Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Mckim, Mead & Bigelow's Nos. 62-64 E. 34th Street

photo by Alice Lum
Edward Nicoll Dickerson, by 1877, had created a name for himself and amassed a sizable fortune while doing so.   After being admitted to the bar in 1845, he practiced law in New Jersey and New York and became a household name after representing Samuel Colt and Charles Goodyear in two highly publicized cases.  All the while, he was a mechanical engineer and inventor, wrote several books, and his engineering expertise led to consulting work for the Suckasunny Mining Company and the Society for Establishing Useful Manufactures.

Dickerson, his wife and their daughter, Louise, and son, also named Edward Nicoll Dickerson, had lived at No. 62 East 34th Street for over two decades.  The house sat on the broad thoroughfare, just off Madison Avenue.  Around the corner to the north were the mansions of John Jay Phelps, Isaac N. Phelps and William E. Dodge (the John Phelps home would be purchased by J. P. Morgan in 1882); and a block away on Fifth Avenue were the twin mansions of John Jacob and William Astor.

The homes along Dickerson’s block were staid, brownstone residences, near carbon copies of one another.  While perfectly respectable, they  were slightly out of fashion in 1877.   Dickerson approached the fledgling architectural firm of McKim, Mean & Bigelow to design an updated residence.

Just a year old, the firm had been established when Charles McKim, who was already partnered with William Rutherford Mead, brought his brother-in-law, William Bigelow, into the practice.  It was given the task of designing a new home at No. 64, next door to the Dickerson mansion, and redoing the existing house.  And if Edward N. Dickerson wanted up-to-date, he definitely got it.

The architects turned to the newly popular Queen Anne style, recently introduced in England and embracing many of the Eastlake and Esthetic Movement traits.   Dickerson’s houses would practically introduce Queen Anne to New York, being edged out as the first by Sidney V. Stratton’s New York House and School of Industry by a year.

No. 64 burst forth with a showy gable.  No other wealthy New Yorker had a mansion in the innovative style.  photo by Alice Lum
The five-story brownstone-clad houses were completed in 1879 and the Dickersons moved into the slightly larger and wider No. 64.   Quite accurately, the New-York Tribune called the house “spacious and unlike any other in the city.”  Fantasies in stone, the two structures were embellished with arcades, gables, pediments and carved panels.    The bold step away from convention was too much for the often-acerbic architectural critic Montgomery Schuyler who likened the homes to “a monumental sideboard.”

Harper’s New Monthly Magazine begged to disagree.  In November 1882 it touted the Dickerson house as “one of the triumphs of both a new and admirable system of ventilation, and of internal decoration of a high order.”  The magazine praised the broad open staircases of unvarnished mahogany “with paneling of the same at the side” as a superb feature of the house.

With Queen Anne and the Eastlake Movement came stained glass and the Dickerson houses made full use of the colorful material.  “Mr. Dickerson has much beautiful stained glass; his drawing-room windows are made to repeat the delicate scarlet and dove-color of the paper and window curtains, while in a bedroom swallows fly through apple-blossoms, and are in more imperishable form represented in the glass window.”

McKim, Mead & Bigelow emphasized No. 64 by with more elaborate embellishment -- photo by Alice Lum
The interiors were decorated by the currently well-known designer Remigio Loforte, who would work with the architects for years as they became McKim, Mead & White.   The dining room walls were covered in stamped leather and the carved buffets had inset painted leather panels, imitating tiles.  The focal point of the dining room was a large stained glass window framed in Japanese carving.  “This piece has given the key-note to the room,” said Harper’s, “which has also a ceiling of painted plaques, very harmonious, curious, and ornamental.”

The Aesthetics Movement influence was evident in a bedroom paneled in ebonized cherry, “with tile fire-place, the tiles painted with bright flowers, and much ornamental brass-work about, is extremely pretty, as is the whole of this artistic dwelling.”

Two years after they moved in, the Dickersons gave perhaps their grandest entertainment in the house on January 20, 1881.  Louise was married to Charles W. Gould in Trinity Chapel in what the New-York Tribune called “one of the most brilliant weddings of the season.”  Afterward a reception was held in the 34th Street house.  Of the 2,100 persons who received invitations, about 1,500 were present, according to the press.

Among those receiving invitations were President and Mrs. Hayes, all the members of the Cabinet, the judges of the Supreme Court of the Unites States, the German Ambassador, and European nobility.   Mrs. Dickerson worked with society’s favorite sources.  The florist was Kinnder who supplied what the Tribune called “a mass of rare flowers and plants.”   The caterers were the Pinard Brothers, who provided the mansions of Fifth Avenue and Newport with exquisite fare; and music was provided by Lauder.

Louise’s wedding gifts were on display:  a sterling tea service from her father, a full set of silverware from her brother—totaling 330 knives, forks, spoons, and other pieces—a diamond bracelet from Mrs. Gould.   There were “numerous candelabra,” a clock in the shape of “the Moscow bell,” bronze vases, mirrors and a rare cloisonn√© plaque.   The table was piled with a hammered silver pitcher and tray with repousse of oyster shells, an after-dinner coffee pot, a silver cream and sugar set, another silver cream pitcher, “a silver vase in the shape of a log of wood,” and a silver vase from Alexander Graham Bell (Dickerson was counsel for the American Bell Telephone Company).

