Many of the old mansions of the Bronx are still extant and many of them have disappeared, but most of them have an interesting history either politically or socially and we give an account of some of the more important ones by a writer who was born and bred in the Bronx and has an intimate knowledge of those fine old residences.
The Gouverneur Morris Mansion
The famous Gouverneur Morris Mansion stood on a finely selected location on the high ground near the foot of the present Saint Ann’s Avenue. Erected about 1798, and modelled after a stately French chateau, with its windows commanding a truly glorious view of the beautiful Harlem Kills with Randall’s Island in the near fore-ground, this elegant old structure was the residence of that diplomat, patriot and statesman, Gouverneur Morris.
Plainly visible on floor and stairway were the imprints made by Mr. Morris’s wooden leg as he trudged up and down. It seems that one of his hobbies, while residing in Philadelphia, was the driving without reins of a pair of spirited horses. This wooden leg, described as merely a round stick roughly fitted to the limb, was the result of being thrown from his carriage while unable to control the runaways. A noted clergyman once sympathized so deeply with him because of his accident that he re-plied : “My dear sir, you argue so handsomely and point out so clearly the advantages of being without legs, that I am almost tempted to part with the other !”
Gouverneur Morris’s devotion to his country when minister to France was strongly evidenced by his insisting on remaining on duty in Paris all through the dread Reign of Terror. “For,” said he, “it is not for me to desert my post in the hour of difficulty.”
His ability to lead the field with his scythe as well as to recite whole books of Virgil by heart, was shown unexpectedly when a noted Englishman arrived, after visiting the Van Rennselaer the Schuylers and the Van Cortlandts. Scarcely had the carriage entered the grounds when the guest encountered a man without coat or vest, his trousers tucked into his boots, a scythe over his shoulder, an old straw hat on his head and the perspiration streaming down his face. The busy farm hand was none other than Gouverneur Morris himself.
In the memoirs of John Jay we find: “On Wednesday, when the President was away, Mrs. Washington called on me, and on Thursday, after an early breakfast of our own, we went, agreeably to invitation, to break-fast at General Morris’s, Morrisania.”
The charming vine-laden mansion of those days is said to have comprised but one-third of the original structure. Morris himself once wrote to a friend: “I have a ter-race roof 130 feet long,and, by the bye, I will send you a receipt how to make one,from which I enjoy one of the finest prospects imaginable, while breathing the most salubrious air.”
Many were the distinguished visitors entertained in the old house. General Moreau, one of Napoleon’s famous officers; Louis Philippe, afterwards King of the French; and his two brothers, Comte de Beaujolais and Duc de Montpensier. The friendship between Morris and the renowned General Lafayette was very close. When the noted Frenchman came to America in 1824, one of the visits he paid was at the former home of his intimate friend, where he was most hospitably received by the young son of the distinguished father.
Loud protests arose when it became known that the famed Gouverneur Morris mansion was to be razed to the ground and the terraces all leveled to make way for the enlarging of the adjoining railroad yard. The spacious halls and massive staircases and the walls two feet thick, were to be doomed at last, to say nothing of the great library where stood the private desk in whose secret drawer were once hidden 784 livres entrusted to Morris by King Louis XIV to aid in his attempted escape from Paris. Just before its destruction, a high railroad official calmly declared that his company would do far more good to the Bronx than could ever be done by the old mansion.
The Lewis Morris Mansion
The solid stone homestead built by Lewis Morris al-most within a stone’s throw of that of Gouverneur Morris is also gone. One of the signers of the Declaration of Independence in 1776, Lewis Morris knew full well that a hostile British fleet lay at anchor near his splendid mansion, ready at any moment to begin the work of destruction. But sign he did.
Before the selection on the Potomac of a site for the nation’s capital, Lewis Morris believed his manor to be an ideal site. “There were more fighting men within a sweep of thirty miles around Morrisania than around any other place in America. . . . Persons emaciated by sickness and disease there are speedily reinstated in health and vigor. . . . Other places contain many negro inhabitants who not only do not fight themselves, but by keeping their masters at home, prevent them from fighting also.” Such was Morris’s argument, but the hard-hearted Congress turned a deaf ear to all these pleadings, and the dream of Morrisania-on-the-Harlem, capital of America, was never realized.
Of Lewis Morris the following anecdote is told : His tutor, a pious elderly quaker, while engaged in prayer in the woods heard a voice apparently coming from heaven, directing him to go and spread the gospel among the Indians. When on the point of starting, he accidentally learned that the mysterious words were but those of young Lewis Morris, who had climbed into a tree under which he thought his tutor would be likely to pass.
