Friday, April 1, 2011

The 1765 Morris-Jumel Mansion

photo NYPL Collection
Times were good for British Army Captain Roger Morris in 1758. Morris, who would attain the rank of Colonel, had been an aide of General Braddock and was to be married to the American-born daughter of Colonel Philipse. The immense Philipse estate covered a large amount of present-day Westchester and Putnam Counties.

Morris lived in a town house at Whitehall and Stone Streets. As part of Mary Philipse’s wedding dowry provided by her father she received “one hundred and thirty acres of arable pasture land, and five acres of best salt meadow,” according to William Henry Seldon’s 1917 “The Jumel Mansion.”  Situated on the narrowest part of the island, the land commanded an extensive view overlooking New York City ten miles to the south, the hills of Staten Island more than 20 miles away, Long Island to the left, the Palisades along the Hudson River, and the Harlem River.

Around 1765 the newlyweds had constructed a country estate on the land. Morris, whose uncle was a well-known British architect, favored the 16th Century designs of Italian architect Palladio and some details were incorporated into the new home.

An 1864 print clearly shows the architecturally innovative octagonal drawing room to the rear -- print NYPL Collection
According to Helen Henderson in her 1917 book “A Loiterer in New York,” “The plan of the house is Georgian, but of a peculiar English type seldom seen in this country. Its distinguishing architectural feature is the deep octagonal drawing room projecting from the rear of the broad entrance hall, entered from a pillared porch, baronial in character. Its was a period of honest construction, and though the severe plainness of the interior has been thought to suggest haste in its erection, time was taken to line the outer walls with English brick, and the house was built to last.”

Here the Morrises entertained lavishly, enjoying their elevated rank in New York society until the seeds of rebellion began to sprout. Word arrived of insurgent activities in Boston, New York and Philadelphia.  By 1776 the rebels had provoked a full-blown war. Morris left the house with warnings of the advancing American army; however Mary remained in her beloved home until the danger became too severe.

After the disastrous Battle of Long Island, Washington withdrew to the north and took over the mansion with its advantageous panoramic views. The general remained in the house with his troops from September 16 to October 21, 1776. Subsequently it was taken over by British Lieutenant-General Henry Clinton and then by Lieutenant-General Knyphausen, the commander of the Hessian troops, throughout the British occupation.

In the meantime, Colonel and Mary Morris fled for their lives to Chester, England. The Act of Forfeiture in New York demanded the sale of estates of loyalists and gave them ten days to leave the state, taking only clothing, under penalty of death “without benefit of Clergy.”

The Morrises lost everything; their crime, like that of so many other land holders, was to love their country but not its government.

Washington revisited the mansion on July 10, 1790, referring to it as "the house, lately Colonel Roger Morris’ but confiscated and now in possession of a common farmer.”

Shortly it became a road house known as Calumet Hall, popular with travelers along the Albany Post Road. The mansion was brought back to life when, in 1810, wealthy French merchant Stephen Jumel purchased it on the urgings of his wife, Eliza, and reconverted it into a private home.

The mansion as it appeared in 1908 -- postcard from author's collection
According to Helen Henderson, “It was lavishly refitted by Stephen Jumel, who was a man of taste, and considered ‘the most luxurious country-seat in all New York.” Madame Jumel, who had come from a poor Rhode Island family, spared no expense nor effort to make inroads into New York society. The couple entertained Louis Philippe, Layfatte, Joseph Bonapart, Louis Napoleon and Henry Clay in the mansion.

In 1832 Stephen Jumel was injured in a carriage accident, resulting in his death. A year later the 58-year old Madame Jumel married 78-year old former Vice President Aaron Burr in the parlor of the mansion. It was not a good idea.

“After he had made away with a good deal of her money, she got rid of him,” wrote Brentano’s in its 1907 “Old Buildings of New York.” According to The New York Times, “He abused her confidence, lost a portion of her fortune, and she summarily dismissed him within a year.” Eliza retook her former husband’s name.

The fabulously wealthy Madame Jumel slowly developed dementia, finally dying alone in the mansion at 90 years old.

The family of General Earle owned the magnificent home until the turn of the century, when various groups pressured the city to purchase it as an historical museum. Interestingly, the arguments for and against the acquisition centered solely on the five weeks of Washington’s occupancy – never was the architectural importance of the structure ever discussed.

L. M. Hall, representative of the organization with the ponderous name of The Society for the Preservation of Scenic and Historical Places of Interest, protested in 1901 that “The mansion is the only building in New York identified as Washington’s headquarters. The houses he had occupied at 1 Cherry Street and 1 Broadway have been swept away in the march of the city’s development…We ask that the city shall acquire this property for two reasons. First, on the comparatively narrow ground of its historical value, and, second, on the broader ground of the value and benefit to the hundreds of thousands of school children and grown-up people who will visit this beautiful park.”

Restored interiors shortly after acquisition by the City -- postcards from author's collection
On December 28, 1903 the house was formally opened as a house museum run by the City of New York. At the ceremonies, Senator Chauncey M. Depew spoke with surprising sympathy of the Morrises. “The spirit of intense loyalty to Great Britain once permeated its halls and rooms,” he said. “Colonel Roger Morris, who had been wounded while with Braddock’s army in the fatal fight at Fort Duquesne, and won distinction with Wolfe upon the Plain of Abraham in the conquest of Quebec, dispensed here for many years elegant hospitality.”

In 1907 the city turned the mansion over to the Washington Headquarters Association and the Daughters of the American Revolution as a “museum for historical relics.” For years thereafter a battle raged on about the name. There was a loud faction who insisted that the mansion should be called “Washington’s Headquarters;” another who favored the existing and popular name “The Jumel Mansion;” and yet another that pushed for “The Morris Mansion.” The New York Times was among the latter group.

“A house that is traditionally connected with George Washington and Mary Philipse ought not really to be degraded to the extent of being exclusively associated with that old male flirt, Aaron Burr, and that old female flirt, at one time Mme. Jumel,” raged the newspaper on January 8, 1903.

Finally known as the Morris-Jumel Mansion Museum, it is today owned by the New York City Department of Parks & Recreation and operated by the Morris-Jumel Mansion, Inc. The restored home features rooms reflecting the Morris, Washington and Jumel periods.

Situated in Roger Morris Park, at 65 Jumel Terrace at 160th Street, the house is open Wednesday through Sunday 10 am through 4 pm.

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