Early New York – Old Days In Yorkville And Harlem

This has been the croak of the raven of speculation over many an old colonial mansion that’ was stately even in its decay, but lives now only in memory. The homes of a former century that bore, the names of Lispenard, Warren, Kip, De Lancey, Beek-man, Murray, and many another citizen of high repute in ancient annals can be found now only on maps that are yellow with age. The prim hedges of box, the groves of locust-trees that were so fragrant in the spring-time, the gardens filled with hollyhocks and poppies and white roses, with fever few and sage and all warrantable herbs, the summer beauty of beech and elm and tulip tree, have vanished with the people who moved amid them and loved them. Into the velvet of the lawn the iron tire of the contractor’s chariot, synonyms of the material progress of the age, has carved its cruel way, and a row of tenement-houses follows the line of broad piazzas. It seems a pity that the quaint old mantel-piece, whose tiles told to the ‘young aristocrats of a hundred years ago the story of Elijah, the Prodigal Son, or Jonah, with such serene violation of the laws of perspective ; the shabby old mirrors that reached from ceiling to floor, and that still told the glory of the brave men and fair women whose forms once flashed before them; the broad staircases guarded by tall mahogany balustrades, all black with age, up which swept the belles of colonial New York, passing fair, in gowns of India-silk, satin petticoats, high-heeled shoes, patches and powder, under escort of gentlemen who were elegant in velvet of all colors, brocaded waistcoats, lace neck-cloths, silken stockings, and diamond buckles, but who were ever ready to draw the rapier in desence of honor-it seems a pity, I say, that these should vanish under the touch of the auctioneer’s hammer. Yet, perhaps, it is better so; better that the old home-stead should be torn down by an unknown vandal than it should linger to its decay in stage after stage of helpless, hopeless ruin. Certainly if the old mansion on the Battery that was consecrated in history by Washington’s presence is razed by the same hand that rears a monument to the most despicable of English spies, it might be well to prevent a repetition of the sacrilege by levelling all our existing colonial monuments to the ground. Welcome the hammer of the auctioneer sooner than the touch of the speculator in patriotism, or the slow lapse into architectural senility which would turn the banqueting-hall of Earl Cornwallis into a hen-roost.

One Sunday afternoon I visited, the old Apthorpe Mansion that used to face the Hudson River and the Bloomingdale Road, but now is hemmed in by Ninth and Tenth avenues at Ninety- first Street, and is threatened on all sides by the bewildering touch of improvement. The full glory of the warm April sun lay upon the old place. Yet, though it was a centre of desolation, there was a remnant of individual majesty in the dwelling and its surroundings. No one could mistake its birth for other than colonial. The great pillars from roof to porch, the stately gables over door and window, the broad reception-hall ex-tending from front to rear, the height of ceilings above and below, were all proof of antiquity clear as print to the eye. If more evidence was needed, in-side were the antique dining-room, with walls and mantel-piece and ceiling of oak, now blackened by age, whose great panels and joists were imported from England in the days of colonial splendor that pre-ceded the Revolution. Outside was the ample lawn stretching down towards the river, dotted with groves of elms, locusts, button-wood, and ancient cherry-great trees that required more than one man to span their girth, beneath whose shade half a dozen generations of youth and beauty had disported them-selves.

As I stood alone upon the porch in the afternoon sun, and looked up the river towards the Palisades and down towards Castle Point, the air was thick with the shadows that trooped up from the past. There had been nothing romantic in the ride on the elevated train ; there was no sentiment in the dilapidated surroundings; and the sunshine was the deadly foe of anything like an apparition. Yet it seemed to me as I stood there as if I had lived another life, in which the old mansion, not then weather-beaten as now, but stately and untarnished, and set in a brilliant garland of shrubs and flowers, had played a prominent part. I could hear close at hand the rustle of silken dresses and the clank of swords-the merry peal of laughter and the jingle of the wine-glass-and not far distant I could hear the note of hurried preparation and the tramp of departing columns. Some one in buff and blue-a stalwart young officer in whose soul I lived-bade silent and sad adieu to a fair young girl whose sun-brown curls rippled down her neck and coquetted with her dimpled shoulders; and I could swear that I had looked into her eyes in some state of my existence and madly loved her. Yet I-no, he-rode away with the rear-guard, catching sight, last of all, of a fluttering handkerchief between the locust branches, and of a little, little hand.

