Wednesday, September 21, 2011

The Lost 1763 Beekman Mansion "Mount Pleasant" -- 50th Street and 1st Avenue

NYPL Collection
In 1763 Gerardus (James) Beekman’s country estate, Mount Pleasant, was completed. The house sat on a rise overlooking Turtle Bay on the East River. To the south was John Watt’s “Rose Hill” (where 29th Street and Park Avenue intersect today), and John Murray’s country seat “Inclenberg” (the block between 36th and 37th Streets on Park Avenue now). Further north were the mansions of the Schermerhorns, Lawrences, Rhinelanders and other wealthy New Yorkers.

Beekman was a dry goods merchant and a descendant of William Beekman who was highly involved in the governing of New Amsterdam, alongside Governor Peter Stuyvesant. His city house was at 240 Queen Street (now Pearl Street), but during the oppressive summer months the family escaped to the open countryside of Mount Pleasant.

Beekman had the exterior of the mansion designed to reflect the old Dutch colonial manses of a century earlier. It was constructed of thick wooden planks and brick, two stories tall with a basement and attic under a Dutch-style hipped roof. As The New York Times described it in 1872, “he chose to indulge the whim of uniting the homely Dutch cottage of his forefathers with all that the world then presented of luxury and comfort.” Formal gardens wrapped around the mansion which had the first greenhouse in America which contained orange trees and oleander among other scarce plants.

NYPL Collection
The elegant interiors were in stark contrast to the relative plainness of the exterior. A century later Schribners Monthly described spacious rooms “adorned with black marble mantels bearing elaborate carvings of scroll and foliage. The fireplaces were ornamented with Dutch tiles, representing Scriptural subjects.” Regarding the decorative elements, the article said “Nothing more costly could be found in the colony, and it bore the additional merit of having been imported across the ocean.”

Four of these 18th Century panels were removed from the house by the Beekman family before the demolition.
In the dining room, 17th century-style carved oak pediments surmounted the doors which were flanked by Tuscan columns, and the ornate carved oak fireplace rose to the ceiling.

D. T. Valentine's 1861 Manual depicted the "Blue Room" as the artist envisioned it around the time of the Revolution -- NYPL Collection
The carved railings of the staircase were capped with solid mahogany banisters and upstairs the sitting rooms and bedrooms were decorated with superb molded plaster of Paris ceilings and Dutch-tiled fireplaces.

Here the Beekmans entertained their neighbors. It was an elite and close-knit group. Historian Martha Joanna Lamb in her 1877 “History of the City of New York” pointed out “Drawing-rooms were not filled to suffocation by a promiscuous crowd unknown to each other and scarcely known to the host and hostess. The guests were all of one class, and personally acquainted. The majority of them were related by blood and marriage.”

James Beekman and his family traveled from their city house to Mount Pleasant in this carriage -- New York Historical Society
Although she described the social atmosphere of these gatherings as “genial and agreeable with great freedom of conversation,” she was equally quick to mention that there “were certain formalities, however, which were never ignored; and the etiquette of foreign courts was observed with a nicety which we, of this later and more democratic generation, can scarcely comprehend.”

Two years after the house was completed, Beekman added the attached kitchen. But within a decade the idyllic life at Mount Pleasant was shattered by the American Revolution. As Washington retreated from the disastrous Battle of Brooklyn in 1776, he stopped at the mansion for a few hours and, from here, issued orders for the Continental Army to take up positions at Harlem. The General warned the Beekman family of the impending danger and prompted them to flee.

Rushing to evacuate before the British arrived, the family gathered their valuable household goods like the silver plate and flatware and stashed them in a secret closet built into an upstairs room. As Washington left, so did the Beekmans; unsure if they would ever see Mount Pleasant again.

The mansion was taken over as headquarters of General William Howe. Here in an upstairs bedroom John Andre slept before sneaking off to meet Benedict Arnold; the mission that would cost him his life.
Nearly a century later, D. T. Valentine's 1861 Manual depicted Andre in his room at Mount Pleasant -- NYPL Collection

Later, Nathan Hale was arrested in Huntington, Long Island and brought to Mount Pleasant on September 21, 1776. General Howe dispensed with a court martial, telling Hale that he would be executed in the morning. Howe gave the revolutionist the opportunity to write letters to his mother and sister.

Hale spent the night in one of the bedrooms and in the morning was executed and he was hanged from a butternut tree on the property. The provost-marshal, Captain Cunningham, refused him the services of a clergyman, denied his the use of a Bible, and while Hale watched he destroyed the letters the doomed man had written to his family.

In 1780 the English Governor Sir Henry Clinton turned the house over to Baroness Reidesel, the wife of the Major General of the Hessians who was being held prisoner at Saratoga. The Baroness wrote extensively of the estate, describing the beauties of the farm with its peaches, grapes and apricots, and of the renowned gardens and the well-appointed interiors. The home, she said “left nothing for a tenant to desire.”

Finally, in November 1783, the Beekmans returned to Mount Pleasant. Despite the many people who had used it, it was perfectly intact. Beekman and his wife rushed to the hidden upstairs closet where, to their delight, all their costly treasures were still untouched.

The irritated Beekman sent a rent bill to the British Government for the use of both Mount Pleasant and the city house.

In 1840 the house was in danger. As the city’s grid plan of streets and avenues inched northward, Mount Pleasant sat squarely in the course of 51st Street. There were no exceptions made for historic structures sitting in the path of progress.

Unwilling to see the old family home destroyed, the Beekmans spent several thousand dollars moving it a block to the south. A new foundation was created on a high rocky outcropping twenty feet above the sidewalk at 50th Street and 1st Avenue and the house was carefully moved. The extensive formal gardens were gone as were the orchards and greenhouse; but the unique structure was preserved.

The tall lower level was removed when the house was moved to 50th Street -- NYPL Collection
By the end of the Civil War the Beekmans no longer used Mount Pleasant. It was leased to a dentist, Dr. Morey, and his wife who accepted their positions as caretakers and historians with gusto. The Moreys, rare examples of historic preservationists at the time, spent considerable amounts of their own money in architectural forensics. They had the walls carefully scraped down so the original colors could be reproduced – cream and chocolate colors in the hall and library, for instance.

But history and architecture in 1874 could not compete with land values. The house high above 50th Street with its deteriorating picket fence stood in the way of urban development.

As the wrecking crew began demolishing Mount Pleasant on April 20, 1874, The New York Times remarked “The encroachments of modern progress have decreed its destruction and people have failed to realize the propriety of a country seat at Fifty-first street…For years the old house has stood in its isolated position, marking the advances of that tide of progress which has at last surrounded and overwhelmed it. There is now no Beekman country seat; it is among the things of the past. The destroyer commenced the work of its demolition…and the relics of its existence are shapeless and unrecognizable.”

The Dutch tiles from some of the mantels were removed and the drawing room was dismantled to be preserved by the New York Historical Society. And then the house that played so an integral part in the American Revolution was smashed to the ground.

The Times reporter lamented the loss of yet another historic New York property. “But its vicissitudes are now over; its career is ended; and having been connected with some stirring events in the history of the country, it is at length blotted out for ever.”

3 comments:

  1. very sad to destroy such history''

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  2. My mother told me I am related to this Beekman family through her mother and that the Beekman house was the family home. I haven't as of yet had the time to research thoroughly to make all the connections. I believe the name Ilsley has some connection also. My mothers mother was married to a John Steven Rielly, who was a broker in New York City in the 1920's I believe.

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  3. I have a friend named James Beekman, he may be related to them, he lived in NY

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