Early New York – Glimpses Of East River Homes

THE memory of my school-days haunts me even to the boundaries of my summer acre. For on the East River is a tract of land which covers eight or nine blocks, and extends from Seventy-sixth Street to beyond Seventy-ninth Street on the water-front, which is the property of the New York Protestant Episcopal Public-school, which is the charter name of the Trinity School of my boyhood. Founded in 1709, it was partially endowed by Trinity Church, and received this bequest of valuable real estate in 1800 from Mr. Baker, and in 1806 was incorporated by the Legislature. Taxes and assessments have swallowed up half of this land ; the school had no friends in the city government to protect its interests, and had to see its property forfeited while the City Fathers were lavishing lands and appropriations on the Church of Rome. In 1832 the vestry of Trinity Church granted to the trustees, at a nominal rent, the lease of five lots of ground in Canal, Varick, and Grand streets, on which was erected a large brick school-house, that is still standing, though the school has moved its headquarters three miles away. Here the Rev. Dr. Morris, a robust, scholarly, jolly graduate of Trinity College,

Dublin-strict in discipline, but foremost in our out-door sports-wielded the rod diligently for nearly fiveand-twenty years. I have pleasant remembrances of his reign ; of wrestlings with Anthon’s Homer and Greenleaf’s Arithmetic; of uproarious singing which sorely vexed Dr. Hodges, our musical instructor, and of learning to flourish birds and skeletons under Mr. Barlow, our elegant writing-master, who always officiated in a dress-coat ; as well as of countless merry games of “Red Lion” and ” How Many Miles ?” in the playgrounds of the school.

Our ancestors had a queer way of mixing up what we would now call the sacred and the profane. They went to church regularly, as a matter of duty, and quite as regularly they went to the theatre also. Governor and mayor had their canopied pews at the one place and their curtained boxes at the other, and no-body appeared to think the worse of them for going to either place. When a struggling congregation needed help to build a church, the authorities would order a lottery to raise money for the purpose, and when a charitable enterprise needed a helping hand they would secure it a benefit at the theatre. Only last week I discovered in the files of the New York Gazette, Revived in the Weekly Post-boy, for March 26, 1750, an advertisement which recited that “by his excellency’s permission”-Admiral George Clinton was then governor of the colony-” a tragedy called ‘,The Orphan ; or, the Unhappy Marriage,’ wrote by the ingenious Mr. Otway,” would be performed the next evening at the theatre in Nassau Street for the benefit of the Episcopal Charity- school, as Trinity School was first termed, whose school-house had been recently destroyed by fire. The advertisement, after giving the prices of admission, concludes with a delightful warning to the gilded youth of the period : ” To begin precisely at half an hour after 6 o’clock, and no person to be admitted behind the scenes.”

Just below the school lands were the summer residences of Richard Riker and John Lawrence. The former was for nearly half a century a well-known character in the city. In his dashing youth ” Dickey” Riker was the mirror of fashion ; in his limping old age he was known to the legal fraternity as “Old Pecooler,” from his habit, as recorder, of beginning almost every charge to his juries with the remark that there was something ” very pecooler,” as he phrased the word peculiar, about the case in question. With the exception of two years, Mr. Riker filled the office of recorder from 1815 to 1838. His pretty cottage on the East River, whose broad veranda, shaded by oaks on either side, was then a bower of rest and lovely scenery, no longer exists, for Seventy-fourth Street passes directly over its site and through the grassy knoll on which it was situated.

Some of the old residences, frame structures that were erected seventy or eighty years ago, still stand, though their surroundings are all changed, and. it seems a pity that they have survived the destruction of the green fields and graceful bits of forest that surrounded them. Ancient Ash Brook-as the old Lawrence mansion at the foot of East Twenty-fifth Street used to be called-the home in my boyhood of John Lawrence, merchant and man of affairs, continues to defy Time’s ravages, and is yet embowered in a lovely garden that occupies nearly a city block, shut in by a high brick wall. The pretty little stream long known as Ash Brook has been stamped out by pavements,’ but there are some oaks still standing there that can recall the music of its ripples. At Eighty-second Street and Avenue B is the country residence of Joshua Jones, a long wooden structure of olden fashion, with a gallery on the roof, and the usual broad verandas in front and rear. Two blocks above, the homestead of the Schermerhorn family, a more ambitious structure of two stories and a half, surmounted by a cupola, still looks out towards Hell Gate and the islands. The family owned at one time considerable real estate in this section, and several houses were built by and for the younger members. Their neighbors were the Jones families, the Winthrops, Duns-combs, Kings, John Wilkes, a lawyer, whose city house was in Wall Street, and who was a relative of the famous and eccentric English Member of Parliament of that name ; Josiah Ogden Hoffman, Charles King, and John N. Grenzebach, whose father’s grocery store on Park Row had been an ancient city landmark. The latter’s estate was at Third Avenue and Seventy-fifth Street, and the house was an ambitious frame structure of three stories, which for nearly half a century attracted notice as a relic of a luxurious period in the past.

