Here at the Hagen History Center, we have had the privilege of working with architect Jeff Kidder and contractor Mike Jefferys multiple times on various types of construction projects and exhibit development. Their office is in the city’s oldest, still standing building, the Dickson Tavern. What is the history of this 1815 building which is currently surrounded by the modern UPMC Hamot Hospital?
Located on the corner of 2nd and French Streets, the building was constructed by William Himrod (see blog #44) for John Dickson. There are varying accounts of Mr. Dickson’s life prior to moving to Erie but he arrived in 1814. I read that he was an excellent cook and provided lodging for many who were new to the village of Erie or passing through. He also operated a steamboat office and provided carriage and boat rides out of the Tavern. To appeal to an upscale crowd, Dickson named the business the “Exchange Coffee House” and hosted local men who wanted to drink, smoke, and discuss the latest news. Keep in mind, the latest news may be a week or two old by the time it reached “the West” as the areas west of the Appalachian Mountains were known.
The “claim to fame” of the life of Dickson was preparing the party for the General Marquis de Lafayette’s visit to Erie on June 9th, 1825. Lafayette was treated as a “rock star” of the time (see blog #7) touring all the important communities of the United States. There were no buildings large enough to host such an important event (not even the Dickson Tavern) but there was a wide foot bridge that crossed the gully halfway between State and French Streets on 2nd Street which was 175 feet long. Dickson and team set tables and chairs on the bridge and provided a covering using the sails taken from the British ships that Oliver Hazard Perry defeated in the 1813 Battle of Lake Erie. Decorations of flowers and evergreen branches adorned the tables and I read it was a beautiful sight.
Lafayette’s toast was beautiful as well. “Erie, a name which has a great share in the American glory. May this town ever enjoy a proportionate share in American prosperity and happiness.” The Hagen History Center has several objects from this event in our collections.
John Dickson sold the building to John Rogers in 1841 and it was converted into a home. An addition was constructed so in describing the architectural style it is both Federal (original) and Greek Revival. In 1924, the City of Erie purchased the building and renamed it the Perry Memorial House. It became a museum with a War of 1812 feel and focus. Perhaps you may remember visiting that museum and seeing the “Underground Railroad tunnel”. Neither the building nor tunnel were ever proven to be a part of the system, however; so much of the Railroad was undocumented, for good reasons, that anything is possible.
In 2009, the Dickson Tavern was purchased for the offices of Jeff Kidder, Mike Jefferys, and associates. Knowing those two gentlemen, I am sure the interior is fabulous with a historic feel.
It wasn’t the only tavern that Erie had, just the only one still standing. Others included the Bell House at 6th and French built in 1805, the American Hotel on the southwest corner of State Street and South Park Row, the Dobbins House at 3rd and State Streets, the Farmer’s Hotel at 5th and French Streets built in 1820, the Laird House on the Southwest corner of 8th and State Streets built in 1829, and the Park House at 7th and State built in 1829.
I wish continued long life for the Dickson Tavern and all the other old structures in Erie. Thankfully, so many of the beautiful homes along “Millionaire’s Row” near the Hagen History Center and being renovated to their former glory, if not better, through Mr. Hagen’s generosity. Check out https://www.goerie.com/news/20200103/thomas-hagen-investing-millions-to-preserve-eries-past. Also, the Erie Downtown Development Corporation is making great strides in helping revitalize the city. Their website, https://www.erieddc.org/ explains more. Both efforts bring me much happiness!