It was an eerie experience, and yet perfectly real throughout. I do not know but that it may have been I who really carried on that desperate flirtation. Perhaps I was married afterwards without my own knowledge. It may be that I was my own great-grandfather, who rode away among the Continental soldiers on that day. But I fear that I may be getting out of my own depth in thus attempting to philosophize -and my grandmother would have told me that it served me right for travelling into the country on Sunday. One thing I do know – that I shall not cavil again at the theory of a state of pre-existence, for I solemnly aver that it seemed perfectly natural to see a line of scarlet soldiery stretching across the Bloomingdale road, and to prepare to hold them in check. For it was at this old mansion, that Lord Howe had his headquarters when the Connecticut Rangers and the Virginia Riflemen, under Leitch and Knowlton (both of whom were slain), sent the British column, headed by the indomitable Highlanders, flying across Harlem Plain down towards this point and through McGowan’s Pass. Here Lord Howe remained for some days and nursed his wounded honor, and Clinton and Carleton and Andre also led the minuet in these rooms and gave royalist belles a taste of the court splendors of King George. Whether this historic house is to be destroyed or to linger yet a little longer will be determined by the market value of the lots on which it stands.

The mansion which Washington ‘occupied as his headquarters on the ‘day of the victory at Harlem Plains-the Roger Morris house stands on the heights that overlook Harlem River, a little below the provincial Colonel Washington, visiting New York after the defeat of Braddock and his own brilliant achievements on the unfortunate field *of Fort Du Quesne, had wooed in vain. It will be a pity if no one comes forward to purchase and preserve the house for its historical association, for as from no point on the Island of Manhattan can so commanding a view be obtained, so none of the old colonial homesteads has so many and varied historical associations. Built of bricks brought from Holland, the house has been a landmark from the day of its completion. General Washington planned his battles in its library, and here also he held consultations with the chiefs of the Indian the High Bridge. It always seemed to me a strange chance that led the American general to this. roof.

The loyalist owner of the property had been Washington’s old companion-in-arms, and his wife was the beautiful Mary Phillipse, whom tribes, and gave his secret instructions to the ” spy of the neutral ground.” The estate was confiscated after the Revolution, and then it was purchased by John Jacob Astor, who made half a million dollars by his speculation. He sold the house to Stephen Jumel, who filled the rooms with costly furniture that was part of the spoils of French palaces, and embellished the grounds with rare trees and shrubs. Madame Jumel in her widowhood married Aaron Burr, but this alliance with the rude, unlettered woman was of short duration, and he left her in disgust and sought seclusion on Staten Island. Then for years the old woman lived alone, a terror to her servants and shunned by her neighbors; and left the legacy of a long lawsuit to her relatives. The estate has been shorn of its original dimensions and much of its old beauty, but the old house remains, as solid and substantial as when first built, and, standing on its piazza, one sees not only the lower city and Brooklyn Bridge, but seven counties in two different States, three rivers, Long Island Sound, the bay, and, in a clear atmosphere, a glimpse of the distant ocean.* It was while Washington made this brief sojourn at the Morris mansion that he had his attention called to Alexander Hamilton. During his inspection of the works thrown up at Harlem for the protection of his army, the American commander was struck by the skill displayed in the arrangement and disposition of a certain fort which was in charge of a young captain of artillery. On making inquiry it turned out that the name of the officer in question was Alexander Hamilton (then a youth of twenty), of whom General Greene had previously spoken to his superior in terms of high praise. Washington at once sought the acquaintance of the youth, and there and then the friendship began which linked their lives and their fame together.

