Thomas Dixon

THOMAS DIXON (1819-1886)

Thomas Dixon was born in Wilmington, DE in 1819. His older brother was James M. Dixon (1817-1863).  He had a younger brother John Dixon (1823-1880).  We know nothing about their early life, education and training.  Thomas and James, and possibly John, became architects in Wilmington.   Probably they apprenticed with an older architect.  In a Wilmington obituary for Thomas Dixon, Thomas and James practiced architecture in Wilmington “for a number of years designing numerous fine houses and superintending their construction.”  We have no documentation of their Wilmington works.  Thomas, and perhaps James, too, came to Baltimore about 1848 to 1850.

Thomas Dixon was a lifelong Presbyterian.  We know little about the Dixons’ families other than what we learn in their burial lot in Western Cemetery in Baltimore.  Thomas Dixon’s wife was Rebecca H., her birth and death dates illegible.  James had no wife buried with him and possibly he was unmarried or his wife remarried after his death. John’s wife was Mary A. (1821-1896).

Thomas Dixon became a member of the American Institute of Architects in 1870 before the Baltimore Chapter A. I. A. was organized in December 1870 with him as one of the founding members.  James Dixon had died in 1863. Portrait photographs of Thomas Dixon and “Dixon – brother of Thomas”, possibly John (?), are in the collection of Baltimore Chapter members, assembled in a large single frame about 1873.

Thomas Dixon is remembered for his many partnerships and he practiced alone between them. Three partners, Frank E. Davis, Charles L. Carson and Thomas C. Kennedy, became well known architects in solo practices after their partnerships with Thomas Dixon and all were among the founding members of the Baltimore Chapter, A. I. A. in 1870-71. In Dixon’s several partnerships, and his partners’ later solo practices, they are known for court houses, jails and churches, some of the last quite decorative ”high Victorian gothic” style with spectacular spires. Of course they all designed many residential, commercial, educational and institutional buildings.  Thomas Dixon was the developer of “Dixon’s Hill” in Mount Washington ca. 1853-l878.  He designed several houses there, including his own, and the Presbyterian Church, now The Chimes.

With the several changing partnerships, and the length of building constructions, documentations are not always precise in date and attribution. Most of the works cited here are still standing.  The dates of the partnerships are approximate, based on the documented attributions.

The first partnership was Dixon & Wright, working in Baltimore 1850-51, and we know nothing about Wright.

Dixon, Balbirnie & Dixon practiced from 1851 to 1856 and produced some of the finest works of the day in the Greek and Gothic revival styles.  Waverley Terrace 1850-51, a row of sophisticated houses still standing on the east side of Franklin Square, is the earliest known work by Dixon:.  Some others in this partnership include:  Westminster Presbyterian Church 1852; Union Square Methodist Church 1853; the Baltimore County Court House and Jail 1854-57; Lutherville Female Seminary 1854; Ivanhoe Terrace, a row of houses on the south side of Franklin Square with one of the earliest uses of brownstone in Baltimore; the Baltimore City Jail 1855-59; the Mount Washington Female College octagon 1855; Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster, PA 1856. We believe Thomas Balbirnie may have returned to Scotland and we have no biographical information on him.

Dixon & Dixon continued the practice from 1856 to James Dixon’s death in 1863.  Their works include the Baltimore City Jail Warden’s residence still standing on E. Madison Street 1860, the well-known Sheppard-Pratt Gatehouse on N. Charles Street 1861 and the Frederick County Court House 1862.

Practicing alone 1863-67, Thomas Dixon designed Grace Methodist Church still standing in his native city Wilmington, DE 1865-66, the first of his “high Victorian gothic” churches with spectacular spires.

Frank E. Davis (1829-1921) was Dixon’s next partner, practicing as Dixon & Davis 1867-68.  They designed the first building of Bethany Independent Methodist Church 1867 on Calhoun Street just north of Franklin Square.  A few years later a “high Victorian gothic” church would arise next door, probably by Dixon & Carson 1872.  Dixon & Davis designed the Odd Fellows Hall in Elkton, MD 1867.  In his later well documented solo practice Frank E. Davis designed a parsonage for Grace Methodist Church, Wilmington, DE in 1890, unfortunately demolished in 2004.

In Thomas Dixon’s second solo practice 1868-1870 he produced two more outstanding “high Victorian gothic” churches with spectacular spires:  Centenary Methodist in Saint Louis, MO; and St. Paul’s Methodist in Baltimore, both in 1869.

Charles L. Carson (1847-1891) apprenticed with Dixon and became his partner about 1870, a partnership that lasted about a decade and produced a wealth of buildings.  Dixon & Carson designed the Dixon firm’s best known work, the Mount Vernon Place Methodist Church in 1870.  Other “high Victorian gothic” churches include: the Episcopal Church of the Ascension (and St. Agnes) in Washington, DC 1874; Wesley Monumental Methodist Church, Savannah, GA 1876; the Lafayette Square Presbyterian Church 1878; and the second Central Presbyterian Church on Eutaw Place 1879, which never received its intended spectacular spire and the church still owns the architects’ large beautiful color rendering.  Dixon & Carson designed the Masonic Temple and Opera House 1871 still standing in Wilmington, DE, beautifully restored in 1973-76 by James R. Grieves, AIA Baltimore.  The St. James Hotel 1874, formerly on Charles at Centre Streets, was a rare example of “high Victorian gothic” for a secular building.  Dixon & Carson also designed the Dorchester County Jail and Sheriff’s House in Cambridge, MD 188­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­3, demolished in 1994 after a long battle for its preservation and reuse.

Iron framing was commonplace for these buildings. The Bethany Independent Methodist Church 1872 was all iron with brick nogging, its exterior sheathing of corregated sheet iron with sheet and cast iron ornament, all very decorative.

Thomas Dixon’s final partner was Thomas C. Kennedy (1848-1914) who came to Baltimore from Ireland by way of London where he had received his architectural training.  Dixon & Kennedy 1880-81 designed the first McDonogh School in Baltimore County 1881 and Kennedy is credited with the majority of the work.  They also designed the Talbot County Jail and Sheriff’s house in Easton 1881, recently restored and adapted to a new usage.

An invalid for a few years, Thomas Dixon was housebound for 10 weeks and died of paralysis on 25 July 1886.  His funeral was in his residence at 253 (now 839) N. Eutaw Street and he was buried in Western Cemetery on Frederick Road in Baltimore with other members of his family.

Of interest to architectural historians, Thomas Dixon compiled an inventory of the office contents and personal library of architect William Reasin upon his death in 1867.  With 162 architectural books and periodicals it is an important insight into a 19th century architect’s personal library and it is included in Reasin’s biography on this website.

James T. Wollon, Jr., A.I.A. based on research by John McGrain and Peter Kurtze.