The little colony of citizens who had their country places hereabouts were mainly Episcopalians, and in the summers, which were unduly prolonged for them by yellow-fever visitations, they felt the need of a church. When, in 1807, the city corporation thought of improving their common lands, which then extended from about Forty-fifth to Eighty-sixth Street, they laid out a park between Sixty-sixth and Sixty-ninth streets and Third and Fourth avenues, on whose grounds now stand the Seventh Regiment Armory, the Normal School, and several hospitals, and called it Hamilton Square. A plot of land at Lexington Avenue and Sixty-ninth Street was marked, on the map then made, as ” a piece of land intended for a church or academy.” For this lot application was made to the authorities, and the vestry of Trinity Church was petitioned for assistance. Both requests were granted, the common council giving the land, and Trinity Church a gift of $3000. The church, afterwards known as St. James’s, Yorkville, was consecrated in 1810 by Bishop Moore. It was not much of a building, architecturally speaking. Indeed, it was a plain wooden structure, of the house-carpenter style of architecture, surmounted by a little pepper-box sort of a steeple. But what mattered its style?

It had no rival within sight. For fifteen years after it was finished Yorkville had no existence, not a house having been built on the common lands. It was a country church, amid outlying farm lands. Situated on the summit of Hamilton Hill, it was a land-mark for miles around. A road crossed the island just above it, at Seventy-second Street, known as Harsen’s Road, and through this rural lane came the rector of St. Michael’s, Bloomingdale, to preach on summer mornings, when. the sacred edifice was beset on all sides by the carriages of the rich and the wagons of humbler folk. For thirty years there was only summer preaching in this old country church, and then the town had grown up about it, and it threw away its Bloomingdale crutch and walked alone. Park, church, and farms have been obliterated, and yet I turn from the river’s side and look westwardly, and fancy that I can once more see the familiar old pepper-box spire which I was taught in boyhood to reverence. The hand of the destroyer who wields the pick is mighty, but more potent still is the slight, gentle touch of memory.

The first vestry of the church was selected in 181o. The wardens were Peter Schermerhorn and Francis B. Winthrop. The vestrymen were David Mumford, John Mason, John G. Bogert, Peter Schermerhorn, William H. Jephson, John Jones, John H. Talman, Charles King; and the inspectors of election were Joshua Jones, Martin Hoffman, and Isaac Jones. In 1843, when the church first called a minister of its own, the wardens were Joseph Foulke and Peter Schermerhorn, and among the vestrymen were Thom-as Addis Emmet, John H. Riker, and Rufus Prime.

Perhaps it would be hardly proper in this connection to speak of those venerable men as the Hell Gate colonists, but such they were indeed, attracted to this section of the Island of Manhattan by its marvellous and diversified beauties of land and water. They built, their homes here, erected their family tombs, set the light of their church on a hill, and planned for the peaceful occupation of generations, little dreaming that before the century closed their homes would be swept away by a tidal wave of population, and their own bones torn out of the sod and trotted away to some crowded city of the dead.

There is but one New York. I have visited London at my leisure, and have made my home in Paris; have seen the tropical beauty of South American cities, and the Arctic glory of the old French towns in Canada ; but I want to put it on record that there is only one New York, and that it is peerless. No other city possesses natural beauty to compare with it.