Jonas Bronck’s Residence
The first white settler on these shores was Jonas Bronck, who appeared as early as 1639, having voyaged from Europe in the staunch ship Fire of Troy. Little did he think that his name would, centuries afterwards, be perpetuated in a park, a river and a borough.
Five hundred acres constituted his estate, which he purchased from two Indian sachems, Ranaqua and Taekamuck, and to which he gave the name of “Bronx-land.” Mindful of possible fires and flaming darts of the red men, he judiciously built a stone house with a tiled roof, barracks, barns and a tobacco house. Two of Bronck’s friends and fellow voyagers leased a portion of his land for cultivation in order to raise maize and tobacco, and to reimburse him for their passage money out of the produce.
His house, standing near the mouth of Mill Brook, was not far from the present station of the New Haven Rail-road. Its living-room is strikingly depicted in a well-known painting showing the signing of the celebrated Treaty of Peace with the Indian sagamores in 1642. On the left of the table stand the two chieftains, one intently making his mark on paper at the direction of Cornelius Van Tienhoven, the Dutch secretary. To the right is Dominie Bogardus in his ministerial black suit, while leaning forward in an attitude of marked attention is the scholarly Dane, Jonas Bronck himself. What a shame that all these formalities should come to naught and that war should break out afresh, only to be subdued in 1645 by that intrepid Indian fighter, Captain John Underhill.
The year 1643 witnessed the death of Jonas Bronck. His estate was administered by friends at Harlem, one being the Rev. Everardus Bogardus, the husband of the celebrated Anneke Jans. Bronck’s belongings included bowls, spoons, pictures, tankards, satins, silver cups, fine bedding, gloves, gros-grain suits and a splendid silver-mounted gun. He is known to have “used silver and napkins and table cloths, and to have possessed as many as six linen shirts !”
The Old Hunt Mansion
A quaint and striking octagonal tower rising like a lighthouse at the extreme end of Hunt’s Point, was the old Hunt Mansion for centuries a familiar landmark for all vessels passing through the Sound.
In 1688 Thomas Hunt started the construction of his “Grange,” well knowing there was an exceedingly high tax on wood for building and therefore wisely selecting stone. Hardly had he commenced when the tax was re-moved and the major portion of this “picturesque relic of bygone days” was of solid hewn oak. It was built in four sections and could boast of fireplaces constructed of bricks brought over by the Dutch trading ships as ballast. Many relics, quaint and curious, were found in the o1(1 “Grange’s” interior, including books, swords and a cannon-ball that was lodged in the brick wall, a reminder of those thrilling days when the British frigate-of-war Asia lay anchored near the spot.
Going further north on Hunt’s Point, a small cemetery may be seen, the last resting-place of many old settlers, including veterans of the earlier wars. Its chief interest lies, however, in the fact that it contains the monument to that celebrated American poet, Joseph Rodman Drake.
Some years ago, when the present system of streets was planned, it was unexpectedly found that Whittier Street would not only penetrate this little burying-ground, but would go directly through the grave of Drake itself. Plans were therefore immediately made that resulted in perpetuating this small “God’s Acre” in the form of the new Joseph Rodman Drake Park. It is a sacred spot where even the most exalted personage in the land could profitably pause in silent meditation, as did Lafayette when he revisited our country in 1824. The broad Lafayette Avenue near the Corpus Christi Monastery, formerly the narrow Lafayette Lane, was so styled because the great Frenchman passed along it while coming to stay overnight at the residence of George Fox, further up on old Hunt’s Point Road.
For years the old Hunt Mansion was the residence of Drake, who spent hours each day exploring the wooded glades of the Bronx River, which led to his composing that beautiful poem describing the wonderful charms of that stream. In company with Fitz Greene Halleck, he traversed every nook and corner of this glorious region. After his death, his friend mournfully declared: “There will be less sunshine for me hereafter, now that Joe is gone.”
Another person sleeping his last sleep in the new Drake Park is Thomas Hunt the fourth, the peaceful quaker. and revered patriot. Hunt was the close friend of General Washington, and upon his strong courage and familiarity with the neighborhood the father of his country relied.
The Faile Mansion
On the high crest nearer the Hunt’s Point station, “Woodside,” the stately Faile Mansion, with its imposing array of Doric columns, never failed to attract attention. Surrounded by a glorious forest, its sloping lawns boasted two signal attractions, a flock of beautiful peacocks and a splendid Cedar of Lebanon, the gift of a United States consul.
