Monday, January 9, 2012

The Lost 1760 Richmond Hill Mansion -- Charlton and Varick Streets


print from the Library of Congress
Throughout the 18th century wealthy New Yorkers built grand country estates in the rolling, pastoral hills north of the city.  Here during the summer months they could escape to the open countryside where breezes provided a welcomed relief.

In 1760, just south of the tiny village of Greenwich, Major Abraham Mortimer built Richmond Hill on land leased from Trinity Church.   Mortimer was Commissary to the British Army and an important figure in both military and social circles.  At the time, of course, all New Yorkers were British subjects; but that was all to change before long.

Mortimer chose an elevated, wooded spot called Zandt Berg, or Sand Hill, for his country seat.   Historian William Leete Stone wrote in 1872, “Having secured from the Church a lease of the property for a long extended term of years, the new proprietor erected…a spacious and imposing edifice, to which, with a natural fondness for familiar English names, he gave the designation of ‘Richmond Hill.’"  Mortimer’s estate encompassed a staggering 160 acres.  "He speedily commenced, on a scale of generous expenditure, to improve and ornament its grounds.”

The wooden Richmond Hill mansion took full advantage of the elevated site.  Broad steps led to the wide, entrance porch below a columned portico.  Chinese Chippendale railings, the zenith of architectural fashion at the time, adorned the balconies and roof.

Mortimer continued to improve the property with costly landscaping until the outbreak of the Revolutionary War.   According to Stone, he “devoted much of his time and no small share of his fortune to the embellishment of his highly-prized acquisition.”

print NYPL Collection
The Major’s “embellishments” of the property and his lavish entertainments here came to an abrupt end as the British army was mobilized against the revolutionaries.  On April 13, 1776 General George Washington briefly took over the mansion as his headquarters.  During this time Colonel Aaron Burr, aide-de-camp to General Putnam, became familiar with the estate and the beauty of its grounds.

While here Washington survived an assassination attempt when Thomas Hickey, one of the general’s bodyguards, was seduced by the British to poison him and other American officers, and to blow up the stores of ammunition.  When the housekeeper, daughter of innkeeper Samuel Fraunces, discovered the plot she warned Washington, saving his life.

print NYPL Collection
The Revolutionary Army soon marched north and British officers occupied the mansion for seven years until abandoning it in 1783.   Mortimer’s elegant mansion sat vacant and neglected for five years as political changes took precedence in the city.

Finally, in 1789, George Washington was sworn in as President of the new republic at Broad and Wall Streets.   Vice President John Adams and his wife, Abigail, took over Richmond Hill as the vice-presidential mansion.

Abigail was smitten with the beauty of the house and its grounds.  “In natural beauty it might vie with the most delicious spot I ever saw.  It is a mile and a half from the city of New York.  The house stands upon an eminence: at an agreeable distance flows the noble Hudson, bearing upon its bosom innumerable small vessels laden with the fruitful productions of the adjacent country.  Upon my right hand are fields beautifully variegated with grass and grain, to a great extent like the valley of the Honiton in Devonshire.”

The extensive landscaping included a small lake, later called "Burr's Pond" -- NYPL Collection
Years later, in 1829 Gulian C. Verplanck would recall a dinner party for the Talisman.  “There in the centre of the table sat Vice-president Adams in full dress, with his bag and solitaire, his hair frizzled out each side of his face as you see in in Stuart’s older pictures of him.  On his right sat Baron Steuben, our royalist republican disciplinarian general.  On his left was Mr. Jefferson, who had just returned from France, conspicuous in his red waist-coast and breeches, the fashion of Versailles.”

Aaron Burr returned to New York in 1783 to practice law.  He was retained by the heirs of Anneke Jans to defend them in a legal battle with Trinity Church.  The Jans family claimed ownership of Richmond Hill, most likely assuming that the Revolution had made void any land grants Trinity had received from the Crown.  Burr, however, fell victim to his own love of the property and, in return for a long-term lease, sided with the church.

Burr’s wife died in 1794 and when he moved into Richmond Hill in 1797, his 14-year old daughter Theodosia acted as hostess of the manor.    Just before Burr took up residency, a family named Temple was living here.   William Leete Stone noted that “a good deal of public excitement was awakened by an extensive robbery committed on the premises, the perpetrators of which were never discovered.”