Within sight of the fort he had built, and the field upon which he had fought, and within a little more than a mile from the Morris mansion, General Hamilton afterwards selected the site for his suburban home -the Grange. This beautiful structure, one of the finest remaining specimens of the classic style of architecture that our fathers fancied, is situated north of One Hundred and Fortieth Street and east of Tenth Avenue. Its site, selected by Hamilton, cannot be excelled for picturesqueness. Magnificent forest trees shade the ample grounds, and near the house is a cluster of thirteen trees that Hamilton planted with his own hand to symbolize the original thirteen States of the Union. They were in serious danger of being uprooted by the new aqueduct, which passes through the grounds, but have happily escaped. How long they will continue to stand is problematical. Even now it is feared that the house is doomed to destruction. The land is in the market, and unless a special effort is made to secure its preservation, it will probably be taken down and an ambitious modern villa will occupy its site. Perhaps Hamilton Terrace, with its proposed beautiful park, its lawns and tasteful dwellings, will be an improvement upon the dignified old homestead, the natural glory of the old forest landscape, and the grove of thirteen trees which emblazon history in their tints; but we who are conservatives from a former generation will hardly think so.

Speaking of old buildings reminds me that I have received a friendly criticism, by post, for not giving more details of the Third Avenue, through which I passed on my stolen fishing excursion of forty years ago. At that time, after leaving Astor Place, there was nothing compact in the way of buildings until we reached Bull’s Head Village, which extended from Second to Fourth avenues and from Twenty-third to Twenty-seventh streets. Here was the great cattle mart of the city, and here it had been for twenty years. But soon after it was removed to Forty-second Street, and thence to Ninety-fourth Street, from which point it was transferred to the Jersey shore a few years since. The people of old Bull’s Head Village worshipped in the Presbyterian Church, now standing in Twenty-second Street west of Third Avenue; at the Twenty-seventh Street Methodist Church, and at the little Episcopal Chapel of St. John the Baptist, on the east side of Fourth Avenue, near Twenty-third Street, which was demolished thirty years ago on the completion of the fine church of the same name at Lexington Avenue and Thirty-fifth Street.

After leaving Twenty-seventh Street and Third Avenue the traveller was in the country. There was no other settlement until Yorkville was reached, nearly two miles beyond. Scattered farm-houses, distant villas, green fields, and bits of woodland made up the landscape. The commodious country-seat of Anson G. Phelps on the East River was reached from Twenty-seventh Street. In the vicinity of Thirty – second Street the inhabitants imported from the river the name of Kip’s Bay, and lent it to the Thompson and Henderson homesteads thereabout, and to the grocery store that was for many years owned and conducted by a brother of Peter Cooper, a very worthy gentle-man, who died not long ago, having passed his ninetieth birthday. Sunfish Pond, famous for its eels, as well as sunfish and flounders, occupied the site of the Fourth Avenue stables at Thirty -second Street, and extended westward to Madison Avenue. From this pond a brook ran to the East River, following very nearly the line of Thirty-second Street. The brook was almost dry in summer, but, in times of freshets, it overflowed its banks and spread from the foot of Rose Hill at the South to Murray Hill on the north. When it was in a desperately angry mood, the residents of houses that are still standing could reach the avenue only in boats.

The residence of Peter Cooper-of rare and blessed memory always in this city of ours-stood then and still stands at the south-west corner of Fourth Avenue and Twenty-eighth Street. It was a plain and unpretending structure, and yet substantial withal, as befitted its builder. In front of his residence the Eastern Post Road passed to nearly the present line of Lexington Avenue, which it continued to follow until near Forty-second Street, when it joined Third Avenue. On its western side stood several large and fine residences owned by opulent Knickerbockers, embowered in gardens, half hidden by trees, and buried in deep lawns-the realization to weary travellers of an earthly paradise. On Third Avenue there were no dwellings until we reached the point at which the old ” Cato ” Road stretched out towards Second Avenue from Forty-third Street to Fifty-first, and thence circled around to the ” Turtle Bay “region and the famous hostlery kept by Cato. Tradition does not tell whether he had any other name besides Cato. A great cloud of witnesses, principally gray-haired, still survive to testify that his dinners and suppers were simply incomparable. Everybody who owned or could hire a “rig” drove out there at least once a week and feasted himself. Burnham, on the Bloomingdale Road at Seventy-fourth Street, was Cato’s only rival, but a formidable one.

