, architect, Dickison & Allen contractors. Photo from the Detroit Publishing Company Collection, Library of Congress.
According to previous research, Dickison's home was either demolished or unbuilt. Years ago I tried to research the home’s location but kept coming up empty. I decided to shelve that research for another day. Well, “another day” came last Sunday. I dug out all of my old notes and citation and began using the Internet and Ancestry.com to see if I could pinpoint a location for the home. 

I was able to determine three addresses for Dickison 110 (starting 1885), 521 (starting 1889) and 647 (starting ca 1918) W. Onondaga Street in Syracuse. The change in address didn’t seem odd as I know that Syracuse address numbers changed frequently over time.  When I looked at my “new” list, I realized there was a new fact: “647 W. Onondaga”. The previous research didn’t have this address and nor did I. 

My curiosity got the better of me and I went looking for an image of 647 and realized that it is still standing. This is an interesting discovery because few homes from this era, when Silsbee was in a partnership with Ellis Hall. In addition to being the home of a significant artisan in the history of construction in Central New York, it is also a rare example of Silsbee's work with Hall.

Image of 647 West Onondaga from Google Street view. 
For me, the home's location adds more interest. Syracuse had three tree-lined boulevards lined with large homes for affluent citizens: James Street, West Genesee Street and West Onondaga Street. Silsbee did several homes on Genesee and James Streets but the Dickison home is the only one that I know of that he designed for West Onondaga.
Homes on the west side of the 700 block of West Onondaga Street, Syracuse from "Art Work of Syracuse" (1899).
Before I got too excited about the discovery, I decided to first double-check and make sure that Dickison’s addresses were all indeed the same home and that he did not hop around from home to home on Onondaga. I began by seeing if any previous studies or websites on Syracuse did any research on this address. I found a note on “Syracuse Then and Now” that made me take two steps back. According to their website, with information from a previous historic structures survey, the home belonged to Francis Hendricks, the man who donated the funds for Hendrick’s Chapel at Syracuse University.

Rather than be deterred, I began researching the address of two neighbors: Willis Holden and Francis Hendricks. Holden’s addresses were 519 and 643 W. Onondaga. This would mean that he was always the neighbor to the north of Dickison (521 and 647). I then checked Hendricks in the directories and his addresses were 111, 520 and 644. This would mean that Hendricks was always the neighbor directly across the street from Dickison and that he never lived at 647. A photo of Hendricks’ home, at 644, is depicted in an Arcadia Press publication of views of Syracuse and it is certainly not the home at 647. I am assuming that whoever did that initial research made an error in assigning the home to Hendricks and that 647 was most certainly the home Dickison lived in from the point that Silsbee designed a home for him in 1884 until he died in 1921.

1924 Atlas and Arial photo showing location of  110/521/645 West Onondaga Street 
For a final determination of the home's location, I wanted to see the atlases and insure that the current 647 aligns with the other addresses, in the past, that Dickison lived at. Pam Priest at the Onondaga Historical Association was kind enough to do some digging for me and the discovery we found on the 1892 atlas was a little alarming. The number “521”, Dickison’s address that year, is shown at the incorrect home. It is mislabeled. When you count the homes in ascending order up the street, the home should be labeled “527”. The home belonging to “C. Dickison” (Catherine Dickison, William’s wife) is un-numbered. It seems that this might explain why there was a gap in the old research and possibly explains why I was frustrated when trying to find the home on the atlases years ago.

At the end of the day, this is still exciting find. There is enough circumstantial evidence to tie Silsbee to credit the design of the home still standing at 647 W. Onondaga but is there enough physical evidence to support Silsbee's involvement? 

This is part one of a two-part blog. Click here to read part two.

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