Erected in 1832, “Woodside” was the residence of E. G. Faile, an old time tea merchant of New York City. As regular as clockwork he would leave his house early every morning, driving the long distance to his Chambers Street office in just an hour. Accounts state that each of his famous horses was imported from Porto Rico and that the cost for transportation alone was $1,000. Two solidly built chairs, stated to have been brought over in the Mayflower, were proudly pointed out as among the relics in the parlor.
“The Locusts,” the ancient Faile lodge, stood near the Hunt’s Point Road and dated from pre-Revolutionary times. It was the house where the celebrated Captain Nathan Hale once stopped overnight when the British troops were crossing at Hell Gate and Washington had moved his army to Harlem Heights. After Mr. Faile built his commodious “Woodside,” he turned “The Locusts” into a private school, and summoned from Scotland a teacher, Walter Chisholm, formerly a tutor in Sir Walter Scott’s family, to take charge. The great plant of the American Bank Note Company, with its army of 2,000 workers, now occupies the large Faile estate.
The Dennison-White Mansion
Famous as one of the few remaining old time residences of the Bronx, the Dennison-White Mansion still guards what remains of “Longwood Park,” just north of Leggett Avenue and west of the Southern Boulevard. It is now the home of the Longwood Club. A recent visit revealed the old rooms almost as they were when witnessing the scenes of the lavish hospitality of more than half a century ago. On the outside walls, a coat of brilliant white has taken the place of the striking checker-board effect of the old days. This fine mansion was surrounded by a forest of great trees almost equalling the California redwoods, and a picturesque summer-house on an immense bowlder near at hand commanded the attention. This great rock was directly over the grave of a former Indian sachem of great renown.
Old Leggett’s Lane easily took the palm for woodland seclusion and delightful beauty. Just beyond the en- trance to “Longwood Park” was the opening, in days of yore, of a yawning cavern of great depth, in whose dark recesses once lay a mysterious pile of human bones. During the stirring revolutionary days, a sharp skirmish took place near here between the Americans and the British. The patriots, being forced to retreat, hastily threw their dead into this great cave where they successfully escaped detection.
So constantly did visitors swarm to see the old cavern and its mysterious relicsand possibly to taste the joys of the “Kissing Bridge” just beyondthat the owner was obliged for his own protection to have the cave filled in.
A lamp-post near the Dennison-White Mansion bears a postbox with this startling inscription : “Collections Made from This Box Once a Month!”
The Casanova Mansion
Not far from this famous postbox stood the immense Casanova Mansion, known far and wide in its day as the finest private residence in the United States. It was built by B. M. Whitlock in 1859 and its cost is said to have been $350,000. The magnificently elaborate decorations of its hundred rooms have never been surpassed even to this day. Its “blue-and-gold” room may never have an equal. The 50-acre estate, the winding driveway with gates that sprang open as the horses touched a concealed spring, the doorknobs of solid gold, and the great mansion itself with its lofty cupola barely showing above the immense surrounding trees, all seemed like a veritable fairyland.
Known far and wide as “Whitlock’s Folly,” the bronze doors, with their elegant coat of arms and the inviting inscription, “Soyez le Bienvenue,” were never thrown open with greater cordiality than when an entire regiment from Georgia was being entertained, the officers lodged in the rooms and the men encamped on the lawns.
His fortune ruined by the Civil War, Mr. Whitlock sold his much prized home to a wealthy Cuban planter, Senor Yglesias Casanova, the leader of a band of wealthy Cuban patriots. During that island’s early struggles for liberty, he was an ardent sympathizer and his splendid home was the great rendezvous for friends of that cause.
Underneath the mansion there existed a regular net-work of subterranean chambers, containing three dark wells that supplied the house, as well as numerous dark wine cellars. One underground passage led to the water’s edge, affording a secret entranceway, as well as a hidden exit. Rifles, supplies and ammunition, it is said, were stored in these dark vaults for sudden use should occasion arise. Mysterious vessels under cover of darkness appeared close by like dark spectres, and sailed away again on their secret errands under the same mantle of mysteriousness.
