Monday, August 15, 2022

The Lost Isaac Michael Dyckman Mansion - 505 West 218th Street


An undated postcard shows the mansion, carriage house and expansive greenhouses.  Note the female strolling in the garden at left, near an ornamental statue.
James Frederick D. Smith was one of ten children of Caleb Smith, Jr. and Hannah Dyckman.  Born on New Year's Day 1813, at the age of seven, he was sent to live with his grandfather Jacobus Dyckman and unmarried uncles, Isaac and Michael, in his mother's childhood home on Broadway at 204th Street.   Jacobus died in 1832, leaving his vast upper Manhattan holdings to Michael and Isaac.  Following Michael's death in 1854, just James and his uncle Isaac lived in the venerable farmhouse with their servants.

As James's wedding to his distant cousin, Fannie Blackwell Brown, neared in October 1867, Isaac Dyckman gave him a large parcel of land at the tip of northern Manhattan, presumably as a wedding present.  Smith began construction on a lavish French Second Empire mansion on the grounds, described as having 17 rooms, plus "a stable, a greenhouse, sheds, barns, and a lodge."  Smith and Fannie Brown were married on December 18, 1867, as their opulent estate was under construction.

Isaac Dyckman died just one month after the marriage.  The Minneapolis newspaper The Appeal reported, "At that time Mr. Isaac Dyckman had probably more real property in his hands than any other single property owner of Manhattan has ever seen."  With no surviving siblings, his will divided the property among nephews and nieces.  His favorite nephew, however, received the major part."

But that legacy came with a major proviso.  Because neither Issac nor his brother Michael had married, the Dyckman name was threatened to die out.  To prevent that, Smith's inheritance was subject to a startling condition:  he had one year to change his name to Isaac Michael Dyckman or the bequests would be revoked.

It did not take Smith long to decide.  On March 20, 1868 he legally became Isaac Michael Dyckman.  In return, he inherited valuable real estate not only in Northern Manhattan, but on the still undeveloped Upper East Side, downtown Manhattan, and Yonkers.

The newly named Isaac and Fannie Dyckman had two daughters.  Mary Alice was born in 1869 and Fannie Fredericka (known familiarly as Freda) two years later.  The estate on which the girls grew up featured manicure lawns, formal gardens and orchards.  

In order to administer his vast holdings, Isaac Michael Dyckman established a real estate office downtown, and by 1889 the family had a townhouse at 15 East 71st Street where they spent the winter social season.

Alice was married to Dr. Bashford Dean of Columbia College on November 9, 1893.  Freda was her maid of honor.  A reception followed in her parent's townhome.

image from the collection of the Columbia Low Library collection

Fannie Fredericka's wedding three years later took place in the summer.  And so, not surprisingly, it was held in the Kingsbridge mansion.  She married the well-known architect Alexander McMillan Welch.  On June 3, 1896, The Sun reported, "About 700 guests attended the reception which followed the ceremony."  Mysteriously, there was no mention of Alice.  Fannie's maid of honor was her new sister-in-law, Alberta M. Welch and Alice's name appeared nowhere in the detailed newspaper accounts.  Fannie and Alexander moved into the East 71st Street house with her parents and, presumably, shared the uptown estate as well.

Alice (top) and Freda Dyckman on their wedding days.  images via Dyckman Farmhouse Museum

On May 2, 1899 the New-York Tribune reported that Isaac Michael Dyckman had donated $10,000 (about $337,000 today) to Columbia University.  "The fund will be known as the Dyckman Fund for the encouragement of Biological Research," said the article.  The Evening Post added, "This he did in memory of his two uncles, who were early alumni of that institution."

Exactly one week later, on the evening of May 9, 1899, Dyckman died in the East 71st Street house at the age of 87.  The Yonkers Statesman commented, "His death was unexpected, and was due to a sudden breakdown of his constitution."  In reporting his death, The New York Times said, "He was a man of large wealth, and was much interested in benevolent matters."  His funeral took place in the East 71st Street house.

Ironically, because James and Fannie had not born a son, Isaac Dyckman's scheme to continue of the Dyckman name failed.  On May 11, 1899 the New-York Daily Tribune said, "On Monday, however, he died, leaving only two daughters.  So the estate again passes to an alien name, although it remains in the Dyckman family."

In 1904 the Kingsbridge estate was being hemmed in by development, and dynamiting for a new ship canal disturbed the tranquility.  On September 11, 1904 the New-York Tribune reported that Alexander M. Welch, as executor of the Dyckman estate, was in negotiations with a syndicate to transform the property into an amusement park.  A month later, it appeared that a deal had been struck.  The plans for the $1.5 million, 31-acre Wonderland had been drawn up by the architectural firm of Kirby, Petit & Green.  The Real Estate Record & Guide reported it would exceed "anything at Coney Island."

The proposed Wonderland.  Real Estate Record & Builders' Guide, November 19, 1904 (copyright expired)

The deal, however, fell through.  The mansion was used as a Catholic boys' school until 1921.  That year Columbia University used a gift of $700,000 from George F. Baker, the chairman of the Board of the First National Bank, to purchase the property as a site for an athletic complex.  On May 4, 1922 the facility was dedicated as Baker Field, in honor of its benefactor.

The estate soon saw the development of playing and practice fields, and a wooden stadium was completed in 1928.  The Dyckman mansion was used as the team's field house, called the Manor House.

But Victorian villas made poor field houses.  In 1945, football coach Lou Little told a reporter from the New York Sun, "I doubt if the Manor House is haunted, but the place sure is a monstrosity."  Director of Athletics Ralph Furey chimed in, "That's right.  The old house has outlived its usefulness, and will be the first thing demolished when we get around to rebuilding up here."

The journalist described gave a brief history of the venerable structure, adding:

But now the big rambling place with its dark, winding stairways, is lonesome and deserted, most of its seventeen rooms empty.  But one room has a touch of life and color, for here the uniforms and instruments of the college band are kept.  The house on Saturdays also sees the concessionaire's boys coming in to count up, amid scattered piles of game programs, after selling their wares through the stands.

The demolition began around 1949.  image from the collection of the Columbia Low Library collection

In 1949 or 1950 the mansion was demolished to be replaced by the brick Chrystie Field House that survives on the site.

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  1. There was another home on the property that the old wooden stadium at Baker Field was built around that survived until the stadium was torn down . It was the same vintage/era as the one in the photo

  2. Nice to see you venturing up to my neck of the woods, even if you are profiling a long-gone mansion. I live less than two blocks from the Dyckman Farmhouse that you mention. Apparently, it was moved to Broadway and 204th Street sometime after it erected. Dyckmans were pretty numerous in the early days of Inwood (Tubby Hook in the those days.) The mansion at Boscobel in Garrison was the residence of a prominent Dyckman relation, States Morrison Dyckman, and his wife Elizabeth.

    One minor correction to your mention of Lou Little. He did not play football at Columbia, but he was a longtime coach of the football team there during the years that they were a major collegiate powerhouse. Jack Kerouac played under him on scholarship until a broken leg sent him in a direction
    far afield from football. Little makes an appearance as Lou Libble in Kerouac's early autobiographical novel "Maggie Cassidy".