At Forty-ninth Street and Third Avenue was a tiny hamlet known as Odellville, which owed its patronymic to Mr. Odell, who kept a country tavern at the corner first named, and with whom life agreed so well that he nearly lived out a century. Just across Third Avenue and above Fiftieth Street was the old potter’s field, which next followed those of Washington and Madison squares ; and, strange to say, not far from its northern borders was a spring of soft, pure water which was extensively carried away in carts to supply the distant city. This water readily commanded two cents a pail, and its sale was not discontinued until some time after the introduction of Croton water-many old people having a preference for it as. well as a decided distaste for new-fangled aqueducts and water brought in pipes. Between Odellville and the Five; mile public -house at Seventy-second Street there were a few scattered country-houses, many fields, some considerable forest tracts, and then came the village of Yorkville. Half a century ago this was quite an extensive settlement, reaching from Eighty-third to. Eighty-eighth streets, compactly built on both sides of Third Avenue and to Second and Fourth avenues on the intersecting streets. The village must have numbered more than a hundred houses, with three or four churches and a dozen stores. It never was a pretty place, but down towards the East River, and facing that picturesque stream, were some superb country residences in those days-such as the Schermerhorn mansion at the foot of Seventy-third Street, and the Riker homestead at the foot of Seventy-fifth Street. Elegant lawns stretched down to the river-front, and from the ample piazzas the scene was a panorama of beauty.

The Six-mile Tavern awaited the thirsty pilgrim at the corner of Ninety-seventh Street and Third Avenue. Our excellent forefathers always placed a mile-stone and a tavern together, by a gracious instinct which held that the dust of which our mortality is composed needed moistening at the end of a mile’s march. It was a good doctrine to stick to. The newest imported idea allows three saloons upon a single block on our busiest avenues. But our progenitors were be-hind the times–good men, but they did not under-stand human nature. They believed in a man owning as much land as he could manage comfortably, and only taking as much drink as was good for him. The new doctrinaires deny man’s right to own any land, and insist that he shall impose no restriction on his own or his neighbor’s right to drink all that he wishes. Thus we live and learn. But this is a digression. From the Six-mile Tavern we begin to descend the valley towards Harlem. It is a rough road. To the left is an abrupt stone ledge that runs up into Mc-Gowan’s Pass; to the right are the marshes of Harlem Commons, through which the East River extends up to the avenue for the distance of a mile. There was not a house to be seen until One Hundred and Second Street was reached, at which point a lane turned down to the celebrated Red House at First Avenue and One Hundred and Sixth Street, where a trotting course called together the owners of fast horses, especially on Sunday afternoons.

At One Hundred and Sixth Street the canal crossed the road, and beyond this point and up to One Hundred and Twentieth Street there were a few scattered houses, mostly detached, but here was again quite a settlement. Many of the houses still stand, transformed into places of business. At One Hundred and Twenty-fifth Street was a tavern which now figures as a drug-store, and from this point the village of Harlem began. Up to the time of the advent of the horse-cars, Harlem contained some two hundred houses, scattered over nearly a mile square, from Fifth

Avenue to the East River. Among the more notable residences were those of Dr. Quackenbush, Judge In-graham, Isaac Adriance, Charles Henry Hall, Andrew McGowan, and John Van Voorhis. At this time One Hundred and Twenty-ninth Street was the only paved thoroughfare north of Astor Place. Mr. Hall was a city Alderman in 1$32, and was one of a committee appointed during the prevalence of the cholera to visit Quarantine and report: Within a fortnight all of his colleagues had died, and Alderman Hall attributed his escape to the salubrity of his country residence at Harlem. His house still stands on a knoll just west of Fifth Avenue, a spacious edifice, but much dilapidated.

That is the minor key running through most of the descriptions of old haunts of history in our city-stately, spacious, but dilapidated ! I used to think of this years ago when I looked at the shabby ruin of the superb old Beekman mansion which used to stand just west of First Avenue, between Fifty-first and Fifty-second streets. Its windows looked out on Turtle Bay ; its garden, greenhouse, and lawns were models of perfection in their prime; its interior was elegant and left nothing to be desired. Here had her home after her husband was captured at Saratoga. In one of its rooms Andre, the spy, spent his last night in New York before going out to meet dishonor. Here Lord Howe passed sentence of death on Nathan Hale, the martyr spy of the Revolution, in whose honor New York has not erected the monument he deserves. Yet with all these associations I was not sorry to find the Beekman house torn down, for I had felt that the ghosts of its former occupants, if they were permitted to return to earth, would annihilate themselves with grief over its decay.