Massive wrought-iron chandeliers adorned halls and chambers. On my visit I found bell-pulls in the immense apartments, which I vigorously rang, causing mysterious ringings in distant rooms below with true ghostlike effect but never a servant appeared. Chance led us into the strangest place of all, the secret chamber containing the great safe, itself as big as a room. The entrance was by a hidden door. The place was lighted by opaque oval panels that exactly resembled the surrounding woodwork. High up beneath the lofty roof was a mysterious place, but whether it was an elaborate chapel or an immense ballroom we never learned.
A vast level tract is all that is left of this extensive estate, with only the adjoining Casanova railroad station to perpetuate the name.
The Old Fox Mansion
Surrounded and almost obscured by towering apartment houses, the square-built Fox Mansion still holds its own close to Westchester Avenue and 167th Street, and is now used for church purposes. In 1848, when its owner was searching for a site for his house,. he was told : “Thee can have the old orchard between the roads.”
There William W. Fox built his grand old “Foxhurst” at a time when most of New York City lay below Fourteenth Street, and there to-day his residence is as solid as it was three score and ten years ago. Immense rooms and a hall as large as many modern apartments characterize this “square mansion of Uncle Billy Fox.” Among the many relics I used to see there I distinctly remember a strangely shaped Algerian cutlass and a massive carved chest brought over by the Puritans. Another remembrance I have is that on one visit the oil lamps were all promptly put out at half-past nine, and I was lighted to the front door by the aid of matches.
Mr. Fox was one of the original Croton Water Commissioners, and on the completion of that important work he insisted on walking inside the aqueduct from Croton to New York City before signing his name to documents stating that the improvement had been finished.
Cut up into a thousand and one fragments the vast Fox estate has disappeared. Gone is the quaint Fox Farm House, or Hunt Inn, once standing at West Farms Road and 167th Street, opposite the old “Foxhurst.” Built in 1660, this ancient structure was the rendezvous for all lovers of fox hunting, and British officers were great votaries of the sport. A disastrous fire on Easter Day, 1892, destroyed this old building, although fortunately a pane of glass from one of its windows was preserved, bearing a heart scratched on its surface enclosing the names of Joseph Rodman Drake and Nancy Leggett with the single word “Love.”
The Simpson Mansions
Just below the “orchard between the roads,” or “Fox Corners,” as the gorgeous tally-ho coaches wore it em-blazoned on their dazzling sides, lay the beautiful extent of level meadow and attractive woodland that composed the 120 acres of the picturesque Simpson estate.
“Ambleside” was the name given to the twin stately stone structures of immense size and incomparable beauty that graced the spot. Many of their sumptuous interior decorations found their way to this country from distant England. An elaborate pipe-organ was one of the owner’s prized possessions. When, a few years ago, the wreckers began their work of demolition, they had to summon dynamite to their aid as the only means powerful enough to destroy the castle-like stone walls.
Charming sunken gardens adorned this delightful place. An elaborate covered track 25 by 1200 feet in size, for the training of colts during the winter months, was one of the sights to be seen. The breeding of Shetland ponies was also one of the owner’s favorite fancies, and also the raising of queen bees. Looking in any direction from the windows of the elevated trains, as they swing around a sharp curve near Simpson Street station, only city flats in massed formation greet the eye today.
The Richard M. Hoe Mansion
Directly across the Southern Boulevard from the park-like Simpson estate were the charming acres forming “Brightside,” the country home of Colonel R. M. Hoe, known far and wide as the inventor of the rotary printing press. Colonel Hoe could not possibly have selected a more delightful location for his mansion. Indeed his charming lodge, which for many years graced the angle of “Fox Corners,” was a thing of beauty and a joy while it lasted.
The Old Vyse Mansion
A short distance above, old Home Street still stretches out just as it did when its course lay through vast open fields. A portion was flanked by a wall made of stones truly leviathan in size, forming the southern boundary of the great Vyse estate of early days. From the old lodge at the corner of West Farms Road, a winding and picturesque driveway led up to the high ground once adorned by the stately Vyse mansion, one of Bronx’s most attractive homes, and a striking example of the true Southern style of architecture.
Surrounding the house on all sides was a splendid array of Corinthian columns, extending from basement to roof, and forming a setting for a second-story porch as well as a first-story piazza. An old resident related that he had seen the immense dining-room on the first floor, a commodious kitchen below, underneath the kitchen a cellar, and below the cellar a dark sub-cellar.
To the west, just north of Freeman Street, was a most wonderful aviary. Elaborate grottoes beautified the grounds, while west of the Southern Boulevard I can well remember seeing the dainty rustic fence with an in-side wire enclosure forming a most attractive deer park well filled with these graceful looking animals.