Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Researching Buildings for the Catalog, William Dickison's Residence as a Research Example - Part 2

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

In order to maintain that Silsbee designed the home that was built for Dickison, I also had to examine the physical evidence and see if the building had characteristics that matched other Silsbee-designed structures. The home has undergone two significant rounds of renovations. One occurred in the 1930's, when part of the home was converted into doctor's offices. A second round of renovations occurred in the 1950's that stripped the home of its original exterior clapboard cladding and may of its defining characteristics. Unfortunately, the home's appearance is quite different from what it was originally and a photo of it from the time when the Dickison's lived in it has not been found. 

There is one photo in the Onondaga Historical Association photograph collections of the neighboring home that shows a sliver of the Dickison's home and provides clues as to what it looked like before 1950. It depicts the original clapboard siding, varied shingles in a wave pattern and half-moon windows in the gables. An important missing feature is a paneled decorative banding at the eave that used to be around the entire home. A small part of it is preserved in a bay on the north side of the home. Finally, the photo shows that the home had a band of flared clapboards at the second floor, creating a sort of belt-course around the structure. The current appearance of the home, with it's tall windows and central rectangular bay is very vertical. The banding elements that have been removed would have made the home look much more horizontal. It also seems that at one time a porch existed across the front of the home. This too would have broken up the vertical appearance, accentuating that horizontal appearance. It is this overall lack of horizontality that makes the home seem, at first glance, like it was not designed by Silsbee.  

The Dickison Residence (1884-5). Photo taken in 2014 by Eric Payne.
According to a construction journal of the period, Dickison's home would have been frame and would cost $8,000. This home, of relatively modest size, meets that description. It is a two and a half story Queen Anne style home on a random ashlar foundation. This type of foundation is a defining feature of many of Silsbee's buildings and it was the stone and coursing used in the Oakwood Mortuary Chapel, built by Dickison. I think that when you look at the Dickison home, it is important to keep in mind that it was likely built under strict supervision of the owner. As one would expect, despite renovations, there is a great variety of detail on the home and it would have been a sort of showcase for Dickison's own business. 

The decorative elements tell a very different story than the overall building massing. What elements remain on the building are striking and relate to several Silsbee-designed homes. In particular, the banding that appears just below the half-story attic has strapwork and scrolling that is found on other Silsbee structures. Particularly, it is a motif used in the Dr. Bainbridge Folwell home and office in Buffalo, built a year later. It is also seen in the entry gable decoration at the Bemis Residence in Buffalo, built that same year. 

Gable details, Dickison Residence (1884-5). Photo by Eric Payne.
Decorative frieze at central bay, Dickison Residence (1884-1885). Photo by Eric Payne.
Central bay with frieze at the Dr. Bainbridge Folwell Office and Residence, Buffalo, NY (1885).
Detail of Entry gable, John Bemis Residence, Buffalo, NY (1885).
Another common characteristic that can be seen in work from all of Silsbee's offices is a great attention to detail in the wood trim. Very often, the trim is made up of multple pieces of molding, combined to create a very large composite frame that very crisply outlines the gable, eave, banding, and other decorative elements. In the Dickison home, the gables, eave and frieze are all outlined with a compound banding. When you compare this with the one of the Speculative Homes that Silsbee designed for E. B. Smith in Buffalo and for Andrew McKnally, in Chicago, you can see many similarities.
Gable and frieze at central bay of Dickison Residence (1884-5). Photo by Eric Payne.
Gable detail of Speculative Home for E. B. Smith, Buffalo, NY (1886).
Gable and dormer details from Speculative Row Homes for Andrew McNally, Chicago, IL (1884-5).
Though the home has many defining characteristics, there are some elements on it that are a bit puzzling. As I mentioned earlier, the overall form, as it exists, does not seem typical of what Silsbee might have produced. There is also an interesting bay/oriel at the second floor, on the north side, that has a tower-like appearance at the roof line. This too seems like a foreign element. It is possible that the porch and other details that were removed would have given it a very different appearance, making the small tower seem less random.  I also imagine that if more were known about Silsbee & Hall's other works, of which there were many, these elements wouldn't seem so strange. I think this is part of the difficulty with conducting such research.

Detail of side bay/turret and existing chimney, Dickison Residence (1884-5). Photo by Eric Payne.
Ultimately, given the evidence that we do have, I am confident that this home was designed by Silsbee & Hall and it is an exciting find. There is enough physical evidence relating the home to other Silsbee works and enough documentation to tie Dickison to the home and its construction. It is unfortunate that a majority of the home is not what it was but there are still some distinctive decorative features that have been preserved and are a testament to Dickison’s attention to detail and craftsmanship. The Dickison Residence is an excellent example of a relatively modest home by Silsbee & Hall of this period and historically significant because it was the home of a figure who played a significant role in the construction of many significant Central New York structures. 

Side gable depicting scrolling motif with pineapple, Dickison Residence (1884-5). The pineapple is commonly used to signify welcoming in residential design. Photo by Eric Payne.

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