Sadly, Louise lived only about three years after her wedding day.

Edward Nicoll Dickerson died on December 12, 1889.   Seven days later The New York Times reported his estate, saying “One of the shortest wills ever offered for probate is that of Edward N. Dickerson, the patent lawyer.”    Essentially one sentence long, he left “all of his estate to his wife, the principal at her death to revert to Edward N. Dickerson, their son.”

Dickerson and his mother lived on in No. 64 as he took up his father’s practice.  In the meantime, he ran the house next door as a sort of high-end boarding house.    In 1894 Captain Frank Roosevelt was living there.   The 32-year old was a member of Company E, Twelfth Regiment as was another resident, the architect S. Breck Parkman Trowbridge. 

The following winter Roosevelt was on duty with his regiment in Brooklyn.  Exposed to the frigid weather, he contracted pneumonia which led to his extremely untimely death.   A full military escort accompanied his casket from the house at No. 62 East 34th Street to the Church of the Holy Communion on 6th Avenue at 20th Street.   The church was filled with important military figures including General Daniel Butterfield, Colonel Barber, Major Crocker and Colonel Dowd.

Architect Trowbridge moved out when he married in 1896.  At the turn of the century, Abel Mix Phelps, a physician and surgeon who lived across the street at No. 40, had his office in No. 62.

Before long No. 62 would become the headquarters and “exchange” for the New York State branch of the Shut-in Society.   The organization had begun in 1884 when two crippled girls wrote back and forth to brighten each other’s life.  By 1885 their two-person club had gained such popularity that it was incorporated.   As explained in The New York Times in 1911, it was an organization “of persons aiming to bring cheerfulness, contentment, and helpfulness into the lives of those who, because of sickness and injury, are unable to go outside of their own homes.” 

In its headquarters at No. 62, the Society maintained a circulating library, published a monthly magazine, The Open Window, and operated an exchange.   Invalids sent their homemade embroidery, lace, and “fancy things” for sale here.  As the First World War sent crippled soldiers back home, the Society’s outreach broadened.

In 1915 Mrs. Edward Nicoll Dickerson hosted one of the last social functions in the mansion next door.  When her sister, Josephine Ogden, married Pierpont Davis in a socially noticeable wedding, the reception was held here. 

But by now residential life on East 34th Street had nearly come to an end.  As the mansions of Fifth Avenue were replaced by retail concerns and the city’s millionaires moved northward, the blocks immediately off the avenue followed suit.    The Shut-in Society moved further east to No. 123 East 34th Street and the lower floors of Nos. 62 and 64 were converted to stores and the buildings combined by Abraham Reich and Adolph Fortgang.

The parlor and basement floors of the two mansions have been sadly obliterated -- photo by Alice Lum
Today the two lower floors are a mangled cacophony of signs and awnings that hawk pizza, skin care and pasta.   An incongruous penthouse has been plopped on the mansard roof of the Dickerson house.  Inside are thirteen apartments which, amazingly, according to a real estate listing “still maintain much of the original detail, especially in the upper floor apartments.”

Above the desecrated parlor level of the two houses, McKim, Mead & Bigelow’s groundbreaking Queen Anne design--an early and important commission for the young firm- still survives.  Abeit somewhat careworn.   
photo by Alice Lum


  1. I walk by this little group of townhouses all the time and always wondered about their history and also how long they will survive. If only they could receive some restoration, it would be quite a sight to see them get protection as virtually the last, if not the last, former residential homes still standing on 34th Street.

  2. There's a whole other chapter.

    Number 64 was the home of legendary drag performer Bert Savoy!

  3. The facades have recently been spruced up -- new owner?

    1. Possibly. I see that the three joint properties were on the market recently.

  4. Should landmark designation be proposed?

  5. I would love to see that happen. But the LPC is reticent to designate altered structures and this one certainly falls into that category.

  6. That paradigm is specious and should be changed.

  7. Isn't that what Huxtable called "box top preservation"?
    Especially unrealistic of LPC in a city like New York.

  8. I grew up in this building, in the penthouse. It was the most inventive ingenuitive secret architecture of a building that I could imagine. I could go on for days on the nuances of how this building was designed.

  9. Can you tell us anything about the telescope dome on the roof? What is there now? Someone must be taking care of the dome as it looks to be in very good condition!

    1. Sorry. I know nothing about that detail. Perhaps another reader can help.

    2. the area that would have had the telescope was all metal. it had hollow metal colums and metal panels on the walls that feigned wood like a nice old door would have.

  10. I have been going to the nail salon in the building & have been fascinated by the massive wooded staircase that curves round & round
    up thru the whole building....although not in good shape now, but reading the history of the building, I realize this massive
    mahoghany staircase is a treasure of old NY. I have been fascinated by the building & knew it had to have a history. Thanks for the write-up.

  11. My friend lives in this building and I had taken a few photos before I researched the building and stumbled upon this goldmine of a blog. Here are some pictures on the link below from his unit and I'll try to take a few more. There are some remaining details, including an ornate fireplace. I'll try to get more pictures of the stairwell as well as the large mirror. Wish I could see pictures of the original structure before it was reconfigured.

    1. Thank you so much. Exquisite tile work around that wonderful mantelpiece.

  12. I'm interested in the telescope dome as well, it's the telescope itself still there?