In an article written for the Talisman in 1828, Mr. Gulian C. Verplanck takes the ground that New York was even then one of the pivots of creation. ” It is a sort of thoroughfare,” he says, ” a spot where almost every remarkable character is seen once in the course of his life, and almost every remarkable thing once in, the course of its existence. Does anybody in that city want to see a friend living in Mexico, or Calcutta, or China, all that he has to do is to reside quietly in New York and he will be gratified. The object in, search of which he might compass half the globe will present itself in his daily walk when he least expects it.” With the exception of Mont Blanc, Westminster Abbey, and the Emperor of China, this is probably true. Here Jonathan Edwards, Whitefield, and the apostolic Tennant have preached, and Oglethorpe and Count Zinzendorf have, exhorted; here Washington has dwelt in state, and Jefferson has kept his quiet house on Cedar Street ; here Talleyrand has displayed his club-foot and his power to be sarcastic, even with children; here lived for a time Billaud de Varennes, who led the French mob at St. Antoine ; and here Count Auguste Louis de Singeron, one of the gallant band of officers who defended the King on that Au-gust night when the Tuileries ran blood, sold cake and candies to the children ; here King William IV., of England, disported himself as a. midshipman, learning to skate on the Collect Pond, and King Louis Philippe, of France, taught school in the old Somerindyke mansion on upper Broadway; here Volney, Cobbett, Tom Moore, Murat, the Bonapartes, and heroes and academicians enough to fill a volume with their achievements and set society by the ears have visited or dwelt in tents. The procession has been moving on ever since. I have seen the future King of England on our streets; slender, fiery Don Carlos ; fierce Henri de Rochefort ; the jovial but darksome ” King of the Cannibal Islands,” whose august name Kalakaua was turned into “Calico” by irreverent urchins ; several exiled Haytian monarchs, more or less dark of aspect ; General Paez, and a long succession of South American soldiers and rulers ; and even his august autocracy, the Shah of Persia, has recently remarked in confidence that he would like to visit New York, and would do it but for the fear that his distinguished friends who hold the helm in Russia and England might take advantage of his absence to dismember his kingdom.

In a letter written by Washington Irving, from Paris, in 1824, to Henry Brevoort, he speaks of his in-tense delight at having received a visit from Dominick Lynch, and having a long chat over old times and old associates. They talked about New York until he became homesick. ” I do not know,” he says, ” whether it is the force of early impressions and associations, but there is a charm about that little spot of earth, the beautiful city and its environs, that has a perfect spell over my imagination. The bay, the rivers and their wild and woody shores, the haunts of my boyhood on land and water, absolutely have a witchery over my mind.” Then he rises to a climax which should be read in the hearing of American colonies abroad, and writes: “I thank God for having been born in such a beautiful place among such beautiful scenery ; I am convinced that I owe a vast deal of what is good and pleasant in my nature to the circumstance.” I close my eyes, shut the book, and try to fancy Washington Irving, as I saw him in his honored old age, moving about these old-fashioned rooms. It is one of the legends of the house that in the earlier years of his fame he was many times a guest at the table of its hospitable owner, and that he knew the family well his letters attest. If I were the owner I would rather that the feet of Washington Irving had crossed my threshold than to have numbered among my visitors any or all of the great men I have mentioned.

To me the whole atmosphere of Hell Gate is redolent with the memory of Washington Irving. As boy and man I know that he walked under the trees that still remain by the side of the river, and here he dreamed and wrote of ancient Dutch voyagers, of hob-goblins and ghosts of pirates, and likewise of every-thing that was sweet and lovely in nature. When he wished to retire from the clamor and bustle of the City of New York, where fashion then had pushed its way far out into the purlieus of Bleecker and Great Jones streets, and was even dreaming of turning the wild waste at Fourteenth Street, that stretched irregularly between the Bloomingdale Road and the Bowery (as it was then known) into Union Square, he came up to the summer home of the elder John Jacob Astor, on Hell Gate, for rest from what he called the ” irk-some fagging of my pen,” or for planning and writing new books, and, as in every place which he visited, he has left here the pleasant impress of his personality.

It was the fashion of his day to look upon Mr. Astor as a man whose only object of devotion in life was the mighty dollar. He had amassed a fortune which was considered colossal, and there were many to envy him and to detract from his credit; many who chose to forget that had not John Jacob Astor and Stephen Girard come forward with their dollars to help the country in its last war with Great Britain, there would have been no powder for American can-non and no balls in American muskets. But most of all, I have honored Mr. Astor for the reason that Washington Irving esteemed him. It is a comparatively easy matter to bequeath a slice of one’s fortune .to found a public library, but a thousand times more difficult to acquire the friendship of such a man as Irving; and that the latter had a cordial admiration for the great merchant is evinced in many of his letters. It was because of the personal cordiality which existed between them that Irving found it so pleasant to be a guest for weeks at a time at his country-seat, as well as to be a frequent and familiar visitor at Mr. Astor’s city home, which then stood on Broadway, upon the site of the present Astor House.