Burr spent lavishly on entertaining.   Among the celebrated guests here were Talleyrand, Gilbert Stuart, Washington Irving, Volney and Louis Philippe.    “It was here,” wrote Stone, “that he received, with fitting honors, the distinguished strangers from every land, who came to study the features of the country and to estimate the characters of the people, newly entering into the family of nations.  Certainly no man of that day was better qualified to perform the duty he had taken upon himself.”

Theodosia was a charming and brilliant hostess, even when her father was away in Washington, having become vice-president in 1801.   A window-lined gallery displayed Burr’s collection of art and his extensive library was filled with books imported from a London bookseller.  But glittering dinners and cultured discussions of literature and politics came to an end in 1804 when Aaron Burr fatally wounded Alexander Hamilton.   Negative public opinion regarding Burr forced him to leave New York and his beloved home forever.

On July 27, 1804 a New York newspaper wrote “As we are often asked what has become of Mr. Burr since the perpetration of his crime, we presume the following information will, in some degree, satisfy the curiosity of our readers:  He has for the present, and we trust forever, fled from the city and the State.  Late on Saturday evening, he, together with his servants and baggage, embarked on a barge and arrived at Amboy the following morning.  He called on a respectable gentleman of the place, requested that a carriage might be immediately provided, and asked for a dish of coffee and afterward for a bed.  He appeared to be extremely restless and in a few minutes arose.  He departed for the southward, probably for South Carolina.”

John Jacob Astor, recognizing a potential bargain, negotiated the purchase of the lease from Trinity Church.   For $140,000 he obtained the land and for another $25,000, the mansion.    Astor divided the property into residential building lots, criss-crossing the once-elegant grounds with streets. Astor placed an ad in 1813 in an attempt to lease the house.  “The house and outhouses are in complete repair, with seven acres of land, a good garden, grass land for a pair of horses and two cows.” 

As Greenwich Village spread southward, enveloping the former estate and as brick homes rose along the new streets, the Richmond Hill mansion suffered humiliating changes.   Unbelievably, it was placed on logs and relocated 100 feet away to the southwest corner of Charlton and Varick Streets.
 In 1819 it was home to a circus where the popular clown Charles M’Donald and John May were members of the troupe.  Three years later a pleasure garden was opened and became a popular resort for the neighboring residents.  Refreshments were served from the mansion.  A frequently-offered attraction was a “turtle feast.”  But this, too, would pass.

In 1871 Historical Magazine reminisced, “the old Richmond Hill mansion found itself shorn of all its grandeur, stripped of its verdant groves, despoiled of its gardens and lawns, sitting, sadly, far beneath its former altitude, at the noisy and somewhat unsavory corner of Charlton and Varick streets.  Its stately portals no longer opened wide, to welcome the entrance of distinguished guests from foreign lands, or the brilliant crowds who came to mingle in the gay receptions of joyous and sparkling Theodosia.”

In 1831 an addition was added to the rear of the house and it became home to The Richmond Hill Theatre which opened on November 14.  Unfortunately for the theater, it was too far removed from the established city to attract a sufficient audience.   The management changed its direction, offering Italian Opera and bringing in esteemed names from the European stage.  The theater struggled on for nearly ten years, finally closing for good in 1842. 

For a short time it became the Tivoli Gardens, then the National Theatre, and in 1846 became the enlarged New Greenwich Theatre.   The ever-failing venue tried, in vain, a last stab at opera, opening and closing as the New York Opera House in 1847.

After the failure of the opera house, the disgraced mansion suffered as a roadhouse and saloon until 1849 when the property values outweighed the historical importance of the house.  That same year the venerable, if degraded, Richmond Hill was demolished and in its place a row of quaint brick houses arose.

Half a century later, American sentiments finally began to recognize the importance of preserving historic buildings.  On Christmas Day 1910 The New York Times remarked that “Aaron Burr’s old home, Richmond Hill, has, perhaps, made more history for Greenwich than any other place.”  And three years later the newspaper said “Richmond Hill is undoubtedly the most interesting building ever erected in Greenwich Village.”

Unfortunately, it all came too late for the elegant home built by a British Major, was headquarters to both the Revolutionary and British armies, and was home to two United States Vice-Presidents.

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