In a letter to his brother Peter, bearing date September 25, 1835, Washington Irving writes: ” For upward of a month past I have been quartered at Hell Gate with Mr. Astor, and I have not had so quiet and delightful a nest since I have been in America. He has a spacious and well- built house, with a lawn in front of it and a garden in the rear. The lawn sweeps down to the water-edge, and full in front of the house is the little strait of Hell Gate, which forms a constantly moving picture.” Here Mr. Astor kept what his guest calls ” a kind of bachelor hall,” the only other member of the family being his grandson, Charles Astor Bristed, then a boy of fourteen, who afterwards inherited the place. Later, Mr. Irving goes on to say:

I cannot tell you how sweet and delightful I have found this retreat pure air, agreeable scenery, a spacious house, profound quiet, and perfect command of my time and self. The consequence is that I have written more since I have been here than I have ever done in the same space of time.” Two weeks later he writes to the same brother that he has ” promised old Mr. Astor to return to his rural retreat at Hell Gate, and shall go out there to-day.” In another let-ter, written on Christmas Day, he says that Mr. Astor does everything in his power to render his stay agree-able, ” or rather, he takes the true way, by leaving us complete masters of ourselves and our time. The reason he uses the plural number is that his nephew, Pierre M. Irving, was with him, engaged under his supervision in digging out the material for his great work Astoria, which had been taken up at Mr. Astor’s request and prepared in his Hell Gate mansion for publication. The early part of the next year, 1836, found Mr. Irving still hard at work in ” that admirable place for literary occupation,” Mr. Astor’s ” country retreat opposite Hell Gate,” and there he was still busy in-February, “giving my last handling to the Astor work. It is this handling which, like the touching and retouching of a picture, gives the richest effects.” And it was while he was giving this exquisite setting to his rare and masterly pictures of wild life on the Pacific that the great American master of letters was from time to time a welcome visitor across this worn and faded threshold.

Other homes in the neighborhood made him welcome, as they had done before. During the War of 1812, in which, by-the-way, Washington Irving did service on the staff of Governor Tompkins, and earned the truly American title of colonel, which he made haste to drop, he was a guest at the rural home of the Lefferts, near the present Ninety-first Street and

Third Avenue-a house which is still standing. In January, 1813, he writes: “Mr. Gracie has moved into his new house, and I find a very warm reception at the fireside. Their country-seat was one of my strongholds last summer, as I lived in its vicinity. It is a charming, warm-hearted family, and the old gentleman has the soul of a prince.” Could praise go further ? Yet it was deserved, I am sure. Archibald Gracie was one of New York’s great merchants, and Oliver Wolcott said of him : ” He was one of the excellent of the earth-actively liberal, intelligent, seeking and rejoicing in occasions to do good.” Josiah Quincy, who was entertained by him at his country-seat on the East River, opposite Hell Gate, writes of the place as beautiful beyond description, and says : “The mansion is elegant, in the modern style, and the grounds laid out with taste in gardens.” The house stood-and still stands in an excellent state of preservation-on the East River, at Horn’s Hook (sometimes called Gracie’s Point and Rhinelander’s Point), at the foot of Eighty-ninth Street. It still looks out upon the whirling, foaming waters of Hell Gate ; its lawn still stretch-es to the river; huge elms yet shade its ample porches, and it is a landmark yet to those who navigate the three channels of the Gate ; but it long since passed into the hands of strangers, and its present possessors may not know or care what ghosts of footsteps-all unforgotten by fame or tradition-still linger regretfully about its halls.

I hear at the door the step of the old colonel, and I know he will drag me from my books to take what he calls the medicine of fresh air and sunshine. He asks me what I have been writing about, and when I have read him a page or two, he exclaims, with charming frankness, ” Nonsense ; why don’t you tell of General Scott’s dinner at the Gracie homestead, and of Commodore Chauncey’s country-box just above here, and put a little soldiering and fighting in your letters. I don’t think much of steel-pens or goose-quills, either, for that matter. If I had sixteen sons I would put them all into the army-every one, sir-and make them fight for bread and their country. I would, by-by Nebuchadnezzar, sir !”

I thanked Nebuchadnezzar for coming in at this crisis and purring his approval of my visitor, but I could not resist the chance to fire a shot. As he sat down and took the cat in his lap and stroked its yellow coat, and did it gently with a touch that showed a tender and deep humanity in his heart, I said, ” What a pity that your grandson should be a parson. I must warn Nellie against putting her trust in any-thing but a soldier !”

Nellie had entered the room without my seeing her, and, as she laid her hand upon his arm, her face was rosy and his was scarlet. He put the cat down gently, lifted a wrathful finger, and, with time only to ex-claim, ” Felix, I-” was conveyed away in safety by my daughter.

The cat and I had the laugh to ourselves. Nellie and the old colonel think that I know nothing about the young minister and her ladyship. I would like to question Nebuchadnezzar, as I think he knows more about it than I can guess.